DNC Lessons Learned: A Virtual Event Can Be Better Than a Physical One

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The DNC (Democratic National Convention) this week showcased that under certain circumstances, a virtual event can be better than the physical event it replaced. It was a showcase of best practices and things that likely should be done differently next time. Given we often have trouble learning from others’ experiences, I thought I’d walk through what worked and what didn’t. Recognizing that until there is a viable vaccine that has been used enough to create immunity at a Nation-State level, we are unlikely to go back to physical events.

If events like CES can learn from what the DNC just did, it could be better than the in-person event we’ve come to love to hate, and vendor events could potentially reach more people and drive more business than ever before.

Let’s talk about that this week. 

The DNC: When Virtual Can Be Better Than Physical

As an analyst, I go to a lot of events. Still, the larger the event, the less engagement there seems to be, the more likely I’m going to come home with an unwanted illness, and I often have been left feeling the firm putting the event on just wasted a ton of money on a very low-yield sales practice.

What the DNC showcased is that when events get very large and particularly when the content needs to go to people that either can’t or won’t travel, virtual works better than physical for events if they are done right, and there were many things with the DNC that were done very well.

First, they used a service that could handle the load. Currently, most collaborative platforms run out of capacity at around 10K people. Now you would think that would be adequate for most events, but huge events like CES often exceed ten times that and major vendor events 3 or 4 times that number. Besides, even if you could find a service that would handle CES’s large volume, because they require travel I would argue that even at that number, were the event to go on-line, it would set attendance records. 

The DNC used YouTube, which is capable of streaming to far higher numbers, but that service lacks collaborative features, which we’ll get to in the next section.

The speaking duration was kept short, often between a minute to a minute and a half. This brevity kept things moving, and people engaged with the content. A typical rule of thumb is no more than 15 minutes for a given speaker because attention tends to drop off a cliff after that. People have too many local distractions to, as a group, sit through a talk that is over 30 minutes, so the shorter, the better, and the DNC talks were mostly very short and generally below the 15-minute threshold.

They used actors as primary hosts. Working in front of a camera requires skills, and those skills were on display during the event. Actors know how to rehearse, they know how to use promoters without looking like it, and they come across as natural and sincere – all critical to accomplishing a goal of moving or holding hearts and minds. They can also help with the format, pacing, staging, and rehearsal for the other speakers, all critical to assuring a strong event. I’ve had four years of acting training, and it has been invaluable over the years when I did my events.

They went on location for remote shots rather than remote studios in many cases. This use of impressive scenery is something you can do with a streamed event that doesn’t work well at a physical event. Particularly when the DNC called for votes, in most of the shots, you got a sense of the state voting, and it added a lot of depth and interest to what otherwise would have likely been boring.

Finally, with one exception, everyone seemed adequately rehearsed and appeared competent on camera. Often executives want to wing an event, and winging an event can reflect poorly on an underprepared speaker at a huge event. The beautiful thing about a streamed event is that if you have someone that needs a lot of help, you can pre-tape their comments. This practice allows them to do retakes until their presentation is the right balance between competent execution and sincerity.

What Could Have Been Done Better

The initial opening of the second-day event had a controversial politician endorsing the challenger to the presumptive nominee. While it was common practice because few have been to or watched a full conference, it looked like a rebellion, and both Democratic members and Republican opponents jumped on that as if it was. It wasn’t an act of rebellion. Merely explaining the process right before the endorsement and again after (for those that might have connected during the announcement) would have mitigated that outcome.

I’d lay odds that the event organizers had people designated as focus groups watching and capturing their feelings during the event because that is common at physical venues. But they missed an opportunity to use the majority of attendees by setting up discussion groups on social media that could have monitored for tone, used to address any questions or confusion, by the massive collective number of people directly connected to the campaign. Social Media allows you to collaborate on a national scale, and while they can still mine social media, without upfront rigor to assure who is responding, the risk of data corruption at the source was likely unacceptably high. I’ve been on Zoom calls that exceeded 10K people, and moderating questions on that platform at that size can be insane if you think about it – if only 10% ask a question that is still 1,000 questions. You’d be lucky to get through 30 on a typical call, making the informed use of Social Media the only current tool that could handle this scale.

Data on those that support, or buy from, are incredibly valuable. By not directly engaging and capturing what worked and what didn’t at a national scale, the DNC missed a huge opportunity to refine and target their messaging regionally and individually, which should lower both their voter and their contributor numbers.

Now had the DNC truly wanted to use the power of technology. They could have had a large number of Zoom conferences, each receiving the streamed content but with moderators who could respond to questions at a rate consistent with the Zoom room size. They’d have likely had to cut an exclusive deal with Zoom, Cisco, Google, or Microsoft (or all 4), but the result could have been far more direct engagement with the people who were watching the event. Even an app that allowed people to thumbs up or down during the event would have helped keep people focused on participating.

Finally, it wasn’t clear initially where to go to get the link for the DNC stream on the first day. Even I couldn’t find it, YouTube highlighted it on the second day, but there should have been a large mailing with the link so that people could stream from the source. Also, some instructions on how to stream to your TV would have been helpful because most stream to their PCs or personal device, but the event was better viewed on a large screen. Almost every current-generation smart TV can stream from YouTube, and many set-top boxes have this feature as well, but instructions on how to do that would have shifted people from the networks (who were providing analysis while muting the speakers) to the unfiltered stream. You can’t convey a message if a news service is intercepting and changing that message.

Wrapping Up: Moving All Events Permanently Virtual

The DNC live stream showed that it actually might be possible to move most actual significant events virtual and have far better reach than in a physical event. But, unless you address engagement, you likely won’t see the close rates you might otherwise get from a physical event. With some modifications, though, like breaking out the event into moderated sup-groups and more aggressively using social media, you should be able to improve engagement and sales significantly.

One observation: as I was finishing this up Kamala Harris was finishing her keynote, and the applause, while delayed (they were having some timing issues when they switched venues) sounded natural and robust, suggesting they had addressed what had previously sounded like a handful of people clapping in a small room. Applaus is critical to speaker energy and you see this most often on live comedy and late-night entertainment shows; they seem flat without the applause. It may take a few tries, but I just saw a bunch of people applauding from across the nation, and they sounded like they were in the room.

It certainly seems possible that we could do a virtual event that has far higher sales and vote yield than a physical event can if only because it can reach several magnitudes more people for a lower cost. You have to think through engagement, and we do have tools for that.

Rob Enderle has been a TechnologyAdvice columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an AS, BS, and MBA in merchandising, human resources, marketing, and computer science. Enderle is currently president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly worked at IBM and served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester.

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