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Whatever Happened to Virtual Conferences?

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PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2016

by Brian O’Leary, Principal, Magellan Media Consulting


Brian O’Leary

Three to five years ago, the dawn of an era of “virtual conferences”—web-based learning experiences that emulated the traditional, in-person model—seemed ready for widespread adoption. MarketingProfs, a well-known marketing resource, pointed out that virtual conferences were much easier to set up, accessible from anywhere, readily time-shifted and seen on demand, and better at balancing attendee engagement with sponsors and presenters.

With so much of publishing shifting toward independents, the virtual conference seemed like an ideal way to deliver high-quality content at a manageable cost. So why haven’t we seen these events take off?

There are at least three reasons for the slow uptake. First, the formats used to date—keynotes, panels, exhibit halls, and questions from the audience at the end of some sessions—don’t translate well to an online environment.

We don’t want to spend the whole day online listening to a group of presenters who are doing the same thing they would have done in person. It might be true that some of the old approaches didn’t work in person, either, but at least we were in the room, steps away from colleagues or a snack.

Similarly, “something for everyone” doesn’t cut it in a virtual environment. Online universities have known for years that people sign up for courses that advance their career interests. The more specific the course offerings are, the better.

But the companies that sponsor most virtual conferences hope to use attendee lists to generate business leads. As a result, organizers often cast a wide net, generalizing programs with the hope that they can drive sign-ups and participation.

Finally, two-way interaction matters. Sitting in on an impromptu conversation with someone you met earlier and feeling like you are part of a group gathered to advance a topic matters.

With a few exceptions—Harvard Business School’s HBX initiative, for example—the virtual meeting model is strikingly one-way. The platform and the content ensure that we’re not participating in the meeting; we’re receiving it.

These conditions can change. The success of sponsored webinars suggests that targeted online content can engage audiences. The explosive growth of TED Talks points out how a well-organized, short-form video can attract a loyal following, even though the audience is still only watching. Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” format has given its subgroup members access to noted experts and world leaders.

But no one has put together all the pieces, certainly not in publishing. Until that happens, virtual conferences are likely to remain a second-tier alternative for most independents.


Brian F. O’Leary is principal with Magellan Media Consulting, which works with publishers on issues related to workflows and cross-platform publishing.

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