Real-life or virtual workshops: which are more effective?

Two years ago I posted on “taking brand strategy virtual”, in response to the first global lockdown. Like many companies, at the brandgym we had to re-invent the way we worked to stay in business (fortunately, we had plenty of experience to draw on, having been a virtual company since our launch in 2002). As time has progressed, we’ve seen the upsides of virtual brand workshops, including savings in travel costs, time and carbon emissions. 

But now we can meet again in person, is it time to go back to real-life workshops? Should we follow the rallying call of my neighbour and fellow strategy consultant Nick Tuner in his blog: “Escape the virtual and rediscover the magic!” (1). New research published in Nature (2) suggests that the answer depends, as you might expect, on your objectives.

1. Idea GENERATION: more effective in person

Our 2020 research project suggested that most marketers found virtual workshops to be 70-80% as effective as those run in-person. And the Nature study reported similar findings (2). Virtual pairs of people were 87% as effective at generating ideas versus pairs who met in real life and 86% as effective at generating creative ideas. Or, looked at another way, real-life meetings were 15-17% more effective.

To note, the task in the study was focused on quantity of ideas for a relatively simple task e.g. generate creative alternative uses for a Frisbee. Personal experience suggests that live workshops are more than 17% more effective for complex brand strategy tasks, such as brand purpose & positioning. 

The study suggested that a key factor driving the effectiveness of in-person meetings was the way participants looked at the surroundings in the room more. In contrast, virtual pairs looked more at each other (below). This finding confirms the importance of workshop venue selection and set-up, which has always been a key part of our brandgym projects. For example, when working on ideas for the Carling Be the Champion Coach campaign, we ran the workshop in the national soccer stadium.

Another interesting finding was that pairs outperformed larger groups in both virtual and real-life settings. This backs up our own experience in brandgym workshops. Even with large teams, we always split people into smaller groups to generate first-round ideas.

2.Idea SELECTION: equally effective virtual and in-person

When it comes to selecting which ideas to pursue, the researchers found no evidence that videoconferencing groups were less effective. Indeed, they even found preliminary evidence that virtual meetings could be more effective than in-person groups at this sort of task. Again, the study backs up my own personal experience. The advances in technology really help design and run effective workshops to “pitch”, feed back on and then prioritise ideas. 

3.Social CONNECTION: no more effective in person?

The most surprising study finding for me was that the researchers “found little evidence that communication modality affects social connection.” Three complementary approaches were used to explore social connection: subjective feelings of closeness, verbal and non-verbal behaviours, and mimicry.

My own experience from 30 years of brand strategy workshops would be closer to those that Nick Turner reports (1): “Having recently started running in-person workshops again there is a certain magic that simply can’t be replicated by an online gathering. The emotional engagement is so much stronger. The joy of simply being back together again is so palpable.” I’ve run many effective virtual workshops, but they don’t create the sort of human connection (and fun!) captured in the photo below.

My guess here is that study’s the use of pairs, not teams, had an influence on the findings. I can see how one-to-one meetings can be effective at social connection. Just look at the massive success of online dating! However, for bigger teams, where you are trying to engage and align people, my belief is that in-person workshops are more effective. 

Workshop selector tool

To help guide your decision on whether to run a virtual or in-person workshop, you can use the new brandgym Academy workshop selector tool here. Based on answers to six questions, this suggests what type of workshop might be most suitable.

If you do select the virtual workshop route, we summarised six key success factors (below) in a previous post here, drawing on experience from designing and facilitating 200+ virtual workshops.

In conclusion, virtual workshops are an effective alternative to in-person workshops, especially when the focus is on idea selection. But if your task is more complex, focused on idea creation and has team engagement as part of it, real-life workshop is likely to the most effective route.

About the research

Laboratory experiment: 

  • Half the pairs randomly assigned to work together in person and the other half to work together in separate, identical rooms using videoconferencing.
  • In Europe, the Middle East and South Asia
  • Virtual pairs interacted with a real-time video of their partner’s face displayed on a 15-inch retina-display screen with no self-view.
  • Pair instructed each to generate creative uses for a product for five minutes (e.g. generate creative alternative uses for a Frisbee) and then spend one minute selecting their most creative idea.

Field experiment  

  • 1,490 employees of a telecommunications company with branches in five countries
  • Asked to come up with new product ideas and choose one among them to submit as a future product innovation for the company.


1. Stratforma blog post

2.Nature study