Words by Michaila Byrne
If you’ve attended a virtual congress in the last 6 months, you know the drill by now; find your login details, create your avatar, then wander around the video game-like virtual reality replica of your annual symposium from the comfort of your own home. By all accounts, and given the circumstances, virtual congresses have been a well-received alternative and the debate regarding their permanent adoption continues. But as virtual events evolve out of their infancy stages, we wonder, what will the optimal formula for hosting a successful virtual event be moving forward?
“At the beginning it was all about Zoom and Teams; it was new for most and exciting. Now with over 400 million users, businesses are looking for better produced, more engaging, immersive experiences that will help them stand out from the crowd,” says John Saunders, Founder and CEO, The Virtual Event Company. Our initial trepidations are now a thing of the past as we embrace the cost saving and ecological benefits that come with virtual events; our wallets are fuller, and our consciences are clearer. The dissemination of vital information is not only continuing, but flourishing, even reaching wider audiences than before. “Over the past 6 months we have seen that healthcare professional attendance is generally higher at virtual congresses,” confirms Lucy Church, Senior Project Manager, WRG Live.
Businesses are looking for better produced, more engaging, immersive experiences that will help them stand out from the crowd
But virtual events have thrown up their own unique set of challenges, namely the risk of overwhelming and exhausting healthcare professionals and the challenge of replicating those chance corridor conversations that typically take place at face-to-face events. “While at congress, the opportunity for industry to interact both 1:1 with HCPs and in meetings such as advisory boards has decreased,” says Church. Continuing: “But the challenge lies in the functionality of some platforms, particularly in the user experience on the industry ‘exhibit’ side. Many organisers use different platforms, and all come with limitations to having meaningful interactions with HCPs.” The exchange of ideas and building of relationships is a crucial aspect of event attendance that needs to be addressed. Gonzalo de Miquel, MD, Vice President Global Medical Affairs Respiratory & Immunology, AstraZeneca, comments: “One of the main purposes of conferences with higher value is precisely the chance of meeting and socialising, and so far virtual events do not provide the opportunity to interact in the same way that in-person events do.”
So far virtual events do not provide the opportunity to interact in the same way that in-person events do
At congresses, content is always king, but shopping for the right technology should become a top priority; an expense worth the investment if you want to hold an audience’s collective attention span. As Lamia Achour, Global Medical Scientific Communications Team Lead, Sanofi, advises: “Choose the right technology because if HCPs do not have a positive experience, you may lose their interest, even if the scientific agenda is very attractive.” Gonzalo similarly predicts: “I’m pretty sure that we will see a clear acceleration in the technology allowing for more active participation and interaction by the attendees to the events in the next months.” Saunders also points out that many companies are clocking onto this reality and proactively acting on it: “Software companies need to constantly improve to keep up.”
The common theme emerging here is user experience and more so than ever, all eyes are firmly fixed on the host. In a virtual setting, how can the industry proverbially pour the wine and encourage spontaneous conversation between themselves and HCPs? “Offering different packages and being smart with opportunities to connect with HCPs is key, not just during the congress, but also pre- and post-congress. We need to keep the conversations going, and it should not be limited to the ‘congress days’,” says Church. Simple, intuitive, and user-friendly platforms are essential to ensuring an enjoyable occasion for both the pharmaceutical industry and HCPs.
And the hallmark of a good evening? José Maria Guido Avila, Global Lead, HCP Marketing, Sanofi, weighs in: “We don’t measure success by typical factors like number of attendees… what is more important is to learn the preferences they have and use that information to tailor to that customer experience in the future. We focus on metrics that allow us to engage with our customers better in the future and maximise retention.”
Events that once spanned days, now take hours, and more people are invited to the party than any year prior. The pressure of hosting is a tough gig at the best of times, and when it comes to virtual events, companies must bring their A-game to the table and turn on the charm. By actively assessing their current platforms and models and finding new ways to facilitate conversations between HCPs and the industry, pharma can elevate virtual events as not just a temporary fix for now, but as a whole new standard for a digital future.