The State of Virtual Events: New Tagoras Report Offers Data and Insight

Written by Celisa Steele & Jeff Cobb on October 25, 2018

At Tagoras, we support leaders and hands-on practitioners who want to improve the reach, revenue, and impact of their learning business. One way we provide that support is through a range of free resources, and we’re pleased to share our latest original research: The Virtual Events Report.

Drawing on new data from 215 organizations, this report continues the work of three prior Tagoras reports (Association Virtual Events 2014, Association Virtual Events 2012, and Association Virtual Conferences 2011) and broadens the scope—this year’s respondents include not only those working for membership organizations but those working for any organization that might be a candidate for offering a virtual event, regardless of whether they have offered one. Respondents represent charitable and philanthropic organizations, trade associations, professional societies, educational institutions, for-profit corporations, and other types of organizations.

The broadening of the scope reflects our conviction that learning businesses can share and learn from one another across a wide range of topics, from strategy and high-level goals to specific operational choices around virtual events, even if they are structured differently.

Because “virtual event” can mean different things to different people, we offered the following definition at the beginning of the survey to normalize responses:

A virtual event is a Web-based event that replicates many aspects of a traditional place-based conference, membership meeting, or trade show. It may take place on a standalone basis or in conjunction with a place-based conference (i.e., a “hybrid” event).

Virtual events feature multiple sessions (not just a single Webinar or Webcast) and may include keynote presentations, training and education workshops, discussion areas, social networking opportunities, exhibit areas for vendors, and various other features. Activities at a virtual event may take place in real time (synchronously), on demand (asynchronously), or some combination of the two.

Virtual Events on the Rise

Using that definition, 43.7 percent of respondents indicate that their organization has previously offered a virtual event. Another 24.7 percent indicate they plan to offer a virtual event in the coming 12 months, putting us on the cusp of virtual events being offered by a majority of organizations.

Compared to our previous surveys, this represents a significant uptick in virtual events. In the data we collected for Association Virtual Conferences 2011, only 18.8 percent of respondents had offered a virtual event compared to this year’s 43.7 percent. Some of the uptick may be attributable to the broadened scope of organizations qualified to participate in this year’s survey, but if we look only at data from participating trade associations and professional societies across the years, the data still shows growing adoption. In the data we collected for Association Virtual Conferences 2011, 19 percent of responding trade associations and professional societies had previously held a virtual event; this year 41.8 percent of trade associations and professional societies report having held a virtual event.

The Desire to Expand Reach

“To reach customers or members who could not otherwise attend place-based events,” cited by 81.6 percent of respondents, is the primary reason organizations have held a virtual event.

“To be perceived as embracing cutting-edge approaches to serving customers or members” (59.8 percent) and “to support an overall strategy to deliver more services online” (55.2 percent) come second and third, and are the only other reasons selected by a majority of respondents.

These motivations reflect necessity—organizations see a need to provide more options as travel budgets are trimmed and time becomes an increasingly precious commodity for customers and members—but they also reflect a willingness to experiment. Organizations are embracing virtual events even before their customers and members ask for them, and they’re doing so as part of an overall strategy built on online service.

A third (32.8 percent) of organizations that haven’t yet offered a virtual event and without plans to offer one in the coming year see one or more significant barriers to offering a virtual event.

Top Barriers: Complexity of Technology, Cost, and Attendance

Cited by 76.2 percent, complexity of the technology tops the list of barriers. And this concern is not without foundation, as the technology market for virtual events is fragmented. In the survey, we asked which technologies respondents have used to deliver their virtual events, and, of 19 named providers and platforms, only four have been used by more than a tenth of respondents. Almost a third of respondents chose the catch-all “other” option—and there are no duplicates among the provider and platform names entered by those respondents. With such a fragmented field, it does take work for organizations to find the right partner and platform.

But it’s worth noting, as a counterpoint, that 86.8 percent of respondents who have held a virtual event describe themselves as very or somewhat satisfied with the ease of use of the technology.

Costs and concerns they won’t achieve the hoped-for level of attendance are each cited by 52.4 percent as a reason they’re yet to have plans to offer a virtual event.

Again, as counterpoints, 71.8 percent of those who have held a virtual event describe themselves as very or somewhat satisfied with the cost of the technology, 67.6 percent characterize themselves as very or somewhat satisfied with the revenue generated by the virtual event, and 78.8 percent report that registrations either met or exceeded expectations. Many organizations that have jumped in and tried a virtual event haven’t bumped up against the perceived barriers feared by those who are yet to try a virtual event.

As the data points above reflect, the report looks at both why organizations choose to steer clear of virtual events and why they offer them. We also get into the nitty-gritty with the respondents who have offered a virtual event before, exploring questions about what they’ve offered and the outcomes they’ve seen:

A Focus on Whys, Whats, and Hows

What we’ve shared here is only a small sampling of the topics and data covered in The Virtual Events Report, where we provide the full survey results and comment on the implications to organizations in the business of lifelong learning, professional development, and continuing education.

  • What elements (live or on-demand Webcasts, discussion boards, archives, etc.) do they include in their virtual events?
  • Which technology platforms are they using to deliver their virtual events?
  • What are the financial goals for their virtual events, and how do they generate revenue from virtual events? From registration alone, or does sponsorship play a part?
  • How successful overall are they with their virtual events? How satisfied are they with revenue, the cost of technology, ease of use, attendance, and feedback?
  • What lessons have they learned from their virtual event experience to date?

More Data and Insight in the Full Report

Whether you’re a decision-maker who wants leading-edge insight to support your strategic planning for virtual events or a practitioner who wants benchmarking data about how other organizations are approaching the nuts and bolts of virtual events, we believe The Virtual Events Report will prove to be an invaluable resource.