The Platform Is Set for Virtual Conferences: Will It Live Up to Its Promises?

As the global economy struggles to adapt to the rapid changes the coronavirus pandemic has forced upon the world, the virtual conference space is booming. The need to engage, communicate and expand our network has perhaps never been so necessary as businesses struggle to survive what may be the next great economic depression. 

Blockchain and cryptocurrency are sectors of the financial technology industry that are used to leading the way when it comes to innovation, and it’s no surprise that blockchain conferences are quickly moving online in an effort to keep people in the crypto community connected while also maintaining the strict social distancing we should all be following during this testing time.

With the technology readily available to everyone before the pandemic forced us into lockdown, it will be no surprise if online conferences become a permanent fixture in our daily life once the battle against COVID-19 is finally over, whenever that finally is.

Dozens of blockchain conferences have been cancelled already this year, and many more are likely to follow. Those that decided to press on earlier in 2020, before governments announced strict lockdowns of their citizens, struggled to make a mark. It’s clear this pandemic doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon. So, the obvious option is to move events online, a move some canny organizers have pivoted to.

There will always be doubters who are resistant to change. However, the potential of virtual conferences to engage with a global attendance, even for those that can’t get to the conference itself, is huge. Let’s not forget that not everyone is an outgoing extravert who feels comfortable walking up to strangers and engaging with them. This can all be solved in a virtual environment in which “breaking the ice” can be as little as tapping your mouse.

One of the main benefits for exhibitors of having an event in a virtual environment is that they immediately have access to a huge range of data on how their product is viewed and engaged with. They would be able to track information that is not easily available at a physical event.

Sponsors can gather actionable data on how successful their virtual conference booth is, giving them a more granular level of tracking and helping to provide a clearer idea of a given event or talk’s return on investment. It also places them directly in front of potential customers, allowing them to be one click away from their products. With no geographical limit to the event, exhibitors can find themselves exposed to a far larger and more diverse audience.

Virtual reality

There are a ton of benefits to the remote conferencing model for attendees and organizers as well.

Chief among them is that running an online event can be more cost effective than hosting a physical event, with huge savings to be had. This means there is suddenly a much lower barrier to entry for organizations attending that are looking to promote and grow their communities, and a much more affordable price for attendees without a drop in the quality of the content. 

One can only imagine the environmental footprint left by the likes of Mobile World Congress, in which 100,000 people congregate from all over the world. And as time goes on, the general public is getting more and more environmentally conscious. Could it one day be seen as unethical to travel to multiple conferences around the world per year?

Many events have already changed to virtual gatherings, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Bitcoin Expo, which used technology such as virtual reality, live streaming and group video conference to provide an online conference experience. The move to remote conferences has been broadly welcomed by members of the crypto community following the strict social isolation measures imposed worldwide due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The move online has created a renewed interest in VR — which until recently was seen as a niche pursuit of gamers and technology enthusiasts — and other technology such as augmented reality. VR is able to provide an authentic and genuine conference experience, although it may take those unfamiliar with the technology a period of adjustment as they get used to using it.

More innovative and more inclusive

Virtual conferencing means that businesses and individuals can be much more inventive in their approaches and offerings. There are many remote conferencing applications and tools available, allowing anything from a virtual roundtable discussion in a 3D environment to a full on “Sims” experience that allows people to create an avatar and attend the virtual conference as if they were playing a computer game. 

This can help to provide a level of engagement and interaction to a virtual event that is on a par with physical conferences that otherwise would not be available because of the coronavirus outbreak.

I can see in the near future that every conference will have an virtual version in order to satisfy the demand of those people that were unable to travel. This could be a 3D replica of the offline event’s floor plan with the talks being live streamed into a virtual world. Perhaps the attendee you met that was most beneficial was hanging out in the virtual networking areas as opposed to meeting outside the venue and waiting for hours to get an expensive taxi home once the offline event has finished.

Meanwhile, the advent of fast internet connections and smartphones means people don’t even need to be behind a computer to participate, and video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts allow many people to participate in a conversation at the same time.

This use of technology provides a useful layer to participation. People who might be reluctant to ask questions of a keynote speaker in front of a packed conference hall are much more likely to get involved if they are attending a conference remotely from the comfort of their virtual avatar. 

Once the conference has finished, everyone who participates will be able to get access to replays of particular keynote speeches or panel sessions, allowing everyone to study the event in more detail. Some offline events can often take months for this footage to be made available, as it goes through multiple edits and production teams before it is publicly released, by which time people have moved on to the next conference. Netflix has proved to the world that video on demand works, and virtual conferencing can provide that. Miss the keynote? No problem, just dive into the back catalogue and watch at your convenience. 

As we continue to move into a more data-driven, decentralized world — one in which every marketing dollar spent is analysed by anxious managers staring at their dwindling post-COVID-19 budgets — it poses the question: Does a centralized offline location for a conference provide the best results for participants and exhibitors alike? Let’s find out.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Erhan Korhaliller is the founder of Istanbul Blockchain Week and CEO of EAK Digital, a leading blockchain public relations firm. He is the organizer of the 3D virtual blockchain conference BlockDown 2020, which will run April 16 through April 17 and offer participants an immersive 3D conference experience.​​​​​​​