Over the past year, virtual events proved critical to the survival of brands. Online concerts, conferences and the like afford organizers benefits that physical events never could, such as reduced costs and carbon footprint, greater accessibility and the ability to reach more digitally connected consumers. However, seeing how some brands have labeled a set of pre-recorded videos “a virtual event” raises the question: What defines a virtual event?

The answer is, we’re still figuring it out. On a foundational level, any time you can get a group of people to congregate, communicate and react to something at the same time, you’ve got yourself a live event to some extent. But according to that standard, there are thousands of live events happening all the time across platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitch. There has to be something more to virtual events than that.

I better understood what that something more entailed when I attended GatsbyConf in March. The free two-day virtual event, hosted on the Hopin platform, was exactly what I’d expect a virtual event to look and feel like. A keynote from Gatsby CEO Kyle Mathews kicked things off before talks and workshops proceeded from various speakers, including those who worked at Gatsby and others from companies like WordPress, Contentful, AgilityCMS and others.

GatsbyConf felt well thought-out for a few reasons. Like CES and other virtual conferences that took place last year, the presentations were pre-recorded videos. But what made these stand out is that after the pre-recorded video ended, GatsbyConf switched to a live stream of the speaker from the video as well as a moderator. Viewers could then submit questions in the chat room and the speaker would answer them live. This elevated pre-recorded content gave it that real-time feeling, which is one factor I think will separate effective virtual events from the rest.

I also noticed a function that directed viewers to a networking section, something similar to Chatroulette, which paired you with someone who had a mutual interest in networking. This feature is particularly important for virtual event organizers to nail as sixty-nine percent of event marketers said in a Bizzabo survey that networking is the biggest problem with virtual sessions. What would’ve made this networking feature on GatsbyConf even better is if participants could choose who specifically they wanted to network with.

Lastly, there was a trade booth area that showcased the logos of the different event sponsors. Upon “entering” that area, there was a live stream where the organizers were taking questions and answering them, but you could also enter a one-on-one chat with them. This felt nearly as natural as it would at an in-person event.

Virtual events have their limitations. For one, engagement can be a problem, like sixty-eight percent of event marketers expressed in the aforementioned Bizzabo survey. Admittedly, I was multitasking during GatsbyConf, trying to focus on presentations while answering work chats and emails.

Moving forward, I imagine events will take on a hybrid form, much like where the workplace is headed, mostly because brands can’t risk hosting super-spreader events. There might be some in-person events, but they’ll be smaller and more exclusive, perhaps only accessible to those in the C-Suite then available for others to livestream. 

Bizzabo predicts this hybrid format will involve micro-events that have virtual components, in other words, an in-person event that takes place one day and a continuation of the event that takes place online the day after. This year, IACC Americas will adopt a similar hybrid format where intimate, in-person events will offer unique experiences while the event’s main elements are broadcast together.

Since virtual experiences are replacing stores, the brands that will truly stand out from the rest will enable shopping directly within live events. As noted in the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s 2021 Brand Disruption report, while the goal of marketing in the age of COVID-19 is still to create a customer, the new way to achieve that goal is through “participation via ongoing communities, social selling, live virtual events, classes, and other forms of active involvement in the brand.”

A brand that I think is getting virtual events right is Bud Light, both for its weekly music series, “Bud Light Seltzer Sessions: Your Flavor,” live-streamed on its YouTube, and its live New Year’s Eve concert headlined by Post Malone. During the latter event, viewers were able to switch between performances, join breakout rooms to watch the show with friends and family, post photos of themselves to a fan wall and enter a giveaway for a chance to win a meet-and-greet with performers.

Another example of a virtual event that exceeded my expectations was the second part of DC FanDome, “Explore the Multiverse.” This was a 24-hour experience that gave fans across the world free access to more than 100 hours of on-demand content, and the ability to choose from panel sessions, screenings and exclusive content from the franchise’s film, television, comics and games. The organizers were wise to include a kid-friendly portion that gave parents a break from the stresses of remote learning. 

Until consumers can decide their comfort levels with dining and shopping out, let alone attending in-person events, brands should utilize virtual events whenever possible. Though they’ll never supplant physical events, virtual events will be a powerful tool for engaging audiences at scale. If Grand View Research’s $78 billion valuation of the industry in 2019 is any indication, virtual events aren’t just a pandemic-induced trend. The firm expects the space will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23.2 percent from 2020 to 2027.