Even better than the real thing? How Virtual Events work, and how they can work for L&D

Women In Tech online Festival

If your network is anything like mine you’re probably inundated with invites to online/virtual conferences (with and without a cost associated) and free webinars every week. In all honesty, I’ve been a bit fatigued with the webinars and have tended to opt for podcasts, which are generally unrelated to the learning sector but full of useful learnings in themselves. (On that topic, if you’re looking for something a bit different to lift your spirits, inspire and motivate you I particularly enjoyed Grounded with Louis Theroux and now I’m listening to The Michelle Obama Podcast for a general boost on life, work, relationships and politics from the perspective of a strong working woman).

My first virtual conference

Last year I attended the Women in Technology World Series Conference in London and I was so impressed with the volume and quality of great speakers and content that I booked to go again this year. When the pandemic hit the face to face conference was inevitably cancelled. They announced that the event would be held virtually with their first online festival. As a premium ticket holder, I had access to all the conference had to offer. The event organiser selected the vFAIRS platform to host the online festival. This was my first online conference experience and on the whole, I was impressed.

The virtual events experience

Let’s start with arrival, for the most part, it felt a lot like I was moving around a conference centre, they even had animated graphics to make me feel like I was surrounded by lots of other conference-goers, except there was no queue to get my badge, and or a bad coffee or trek to the other end of the conference centre to find the loo and put my coat in.

Sessions were 20 minutes long which meant I could easily focus and had a little time in between to network or get some work done. The personal challenge with attending virtual events, I have found, is blocking the time out of my calendar to get the most from the event for me personally and not feel pressured to take that call or attend that meeting.

All sessions were pre-recorded which actually worked very well because the quality was good and the speaker was on the live chat while the presentation video was playing to answer questions from the audience. A bonus on face to face as it gave more people the opportunity to ask questions.

Virtual tour of vendor stands


In the exhibition hall, there was a graphic of the sponsors’ stand. Clicking on the stand is like approaching them in the real world. I could chat online with a representative, link through to their resources and website, watch videos, view job vacancies and many other options. The bonus for the more introverted conference-goer with this setup is there’s no pressure to actually chat with someone. If you’re normally a bit reluctant to approach a stand-in person this is ideal for browsing before deciding if you actually want to speak to a representative, or not.

There was a leaderboard and prizes for top-scoring attendees for joining sessions, speaking to people at the exhibition booths and generally getting involved in conference activities.
There were also other areas for networking in chat rooms and for joining yoga and exercise classes, just in case you haven’t done enough online yoga in 2020.

Quite a bit going on!

Pros and cons of the platform

The platform offered an intuitive interface which was akin to a face to face event, therefore in general it was easy to navigate and find what I was looking for. Scheduled sessions and playback worked well and were a good length to keep me engaged (I have a shamefully short attention span). The live Q&A with the speaker was an excellent bonus and people took full advantage of having the expert on hand. The event organisers and speakers continued to engage with attendees after the sessions which encourage participation and therefore quality discussion. The platform tech support responded instantly when I messaged them and the issues I report were fixed the same day or by the following morning.

There were a few kinks in the platform performance that needed some additional thinking to make the experience a little smoother. Some of these included things like:

Auto browser refresh – this had to be done manually by users to get sessions started, otherwise you just had the “starting soon” message playing on a loop. Not great and they had to add a note to the website banner as so many people seemed to have this issue.

Filterings presentation tracks in different ways – To start a session I had to find my session on the themed track agenda screen because the “add to calendar” function wasn’t working. There wasn’t any other way of preselecting sessions to add to a personalised agenda. This meant before each session I had to scroll to the date and time of the session, in the correct track (1 of 6 tracks) to hit the play button (remembering to refresh my screen beforehand). Having a playing now and next across all tracks would have been super handy plus the ability to pre-select sessions and view those quickly.

Chat room features were basic. Additional functionality to enable me to engage with other attendees instead of just having a stream of text would have been nice to have. The fact that the speakers were so visible in the chatrooms meant there was no shortage of quality conversation.

Use other forms of media in networking rooms e.g. voice or video in breakout rooms or one to one’s.

Opportunities to network were restricted to messaging in the chat room. I could click on other attendees’ names to get basic bio information and chat with them directly or in the stream of incoming text for each themed chat room. I couldn’t scan the room or filter people with similar interest to introduce myself separately.

Leaderboard scores showed the top 25 or so attendees and their scores. I couldn’t figure out a way to see my score or overall position.

What else do Virtual Events solutions do?

Women in Tech don’t seem to have used all of the available features on the vFAIR platforms, however, having looked at a few of the competing solutions on the market there is so much more that can be offered and I’m looking forward to attending more of these virtual events to play around and compare experiences.

Social27 for example uses AI to intelligently recommend attendee matches, sessions and vendor solutions. They also have chatbots, VR and video conferencing in the networking lounge to simulate more of a face to face feel for the event among other features for live presentations, roundtables and breakout rooms. Hopin is another rapidly growing platform which seems to promote itself within the b2c events market as well as b2b. They recently raised investment totalling $205m and they have been valued at $2.125 billion, a clear indicator that cloud platforms in this space are set to continue on this growth trajectory for the foreseeable future.

What about virtual events platforms for learning?

We have been doing blended learning for a long time in L&D, combining face to face with virtual sessions using a variety of platforms and methods. But these new platforms give even more options for doing it in a more joined-up way. I can see virtual events platforms becoming another flavour of ecosystems integrating many other specialist solutions to enhance the value people get from the overall experience. They’ll also be a need to add-on more features and functionality as the use cases for these platforms broaden. For example, I see a clear use case for L&D teams in organisations who previously relied upon face to face training days. Features such as live/pre-recorded presentations, breakout rooms, round tables would provide an equally immersive but virtual experience, at a fraction of the cost of multi-day events. Integrations with learning platforms could handle the scheduling of these events and supporting materials, all of which could be recorded within a learning record store for professional development.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking…

An internal product launch event

Engage the whole business by inviting audiences to learn about your new products.

Use the presentation and live Q&A for

  1. The CEO address to the company
  2. Product positioning and functionality from the product team
  3. Update on the marketing plan for the launch
  4. Overview of client success and product support

Use the virtual exhibition for representatives from teams to showcase additional information, answer questions and provide resources to specific people involved in the release and ongoing support of the new product.

Setup breakout rooms for people to test drive the new product, learn how it works, what it does and offer valuable feedback. Drop-ins and or clinics could be set up with experts and groups from across the business.

Run roundtable events with early adopter clients and the product team for the sales representatives to learn about client and market challenges and how the new product addresses them.

If you link your learning platform with your virtual events platform you could automatically (using AI) recommend an events track based on job role to ensure attendees are not wasting time looking for the information most relevant to them.

And I’m sure you can think of many others that will apply within your own organisations.

What about curated content?

We at Anders Pink will certainly be exploring how curated content can play a role in the learning experience for attendees within these platforms.

To help bring this to life for you I’ve created a sample briefing – Women in Technology – News and Trends

Briefings can be created on any topic (or people/speakers) and from any set of sites and sources. If you want to use a tool to curate content for your next conference, event or any topic, we can help you out, get in touch at anderspink.com.

What does the future hold?

You have to ask yourself, will large-scale conferences and events ever go back to their pre-pandemic format. Companies can now reach a much wider audience, at lower costs, which makes them more accessible to more attendees, which means sponsors have a wider audience. And don’t forget about the reduced impact on the environment from zero travel, hotel rooms and the masses of plastic rubbish given away at these events. I’m struggling to see the negatives.