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Before the pandemic hit in 2020, the events industry was a well-oiled machine. Virtual and hybrid events were nowhere near as common. While every big event already had its own event app, event app design was something only a few businesses dealt with. Then came March 2020, and with it, huge changes. Event technology is no longer just one aspect of an event. It’s the very heart of hybrid and virtual events!

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No wonder our hosts believe that it feels as if we’ve time-traveled all the way to 2030 in the last 10 months as far as technology goes. Today’s Event Tech Podcast episode tackles it all: the changes in the world of event tech, hybrid events, awesome event app design advice for increased engagement, and speculations about the future. Will and Brandt are passionate techies, so they know it all!

From 2020 To 2030 In 10 Months

“I think we’ve done more in the last 10 months than we have in the last 10 years, as far as advancing the technology,” is Brandt’s opening statement. “This industry has been so focused on in-person experience. The online experience could never replace that. They haven’t spent a lot of energy on online events until they had to. Now, all of a sudden, they’re putting a lot of energy into online events and that’s really the catalyst. What’s fascinating to me is that during this last decade, none of the fundamentals of how to do it well have changed. The technology, however, is what’s changed. The ability to produce these events anywhere in the world relatively easily.”

Things started changing in March 2020 when many companies lost their in-person business. As they were forced to enter a completely new market, two types of production companies emerged. “The ones that got in front of it started making connections to platforms handling it for their clients. Unfortunately, that left 50% of planners to do it on their own because their production companies weren’t doing it. That left a lot of planners out there left holding the bag when it came to production of their online events. They had to find their own platforms, which they knew nothing about. Now all of a sudden, instead of four, there’s 200 of them,” explains Brandt. Things have changed a lot since the last time our hosts talked about event app platforms!

Brandt continues: “You’ve got planners fiddling with tech that hadn’t previously been doing. You’ve got production companies trying to help their clients figure this stuff out either because they’d done some of it before or not. It’s a massive disruption. These things really accelerated the growth over the last 10 years.” Will agrees. “Competition breeds so much innovation too, and then also take huge amounts of pain. And that also creates a lot of potential in advancements in technology.”

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The Rapid Evolution Of Event App Design

The events industry advanced at lightning speed, especially when it comes to event apps. “Pretty much every major conference had its own event app as we were moving into 2020,” says Brandt. After the pandemic hit, virtual event platforms essentially started replacing venues.

The next step in the rapid evolution of event app design was all the mergers and acquisitions. “Looking at the microcosm of this last 10 months, we went from four incumbents to several hundred upstarts, each with their own 20% difference of that 80% of video chat that is going to be the same,” says Brandt.

Will provides some examples. “Hopin bought StreamYard. Swapcard bought attendee registration system, and Slido got bought by Cisco.” He continues: “The mergers situation is going to be very  interesting. I’m also curious to see what is going to happen to those incumbents. Are they going to still be around and are they going to have to start shrinking the size? DoubleDutch was huge. They were the ones that if you needed a custom app, they did it. They had offices everywhere and then slowly got smaller and smaller. Then, acquisition and now, they’re gone.”

Who Won & Who Stayed Behind

So, what features should we look for in virtual event platforms? “The platforms that I’ve been the most drawn to clearly have people that came from live events and understand designing experiences and customer service. Planners have enough on their minds to be willing to pay to have someone take care of the technology,” says Brandt. “That’s what was so fascinating about early 2020. Technology was dumped in their lap hard. The platforms that are doing well are the ones that said: ‘Hey, we got you. Don’t worry about it. You just send over the information’. The ones that made things difficult were only used once and then, the planners moved on.”

Great Event App Design Makes All The Difference

Will believes it’s crucially important to design the technology with the participant’s experience in mind. “Technology used to mean how well was the event app branded and whether it worked when the Wi-Fi was down. Now, your whole journey through the event is through technology. It’s this idea of strategy and design execution that really has to be thought about too. There are now many more conversations happening around experience design rather than just the technology itself.”

New is not always better when it comes to event app design, though. “I’d rather see old technology used than the new technology used just because it’s new,” adds Brandt. “I get asked all the time: ‘What can I use for gamification? How do I increase my engagement? What platform can I use?’ I can answer those questions. But for the most part, you have to design engagement, interactivity, and communications. It’s not something that you can just throw an app at and it’ll happen. That was always when event apps would fail. They would pay $10,000 for an app and then, they’d never promote it. Where we would see 80-90% success ratio on downloads is the folks who used it in every marketing piece.”

GameStop knows how to design an amazing event app: “They would pre-populate the event app with their movers and shakers. They would reach out to their influencers in advance and start the chatter in the forums ahead of time. When people download the app, it’s already going. It’s not just a ghost town with tumbleweeds rolling through it. You want this thing rocking and rolling by the time the rest of the attendees download the app and start participating.”

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Event App Design: What Does The Future Hold?

“Things are going to slow down now that we’re through the initial push. We’re not getting out of this anytime soon, though,” says Brandt. “There’s still going to be a lot in the online world. Then, we’ll slowly move into hybrid world and then get back to some exclusively online or exclusively in-person events. Even when we get back to ‘normal’, the distribution of online events versus in-person events versus hybrid events is going to be redistributed. There will be more online-only events. There will be more hybrid events and there will probably be less in-person events.”

Can Apps Substitute In-Person Connection?

Will believes that the evolution should tackle the question of hybrid audience engagement. “How do you connect online and in-person people together and not make it awkward? One’s having a potentially completely different experience than the other. I think that’s the next huge advancement: hybrid is going to really kick down the door. I’m curious to see if that’s going to get solved before hybrid comes back. I don’t think so because some of these development times have been really slow. Some are just barely figuring out one-to-one video chat. But I do think that the second that people start doing hybrid, that’s what everyone will be craving for. We got the chat, but how do I develop seriously deep relationships?”

Brandt provides concrete solutions. “Whatever event app you’re using for Q&A and polling, it has to be the same for the in-person crowd as it is for the online crowd. That way, they’re seeing the same upvotes. There’s great platforms that let you do that, like SlideShare. The person who’s remote can see the slides that are presented in-person, comment on them, take notes up, and vote questions. You can’t just throw apps out. You have to design that functionality, design, and connection. Hire that moderator who is going to be the in-person voice of the online audience and give the online audience things that are just for them.”

Speculations For 2040: VR Will Finally Take Over

Brandt and Will finish up the conversation by wondering what the next “once in a lifetime disruption to the industry” is going to bring. They’ve lived through quite a few of those by now! In the world of events, 2020 brought about a major shift from in-person to virtual events. Technology-wise, we fast-forwarded to 2030: the event app design now matters more than ever. What about 2040?

Will hopes that South by Southwest (SXSW) and C2 Montréal soon implement a VR platform. “The leading factor with VR will be headset adoption, and then a couple of big shows having an all-VR component of it. I don’t think I’ve formally attended an event in VR yet, but I’ve done VR chat and games.”

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Anja Grcar

Author Anja Grcar

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