This year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ASCO launched its first 100% virtual meeting platform. Given that ASCO is the largest annual oncology meeting in the world, the organization decided it was imperative to prioritize the dissemination of critical updates on scientific advances in cancer treatments, allowing its members online access to presentations they would normally travel to Chicago to see.

It was easy to anticipate how oral sessions and poster presentations would take place in a virtual format. However, it was difficult to know what sort of sponsorship platforms or collaborative environments would be made available in lieu of an exhibit hall, where one-on-one engagement has traditionally been a core part of an attendee’s experience.

ASCO ultimately rolled out the parameters for virtual exhibits: a landing page with a list of corporate logos, with each sponsor provided a preformatted page that included space for a hero image, descriptive text, embedded videos and externally driving links.

Virtual Exhibits and sample Platinum Exhibit Page provided by ASCO

ASCO’s approach to virtual exhibits gave companies only limited opportunities to build new relationships and networks. This meant companies would have to go well beyond the ASCO tool to create their own immersive online hubs.

Industry was up to the task, experimenting with a number of approaches. The web experiences developed by exhibitors fell into three main categories:

  • Congress portals
  • Interactive exhibit booth renderings
  • Links to existing sites or PDF resources

A few exhibitors, including Eisai Oncology and Pfizer Oncology, combined approaches.

So, what worked and what didn’t? Time (and analytics) will tell what kind of traction these promotional efforts garnered. In the meantime, it’s worth examining how well the exhibitors pivoted from a live experiential UX approach to a web UX approach.

Well-designed congress portals were among the best examples of successful adaptation.

Novartis ASCO congress portal, desktop and mobile

Novartis, BeiGene and Eisai, for example, drove visitors to an online environment that made clear statements about their commitments and key messages, while prioritizing user experience for both desktop and mobile.

As a large percentage of virtual congress material will be accessed by mobile devices,  responsiveness, legibility and mobile-user-friendliness are critical for a successful solution.  ­

BeiGene congress portal included links to abstracts and poster presentations

Several companies, including Advanced Accelerator Applications, opted to create a virtual booth – i.e., a rendering of an exhibit booth, either static or navigable, with hotspots around key content areas.

Advanced Accelerator Applications virtual booth, desktop and mobile

Most virtual booths had separate promotional and medical experiences, with hotspots driving to either videos, light-box pop-up info, or downloadable PDFs. In a few instances, exhibitors leveraged existing interactive experiences from their booth, such as quizzes.

While virtual booths initially sound like the most logical approach (after all, this is a virtual meeting with virtual exhibits), they pose difficult UX challenges (e.g., load time, message legibility and mobile adaptation).

The third approach taken by exhibitors was to simply use the page provided by ASCO to post links to existing websites and downloadable PDFs.

Merck and AstraZeneca opted to use the ASCO-provided page to drive traffic to existing sites or resources rather than develop bespoke corporate congress portals

This more conservative approach is understandable, given that we don’t yet know how effective ASCO’s platform is in driving visitors to company pages. Any user would require a minimum of three clicks to land on an exhibitor-developed online environment – not exactly the best scenario for minimizing bounce rate.

It is likely that virtual congresses are going to be around for a while, if not indefinitely. ASCO was a great opportunity to experiment and better understand what it really means to “go virtual.” Companies that invested resources upfront will likely need to do less scrambling later for the numerous future virtual congresses to come.

One of the main lessons learned from ASCO 2020 is that virtual exhibiting bears little resemblance to traditional physical exhibiting. The rules of engagement are different. What drives someone to enter a booth from the aisle is different than what motivates a user to click through and engage with a website. The core principles of web interaction are simply different than those of physical experiential design.

We expect that, moving forward, congress organizers will apply learnings from these early days to improve the engagement platforms for their exhibitors and sponsors, while exhibitors will be looking to push the envelope on new platforms of virtual engagement that fulfill their needs for customer engagement, awareness and education.


Read more of our ASCO 2020 content.

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