Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Virtual tech events can be awesome -- can't they?

PR expert Alex Shapiro offers five ideas for how to host the virtual event of -- not your dreams -- but your customer's dreams.

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Alex Shapiro is a public relations maven with decades in the industry decades. He's worked with the up and comers and the big boys --including Alteryx, Mozilla, Oracle, Rancher Labs, Wind River and Zoosk -- and is currently the managing principal for his own PR company.Alex has seen physical and virtual events come and go and the means to make them meaningful change with the change in customer expectations. Now, with the pandemic and social crisis, virtual events are not only becoming de rigueur, but essential to succeed. 

Alex provides you some truly compelling thinking and tips on how to put on the virtual event of not your dreams but your customer's dreams.

Take it away, Alex.


Every technology vendor is eager to partner with you on making virtual experiences better. But the truth is, technology alone isn't enough. More than ever, the medium really is the message.

Networking infrastructure and computing are rising to a brand new challenge. Even just a few years ago, virtual events were at the mercy of the buffering wheel, as technology creaked under the weight of video compression and over-subscribed Wi-Fi. Not anymore.

Heavy-duty tasks like streaming video in and out simultaneously have evolved how we can share virtual experiences. Changing also is what's virtual about them. While old-fashioned VR such as Second Life enabled gamers to become someone else, today's virtual events are giving professionals a chance to stand out as themselves.

Technology by itself isn't enough to change how events go virtual. It takes a new generation of media professionals to put it to use effectively for specific target audiences and influencers, along with content that maximizes the platform.

That means no skimping on smart, engaging speakers or cutting corners on formatting and packaging content. A rough PowerPoint could be enough during a busy Vegas conference, where personality and buzz give it context. Now, that PowerPoint can dominate the audiences' experience of the event and is more sure than ever to underwhelm.

Sure, there are powerful tools to help add animations, create demo videos, images and even GIFs to keep virtual events from being six hour long PowerPoints with Zoom-ed beers at the end. There's also no shortage of room to experiment, because the future of events is clearly more virtual than Vegas, for the foreseeable future.

Know your audience: What real-world event experience do they miss most?

Even basic virtual gatherings can be tricky enough to pull off. Journalists have reported on MediaSurvey.com (Subscription Required) that Red Hat's virtual conference was blacked out for 20 minutes because of a glitch.

Together, with missing the "Hallway Track" of conferences, it seems tech influencers aren't yet being universally impressed. But this is changing every day, as marketers continue to experiment with new formats.

It may also be that journalists aren't always at the right events. For example, when database company Redis Labs planned their first virtual RedisConf, 2020, they set aggressive goals but didn't really know what to expect. Their "virtual environment" teased in a Twitter video was very different from most virtual events.

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Screenshot from Redis Labs virtual environment video

Redis Labs Video

Redis Labs CMO Howard Ting shared the surprising outcome on LinkedIn.

He reported that the conference had four times the attendance at one quarter the cost = 16x. Nearly 4000 attendees from 103 countries spent 4,340 hours in the platform over two days, including 1,554 games of pong, which the virtual environment enabled.

With virtual event metrics like these, the Hallway Track may never be the same. All this demonstrates that virtual events can work, as long as marketers focus on their audiences.

Want people to engage with their senses? Look to the entertainers, innovators and Burners for insights.

Other innovative technology is finding its way into everyday virtual interactions, not just well-funded events. For instance, green screens are finding their way from the local news' weather segment to making surprise appearances all over this new, parallel videoverse of faces. It's a new kind of platform for events and communications but one that's downright ancient for other professionals who know how to bring people together.

Marketers who want to use existing technologies in new ways can sometimes look outside of the B2B tech echo chamber for inspiration.

A too-often overlooked early adopter I look to for futuristic communications trends are the entertainment pioneers best known for lavish Vegas raves and Burning Man sound camp appearances.

Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and the community that surrounds it, together with gamers, have been living this virtual life longer. From EDM DJ podcasts a decade ago (many now dormant) and plans of attack via Discord, while sharing a screen, and even, now tragically defunkt, Turntable.fm.

Take the first step in media experimentation. It's as easy as starting with a $15 green screen on Amazon, Zoom and Google Images.

The price of experimenting with new formats has never been lower.

That's why I recently turned to EDM Twitch for a night "out" with my partner, to explore how virtual events look for the world's most prominent - and tech savvy - entertainers. We partied "with" a live DJ set on our new dance floor at club Home.

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Mad Decent Live Twitch Virtual Party

The sound quality on Twitch is superior because it was designed for high-quality game streaming. That means zero latency even during streams composed of numerous other streams. Besides the tracks being mixed lived and streamed at the audience, there are visual projections behind the DJ; backup dancers Zooming into the green-screen background remotely; and a global community of party stayers joining by Zoom for short - and safely-curated - picture-in-picture video appearances. The virtual night club was, so far, my favorite example of using free technologies we often take for granted to create exciting new experiences for diehard event goers who are now sheltered in place.

Dream big and follow the dreamers

Inspiration for communicators and marketers is all around right now, as are examples of experiences to improve. By giving ourselves space to explore and experiment in this confusion, we may find that we all get to what we came here for in the first place - to bring people together, even if they're apart.