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The Evolution of Virtual Events: Meeting Market Needs in a New Normal

Eighteen months ago, the idea of attending a virtual deal event (or, quite honestly, almost any event) was all but unfathomable. The handshake culture in the lower middle market runs deep, and change does not come easily. However, easy or not, change is inevitable — something we’ve been reminded of time and again since March 2020 — and as a result, our new normal includes a lot more business development hours spent behind a screen.

As is standard practice at Axial, we’ve been in constant communication with our members over the course of the pandemic to understand what they like, don’t like, and what they’d like to see going forward, related to both virtual and in-person events. Below is some of the feedback we’ve received (and implemented) in an effort to produce virtual events that are valuable, efficient, and highly-rated among community members.

Don’t Force It

Certain aspects of events do not translate well into a digital format… no matter how creative you try to be. On the one hand, one-on-one conversations are easy to shift to a virtual setting, but things like general networking and happy hours lose most of their appeal when you take the in-person aspect away from them. Rather than try to force an event to mirror its pre-pandemic image, it’s more important to recognize which parts of an event are not conducive to online execution and iterate accordingly.

Build the Foundation with Virtual

Something that we’ve heard multiple times from members is that they’re surprised at how efficient Zoom can be when it comes to introductory meetings. Video calls certainly cannot replace every step in a deal process, but when it comes to vetting deals, catching up with peers, and building the early foundation of a relationship, Zoom has proven itself to be an efficient tool. Once a deal has progressed, it’s almost unanimous that in-person meetings must occur and that aspects of diligence will be executed live, but until then, virtual meetings have proven to be an efficient and effective piece of the puzzle.

Give us Something to Talk About

One of the most common things we heard at the beginning of the pandemic — and one that has largely shaped the evolution of our virtual Concord series — is that people don’t want to sit on a video call without clear direction. While it’s fairly easy to shoot the breeze when you’re sitting across from someone at a conference, it feels significantly less genuine when you’re sitting in your home office on Zoom. Because of this, we evolved our conference series to a point where we began sending specific deals over the Axial platform to be discussed during each one-on-one meeting. We never want any attendee to feel awkward or unproductive at one of our events, so we now provide a deal-centric agenda to create a comfortable — and more importantly, productive — environment for every participant.

Make it (even more) Meaningful

As our conferences evolved to become more deal-centric, we continued to get constructive feedback at every turn, pushing us to be laser-focused and undeniably efficient. Participants loved the ability to review specific deals ahead of the event, but as we fine-tuned that process, they let us know that being able to enter the meeting even further down the funnel would make Concord that much better. So now, in today’s version of the conference, not only do attendees share deals ahead of the event, but they’re also encouraged to execute NDAs and share deal related marketing materials. This way, no time is wasted talking in generalities and participants can use the 25 minutes that they’re given to dive head first into the specifics of the deal.

Avoid the One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Virtual is here to stay, but organizers should not take a one-size-fits-all approach. If you copy and paste an in-person agenda to an online format, both the organizers and attendees are sure to feel the pain. Formats and agendas need to evolve with the times, and as we move deeper into the new normal, organizations need to push themselves out of their comfort zones to meet the wants and needs of their market. This could translate into small tweaks here and there, or it could even mean a complete 180, but one thing’s for sure: virtual events are a unique beast and they’re here to stay, so plan accordingly!

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