What are these organizations thinking? Maritz and Cornell published ‘The Future of Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face’ in which they pitted virtual against face-to-face. OK at least Cornell’s Center for Hospitality Research was likely paid to participate in this study but Maritz really? (Update: VEI will be talking to Maritz's Chris Gaia VP of Marketing soon so follow the thread!)
Granted the study was released back in September of 2010 but publications are still reporting on it today, most recently BtoB Magazine. I had been meaning to write something about the study when it was first published but never got around to it but like gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, it just won’t go away.
My biggest problem is the whole approach of pitting virtual events and meetings against physical meetings. Digital event solutions are simply tools that event and meeting producers can use to extend, expand, enhance and yes in some situations replace face-to-face. There are very real business drivers that underlie people’s use of online meeting solutions and the answer is not going to be just go ahead and do more face-to-face. Publishing a study that attempts to marginalize the effectiveness of virtual experiences just makes matters worse.
By trying to eliminate digital meeting solutions you are reducing the value of the face-to-face program and encouraging people to look for new ways to achieve their business objective of that activity. Executives understand the value of extending the reach of an event—more people get the message. They understand the value of allowing people who can’t attend because of budget, natural disasters, revolutions, terrorism or simple lack of time to participate online. These add value to the physical meeting and help justify its existence.
I think Maritz…although a leader in the incentive and corporate travel and meeting industry has done a disservice to the industry with this approach. Had they taken the approach of looking at the reality their clients are facing with tighter budgets for travel, events and meetings and greater workloads impacting people’s ability to travel, they could have looked at positive aspects of face-to-face and the greatly enhanced value that combining virtual can add to those programs.
Some of the areas they mention in the article and the study are debatable especially when used to address meetings and events universally. For example, face-to-face is better for capturing people’s attention. For starters, although I’m sure there are Maritz speakers at all sorts of face-to-face events talking about this study, I’ve only encountered the content online (as I’m sure the vast majority of people have as well). Most of us will never be exposed to this content face-to-face.
They point out that people multitask while online and this is not effective. I hate to break it to you but people multitask at physical events too. They tweet, Facebook, email, text, sleep, read, and yes, even leave. Audiences have been known to boo speakers that have asked people to turn off their mobile devices. But sitting in front of a computer is certainly much more of a focus challenge. Yet, with the right motivation, it happens. For example, I read this story online and read all the comments and then I switched over to the Virtual Edge group on LinkedIn (online) to see what had been said there (more than 20 comments, most quite educational) and it did the ultimate in engagement, got me inspired to take an action by writing this post, tweeting and texting people who I think would be interested telling them to take a look at the discussion. That’s ONLINE ENGAGEMENT! The fact that I had a computer in front of me helped--not hindered my experience.
There is a line in the B2B article that says something like--face-to-face in general makes people open to new thinking, new relationships and new ways of doing things. They didn’t really explain how but I have to say for me, I have learned far more new things online than at face-to-face events. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy and benefit from similar face-to-face learning opportunities but most of us can only attend a few events a year because of the travel time and expenses.
But a study by the US Department of Education found that kids (in K-12) learned better online than they did in a traditional face-to-face environment. Educational use of virtual environments is exploding with growth because they are having tremendous success. So again, universal statements are hard to support.
The article noted that the study indicated that it was easier to build relationships in person than digitally and although I would agree that it is often easier to advance relationships in person, starting relationships online is much more efficient. And Skype calls with or without video are tremendous relationship builders and totally virtual. But a normal phone call works too.
Finally, I absolutely agree with the article’s ‘Lessons Learned’ where they talked about the need for measurement in proving the value of events. Whether its face -to-face or virtual, this has got to be a part of any program where there is a significant amount of people’s time and money invested. Digital has the upper hand here as there are already tremendous analytics available to event and meeting producers to measure what happened during an online program but relating that back to business value still needs to take place.
And my favorite line in the story “marketers must remember that the full impact of face-to-face events isn't necessarily created in a single meeting. We have to think about the regular rhythm of bringing people together because these benefits are all built over time.” Can you see how virtual events and virtual environments could be used to bring people together and build those relationships that already began at a physical event? Imagine how much more productive relationship building would be if it augmented continuously with digital extensions of the event.
I would like to hear your thoughts on this either by leaving a comment here or joining the active conversation on the Virtual Edge group on LinkedIn.