Photo by Jakob Dalbjörn / Unsplash

1:12 Virtual vs digital events

Lee Matthew Jackson Tim Davies

Tim and Lee delve into the world of virtual events in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic in this episode. They question whether the term "virtual" accurately represents the events that are being created, given how frequently it is used. The term "virtual" implies something that is not quite real, but the events being organised are very real to everyone who takes part.

Lee discusses his personal experiences with bringing a physical event online and making it a success. The discussion touches on a variety of topics, including

  1. The meaning of virtual: Tim and Lee explore what the term “virtual” means and whether it accurately represents the events that are being put together in the digital world.
  2. The “realness” of a digital event: They question whether a virtual event can truly provide the same level of engagement and experience as a physical event, and whether the technology is up to the task.
  3. Outcome driven events: Tim and Lee discuss the importance of having clear goals and outcomes for virtual events, and how to measure their success.
  4. Lessons learned from the experience: Lee shares the key lessons he has learned from bringing his physical event online and what he would do differently in the future.

The discussion provides event organisers and attendees with valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of virtual events in the Covid-19 era.


Lee: Welcome to the Event Martech Podcast. My name is Lee Matthew Jackson, and on today's show, we are sharing with you a conversation that Tim and I had just the other week where we discuss virtual events versus digital events. This is an interesting conversation, so please sit back, relax and enjoy. And do let us know your feedback in the comments of this episode over on

Tim: I want to have a conversation with you, Lee, based on some thoughts I've been having over the last few days, particularly since you've been running since you run your agency transformation live conference and have developed Event engine to create what we've been calling a virtual event platform. And there's been something niggling away at me about just the term virtual, because I don't think it's adequate. Virtual meaning almost virtually there. We're used to it. Now it is synonymous with digital. So we think of virtual reality. But even that is from the literal term virtual, which is well, it's not quite reality. It's almost reality, whereas, in fact, it is actually reality. It's just a different form of reality. If you're in a virtual reality game, there's nothing unreal about that game. The image is real. The sensations you feel are very real. So we could go down a philosophical rabbit hole, but we don't need to. No, the fact is, it is real.

Lee: Do you mean it's real because of the experience as opposed to it's real because of the pixels in front of your eyes? Because that's what I'm trying to work out.

Tim: What I mean is it's real because it is actually something. It exists. You can't say it doesn't exist just because someone might say, well, it's just an image of something. Well, an image exists if you have a blank sheet of paper and you draw something on it, that something is real. It actually exists. If you draw a tomato, it doesn't mean it is a real tomato. It is very real. And this really isn't just a conversation about the philosophy of reality. What I want to talk about is what are we doing when we think virtual event? Because I believe that the events industry is at a tipping point. I just don't know how many of us are aware quite how much of a tipping point is at to be able to give it a shove and see digital go where digital will be now. It's easier to think maybe like in 100 years from now that I can imagine that physical meetups will never end. But if you do go to a physical meet up in the future, how different will they look to physical meetups now? So let's say at a conference and there's a stage of the panel.

Tim: Will we be surprised if in 100 years from now that all the panel members are made up of holograms of people all around the world, for example?

Lee: I wouldn't be surprised. I'm just thinking of every other science fiction movie I've seen where that happens, including Star Trek. Love it.

Tim: I mean, 3D imagery. And we're at the beginnings of seeing hologram technology now. It's obviously in its early days, so it's more expensive now. But if you think about it, if you think futuristically, you can sort of, well, either dreaming it or by looking at futuristic Star Trek and other things, get an idea of what meetups might look like in the future. So probably a hybrid of people physically in a location with using technology to bring people from all over the world, pipe them in so they can talk, live and interact as though they are there, but they're not actually physically. Well, they are actually really there if the reality is I am talking. So the reality is you and I are now in a meeting, but in two different geolocations right now.

Lee: A good movie to reference this would be Ready Player One, where they're all meeting, but in a virtual world, but it looks and feels as physical and real as possible. Now, that would be pretty awesome.

Tim: It would sort the other day, actually. Great movie.

Lee: Cheers to that.

Tim: So that brings me to the term virtual event, because if you think of an event like that, there's nothing virtual about it. It's not virtually an event, it's not almost an event. It is what we've just been talking about there is probably one of the most exciting events that you could attend. It's a real, genuine event. So when we use the term virtual, my concern is that we are sort of missing a trick, because it can be limiting if we're talking about virtually recreating a physical event in a digital platform, knowing that the biggest limitation of physical events is the fact that they are physical. So if you have a physical event in, say, San Francisco, and it's an international event, where you're limiting the people who can't get to San Francisco from benefiting from that event, obviously digital completely breaks down all those barriers. So if we're starting with the premise of let's virtually recreate a physical event in a digital environment, you're already coming from a standpoint of limitation. I'll put it another way. When Henry Ford started making the car for the masses, cars were already around, but so were horses. The mass population used horses and carts.

Tim: The industry that says let's recreate digital events on the premise of let's try and recreate physical event experiences within a digital platform, which is similar to Henry Ford saying, we're going to create for the masses a motor car, and the cars really need to resemble a horse. Does that make sense?

Lee: It does make sense, because if you look as well at those particular well, the very first models of cars, they looked very much like a horse, like a carriage, didn't they? And they would call them the horseless carriages. That then he recognised is that actually they could take this to the masses by dramatically reducing the cost. Thus, it wasn't the prerogative of the people who can only afford to get to San Francisco for the event, as it were. He's made it accessible to the regular family, and in fact, he very much focused on paying his staff a decent salary and wanted to ensure that his staff could afford the car that they made. And if his team could, that meant, in theory, the masses was more achievable or more accessible to the masses. I think that's the direction you're going. So we have a physical event which has the limitations of its location, whilst the benefits of its location at the same time. But equally, a virtual or a digital event is still an event. It's not almost, but not quite. It is actually an event. It happens to be in a digital environment. I e.

Lee: It's another version of what exists. There's the horse and carriage in the car, there's the physical event, there's the online event, or the digital event. The beauty I'm guessing you're getting at here is the digital event breaks down all of those barriers and takes location out of the equation and still allows you to create an event that is real. It just happens to use the technology of the time, the internet, et cetera.

Tim: Yeah, well, for me, the beauty is even bigger than that. If we can get rid of the framework that we will have in our thinking to say we need to replicate physical features in a digital environment, then we can free up digital to be all it can be. And that's the way the digital platform experiences will evolve. They're not going to evolve very quickly or possibly even in the right direction if we approach them with a mindset of replicating something that's physical.

Lee: So the other day, we had this conversation, didn't we, as well, where we'd noticed that a lot of people were trying to create almost game like experiences for events, and that actually would be a blocker to people trying to experience that event or that digital event. And the way I went with agency transformation live was to actually make it so that you would land on a web page and you would click on a button that says table one, and you would go and visit your table one, and that would just simply be a very similar layout to zoom with a chat window. So I was really worried, in fact, that I should have been trying to yeah, exactly. I was worried that I should have been trying to recreate the physical by creating 3D environments, by creating this fake venue. I'd got quotes for 3D walkarounds, I'd got quotes for doing room plans of these digital rooms, et cetera, because I'd had a physical event, and I was so conscious that I needed to maybe somehow replicate that online. But then I was forced because of the finances. It was just too ridiculously expensive to do all that.

I was therefore forced to go simple and felt like a fraud for at least the first half an hour until I was seeing how people were interacting on the platform, and until I saw all the responses that we had after. I mean, you've seen tonnes of amazing testimonials where people said, Holy molya, that was the most exciting, the best online event. They didn't even say virtual, they were saying, online event I have ever attended. And we had people from all around the world staying up at ridiculous hours because they didn't actually want to leave because they were having too much fun with people. But I had fallen into that trap of considering my event as a virtual almost, but not quite representation of what I've been doing physically. And I therefore felt the pressure of trying to recreate the physical in the digital, but that, I believe, actually, in hindsight, would have inhibited what we actually ended up achieving, thankfully, because it was cost prohibitive to try and recreate that kind of walk around experience. So we were forced to go simple. And actually that worked so well.

Tim: It really did. It was incredible. Your hand was forced due to well, I know the cost constraints and time as well, because your event was happening.

Lee: Very shortly after we had a month turnaround. Lockdown was announced. Actually, we made the decision just before lockdown because we figured it was going to happen. But, yeah, we had a month before our event. But.

Tim: I think having your hand forced was very much a blessing in disguise. What I think is going on with Lockdown is it's forcing or it's sort of shunting along very quickly the evolution of digital event platforms. I'm just not quite sure that we've all cotton bond to the fact just yet, because I think we're both still hearing a lot of noise about replicating the physical, whereas what you ended up doing was building your digital stage on the basis of outcomes and objectives. There's nothing new and revolutionary in that. We've all been to the strategic meetings and read the Malcolm Gladwell books and Simon's Cynic books about I've not read.

Lee: Malcolm Gladwell's book, Simon Cynic, I'll give you that.

Tim: Okay? But it almost feels as though many of our industry comrades have forgotten about the why do we do this? Why are we here? Like a year ago, if you stuck a load of conference and event marketers managers organisers in a room and said, what are you actually delivering? None of them would have said, we deliver physical events. They would have said, we deliver outcomes and objective based experiences for businesses in all kinds of industries. Nothing's changed in that regard. Except now, I think, probably because of fear, because, well, this is all we know. The outworking of meeting those business objectives has always been we deliver a physical event. And sure, digital has made its way into the picture, but it's really been shoved front and centre now into the picture and we're all still figuring out how to drive that, which direction we're going to take this in. And what I think we have done with event engines platform is to well, the shackles are off that and I think they've come off without us necessarily realising that they're off. But we are unshackled with regards to thinking it needs to be confined by the parameters of the old.

Lee: So I can make sure I've understood what you're saying. This makes sense to me. I want to kind of connect it to your original example of Henry Ford. So we've got the carriage with a horse and it would have made no sense for them to create a car which had some sort of big fake horse on the front, or to create a car that had horse legs, et cetera. It made the most sense to create a car that had rubber wheels, didn't need anything else on the front, was slim line and would allow people to sit in it safely and progress down the road at a blistering 4 miles an hour or whatever it was that they would do. I think he hit 20 miles an hour, actually, henry Ford with the Ford model Six or whatever it was. Now, let's go to my event. And I was originally approaching it as a replicating, the old, as it were, replicating what had been before in an online environment. And that was starting to stress me out. So we had a conversation and we did that objective conversation to say, right, what do we want out of this?

Lee: What happened last year? That was the most powerful part of our event, which made everybody we had 50% rebook on the day, on the last day of the event, 50% of the audience at the physical events booked for the following year. So why did they do that and what compelled them to do that? And it was because of community, it was because of making friends, it was because of networking, it was because of creating partnerships. And some really exciting businesses were launched last year because of our event and I realised they were the most important things. That's what people had rocked up. So just like the car, Henry Ford realised that people just want to get from A to B. So however you do that, it don't matter. As long as they're getting from A to B in a safe way, then he doesn't need to replicate the old in that insane way or in that insane detail. And neither did I with my event. As long as I can create a platform that facilitates those objectives, that connection, the community, the networking, the business ideas, all of that sort of stuff, then it does not matter how I present that online, as long as it meets those particular objectives.

Lee: Is that a good surmising or have I missed anything?

Tim: No, that's a very good surmising?

Lee: I don't even know surmising is a word, it just sounds good.

Tim: Let's go with summizing. And similarly, you said he read Cynic, so he talks about how the old railroads, when early America was transferring west, I mean, these guys were revolutionaries who did the impossible and blasted through mountains and managed to get a train track through and over the Rockies to link up transportation from east to west. And they all disappeared because someone invented the aeroplane. They didn't see themselves as agents of transportation, they saw themselves as agents of train transportation. And maybe there was a board member back then who saw aeroplanes and saw the potential of it, but couldn't figure out how to make an aeroplane look like a train and therefore it didn't get anywhere.

Lee: Yeah, that's true, because people are used.

Tim: To travelling on a train, they're not used to getting on this newfangled thing called an aeroplane. It's weird and it's dangerous and who knows?

Lee: I think what you're getting out there as well is that often we become defined by our activity and those things that we do, rather than the outcomes of the things that we achieve and the things we achieve for other people. So again, the train company are getting people from A to B, so it shouldn't matter how they do that. They could have invested in cars, they could have invested in planes and in trains, et cetera. However, we kind of become focused on this is the way that we do this, this is the way that we produce our events, this is the way we organise our events, it's the way it's always been and it works really well. And these are the worst times ever because we can't do this anymore. How do we replicate this digitally? Or should we just close shop? We would be in dangerous event organisers of being like the CEOs of those train companies. How do we make our train look like an aeroplane? Or how can we compete with the aeroplane? By making our trains faster in some way and even more luxurious and more comfortable. And what can we do to make it better?

How much money can we throw at this train line to somehow make it more attractive than the really fast aeroplane? And we would be in danger, I think of as event organisers because the other fear I think we've got as well is just like the fear with the guys back then with the trains and the aeroplanes coming along right now. As physical event organisers, I've experienced this fear of will digital events harm my physical events in the future, but also, how long is this going to go on? Because there has been talks of lockdowns or mini lockdowns, et cetera, or things, or of a new normal and I don't even know what this new normal is going to look like. So there is a heck of a lot of uncertainty around me. So it kind of encourages me to protect my events business and to ensure that I can serve my community for years to come throughout whatever is going to happen. It makes sense for me to kind of immerse myself in this digital culture and understand how I can deliver the outcomes in a digital environment. And the moment I can open up the doors of a venue and get everyone physically together, holy moly, I can't wait to do that.

Lee: But at least I've survived throughout this time.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. What we haven't really covered is what the sky's the limit look like then? The answer, of course, is, well, we don't really know. But one thing, for example, could be that one of the parameters of a physical event is that they're very time sensitive. So they're one day, three day, five day long events. The objectives within those things remain pretty much constant throughout information sharing, networking, collaborating, workshops.

Lee: Pretty swag.

Tim: Yeah. With the digital platform, does it need to happen within a three or five day period? Maybe we'll start seeing the rise of month long conferences, which aren't necessarily then called conferences, maybe we'll call them something else. But rather than having day long events, maybe it's two week, one month, six month long events which are on for about an hour a day for anybody in the industry who wants to either pay a tip for a ticket or whatever to come and consume for in short chunks over a longer period of time. It will be very interesting to see how it evolves, but I think it really should evolve and I think it stands the most chance of evolving for the benefit of the entire industry if we agree to shed off the parameters that we just don't need.

Lee: From my digital event, one of the things I've learned is that that will actually impact how I do a physical event next year, as long as I'm allowed to. We've already got our location pencilled in, et cetera, but it forced me, as a digital event, to focus on what is the most important thing to our attendees and to our sponsors, et cetera. And I can now put that into my physical event and make those even more of a priority. Just small things like encouraging people to network at their tables with the strangers that they've been assigned to actually assigning people to tables in a conference at random. So they're forced to meet people because last year people just gravitated towards people that they kind of knew, whereas this year everyone met someone new because we kind of enforced it. So just small, subtle things like that to facilitate serendipity in the physical as well as in the digital. There is so much that can be learnt by pursuing this. So during these times, again, as stressful as they may be, there is so much that we can learn and that we can apply, and physical may never look the same again.

Lee: I think community is definitely something that is right up there. Once a five day event that you mentioned might have been all about consuming as much information and going to visit as many people, many stands as you could at, say, an exhibition, et cetera, and maybe that's going to shift. And physical events will be predominantly more focused on conversation and building community and relaxing together and learning together and all that sort of stuff, because we've all been forced apart for weeks on end, so I'm intrigued.

Tim: Me too. What's? To space. See what happens.

Lee: Watch this space.

Tim: Thanks, Lee. Nice to chat to you.

Lee: It's all right, mate. We do this. We should always record our conversations because we could have a million podcasts of just me and you shooting the breeze. Yeah, man. All right. Cheerio.

Season 1

Lee Matthew Jackson

Content creator, speaker & event organiser. #MyLifesAMusical #EventProfs

Tim Davies

I give conference and event organisers that loathe their marketing stack practical sense and zero-code tools.