Image courtesy of VidCon
The pandemic and lockdown have devastated the live-events and conference business, forcing all kinds of transformations to connect talent, programming and audiences in a virtualized way. Perhaps no organization, however, has done more to remake itself in short order than VidCon, the ViacomCBS unit focused on huge live events for social-media influencers, executives, fans and the brands that want to reach them.
Before the pandemic hit, the company had planned its annual main show for late June, in the Anaheim Convention Center across the street from Disneyland. Normally, hundreds of industry executives, thousands of online creators and tens of thousands of fans converge over a long weekend in what is essentially three vaguely connected conferences in one.
The lockdown made that untenable, forcing the company to rethink how to create a virtual version of the show that retained much of what makes it distinctive, said VidCon General Manager Jim Louderback.
The company enlisted a series of tech companies to create parts of the virtual VidCon Now, including long-time sponsor YouTube, Twitch, Discord, Shindig, Maestro, Icebreaker, and even a proprietary CBS-made tool that modifies Zoom.
“We didn’t want to just be a megaphone,” Louderback said. “We didn’t want to be like,’I guess we’re just gonna make Zoom TV shows and push them out at people.’ We really wanted to try and as much as possible replicate the interactive experience of an event, both the connections that you can get to speakers and creators and other things in sessions, but also the casual connections that you make with people in the hallways, in the lounges.”
More importantly, the company stretched the VidCon experience across 12 weeks of summer (events started in late June), with a dozen events each week, across five days a week through August. Events are free, though access to everything requires registration, and getting the “industry” version of the free ticket requires another layer of approval. It’s all being paid with sponsorship money, including some new companies that hadn’t participated in the past, Louderback said.
The goal, Louderback said, ” to create a more compelling experience instead of just another soul-sucking Zoom call that we all have been forced to deal with.”
The company chose to stretch out the event many sessions across the entire summer in part because, as Louderback said sardonically, “everybody wants to sit in front of their computer for there days.”
Also, stretching out the event gave his team time to figure out what works, and get better at it, Louderback said.
“That allows us to learn from the audience about what they like and what they don’t like, refine the sorts of things that we’re doing, but also stretch that experience out.” Louderback said. “I mean, we’re all sitting at home anyway.”
The company is trying to be innovative in its approach to virtualized live events, which may have use not just for its smaller international conferences but going forward.
“It’s something that we expect to continue doing at some level, even when we go back to doing face-to-face events,” Louderback said. “When we go back to meeting up with people and doing events, there are still going to be people who can’t go or won’t go because of health reasons or financial reasons ot distance reasons. And the response we’ve seen, it’s been so amazing, that we realized that there is a real place for a digitally distributed version of VidCon that takes advantage of the digital platform in ways that you can’t do face to face, but still brings together a lot of the reasons why people go to VidCon in the first place.”
But innovating live events in the virtual world after just a few months time isn’t easy or simple.
“There’s a heck of a lot of what I call cow-pathing,” Louderback said. “And people will just be like, ‘Well, the cows walk from here to there to get from the pasture and the food. We’re just going to create a digital version of that.’ No, you have to really rethink for the platforms and for the way people interact with them.”
Sometimes, that means presuming a conversation should wrap up quickly, in 20 or 25 minutes, when audiences are showing that they want it go longer. Learning how to anticipate capacity needs, for free events with higher no-show rates, is another transition. But in the first couple of weeks of events, more than 20,000 people have registered, Louderback said.
Some parts of the live conference experience are irreplaceable, like what Wired magazine recently called “the hang,” that chance meeting with someone interesting or useful while you’re standing in line, hanging at the hotel bar, or waiting for a panel to start.
That story’s focus was on Apple’s pre-recorded, 105-minute kickoff presentation to its World Wide Developers Conference and other suddenly virtual versions of big tech gatherings for companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
While the Apple event was applauded for its snappy pace, high production values, and behind-the-scenes looks at the company’s $5 billion Cupertino headquarters, “the hang” still matters, there and just about every other conference.
To create some portions of that experience, VidCon has a wide range of online interactions through the various tools it’s using. They include everything from one-minute direct conversations between a fan and creator, to an hour-long keynote by an industry notable such as Snap CMO Kenny Mitchell, who spoke Tuesday.
“It’s not, obviously, face to face; You can’t get a selfie with someone but you sort of can, and do a video selfie,” Louderback said of the one-minute connections between fan and creator. “The best thing about an event, the content’s awesome, that’s why people go. But they also go for the serendipitous and the planned connections with the people that they know. And they go to meet new people, so we are trying to replicate some of that digitally.”
Icebreaker, for instance, will enable brief one-on-one conversations between attendees on various topics. Discord will host a string of “Ask Me Anything” sessions on Thursdays with notables, part of a much broader and lively interactive community on the evolving gamer-focused platform.
And despite all this year’s VidCon sponsors, it won’t feature a virtual version of Anaheim’s cavernous exhibit hall. Normally, the exhibit hall at Anaheim Convention Center features giant “booths” from all the social-media companies, merchandise lines from many of the big creators, and experiential marketing installations from brands trying to connect with a valuable audience.
“I know other events have done that,” Louderback said. “If you think about our expo floor, much of it on the main floor is more experiential. You wander by the Mars (candy) village and take pictures of yourself, or stop by and get a selfie in front of that crazy ball pit. I couldn’t really figure out how to do a ball pit digitally.”