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  • Gina Michnowicz

Virtual Events: Flat Screens Don’t Have to Mean Flat Experiences

Found yourself attending a lot of virtual events lately? I have, and I’m seeing how dramatically different the experiences can be from one event to the next.

The early pivots from in-person events were primarily Zoom meetings with a splash page. They weren’t exactly full of the special moments an event needs to draw attendees in and keep them engaged, although I do give marketers credit for making these shifts so quickly. They didn’t cancel their events, and they tried to reach their audiences.

But now it’s time to move past the Zoom meeting-style event. (The video meeting fatigue is real!) You need to truly embrace digital and all it can offer. At a minimum, research platforms and think about how to surprise and delight your attendees.

Before you start planning, it’s worth checking out what other brands are doing, looking for what works—and what doesn’t. I recently attended three events that stood out to me for various reasons: Adobe Max, Fast Company Innovation Festival, and Lions Live. While both the Adobe and Fast Company events kept me coming back for more, Adobe Max was clearly the better overall experience. And sadly, the Lions event didn’t bring much of a roar for me. Here’s why.

The Content

The Innovation Festival and Adobe Max content was top-notch. It was both diverse and relevant while steering clear of being redundant. They had fantastic speakers that drew me in and inspired me to think differently. Who wouldn’t love hearing from Chip and Joanna Gaines on their growing business or Paltrow on her lifestyle brand, Goop? I even found myself quoting some of the speakers. I could also easily enjoy the content because it was a snap to find in the platforms.

While I loved Cannes Lions’ content in the past, its virtual content just didn’t translate for me.

The Virtual Experience

The branding for Adobe Max was engaging and artistic, right on brand. Coupled with the great speakers and solid platform, it made me want to return. Adobe also thought of details that made for a huge difference in the experience. For example, they shot the interview-style videos at an angle, making it feel like you were there in person. This was an absolutely brilliant move, removing that flat feeling you can get from most digital events.

The Innovation Festival was a mixed bag. Panel sessions showed all the speakers at one time, which made it engaging. (When the video focuses on one speaker at a time, it doesn’t feel like a panel for either the speakers or attendees.) However, the experience overall felt flatter than Adobe’s, and its platform was unstable, leading to difficulties hearing the speakers and glitches where they lost sound.

The festival also had an innovation garden, which was a nice concept and generally well thought out, but I felt intimidated by strangers entering the space when I was adding ideas. It would have been beneficial for them to think about how to gather ideas from a range of types of people—from people who love to throw ideas out in front of strangers to those who may want a bit more connection before engaging.

Unfortunately, the Cannes digital experience was flat and felt more like watching an on-demand webinar.

Surprises and Inspiration

The in-person Cannes Lions events have amazing, inspiring entertainment and pop-up activations. The digital version didn’t. I don’t know if they had a more limited budget or if it just didn’t seem possible when they were planning it—but it’s definitely possible, as Adobe and Fast Company showed.

Adobe Max had surprise artists play in between sessions and also held a concert. Both made for nice breaks in the agenda. However, the artist who stood out to me from these events wasn’t a famous musician but rather a spoken-word poet, Shanelle Gabriel. Similar to how she appeared on stage last year at the European Innovation Festival as an interlude between panels, at the 2020 Innovation Festival she’d pop in between virtual sessions, reading a poem written on the spot that tied to the previous session content. She even sang. Her performances were magical, and she made me stay for more.


Marketers, it’s time to step up to the challenge. Move away from the standard experience. Embrace digital and make your virtual events shine just as much as you would for in-person. I know it’s hard work, but it’s worthwhile. One bonus? Memorable digital moments can be easily shared and kept working for you. (And there are several other benefits of virtual events too!)

Need additional guidance? I recently wrote a post with five tips to make your virtual event a hit. And of course, if you’d like more help, we’d love to provide our expertise. We recently partnered with cred, an incredible event communications agency, bringing you even deeper experience in virtual events. Just get in touch.


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