Earlier this week I published an article about my anticipated experience as an Avatar at the MPI (Meeting Professionals International) WEC virtual conference center. Admittedly, I was quite excited, and full of optimism, about this new twist to a hybrid event. So now, the question is, did the experience live up to it’s expectations? Is there real potential value to an event like this? What were the learning lessons?
Tech Challenges Diminish Quality
First, the technical side of this experience was a significant challenge. On Sunday, due to bandwidth issues, it was literally impossible to watch the majority of the webcast, as the stream continuously dropped. For Tuesday’s version, the experience was better, although there were still some issues, particularly at the beginning of the session. Technical Experience Grade: C-
A Constructive View of the Attendee Experience
What value was generated for virtual attendees? I am struggling with this. While there is the cool factor to a virtual world, I am not sure what value this experience delivered, if any, to attendees. On both days I logged onto the conference center, conversed with a few people, and then sat down on a virtual couch to watch the webcast. During the actual sessions there did not seem to be a lot of interest, amongst the avatars present, to sustain a conversation. Kind of pointless, if you ask me.
Put into perspective, I could have achieved comparable or greater value by accessing the webcast through MPI’s site directly, and then participate in the Twitter back channel conversation occurring via the hashtag “#WEC11”.
Voice Enabled, but Silent. Fusion Productions did offer a voice feature in the virtual area, which they asked everyone to mute during the webcast (understandably). The funny (or not so funny) part is that hardly anyone used the voice component. I personally tested it out (quality was excellent) and had a couple of brief conversations with other avatars, including the Fusion Productions Manager, Julie Mckown.
Three Hours of Programming??? Seriously, this one really stumps me. MPI, Fusion Productions, Assemblive and Clever Zebra went to all the time and expense of providing this Virtual venue, yet only offered two 90-minute “lecture-based” sessions with virtual access, over a four day period. I realize this was an experiment, but I think a more strategic look at programming may have produced better results.
Where is the Attendee Interaction?
Attendee Engagement is the Name of the Game! I have been an active participant in other virtual worlds, namely Second Life, for several years. In fact, as a musician, and DJ, I do virtual gigs at Second Life Night Clubs. Second Life users love these experiences because they are engaging.
While a musician plays music live, people socialize in the back channel, much akin to a Twitter hashtag conversation. Between songs, the musician chats with them. That is a winning formula that sustains Second Life, as their live music scene is one of their greatest success stories. Headline Entertainers such as U2 have performed very successfully in this virtual world.
The problem I see with the MPI virtual conference center scenario, is there was very little opportunity for attendee engagement. The environment was oddly cold, and sterile. Some touches such as background music, or even an advance promotional commentary by someone, to get virtual attendees fired up, would have made a difference.
The two sessions featured were “talking head” style sessions. So, there was very little opportunity for audience participation. There was a “typed chat” interface, which could have generated conversation similar to a Twitter back channel, but for some reason it was used sparingly.
While access to the virtual world was offered 24/7 there was no compelling reason for attendees to return there. There simply was not enough excitement to draw them back.
What Scenarios Are More Conducive to Virtual Environments?
I believe that a virtual conference center could be useful in certain contexts. The solution begins with INTERACTION! Since realistically virtual attendees are not face2face, highly interactive sessions must be featured. Here are some examples:
“Talk Show” Style Event — At the TS2 (Total Solutions Marketing) Show, which took place in Boston earlier in July, there was a wonderfully creative hybrid event produced by The Expo Group, Digitell and Emilie Barta. For more information on that event please read my article, or there is also another excellent recap by Emilie.
I could see some real potential to utilizing a virtual interface with this style of event as it was highly interactive. It could even be structured such that the Interviewing Anchor (that was Emilie) could field questions on “voice” from the virtual audience, in addition to the face2face attendees.
Brainstorm Sessions — With the voice feature it is possible to have localized, or private chats. So… the large group could be divided into small groups to focus on strategic issues, and have a lively “voice” conversation, to develop solutions. Then the group could come back together to share those solutions with the entire group. This could be bridged with a face2face audience utilizing a Twitter interface.
Open Space Sessions — In the three virtual conference areas there was a feature where attendees could upload a powerpoint or video presentation to the virtual screen. So, theoretically time slots could be scheduled where virtual participants could design their own conference content, on the fly. This could be quite engaging, and also could be connected to the face2face attendees via Twitter.
While MPI may not have succeeded in delivering a stellar hybrid event, with their virtual conference center, they did provide an experience, for event professionals to learn from, and plan for the future. To answer the question posed in this article’s title, the value of this event was in it’s learning lessons. That’s a pretty good start!
Question: In your mind’s eye, what do you see as being a potential way to leverage a virtual conference center experience to deliver unique value to your event(s)? Please share your thoughts.