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You say virtual, I say digital

by EN

In her latest feature, EN guest editor Ruth Carter takes aim at buzzword culture, but laments lack of clarity

We are traditionally an industry that rather likes buzzwords. If Boardroom Bingo was an Olympic sport, then the exhibition industry team would be carrying the flag. We ‘share’ things, we ‘reach out’ (although I was reliably informed that, unless you are a member of the Four Tops, you are not allowed to use that term – under 45s, if you have the urge to look it up, don’t bother as it isn’t that funny anyway) and we are currently unnaturally excited about bandying around the term ‘omnichannel’.

Yet, with technology solutions and channels powering their way forward, I am frequently asked what the difference is between the varying terms: digital and virtual; hybrid and blended; and is a digital event a live event or not?

Firstly, does it matter? Usually, terminologies and buzzwords take their own sweet time to develop and embed into an industry. So, is it a problem if we all use different terms for the time being?

I think it does matter and never more so than now. We are currently paying the price for a lack of clarity about what we actually do. The trend, over the last decade, of ditching the word exhibition in favour of the term festival or show has been a significant contributing factor to the Government’s lack of understanding about our industry. Those vague terms have allowed them a tick box exercise as they can lump us in with rock concerts and outdoor festivals which are, of course, a country mile away from what a hard core B2B trade show is.

Over the last few months, I have spoken with many industry folks about the different terms and wanted to ‘share’ (sorry) the collective feedback.

Let’s start with the overarching question. Is a digital event a live event or should we just leave that term for our traditional exhibitions? While part of the joy of an online event is that it can be downloaded and watched at a later date, the majority are watched as they happen – i.e., live. So that differentiation doesn’t work.

UBM had this cracked a decade ago in my opinion. An event that happened online was a digital or virtual event whereas a show that actually happened ‘in person’ was a physical event. So, if you are physically there, then it is a physical event.

Now let’s move onto the biggest question in the debate. What is the difference between digital and virtual or are they essentially the same?

Many people I spoke with said that they felt the terms digital and virtual were exactly the same but with digital feeling a little more modern than virtual. But that isn’t a satisfactory answer as it feels a little vague.

The best answer I had was from Mark Shashoua, chief executive at Hyve Group who talked about how they use the different terms. According to Shashoua, digital is quite simply the digitalisation of an existing product, brand or event. If you have an existing event that you decide to take online, then it becomes a digital event. Similarly, if you launch a new product that goes straight to online without a physical presence, then that is a virtual event. Simples.

And finally, blended or hybrid? This is the easiest but still worthy of clarification. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of hybrid is ‘a thing made by combining two different elements. So, in our terms, where you run a physical and digital event at the same time, you have a hybrid product.

Blended tends to apply to an annual strategy which combines a physical event and digital solution approach. So, if you have a blended strategy, you may have an annual physical exhibition with a series of digital touchpoints, maybe portals or content-based events, that run throughout the year.

Easy, eh? I fear not. Knowing the diversity of opinions in our community, I am sure there will be other views and thoughts. But the sooner we start the debate, the sooner we will get clarity ourselves and therefore the sooner our communities and markets will be speaking the same language.

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