At the beginning of April, about 30,000 people were expected to attend the Google Cloud Next ’20 conference in San Francisco. However, as the coronavirus crisis intensifies all over the world, including in the United States, avoiding mass gatherings of people has become a necessity and Google decided to move the entire event online.
“We are transforming the event into Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect, a free, global, digital-first, multi-day event connecting our attendees to Next ’20 content and each other through streamed keynotes, breakout sessions, interactive learning and digital ‘ask an expert’ sessions with Google teams,” the company said. “Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel.”
Other scheduled conferences that were canceled or moved online, completely or partially, include Adobe Summit and Facebook F8.
As more and more offices around the world are converting to smart-working, and as universities and other educational institutions are organizing classes via the web, can online conferences and events represent a valid alternative to in-person meetings? And will this emergency uncover potential for the future?
Eric Brand, director of corporate marketing at OurCrowd, told The Jerusalem Post that “a recent Harvard Business Review study on event marketing highlighted that over half of the respondents from all over the world said their events drew more business value than any other marketing channel. However, when they list the type of events they are referring to, none of them is online.
“But this is a different world right now,” Brand said. “People can’t go to their jobs, they can’t go to events, so we have to rethink how we approach things.
“At OurCrowd, we are fortunate because we often do webinars and we live-stream our major events, so we are a little bit ahead of the game. Nevertheless, we are making the shift now to understand how best to engage with our whole ecosystem, our portfolio companies, our investors, our venture partners, online,” he added.
Established in 2013, OurCrowd is an equity crowdfunding platform for investing in global start-ups, with a portfolio of more than 200 companies and $1.4 billion of committed funds.
Brand explained that luckily OurCrowd held its major event – the Global Investor Summit – in February, with thousands of people attending. Some other conferences it is organizing in several countries are scheduled for the fall, so OurCrowd is waiting to see how the situation will evolve.
In the meantime, he added that the investment platform is in the process of setting up a robust program of online opportunities, including an upcoming webinar on the impact of coronavirus on start-ups and how they are fighting back. Moreover, it is considering a series of weekly online shows featuring relevant figures of the tech ecosystem, which will both offer the audience the opportunity to ask questions and serve as a networking facility, presenting a lot of the benefits of live events.
OurCrowd is also thinking of regional webinars carried out with the support of their 12 offices around the world to address local issues, as well as of online events for specific sectors, such as healthtech.
Asked if he is concerned about changing in-person models that have proven to be very successful to an online mode, Brand said “the unknown is always a little scary, but it’s also exciting.
“The thing that I personally worry about is that people get scared. I understand it because there is a lot of uncertainty, but sometimes this stops you from being proactive, positive, from innovating. I feel here in Israel we are used to dealing with crisis, so people forge ahead no matter what, but I worry that people around the world will allow the fear to get away from them,” he told the Post.
“OurCrowd itself is a start-up, we are always trying something new. People are not coming to in-person events, so we have to make an adjustment and we are going to be very aggressive in giving people a lot of programming,” Brand explained. “I want them to pay attention to the wonderful innovation happening in our portfolio, to get excited about what start-ups can do and how they can change the world. Events, in person or online, are just a means to communicate this excitement.”
According to Prof. David Leiser, deputy director of the Center for Pensions, Insurance and Financial Literacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and an expert in economic psychology, the current situation forcing people to move so many activities online will likely produce a permanent impact on the relationship between people and technology.
“Many people are not used to employing new technologies, they don’t want to try, they don’t want to consider it, in spite of the fact that the advantages are very clear, it’s cheaper and it saves time. For example, there are people teaching large classes who don’t know how to use tools such as Zoom, Skype and other conference call facilities,” Leiser told the Post, emphasizing that by compelling people to confront the challenge and learn new skills, the coronavirus crisis will probably have a lasting effect.
“Once they get into the habit of using technology, I believe that this will continue,” Leiser said.
However, the professor added, online is not going to replace in-person when it comes to larger gatherings.
“A big part of what matters in those situations is represented by the networking, by the opportunity of getting to know people, having coffee together, creating personal relationships outside of the conference itself,” he highlighted. “This is true also for me personally, this is why I go to scientific conferences.”
According to the expert, a distinction can be drawn based on whether the main part of the event consists of the actual content conveyed in the sessions, which he believes can be mostly replaced by online meetings, or on what happens in other parts of the event.
“If the main purpose of the gatherings is to mingle, including intellectually, I believe this is not something you can easily do on an online platform,” he said.
Leiser pointed out that academic conferences are also a chance for young researchers with limited contacts to meet more established academics.
“I consider them an opportunity to meet and grow the new generation of scientists,” he explained, admitting that for him, the experience of meeting a student in person is very different from just receiving an email. “There is something to be said about having someone in front of you, smiling, talking, something that makes the interaction more meaningful.”
Leiser added, however, that there is a chance that new tools to address this need could be developed.
“It is going to require a deliberate effort to take place. In my opinion, the current platforms are good to deliver information, including allowing to ask questions, but not for these other purposes.”