Ready, Set, Reset: Rocking Virtual and Hybrid Events in 2021

In-person, virtual, and now hybrid events — has the event space entered a renaissance? Find out what this means for the future and how companies can not only pivot their strategies, but thrive in this new era of digital experiences. | Originally aired on January 7, 2021

Rather read a transcript of the session?


Key takeaways.


Virtual events are not going anywhere.

Virtual cannot replace in-person events, but they can supplement. Moreover, they’ve proven to be treasure troves of unique data.




It all boils down to experiences.

The best events, virtual or otherwise, are considered so because of the experiences they provide their attendees.


Hybrid events are the future.

Neither in-person nor virtual will go away, so to consolidate the number of events, hybrid will emerge as a top strategy.

HubSpot Video

Webinar fatigue was thrown out so much…because there wasn’t that experiential piece in the beginning, but now we’re really seeing that transform [the virtual event experience].


Episode Transcript

Ellen Smoley: Hi everyone. Happy New Year. Thank you for joining us for our first Coffee Break Series of 2021. Our Coffee Break Series will be made up of conversations where we are interviewing marketing leaders in the space. We are asking for opinions in what they're seeing in the market.

Ellen Smoley: So thank you for joining us on our first one. I'd like to... Well first, if you have any comments or questions, please add them in. We'd love to add you to our conversation.

Ellen Smoley: I'd like to introduce to you our first cohost of 2021, Uzair Dada, CEO of Iron Horse. Welcome Uzair.

Uzair Dada: Hey, thank you very much. Super excited to be here. This is awesome.

Ellen Smoley: We are super happy to have you, and be talking about virtual events as I'm sure we all had a good break over the holidays, but now jumping right into it.

Ellen Smoley: So Uzair, I'd like to ask you, 2020 was a year for just rapid transformation, digital transformation. I'd like for you to take a seat in the Iron Horse time machine and walk us through how that virtual event category changed in 2020, and really what we can expect in 2021.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. What a crazy year. And again, thank you for having me on the first Coffee Break Series. I'm super excited about doing this and it's fun and casual.

Uzair Dada: So, hope people enjoy these conversations of first of many to come. So, if you take a look back at what happened last year. My eyes go back to March. March is sort of when we were all in a crazy mode and everything came to a halt. If you look at sort of what was going on in the marketing world, for all us integrated marketing and growth marketing people.

Uzair Dada: We're having probably the biggest year for physical events. Insane. And the amount of investment going in huge events, CES was the largest it's ever been, HIMSS was the largest it's ever been. All crazy stuff going on. And then suddenly starting January, you're starting to hear rumbles, then HIMSS get canceled in February because people are freaking out. And then COVID happens.

Uzair Dada: California puts a stay at home order.

Uzair Dada: I think that was sort of the first major event where people are like, "Oh, shit. What do I do?" And so from that, the tsunami sort of unfolded. And lots of people, kind of were like, "What do I do?" Some people who had events coming up in March, April, just said, "Let's cancel them." Others said, "Let's just push them out and postpone them." And the brave ones, our brave colleagues were the guys who took on the first wave of virtual events and said, "No, we're going to do something." And you had two sorts of formats.

Uzair Dada: The first one was, "Let's just transform to, really, a glorified webinar." So let's do what we were doing. Use our same platforms. Whether I'm using Zoom or Teams or ON24 or whatever else. Let's do a webinar and sort of just kind of pause and do that. A webinar could be a one hour thing or maybe extend it to a two or three hour thing.
And then the other ones were like, "No, we're digital folks. We know how to do digital. How do we take our all awesome goodness digital stuff, and create what could be a really interesting digital experience?" And you saw that happen as the first wave of events sort of unfolded.

Uzair Dada: So I'd say, awesome digital transformation in 2021 or 2020, kind of through out a great pivot that only brave marketers can do. And really we embrace the change. We embrace what's available to us and made the best out of it.

Ellen Smoley: Right. Yeah. So, I think that's great and kind of a good summary of all that happened in 2020. So I'm going to pull up... We've built a timeline and we just kind of want to walk through the different components and what that means, and then where we're going in 2021.

Uzair Dada: Sounds good Speaker 1:
All right. If you can walk us through, we have our different quarters here. Walk us through the virtual event evolution timeline.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So I think it was a good way when we were just kind of prepping for this. We kind of looked at sort of, what's the best way to think about what changed? And so we sort of came up with sort of six key, I'd say swim lanes or pillars that we're interesting to look at. So the first one is technology.

Uzair Dada: We knew sort of the event marketing platforms that were there, the organizers set them up. You as a user summit person or a organizer, a corporate organizer didn't have to do a whole lot. The platforms were set, whether you were using the Cvent or RainFocus or Bizzabo, it worked.

Uzair Dada: Now if we came to virtual, the same things didn't translate. So you just scrambled. And there was a lot of immaturity and fragmentation.

Uzair Dada: So you had old event platforms that were trying to pivot to become virtualized. You had kind of webinar platforms that said, "We probably can hack it together."

Uzair Dada: You had a lot of old school 2D, 3D platforms that existed, that really hadn't gotten much traction prior to 2020 and COVID happening, that started coming out of the woodworks. And then you had sort of digital virtual event first platforms. These are your Hopin's and HeySummit's and Welcome's of the world, that were starting to just come out. So a lot of chaos, a lot of noise, people didn't know what to do. The resources. We all know it takes a village to go kind of make this happen.

Uzair Dada: There were no resources available that knew how to deal with digital first. Your event experiential agencies that were doing physical events, didn't know how to do digital. That's what people were used to using for large scale events. Where small format events you were able to sort of take your marketing resources that were doing webinars and kind of evolve, but there was a gap.

Uzair Dada: You had experience design because you were longer just, there was no physical. "So what do I do when someone shows up? How do I move them around? What do I do?" And so experience design was sort of non-existent from additional format perspective.

Ellen Smoley: How do you get them in and moving to where you want them to be and staying around? How was it so easy to just click out?

Uzair Dada: For the whole half a day or two days, or from brave brother in is doing three and five day events, bless their heart. And then from a dimension and production part, as part of it. Because it's again, it's a very condensed event.

Uzair Dada: And in the first wave you didn't have time to prep, so producing an event of this size, if you were doing a large user summit, very challenging. Demand gen. You're like, "Okay, how do I do that? Is it just a webinar? Do I just send emails out? Do I just do social posts? Is that it?" So I'm still trying to figure it out. And content, that's the one thing we as marketers knew how to do well.

Uzair Dada: We know how to produce awesome high quality content that works. Whether, "I'm going and getting a Trevor Noah to come speak at my event, like I would do in a physical event. Or I'm creating awesome videos or I've got good chats." We know how to do that well. So I think of all the things, content saved us in Q1.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah. Yeah.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So if we sort of, kind of say, what worked well? Really was content. Everything else was sort of a scramble.

Ellen Smoley: Exactly. Pure chaos.

Uzair Dada: Yeah.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah. So take us through, we got the news, lockdown. Few of us were trying to figure out what this meant. Turning everything from physical to digital, walk us through July.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So three, four months later, we now have experimented. We, as again as brave marketers, we tend to innovate and innovate fast. And as part of innovation, failure is part of the strategy. So you fail, fail fast and you learn from the failures and you incorporate them. So as we did stuff, things broke, no one thought they were going to break. Some of the first events that happened.

Uzair Dada: I still remember Event Marketer magazine was trying to pivot to tell their audience to say, "Hey, how do you do virtual events?" So they actually hosted their first virtual event. Event Marketer virtual event for how to do virtual events. And it broke.

Ellen Smoley: Right.

Uzair Dada: It's crazy, right?

Ellen Smoley: Yeah.

Uzair Dada: You had SAP Sapphire, I think in late Q1, early Q2, broke.Speaker 1:
Went down. Yeah.

Uzair Dada: I think there was a later on, but there was a few others. So, you started realizing, everyone's working from home. I don't control everything. Comcast's could go down, AT&T could go down. Right?

Ellen Smoley: Right.

Uzair Dada: Computer could crash. My video stream could break. So there's so many more points of failure that you never thought about before, that you now have to think about.

Uzair Dada: Another big thing we started seeing that because we were making, and that was a very positive surprise. Because we were going from physical to digital, lot more people could come. So suddenly you're seeing-

Ellen Smoley: That's huge, right.

Uzair Dada: X, 5X, 10X, the number of people showing up. "Can my platform handle it? Can it handle it? How am I going to sort talk to all these people? How are these people going to connect and engage?" So you've got that happening.

Uzair Dada: So you're starting to see technologies start to evolve. The virtual event kind of first platforms starting to embrace it and add more features. Problem, everyone wants to talk to them.Uzair Dada:
Right. I mean, the number of times we reached out to people, and thank God we had early relationships so we sort of got queued up and prioritized.

Uzair Dada: But man, there were platforms like BigMarker that actually shut down their chat bot and shut down their support queue because they couldn't take anymore-

Uzair Dada:... they couldn't, they were overwhelmed. They were completely overwhelmed. Because they're all small companies trying to grow up. We started to see more experiential stuff come out. So people are like, "Okay, now that I've seen what happened in the first few months, what can I do to engage people?" Right. "So, can I do some digital photo booths? Can I do some kind of yoga and exercise?

Uzair Dada: Can I do a sort of live DJ? Can I do... What else can I do to make it sort of, not kind of boring and monotonous?" Right?

Ellen Smoley: More experiential. And I think the word webinar fatigue was thrown out so much during this time period, it still might even be maybe even a word that is still around because there wasn't that experiential part at the beginning, but now we're really seeing that to transform.

Uzair Dada: Totally. And then we all started to figure out what are all the moving parts and started to get a little bit more organized. We knew sort of what to expect, we knew what the failures could be so we started planning for disasters. We started thinking about it.

Uzair Dada: We started getting more organized. We sort of knew how to do it, we just didn't know how to apply it to this new format. And then what was cool was, we went from sort of not just high quality content, which was, we were used to syndicating on demand, to now doing some really cool live things. So streaming which was extremely B2C and influencer centric before becomes mainstream for B2B, which was awesome.

Uzair Dada: So, we use things like StreamYard and Restream and other things, and you doing stuff on YouTube live simultaneously as you're syndicating within, amazing. You're sort of again, opening your doors to a lot more cool things.

Uzair Dada: So, I think that was fascinating. So to me, the big things as we evolved in the first wave, maturity was awesome. Live content started showing up. And that we started to embrace driving and doing more experiential stuff, and really started decoupling the physical event to the virtual event. And as you've heard me say before, the only thing common between being a physical event and a virtual event is the term event. Right? It's really about the experience.

Ellen Smoley: Sure. Okay. So, you walked us through March and July. We even held some virtual events in September. So walk us through, as we were evolving and maturing, platforms were maturing, what we were seeing there.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So September I'd say it was sort of like the start of wave two. The first six months I'm going through wave one. Wave two, where the platforms are now getting stable. You're not hearing as many things crash and break. You are seeing companies who've done it the first time, now get inventive and they're doing their second virtual event or they want to do second virtual event because they've seen so much success from it.

Uzair Dada: And so I think that started happening. You're starting to see the platforms be more integrated. One of the first platform, the first major virtual event that we did for an enterprise customer we had, I think, eight different technologies that we had to all stitch together. Because it didn't exist.

Uzair Dada: And even today I'd say that doesn't exist as much, but it's getting better. You're starting to see platforms evolve and incorporate things. Some do one thing better, some do other things better but there's still maturation going on. So I think you're seeing that happen.

Uzair Dada: You have more people because they've done it now. There is a small and growing community of experience producers. And both internal to companies and agency partners who can now say, "Yeah, we can do it." You still have scarcity of people who can do it really well but you have people who know how to manage the chaos that goes into producing a large scale virtual event. We also, the biggest kind of gap that people saw in doing virtual events was networking and collaboration, was just lacking. You didn't have that. There was no good way to do it. Started seeing that emerge. So you started seeing sort of live chat functionality. You started seeing Slido and kind of incorporating Q&A so people can ask questions and connect. You started seeing things that grew up to allow for collaboration to happen or circle for collaboration to happen. So we started seeing collaboration and engagement sort of built out, that was kind of cool.
From a demand gen perspective said, "Okay, this, we can do more with this. We don't have to just use email and social. So why don't we sort of do just like we do nurture for B2B, why isn't this the same? Why can't we apply the same principle?"

Uzair Dada: So we started doing that and inventing, and doing some stuff. And then from a content perspective we took another step. Because again, we are marketers and we'd like to sort of innovate. We went from sort of static content to interactive content. Because if I don't have a physical booth where I can come within an expo floor and have the awkward conversation, and talk to you and get a demo or do something else. Me as an exhibitor or me as a sponsor or me as an organizer, want to make sure I deliver some awesome experiences.

Uzair Dada: So some of the things we did, we had 3D content. We had interactive content where you could connect with people, you could talk to sales people or marketing people and support people while you go to a digital event. Super cool. We're starting to see that happen.

Ellen Smoley: Right. Creating that more engaging content. So, we found that keeping people interacted with your event for over a four hour period, six hour period, two days, what does that take? And it's really being inventive around the type of content that you're delivering. Whether that's on demand or live or an interactive, is there said that 3D experience where you're almost feeling and touching those things that you're trying to show that would be on that showroom floor in person.

Uzair Dada: Totally.

Ellen Smoley: So we went from absolute chaos to calm. We're really as marketers wanting to predict the future, what is going to happen in 2021? And I really want to hear what your thoughts are about that.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So I think there's a huge kind of every... You've heard everyone talk about the move from virtual to hybrid. And I think you'll have virtual and hybrid. I think there's a huge pent up demand for people to go back to a physical connection.

Uzair Dada: So I think you'll start seeing in second half of the year, probably most likely September on physical starting to happen.

Uzair Dada: You're already seeing that happen in Australia, New Zealand and China and APAC. Which is where the COVID is more under control. You're starting to see physical events. You are starting seeing remnants of that in certain places. There's a big, I think a boating show that's happening in Q1 in Florida. So you'll start seeing some of that happen and people will experiment. But I think you'll start seeing the demand. The demand is big. You start seeing that happen more later half of the year.

Uzair Dada: And I think the platforms will get mature. You're seeing amazing amount of venture funding in this category. So, you got Bizzabo just raised almost $140 million. You had Hopin just raised crazy amount of money. So you start seeing a lot more resources being thrown out. You'll see consolidation. Hopin just bought StreamYard today. So, you had Cisco buying Slido. So you've got stuff happening.

Uzair Dada: So you'll see consolidation, aggregation and you'll see platform maturity. I think you'll see resources get more experience and more comfortable doing it. And you'll see the experiential agencies of starting to get play a bigger role in this, as they pretty come up to speed. Production will become more normalized. It'll still be chaotic and there's a lot that goes on that won't change. But the fear factor goes away. Right? You've done it before so it becomes more normal.

Uzair Dada: And then I think the move towards immersive content experiences will continue to evolve. Because people will start seeing what can I do, because it's really the start of something as a virtual event is really a start of something that you can now elongate over time and reengage people to do more things.

Ellen Smoley: Right. It's not just one dimension program. I mean, this is something that is integrated between... For the rest of your year, for your ABM programs it just totally integrated with your whole over marketing strategy.

Uzair Dada: Totally.

Ellen Smoley: So ,thanks for walking us through that timeline. I want to share, as we reflected on 2020, what stood out to us? What were some of our favorite events? So I know we're getting close to time so I will speed through these, but some of our favorites. As we think way back to early 2020, Adobe Summit was one of the first to do a virtual event really well. They had just really high quality content. Adobe Summit was all on demand, so they were able to really produce that high quality content. And it felt like a Netflix series so I was able to just plug in and go from one video to the next. And as maybe I'm working or doing something else, I'm really listening to their content as well as it was more of that Netflix feel. The next is Telehealth Innovation Forum. So as you can see from these pictures here, the premium branding of this event was insane. From everything to the site, to the direct mail, to the community experience that they had for decorating book bags, to even integrating the live stream backgrounds.

Ellen Smoley: Everything was just premium branded with this event. It was a extremely seamless experience. So like you mentioned earlier, moving from the networking lounge to the photo booth. It didn't feel like I was going from one place to the other. It all was in this overall encompassing event. One thing for forum that really stood out to me was the chat bot. The chat bot, there was 11 unique playbooks. So if I went to the speakers page, it would help me get to know the speakers better.

Ellen Smoley: If I went to the session page and I said, "I was interested in the COVID-19 track." It recommended a few sessions for me to go attend. So the chat bot was fully tailored and kind of felt like if I had a question, that's where I went. If I wanted to chat with sales and get a demo, that's where I went. So the chat bot was at the bottom of every page, fully integrated into the event in a really unique experience.

Ellen Smoley: If I move on to the next page. So the first event that I'll highlight here as we're moving out throughout the year is Twilio. Not only did they have really high quality content, they took best practices from all of the different virtual events that they were seeing in the market and made their own experience.

Ellen Smoley: So this was really neat to see, okay, they didn't use a Hopin or a HeySummit or any of those virtual event platforms that were maturing in the market. They built their own and did it really well. The second example here is Inbound. And if you guys have been to the Inbound in-person event, you know that they are all about the experience. And they really tried to emulate that here.

Ellen Smoley: So, just as you were navigating throughout the site, it kind of made you feel like you were in the in-person event and it wasn't that kind of cheesy 3D look. But here, what they did also was really integrate their sponsors.

Ellen Smoley: They had ads on the walls where you could click and go to the sponsor booth. When you first logged in, it was their kind of pavilion and you could click on the sponsors through there. So just was a neat experience. So it was cool to see. And then the last one that I'm going to touch on is Guidewire. So Guidewire was a customer event and they really cared about that customer experience, getting customer feedback. So one thing that I think went great and they will continue to do is the gamification. Not only did they have really high quality prizes that people wanted, but the engagement that we saw from the gamification was incredible. People moving from place to place, visiting sponsors. I believe they had 56 sponsors and the amount of sponsor views were just great. So with this, the gamification, they also had customer breakout session.

Ellen Smoley: So they wanted to feel closer to the customer. So it wasn't just an on demand or live kind of one way communication. They had Zoom breakouts where they chatted with their customers, got customer feedback. And I think that was really well received.

Ellen Smoley: So through all of these examples, it really as I was reflecting and looking back to what other companies did, makes me really excited for how 2021 we're going to mature, we're going to learn and we're going to continue to make really great experiences that are integrated into our marketing programs.

Uzair Dada: I agree. I think 2021 is going to be awesome. I think there is so much excitement and energy for this new format of engagement, that I think they will continue to see awesome innovation and evolution.

Ellen Smoley: Yeah. So moving on, what can you... Let's end on, what can you tell us? What can you tell us marketers who are starting to plan our programs, who are getting into the 2021 groove? What can you plan us? What should we look out for?

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So I think as we were talking about this, I think there's a few things that are really important takeaways. I think there's still execs who don't understand what virtual event is.

Uzair Dada: So I think change management and communication for us marketers to the executive team, so that they can tangibly see and feel what it is and what it's not, is super important. Because there is a feeling of, "I'm taking physical and moving virtual." And I think it's our job to explain to them it's really digital first. And let's think about what digital can do awesome and not try to force fit physical to virtual because it doesn't always work.

Uzair Dada: So, I think digital management will be super important.

Ellen Smoley: And it's not a webinar on a page model. There's so much more than that. So it's really communicating what that experience is and how it's going to work throughout the year, through all of the different programs. So yeah.

Uzair Dada: Totally. The two, and I think the one we saw the most this year is every time we engage with any of our enterprise customers, they were all super technology happy. They were all like, "Hey, I'm going to use this."

Uzair Dada: And then you sort of pause the conversation and you really had a conversation about, "What's the outcome that we want to drive? What's the experience you want to drive? What do you want to do with them? What do you want people to feel? What do you want people to be able to go do? And by the way, what is your budget and timeline? Because that is a constraint that you need to manage within."

Uzair Dada: So, I really guard people to be cautious about not being technology first. They really should design a product requirement of what they want to do, what the experience needs to be, what they want is a desirable outcome and then back into technology.

Uzair Dada: And frankly, I'd say, make sure you test and do proof of concepts with your technology platforms. Because they all look beautiful and pretty when you see them, but when you try to put them together for what you want to do, there are a lot of gotchas. So, you just have to make sure you go through the elbow greasing of, trying things out before you spend all the money to go buy it.

Ellen Smoley: Exactly. That's a big one. Yeah. And then the next one you have here is utilizing the right execution team. You've got a couple bullet points under there so that's AV, content, program management. Talk about that one for a second.

Uzair Dada: Yeah, man. We've all learned about this. This is truly a elite team sport. And one of the CMOs, that one of our customer CMOs when we were engaging with them said, "This is a lot of work." We are a smart group of people. We have great athletes, but this is a sport we've never played before so we have no idea how to train for it." I mean, that's such a true statement.

Uzair Dada: So, it's something you have to go through to understand the complexity. And regardless of how much you try to manage, right? And this is the same for a physical event. Until it's done, it's changing.

Uzair Dada: And so you sort of, it's a village attitude. You need to be organized, you need to be structured but you need to be flexible. Because things will change. So really having the right awesome team, both internal and partners, mission critical.

Ellen Smoley: Exactly. Yeah. And I'd like to really put an explanation point on that things will change and being flexible. As you'll get right up to the start date and some things are still changing so it's really having your content organized, and making sure that when changes are made in one place it's being made on the event platform. So staying organized and using that right execution team.

Uzair Dada: Totally. And as we kind of touched on before, bad things can happen, things can break. And so just planning for it so that we act and not react is super important.

Uzair Dada: So, disaster recovery planning, even though it sounds kind of disastrous is actually not. It's like an insurance policy, hopefully you never have to use it. But if you've planned for it, if something is to happen, you can actually react pretty quickly. We managed certain events where something went bad and something didn't happen the way we planned to. But within 10 minutes or 11 minutes, we were back up and running again. And it was fairly isolated.

Uzair Dada: So you sort have to think through that ahead of time. And because it's just so many moving parts that if you haven't thought through it, panic and kick in and sort of truly bad things can happen.

Ellen Smoley: Exactly. Yeah. That's a large one too. And then touch on our last one and close this out.

Uzair Dada: Yeah. So I think the last one is to me, virtual event is just this amazing, awesome kind of experience that is the launch point for something that could be an ongoing conversation. You have crazy awesome audience data from your one day, two day, three day engagement. You know so much more about them than what you would ever do through a marketing campaign. You have amazing content that came out.

Uzair Dada: And it would be a shame if people didn't do anything with that. So we're starting to see progressive companies take that and now structure ongoing engagements. They may be webinars, they may be kind of the round tables, they may be breakouts with customers, they may be smaller virtual events.

Uzair Dada: And they're also starting to see virtual events be that successful that they're saying, "Let's create multiple virtual events throughout the year." So no longer is virtual event, a reactive action. Going into 2021 it's actually proactive part of their strategy.

Uzair Dada: And they're not just doing a single event, they're doing two or three of these but they're saying, "Oh my God, the amount of data I'm getting and the engagement I'm getting is phenomenal." So, I think we'll see a lot more kind of focus on it going into 2021.

Uzair Dada: And as we pivot to hybrid, it doesn't mean the virtual side of it goes away. It just coexist. So I think it'd be a really fun 2021. And I know we are excited at Iron Horse, sort of working with our awesome customers to kind of do this. And I'm excited to see the changes that happen and evolve and kind of hopefully continue to innovate.

Ellen Smoley: I absolutely agree. We're looking forward to 2021. Thank you all for joining us on our first Coffee Break Series. We hope you enjoyed it. There will be lots more of these coming your way. Hope you have a good rest of your day and thank you Uzair for joining us today.

Uzair Dada: Thank you.