The Show Must Go On

Thought Leadership

By Steve Park | April 23, 2020
Virtual stage

Imagine yourself surrounded by thousands of people. Above you, bright neon lights bounce off the vaulted roof of a massive exhibition hall, and the excited hum of the masses fills the air. Off in the distance, a presenter’s voice is amplified through loudspeakers. Behind you, thrilled on-lookers ooh and aww as a robotic dog performs tricks. You look at your companion, a new friend met in a seminar an hour ago, and all you can do is laugh.

Now imagine experiencing this all through the safety of a COVID-19 proof digital screen? How would it look? How would it feel? Could it possibly feel as engaging, as human, as the real-life version?

Yes, I’m sure of it. The fact that major companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Nvidia are moving conferences and seminars online without hesitation is a solid testament to the fact that the digital space can not only match, but add new value to, the participant experience fueling these hugely influential events.

But making this transition successfully hinges on not attempting to simply recreate these physical events, but re-imagining the way we host events in the creative, flexible, and uncharted virtual space. And for clues on how best to do this, we need to look no further than the immersive and highly addictive world of social media.

Better than real life

Keeping digital audiences attentive and seeking more is already an established art form.

It’s all thanks to one basic aspect of human psychology- an addictive feedback loop often called ‘the hook’. The hook is the reason we swipe, post, like, and share on social media multiple times a day, and is fueled by four key elements — trigger, action, reward, and investment.

As a social media user, the hook looks something like this. A push notification flashes on your phone- this is your trigger. You take action, perhaps opening it to reveal a social app. Then, you get your reward in the form of a like, comment, or message from a friend. Finally, you invest in the loop again, engaging with social content and adding new posts.

Facebook App on Phone

Adding onto this feedback loop are other tried and true mechanisms. The scarcity mindset that makes seeing a Snap before it disappears a matter of urgency. Seeing 2K likes on a post, acting as social proof that you should read it too. A news feed curated based on your searches, hashtags, and socioeconomic group, lending a subtly personalized feel to your social experience. And, of course, the draw of being on the same platforms as your friends and colleagues.

At the core of these social media feedback loops is the basic human desire to feel included and accepted. But the way these digital platforms inspire new ways of connecting and engaging in real-time is what is especially important for event organizers considering the best way to adapt to our new socially distanced world. But before we speculate on what comes next, let’s first dive into the how and why behind the success of some of these social networks.

From ICQ to Slack and back

Early instant messaging tools offered only basic chat functions. Then came the chat rooms, emojis, GIFs, and link sharing. Over a few short years, communicating via text messages had been transformed into a completely new medium of expressing yourself and connecting with people around the world.

Instant messaging broke down physical barriers and revolutionized the way we think about language. But the secret of its success lies in the same basic human psychology — ‘the hook’. We send a text, read a response, feel understood, and then send a reply — trigger, action, reward, and investment.

Person Using Phone and Laptop

By the time Slack came along, their target audience was already hooked on instant messaging. The familiar messaging components were built in from the start — notifications, emojis, instant communications — and above all else, the means to stay connected and in sync with a community. So instead of teaching users new behaviors, Slack could focus instead on providing an even better user experience through the addition of things like group chats, file sharing, /giphy integration, search functions, pinned documents, and workflows.

In a stunning demonstration of the value of leveraging existing customer habits into successful business tools, Slack also stands up as an example of how some out of box thinking can give an existing digital tool an entirely new lease on life.

Zoom re-imagines the room, and Instagram scraps it all together

Zoom is experiencing a massive boom in this pandemic age, with 2.22 million new users logging in to this video conferencing platform since COVID-19 transitioned teams across the globe to a work-from-home model.

This surge speaks to a larger truth about human nature — even in this digital age, we do best when we can talk face to face. That’s because face-to-digital-face communications provide us with something text can’t — the real-time visual, tonal, and body language cues that our brains use to infer the subtle meanings behind what our conversation partner is saying.

According to a 2019 study, 55% of a sample of professionals believed that video conferences lead to a more collaborative work environment, while 51% felt that the use of this technology contributed to a more innovative company as a whole. On a more broad scale, video chatting has also been linked to improved impersonal relationships between peers.

There’s no denying that Zoom is a welcome bridge across our digital divide — at least for now. With invitation-only videoconferencing spaces, Zoom is a good stand-in for small private events like board and shareholder meetings. But this is where a gap emerges between what Zoom can offer and the needs of larger virtual events.

People In an Online Meeting

The Apply Digital team on Zoom

This shortfall isn’t necessarily a shortfall. Instead, it offers a great opportunity to improve the way we host virtual events. Imagine a presenter delivering their talk at a virtual event. On one hand, you could replicate the physical feel by having a camera trained on the speaker as she stands over a podium, clicking through a series of slides broadcast across a Zoom video feed. Her audience, on the other side of the screen, watches passively, perhaps occasionally dropping comments into a chat box to be read after the event is over.

Picture instead this same presenter sharing their story through an Instagram Live style feed. The portrait orientation of the screen frames her in a way that feels conversational, intimate, and pulls the viewer in. The number of attendees rolls up on the upper left-hand side of the screen. A feed of participant questions, comments, and emoji responses overlay the presenter’s face, all in real-time.

Which format would feel more genuine, more exciting, and more connected to the viewer? I’d place my money on Instagram Live. Although it looks and feels much more different than the ‘real-world’ mirror of Zoom, it lends a vastly more authentic experience to the overall presentation.

House Party is an emerging video chatting platform offering yet another way to interact in the digital space. Giving users the chance to join friends and strangers alike in virtual ‘party’ video rooms, House Party rounds out the experience with built-in quizzes, games, and music functions. Needless to say, networking opportunities are second nature to this app.

So what can event organizers learn from these different approaches to video chatting? It all comes down to finding a balance between your event goals, the experience you want to create, content and tool selection, the way you want to keep your audience engaged, and finding the best middle ground.

Where Masterclass and seminars meet

Supported by HD videos, a sleek user interface, and curated personalized course offerings only accessible through a paywall, Masterclass has all the trappings of an exclusive school. This seminar-style experience also features course-specific messaging boards, downloadable ebooks, and more.

But the true draw of Masterclass takes the form of access to famous teachers and influential leaders. Whether you’re studying creative writing with Margaret Atwood or learning to prepare lamb with Gordon Ramsay, what you’re actually doing is enjoying direct exposure to a person and expertise that otherwise would typically be well beyond your scope of opportunity. And that is the true ‘reward’ of this platform’s audience hook.

Famous People


While the majority of events don’t have the budget for quite the same level of full HD, high production value virtual seminars, they do have access to the one element that matters the most — in-demand speakers and thought leaders.

Putting exclusive access to these personalities should be the main priority for event organizers looking to keep the in-demand feel of their seminars in the virtual space. The way that you do this is only limited by the needs of the company, brand, and audience too. Finding other ways to keep your attendees interacting is a great way to boost audience engagement while supporting longer-term business development focuses too.

A real experience in a virtual world

Even though we can’t all be together in person, there’s no reason we can’t share a physical — virtual — world.

Second Life is a virtual world that has been around since the early 2000s. Second Life users create avatars, roam a virtual world, meet other users in real-time, and even build dwellings and objects, which then can be sold off for real-life earnings. Communities have been formed, concerts performed, and millionaires born through this successful social experiment. Second Life even hosts an annual Burning Man experience for participants unable to make it to the playa in person.

During this age of social distancing, hosting events inside of virtual worlds is sure to grow in popularity. For example, Travis Scott is set to perform today inside of the wildly popular game Fortnite. It’s the most publicized transition to virtual world performances since COVID-19 shook up our world, but it surely won’t be the last one to take place.

One of our clients, AGI is leading the charge too. This agricultural supply giant is planning to launch an immersive virtual showroom and learning series beginning May 5th. Highlighting their product lines alongside webinars, interviews, and expert Q&As, AGI Live enables a much more engaging virtual showroom experience than what clients could expect to find in ‘real-life’.

Emerging technologies in the AR and VR space also offer incredible opportunities to duplicate in-person interactions in a virtual space. SPATIAL has already demonstrated the market demand for an AR-enabled experience that allows teammates to ‘visit’ one another, share assets and collaborate in real-time, even when they’re not physically together.

These are just a few examples of the way we can break the physical/virtual divide and build something new to allow people to invest their time in events through the use of common space facilitated through digital tools.


In the post-COVID world, the way we host events will forever be changed. But with this transition comes opportunities for incredible innovation, creativity, and rule-breaking.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the right fit for your virtual event will be one custom-designed to meet the specific needs of your organization and audience. Here are a few things to consider:

  • What goals have you been trying to meet through your real-world events? Is it lead generation, brand awareness, product launches, or something else?

  • How can you meet these goals in a new way in the digital space? Think outside of the box.

  • Which digital tools make the most sense to deliver these tools? Tune in next month for a more in-depth examination of the host of platform tools and techniques available for virtual events.

  • Which audiences do you want to reach, and where will you reach them? Will it be on a website, in an app, or through specific social media feeds?

  • How can you keep your audience engaged, participating, and connecting? Stay focused on how learnings from social media strategies can help you create your own participant feedback loop.

As you define these things, a natural road map will emerge. Looking to get an outside perspective? Email us at