Is an "online event" an oxymoron?

COVID-19 upended human interaction in 2020. Most if not all in-person events scheduled after COVID-19 took hold in North American were cancelled. As the world grappled with the deadly disease, technologists tinkered with platforms that augmented in-person experiences.

In his June 2020 post titled Solving Online Events, Benedict Evans says, “No-one has ever really managed to take a networking event and put it online.” In his usual clinical way, Evans lays out a framework to understand the product-market fit dilemma. First, we must understand the benefit of the displaced technology. Despite being costly and time consuming, events endure because they foster serendipity and facilitate encounters that may lead to new business opportunities or ideas for the attendees. Further, attendees are centralized in one place so everyone can get a lot of business done all at once.

To summarize the key points of the post:

  • Most people attend events for the serendipity of meeting people & having everyone in the same place. Conferences make for an efficient way of doing business. Taking the content & pushing it online is easy, but creating the special, serendipitous moments online is an unmet need.

  • Physical events are time-bound. Essentially, a catalyst for all of the benefits of attending an event. Evans explains how you could attempt to re-create CES, “You can probably convert those scheduled meetings in hotel rooms to video calls - but if you’re going to do a video call, it doesn’t matter where you are or when it is.” While you can build online networking and collaboration software tools, it’s hard to productize a tool that captures the magic of an annual event.

  • Online event platforms look like the virtual malls of the 1990s. “Going online breaks the bundle, and conferences will be the same.” In other words, one cannot pick up one business model and drop it into a different format. Today, ecommerce is driven by a long-tail of diverse brands: cooky, cool, utilitarian, mom & pop. The coolest items purchased online aren’t coming from a “Hot Topic.” We don’t visit an online mall for as we would in real life. The same may be true for the online event model. Evans is doubtful that one platform can effectively reproduce an event online.

In my opinion, events are also an important shared experience that can bond disparate groups of customers and vendors together. Online events shouldn’t even wield the term “event” as they are nothing of the sort. As Evans posits, events may return, albeit in a reduced capacity format, which could reduce demand for these tools. I’m almost certain that there will not be a product that can recreate the magic of a day-long company gathering or an inspiring conference. Nonetheless, the limitations and possibilities for online events are important to discuss as COVID-19 accelerated the trend towards remote and distributed work.

Evan takes an anthropological oriented perspective when attempting to layout the future possibilities. I find that his frameworks are instructive, even for technologies where the writing is written on the wall (ahem, VR).

Another take on bridging the physical to virtual divide:

-a16z podcast: Remote Work and Our New Reality

As you can imagine, a16z is bullish on tools that bridge the vast chasm between physical and virtual:

  • Mentions Tandem (?) - an app that attempts to replicate real time “water cooler” style conversations online. Note how this is being described as a stand-alone app, proving the point of Evans

Discuss virtual events @ 5 minutes:

  • Networking at events can be inefficient and awkward and are biased towards extroverts. Online platforms can serve up information on participants and facilitate efficient matching.Further, online events are much more accessible to introverts & those with no to low budgets.

Before listening to this podcast, I was bearish on virtual events. However, the speakers provide compelling benefits for online events and I do believe there is a market for these tools, but it is hard to imagine a world where online events replicate live events.

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