Last week, I attended the AMA virtual event, “Unveiling Marketing Research’s Future Online”. I was very excited to see just what this virtual event would be all about. Mentally, I was trying to marry the idea of a Webinar with the experience of a live event and was left wondering what the union would look like. On Wednesday, I logged in and was prepared for technical difficulties but, surprisingly, I connected without a single hitch! I immediately began to explore, trying to acclimate myself to my virtual surroundings. The environment was easy to understand and navigate. Areas were clearly marked so you knew exactly what was going on where and when. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Overall, I found a great balance between content and exhibitors and enjoyed the ability to listen to a session while also perusing the materials in the exhibition hall — yes, I admit, I was event-multitasking!

The topic of the future of market research (MR) is obviously a big draw, and sessions like those on DIY research and social media research in the B2B sphere could create quite a lot of chatter. But I think the virtual nature of the event itself is a topic to be discussed. Is this the future of events in general? Will networking over evening cocktails be a thing of the past? Will we simply know each other by our avatars? Here’s my take (the good and the bad). For me, virtual events:

  • Create opportunities to learn. For many departments, travel and conference budgets are still on the slim side after being cut during the recession. Events were one of the earliest- and hardest-hit areas for cutbacks. Free virtual events allow people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend events to sit front and center. These individuals not only get to learn all sorts of interesting things but also bring new voices to the MR conversation, which can be dominated by the “regulars.”
  • Facilitate the introverted nature of many MR professionals. Let’s face it, many MR professionals feel more comfortable with numbers than with a large group of people they don’t know. Virtual events allow the introverts among us to network from the safety of their cubicle or office. Similarly, individuals who may not be able to present in front of a large room of people may feel much more comfortable presenting a Web conference with a live audience of just one — themselves.
  • Allow attendees to multitask. For me, this is a pro and a con. The reality is that we’re all extremely busy. We all know the stress that the state of your inbox can cause at the end of a long conference day. The virtual events allow you to work on other materials simultaneously, focusing on the key sessions that you want to hear while also allowing you to carry on your routine daily tasks. For attendees, it’s seemingly a win-win situation: You get great new information and haven’t lost days of productivity. However, attendees also lose the ability to fully immerse themselves in a given topic for a few days when they have a project they’re working on on the side. For presenters and conference coordinators, it leaves you wondering just how much of your attendees’ mindshare you really have at any given point.
  • Stifle the personal aspect of events. The great thing about conferences and events is that they bring people together who wouldn’t necessarily be in the same room otherwise. While this can still occur in the virtual space, it’s not quite the same. At last year’s TMRE, for example, some great conversations were sparked after a presentation on online panel quality. Vendors and buyers batted back and forth in a way that would never happen otherwise. Similarly, the great “tweet-off” that occurred at last week’s event probably could have extended well past the end of the session with a group of interested participants that would have been in the room at a live event.

Overall, I think the virtual event was a great success. The feedback that I saw on the chat wall in the auditorium was overwhelmingly positive. I also think that these virtual events are a great addition to the MR conference schedule and offer unique opportunities for us to learn new content and connect with each other virtually. But, I think the mainstay MR events aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. After all, we do need to leave our cubicles and talk with each other in real time at some point! Until then, however, I still look forward to chatting with your virtual selves through the blog and Twitter!