Why Must Virtual Events Look Like In-Person Events?

Every year I look forward to attending the Virtual Edge Summit online. Not only is it free to consume the content online and saves my travel budget (one of the keys for virtual events) but it also showcases some of the top vendors and trends in the virtual event industry. One thing that amazes me about many of the event platforms is how they use an in-person conference metaphor to navigate through the events. Many will have a picture of a high ceiling conference hall, information booth, a movie theater for watching sessions, partner exhibit hall with booths that mimic an in-person booth and lots of images with people walking around. Does this in-person metaphor provide value to the digital event user experience?

When I go to Netflix, they don’t send me to a site that looks like a video store and the player doesn’t look like a movie theater with people sitting in rows of chairs. Pandora doesn’t look like a radio. So why do we insist on building virtual platforms that keep the look and feel of big conference halls? The exhibition hall was set up the way it was to accommodate 1000s of attendees walking through a physical space. Trade show booths were set up for in-person attention getting and salesperson/attendee engagement. I don’t know if leveraging the same visuals in a digital environment is the most effective user experience in a digital model. As traditional marketers it’s sometime difficult to let go of engrained models we’re familiar with.

Some things to consider when evaluating the user experiences for virtual events:

  1. Who is your audience? Will they be receptive to navigating a maze of pages to find the content they want or would they prefer a more direct access to the content?
  2. Are your metaphors and labels clear to your audience? Common verbiage for an in-person event may not make sense in a digital environment. A picture of a fish bowl at the partner booth may be clear to an in-person event manager but will your audience understand what it’s for in context of a web page? Can I easily figure out where to click based on what I want to do or do I have to guess and click several times?
  3. Immersive environments may seem like a cool and exciting concept to marketers and first time attendees but does the experience hold up over repeat engagements? Once the attendee has mastered the learning curve it will be easier for them to navigate your environment but is the site and content robust enough to push them through the challenges?
  4. Is there an simpler way to represent what you want to do in the digital environment? Can a simple button/s on a web page do the same task as an elaborate graphical interface?

It’s important to test performance with our audience – some immersive environments may appeal to certain personalities which may increase participation while other personalities may want something more direct. It’s good to see some of the virtual event platform vendors providing more varieties of user experiences. I’m not sure we’re there yet but it’s a good start.

I’d be interested to hear from virtual event marketers who have done A/B testing or have done extensive comparison between various user experiences.

About Scott Lum

Disruptive digital, social & content marketer with a passion for customer experience. Formerly with Microsoft.
This entry was posted in Digital Marketing, Event Marketing, Virtual Events and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why Must Virtual Events Look Like In-Person Events?

  1. Scott,

    Great take! I have a similar question about virtual shows needing to look like their physical counterparts. I tend to agree with @samueljsmith who with @rayhansen designed EventCamp Twin Cities. Their approach was to make the virtual like a TV show. I found it very familiar and easy to digest.

    These are important questions to keep asking. This is definitely an area that will grow/change in the coming years. We have to change with it.

    • Scott Lum says:

      Kevin – I like the idea of using what works as long as it facilitates communication and think that leveraging a TV show format is a time tested formula. However, I bet their web page didn’t look like a TV set with nobs and TV remote to change channels. If it did, I think the user experience would get in the way of the content. With any disruptive innovation we need to challenge the traditional models, test and refine.

      • Lisa Qualls says:


        We couldn’t agree with you more and is why we created Intefy which was used for the EventCamp Twin Cities event Kevin referred to in his comment. http://intefy.com/eventcamptc Your points to consider are right on target and we wish more event producers would consider them when planning a virtual offering.

        We find the complex (not to mention very expensive) virtual event managers on the market today overwhelming and hard to navigate. Our platform displays what is important to the virtual user…a video viewer (works with any embed code so event producer can choose whatever live stream solution they want), twitter streams, end-user twitter client so visitors can participate directly on page, slideshare option, public chat box option, privacy option for paid events, and more. The purpose is to provide the content that matters while providing the end-users a simple interface without getting confused or overwhelmed with options.

        We are always researching additional features to offer but balance requests with our focus to make the experience smooth and simple. More often than not, less is more! (apologies if this came off as advertisement, that wasn’t the intent 🙂 ).


  2. Sarah Siegel says:

    Your blog post inspired my musing on whether we’re simply at the Events 1.0 stage of virtual event production, where familiar metaphors are most common, and then in the Events 2.0 stage, we’ll not need literal metaphors so much. My fantasy, though, is that it be even more immersive, e.g., that it could be a Second Life-like experience, only easy, and only mashed up with my typical social computing tools.

  3. Dennis Shiao says:

    Scott – agree completely. If you want to sell books, make it as easy as Amazon. If you want to connect with friends, make it as easy as Facebook. Make it simple and easy for attendees and they’ll do more, learn more and engage more.

    My parents’ generation would likely struggle in some virtual event experiences. They have no problem using Facebook, however. To achieve broad adoption, virtual events will need to be as usable as Facebook.

    A/B testing is a very interesting concept for virtual experiences – as it would give virtual event hosts with the data that tells them what’s working and what’s not working.

  4. Pingback: Why Must Virtual Events Look Like In-Person Events? – Hypergrid Business

  5. cubicspace says:

    They all look the same because what you see are “presentations” created by a few technology companies (all competitors needed bullet points to check off) selling the same basic pitch “primarily” as “new” technologies, not selling themsleves as sales/marketing expereince designers/consultants.

    Custom Exhibit designers and production facilities are not hired to “show nails and masonite” off, but that is how the virtual events “solutions” market is sold today ( this attempt as business is not the first) as is most services to this small group of the interested. Eventually youll have a “marketing first- technology second ” based business with many providers, but with all web tech driven ways, this takes much longer than ever before do to how easy it is the “tweak technologies” and “upgrade” a meme lead by a few and the spectre of software programming patents.

    Without ” illustrations of a generic trade show hall ” youd be selling service of “a flash website ” for most of the technologies shown. 😉 It’s hard to hype-sell “new” around “flash”–or even many web3d presentations.

    Its all ok. it’s all part of any new “tech” lead services business…and itll change if the idea of virtual events continues to gain interest and more projects get done and need to be “new” blog worthy, beyond the tech alone.;)

    Anyone needing help:


  6. Pingback: Bringing Virtual Events into the Mainstream – Hypergrid Business

  7. 3dxplorer says:

    This is a great question Scott.
    A few consultants have done a decent work answering to this question and other similar ones, including FROST & SULLIVAN (who predicts more “presence” will be required in Virtual Events), and THINKBALM (who has published several reports on this matter).
    The short answer is “In order to CREATE A SENSE OF PRESENCE”.
    A more complete answer can be read here:

  8. Your questions are good ones. I feel strongly that the virtual event platforms are an overkill and way too expensive for what one gets. I just ran a pilot event on something I built myself and using DimDim and a very simple WYSIWYG web builder called bluevoda (http://www.bluevoda.com . The cost was next to nothing and it was fabulous! It more than did the job.

    Evey time I go to one the mainstream virtual platform, I’m in and out and find it almost a waste of time. I keep thinking to myself…30k or more? For what? A fancy website with chat? Then some pre recorded videos and some live streaming from a web cam? True they have good back end reporting…but…there are inexpensive ways to skin that cat.

    My next event I’m thinking…Wordpress and Webex… and Mobile Friendly! I’m making a website that’s lightweight, user friendly and for very little money. It will have some design elements to suggest an in person event feel, but it still going to be designed as a Web site. Because that is exactly what it is!

    You asked for some opinions…there’s mine!

    Thanks for your share!
    Avraham Venismach
    Ty Virtual Events & Marketing


    If any one would like to collaborate with me for my next build, I would happy to join forces with you and see what we can come up with…then let’s put a challenge to the “Big Boys” It should be lot of fun and I believe we can Real impression in the Virtual World! (I come from the Land of David and Goliath, so I guess it’s in my blood!)

    Feel free to contact me av@vine2010.org or give me a call 310 747 3306 (I’m in Israel, that is my VOIP line)

  9. Pingback: We Must Meet Them Where They Are to Take Them Where We Want to Go… «

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