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The new landscape of online conferences

How conference events are switching to online, how their economics work and what tools to they use

Almas Abulkhairov

Will events ever go back to offline?

TED, Google I/O, IBM Think, and Milan’s Salone di Mobile are just some of the significant annual gatherings scheduled for this time. Under normal circumstances, many of us would be polishing pitches, confirming travel logistics, and packing business cards for professional meetings.

The current pandemic caused most (if not all) major offline conferences to be canceled until the situation is under control. Many events foiled by Covid-19 are on a dedicated Wikipedia page.

For example, enterprise software conferences such as VMWare or Salesforce — are big business in the event industry. It’s driving vast networking between enterprises and driving millions of dollars in sales between attendees during events. According to a recent case study by The Bridge Group, 36% of sales pipeline by Account Executives in SaaS companies are from marketing, another 64% from their outbound efforts. Business conferences are large such channels of prospecting potential customers. Despite the cancellations of the events, life still goes on, and businesses need to sell their products & services.

According to our research, around 50–70% of conferences in the US have been canceled. Meanwhile, the remaining 30% are considering solutions to switch to online.

What tools do they use?

Conference economics

Most business conferences earn money through sponsorships and various premiums. They attract hundreds to thousands of attendees for an average of two to three days, sometimes ranging up to five days.

We’ve researched dozens of professional conference organizers across the USA and Europe. And here’s what we found:

  • The average sponsorship fee is $5,000 and more. Usually, the conference has several sponsors up to a few dozen various levels (Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze). Sponsors establish in average 50% of conferences revenue
  • Another revenue source is selling tickets to attendees
  • In the offline conference world, you can often meet KPIs from venues (such as hotels or conference halls) — to attract at least given amount of hotel bookings that cover part of venue rental costs for conference organizers (up to 50% of expenses)
  • Another massive budget eater is food & drinks — on average 30–40%
  • Conference collateral & team amount to around 10% of conference expenses on average

In the online conferencing world that has emerged in the last two months (it’s the end of May 2020 at the time of writing this article), conference organizers struggle to solve the following issues:

  • Justify ticket prices for attendees for an online event (it’s harder for people now to perceive online conference value vs. attending the offline one with gifts, drinks and real people
  • Justify reasons for sponsors to back the event
  • Attract an audience (the most straightforward task of these three because of SMM & online marketing)

Reasons to attend

There are two main reasons to attend a conference that both attendees and event organizers shared with us:

  • Networking (the real main reason) — gain new business connections, attract new sales prospects, find a new job, find a unique solution to improve one’s business and more
  • Content — keynotes, shows, presentations. It’s the main attractor for attendees, however not the main reason (networking)
  • But there’s a third reason ?(a secretive one) — conferences give some people new motivation & energy to start their new endeavors: start a new business, or find a unique job opportunity

Zoom, Whereby, or Discord video networking at massive online events appeared to be not the best solution to solve marketing issues (according to our customer survey). However, networking is the main reason to attend the event for people — then how to solve it better?

Solution examples

To meet updated the demands of a new kind of online conference experience, several new services have been created or upgraded from offline solutions in the past couple of months:

  1. SpatialChat — a new product by FunCorp founders (creators of popular UGC services like iFunny, ABPV, and WHLSM) to solve casual networking & afterparty of any online event. The mechanics of the service allows us to simulate the real-life experience of indifferent people interactions during informal cocktail parties: people appear as circles with their cameras turn on, and the closer one gets to another person — the better they hear each other. This way allows people to quickly switch context going between different people groups discussing different things — without having to find another Zoom meeting room, reopening browser tab, and more. They also allow hosting events of any size — event for 10,000 concurrent attendees online without audio/video quality issues.
SpatialChat Enterprise version — for online conferences, corporate all-hands meetings and cocktail parties of any size

2. Pine — an online conference platform that can host attendees, keynote streams, random networking, conference schedule, online booths, and more. For example, casual networking allows people to meet each other in a random Chatroulette-style fashion and matching people based on their tags (attendees can show their interests such as Business Development, Marketing, Legal, Software Development, PR, etc.). This is more fun, more accessible, and more efficient than real-life experience — where one has to take courage to approach a person, identify who they are, where they’re from, and how they can benefit each other. In the online event, one can easily find and talk only to people of their particular business interest — from the comfort of their home.

Pine is an online event infrastructure to hold events, stream keynotes, networking and much more

Pine’s Random Networking feature for conference attendees

These are examples of new and quickly growing services. However, there are more, including Hopin, vFairs, Meet2Match, Brella & others. They hold hundreds if not thousands of people-hours of audience attention, which is a more efficient brand awareness instrument for online conference sponsors than a printed offline stand at a fair while giving a lot of networking value to attendees. And thanks to such tools — event organizers can justify conference ticket costs and sponsorship costs for measurable attention gained during an event.

The Future

We believe that in a post-COVID19 world majority of events will be either online-only and hybrid (offline + online). There will not be many offline-only events because:

  • during this time people will understand online networking value and efficiency
  • it’s much safer than offline — conferences attract hundreds if not thousands of attendees in one place, which as a perfect environment for spreading any possible dangerous diseases
  • people won’t have to spend money on flying abroad, booking hotels and spending their energy on being tired post-flight

Some even say, that offline-only events for less than 500 attendees will transition to online-only, because of a much more convenient & efficient networking instead of going through offline conference, reading through people badges, etc.

An online event is a convenient and measurable environment to get people engaged from the comfort of their homes.

Welcome to the post-pandemic future for conferences!

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