It feels like everywhere you look there is an event being promoted. Previously it was just straight forward runs – run 5km, 10km’s and so on – but now there are MOB events, runs with colours and zombies and now virtual events.
Without doubt the charity events marketplace is crowded but buoyant. In fact, the number of fundraising events in the UK has increased seven-fold in the last 10 years, participation levels continue to grow and the sustainable income they provide has never been more important.
Innovative approaches have been required by those wishing to break into or increase their share of the events market. Few have been successful but it was great to see virtual events featured, for the first time, in the annual list of the top 25 fundraising events.
The two stand out virtual successes from 2016 were ‘Running Down Dementia’ by Alzheimer’s Research UK and the British Heart Foundation’s ‘My Marathon’. The former attracted 4,000 participants and raised £220k with the latter encouraging 32,000 people to raise over £1million.
 
Why are events going virtual?
Events are risky. They require an upfront investment (both cash and time) and there is no guarantee of success. Whilst there is no guarantee that a virtual event will be a success they do offer a chance to experiment without the large upfront costs.
Barriers to entry are drastically reduced by going virtual. Charities will be attracted to the shorter time required to bring a virtual event to market, that resource isn’t required to physically organise anything and that they are not weather dependent!
Virtual events are offering the opportunity to reach new audiences and geography is no longer a barrier. Many of the people who participated in My Marathon, for example, wouldn’t have participated in a traditional marathon.
Critical to the recent popularity of virtual events is that the technology required to participate in is readily available. The apps required are available free of charge and it is estimated that as many as 1 in 6 people now own and use some form of wearable technology.
As if these factors were not enough in this era where supporter experience is king, it is possible to deliver an experience tailored to every participant in a virtual event.
 
The future
If costs are lower and first-class supporter experiences are being delivered then one would expect to see higher return on the investment made. But will participants in a virtual event be able to attract sponsorship? The average raised by Running Down Dementia and MyMarathon participants, £44 and £31 respectively, is low when compared to what is raised by taking part in traditional events.
The feel-good factor created by completing an event is clear. That moment when a runner is cheered over the finish line is priceless when suddenly all the training and hard work was worth it. Can a virtual event, even with the greatest digital/automated supporter experience, ever deliver that type of emotional experience?
New virtual offerings have been introduced throughout 2017. For example, Bliss introduced ‘Go the Distance for Bliss’ and just this month Children in Need launched the ‘Virtual Ramble’ and ‘Virtual Rickshaw’ which offers supporters the chance to independently participate whilst they watch their TV favourites complete the same challenge on BBC1.
 
Rapid rise and a critical year
The longevity of these virtual events remains to be seen; with Running Down Dementia and My Marathon entering their second-year evidence of sustained interest will soon be available as will the results of the new entrants to the market.
On the to-do-list for 2018 could be tools and techniques for fundraising staff to introduce to event participants to help maximise their fundraising plus a test combining virtual and physical events (could participants independently tackle their challenges and then all come together to cross the finish line together?).
This is clearly a good time for events and the rapid rise and success of virtual events is undeniable. Next year is going to be a critical year in the development of virtual events and to the readers of this blog I ask what can your charity offer before this new market becomes saturated and what can you do to ensure your virtual event participants receive the same feel good factor as those completing traditional events.