The reasons that live events will never be replaced are the reasons that live events will never be the same. Hopefully.

August 16, 2021

Recent events are forcing us to solve some of the problems of living life through glass (LTG). Digital fatigue. Zoom gloom. Stream drownings – we all know someone who’s been touched by virtual illness. The signs are as obvious as they are easily overlooked.

  • Appetite increase and weight gain
  • Changes in how they dress or smell
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Pale skin, or changes in skin colour
  • Boredom or frustration
  • Poor concentration
  • Increase in caffeine and/or alcohol consumption – hold on a minute…

Is it me or do the symptoms of digital fatigue look a lot like the effects of a physical conference, meeting, festival, exhibition or summit? Something’s different. Is it the digital content or the human context? Could the prevention of stream drownings improve IRL experiences in the future?

The human context

Conferences, festivals, summits and exhibitions take us physically out of our everyday environment to focus our attention, and then they take us to Las Vegas to reward us for our attention. We also get breakfast buffets, and like breakfasts buffets these events were made to be experienced, not just consumed. The experience design is venue driven (location, logistics, production and safety) and context dependant.

We leave our partners, our children, our dishwashers and the upstairs neighbour who’s learning to play free jazz trombone. We wake up somewhere new, dress to impress in our finest corporate casual, go down to the breakfast buffet to meet our colleagues and transfer to the venue. All the features and mechanisms of conventions and conferences naturally evolved to suit these initial conditions.

For example

Speakers are given 30, 60, even 90-minute blocks based on demand, capacity, availability and prestige. These blocks are independent of the subject, style or skill of the presenter. Organisers correctly assume that the average attendee falls into a narrow range of physical conditions and emotional dispositions. The speaker knows where the audience has just been, what they did last night and what they’re going to do when the presentation is over. Finally, the speaker rightly assumes that, even if we’re not holding our breath in rapt attention, we will sit politely and even fight to stay awake if necessary. We are deeply committed, socially constrained and overflowing with good will. Neither the organizer, the speaker nor the audience knows exactly what they’re going to get, but this usually works out fine. It’s an adventure. It’s an experience.

The new human context

We are seated at our kitchen table. We haven’t left the house all week. It’s 8pm and we’re still working because the event is in another time zone. We’ve spent 7 of the last 9 hours on video calls, simultaneously fielding questions from clients on email and from our internal teams on Slack. There are dishes balanced delicately in the sink, bedtime tantrums resonating through the walls and a trombone solo reverberating through the ceiling. We click the link in our outlook calendar, type in our password and then we start doing the dishes while the timer counts down.

Given the circumstances, should I consider alternatives to traditional speaker schedules and formats? Is 60 minutes required to impart the necessary information, inspiration and gravitas? What level of investment and goodwill can I take for granted? And there’s a lot more to an event than the schedule. How should I advise clients to activate sales teams, sponsor participation, product education and brand awareness? How many other conventions need re-examination in this new context?

A way forward

Today I’m working with brands and organizers to introduce new strategies and conventions for live events built from the message or purpose upward, all with the explicit goal of turning streaming content into experiences. We’re working directly with speakers and content creators at the earliest stages of planning. We’re building models and gaming-out scenarios with event owners, partners and sponsors. We’re being more pragmatic about what audiences need and what tech platforms can realistically deliver. We’re being more self-critical and demanding of our ideas because calling a digital event an experience doesn’t make it better – or even an experience. The types of things that can elevate digital streams to digital experience are things like:

  • Content quality & perceived value
  • Managing time and pace
  • Triggering active attention
  • Discovery and spontaneity
  • Enabling reciprocal action and influence

Sorry for the big build-up and the jargon. I’ve been deliberately tedious to emphasise a point. These principles aren’t wildly original, and while they absolutely do work, simply pasting them into a blog post or a pitch deck isn’t helpful. What is helpful is the deliberate and often painful process that comes before:

  • Looking at the old context honestly, not nostalgically
  • Looking at the new context realistically, not hopefully
  • Asking better questions
  • Planning for a purpose, not a platform or a venue
  • Empathising with your audience

There are supersmart people out there doing great work and from what I can see, this is how they are getting better. What’s most encouraging and valuable is seeing the successes of big high-profile events like WWDC and small events you’ve never heard of like FTC 2020. These are examples of physical events that went fully digital and became fundamentally more accessible, more diverse, more effective in their mission and sometimes even more fun. With very different budgets and goals, these events embrace the new context and use creative approaches to solve tough business problems by reacting to a new world instead of recreating an old one.

As IRL events resume, the context is changing yet again, and the temptation will be to revert rather than to reset. I’ll be looking for opportunities to respond to that new human context. Please say hi if you see me at the breakfast buffet.