Staying connected in a hybrid world - What will 'the new normal' look like?


As an events company, we were one of the first businesses to be hit by the COVID-19 crisis and have been busy putting all our in-person events through to September on ice and ramping up our virtual proposition. But the other week I was asked 'what gives you hope for a better tomorrow?' Maybe it is endorphins kicking in after doing yet another Joe Wicks workout this morning, but I am feeling quite bullish about the future.

During our meetings and briefings with different strategic heads across the financial services spectrum over the past month, there has understandably been a huge focus on the short-term, tactical challenges that face us – which are amplified for SMEs with tighter cash reserves.  However, as we start to think about the path to a new normal, it has been encouraging to hear lots more meaningful talk over the past week about purpose, sustainability and growth.  This is without doubt the greatest crisis of our lifetime – COVID-19 may not infect everyone, but it will certainly affect everyone.

Our job at Owen James has always been to convene the great and the good in financial services and provide a platform for them to drive tangible change forward.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of staying connected and what a vital role technology has to play.  But despite the joy of realising that you can appear to basking on a beach or up in Apollo 13 while on a Zoom call, are virtual meetings here to stay and how will we connect when we are released squinting in the sunlight from our homes? 

Being a remote worker shouldn’t mean we lose the art of networking

Remote working has without doubt forced us to embrace virtual meetings/events and webinars.  But is this trend set to stay?

The way we work will undoubtably change going forward.  Following a period of adjustment, we are starting to question whether we need to commute to the office every day and whether we truly can be productive working from our home - both individually and as teams?  The benefits of greater flexibility and lifestyle for employees, as well as reduced costs for businesses are clear.  However, as business leaders we still have a lot of work to do around embedding culture and wellness as we make this shift – not to mention keeping up with the technology and cyber step change. 

But this is all very inward looking from a business perspective.  So how will we engage with external stakeholders in a brave new world?  It is my belief that the old adage that “people buy people” will always apply and the importance of face-to-face meetings cannot be understated.  A balance needs to be struck.  Whilst we become much more circumspect about traipsing between meetings on trains, planes and automobiles, we still need to stand out from the thousands of emails, LinkedIn requests and phones calls we receive daily. 

Is virtual the nail in the coffin for in-person events and meetings?

Without doubt this crisis has forced us all to jump on the virtual bandwagon.  But how effective is virtual engagement and how do you stand out of the crowd?

Clearly content is king when it comes to attracting an audience and keeping them engaged.  There are some great examples of fantastic content over the past couple of weeks, however, I have recently sat in many webinars that have involved one or two speakers presenting for 95% of the call before answering a couple of questions that had been typed in by a faceless audience.

From an audience perspective it is so frustrating having no idea who else is the room.  I found myself wondering how many other people were on the session and were they even my peers?  What were they thoughts about what the speaker was saying and how were they applying it to their own businesses?  Also, short of forcing the attendees to complete some exam questions after the session, how to do you know how engaged they are?  We have all been guilty of slinking off during longer webinars to make a coffee or get onto our emails.  And this came across loud and clear when we recently spoke to a number of marketing heads from large providers who all said that the follow-up engagement scores drop off a cliff when you compare in-person events with webinars.

So, is there a halfway house?  Recently re have been running smaller, carefully curated virtual meetings for 15-20 strategy heads.  We have found that participants really value the opportunity to be able to see ‘who is in the room’; have an open discussion with each other; and share insights with likeminded peers.  However, it isn’t without is challenges and I think there are some strategies I would encourage you follow to ensure it is a success:

  • Ensure you have clearly defined objectives for the session – What is the session trying to answer for your clients and will you be providing them with the insight/tools to tackle it?
  • Have a strong, tech-savvy facilitator – The last thing you want is for the session to degenerate into a talking shop with everyone shouting over each other. You can mute everyone and ask participants to raise their hand if they have a question, but a strong facilitator needs to present the objectives and terms of engagement clearly at the beginning.  They need to recognise when to curtail the stronger personalities and entice the quieter voices out of the shadows.  Often this can be difficult for you to do yourself at the risk of upsetting your clients, so it was always sensible to consider using an independent, impartial facilitator.
  • Don’t make it an overt product push – Ultimately people will want to know what solution you have to solve the problem you are addressing. However, spend plenty of time at the beginning of the session mapping the problem and helping your clients understand its impact on their businesses.  Get them to buy into the story before they buy into the solution.
    People do not buy goods or services, they buy relations and stories’ Seth Godin
  • Remember it is a campaign, not just an event – Too much focus is often spent on the session itself rather than the entire customer journey:
    • Pre event engagement – There are all kinds of tools and platforms that grab attention during the invitation process, but think about ways you can interact with clients after they have signed up. Examples include encouraging participants to send in pre-event questions they would like to see addressed to help shape the agenda.  Or having a short pre-event questionnaire and publishing the findings at the start of the session.
    • The event itself – Try to avoid your audience ‘sitting and soaking’ during the session. Rather than having one long presentation with some Q&A at the end, split it into smaller, bit-sized chunks.  Encourage engagement throughout and use live polling to spark debate.  We are have also seen some great use of gamification during sessions and one group recent ran a raffle draw at the end of the session for one lucky participant to win a lockdown survival pack to be sent to their home.
    • Post event engagement – It goes without saying that the slides of a presentation should be sent out afterwards and ideally all participants should be called to explore opportunities for you to collaborate. However, rather than simply calling to ask if you can sell them something, use other carrots to open a door such as addressing any questions they may have posed during the session which were not answered.

But let’s remember that at some point soon we will be allowed back into the wide-world again and there will always be a place for face-to-face interaction we look to forge new and deeper relationships with clients and peers. And we will no longer have to look at our own faces so much via our webcams.

For a while now there has been a lot of talk about the events calendar being over crowded with third party and provider events.  And Q3/4 2020 presents a challenging period for the events industry as postponed spring events bump into established autumn events.  We can expect a lot of consolidation over the next 12-18 months as people become more circumspect with their time and look to travel less.  However, the other side to this is those events that have pedigree in delivering quality audiences, engagement and content, but also deliver tangible benefits will thrive in this new world.  The big change going forward will be that people will expect to be able watch keynotes online at their leisure or dial into roundtables if they still have travel restrictions in place.  We will need to learn how to interact virtually and in-person at the same time, which brings with in new challenges in itself.

Plus, there are big challenges still to be overcome before we rely too heavily on virtual events.  We have all experienced bandwidth issues of sorts having to deal with frozen screens and decrypting broken messages whilst working at home.  The arrival of 5G will go a long way to solving this, but that is still a few years away.  And with everyone moving virtual, how do you stand out from the crowd and build better follow-up opportunities with participants? This is an area we can certainly help.

It’s not rocket science!  Don’t re-invent the wheel, but try to make the most of the tools at your disposal

I draw lots of similarities with the debates we have had over the years about the disruptive impact that robo-advice has and will have on the IFA sector.  Without doubt there is a place for robo-advice but the reality is that a hybrid approach is the way forward and that is no different for events. 

Ultimately, we believe there is a place for webinars, virtual events and in-person events.  It is about creating a hybrid portfolio of engagement.  The events industry is going to have to catch up with redesigning a new omni-channel experience, as the wider FS industry has been grappling with for a while now.

Certain platforms suit different types of engagement.  Webinars and podcasts will always be a great for imparting knowledge and insights to the many.  Virtual Meetings will continue to be great for communities to strategise with each other and share best/worst practice.  But in-person events still remain the best platform to network and influence key clients and peers.

“Intermediaries are increasingly shying away from short-term, tactical product pushing towards deeper, strategic partnerships as they build out their centralised, vertically integrated proposition”

So how can Owen James help?

An event – whether virtual or in-person – is a bit like a heartbeat.  If run in isolation you take the risk of having no engagement in the run up to the event and then experiencing that awkward tumbleweed moment when you follow up afterwards.  At Owen James we have always prided ourselves on building effective campaigns to ensure you maximise the ROI from any event and put you in front of the right people. 

Whether you are looking to build your own event; plug into one of our existing communities; or simply build some content to attract attention, we would love to help. 

Some final words…

Whilst this period without doubt is difficult for all of us in different ways, it does offer us an amazing opportunity to slow down and reflect on what the new world will look like. To remind ourselves of the things that are important to us and appreciate the simple things in life.  To reconnect with family and friends in ways we would never have imagined.  As businesses (and individuals) we will need to finding ways to make our statements about purpose and engagement a reality, as we will all be counted once the dust settles.  So let’s seize this opportunity to start thinking about the role we can play in building a better future, and I hope Owen James’ in-person or virtual events can serve as a catalyst for that change to happen.

One parting piece of wisdom for you… if you are looking for advice on how best to present yourself in the plethora of video calls, then look no further than this video...