Virtual events: a new engagement channel
Virtual events and environments are becoming a more critical customer engagement tool at a time when travel is both more expensive and time consuming than ever before, according to Joerg Rathenberg, senior marketing director for virtual events provider Unisfair.
Given the current economic environment, and the associated reductions in marketing budgets across the board, Rathenberg says it comes as no real surprise that companies are more reluctant to allocate marketing money to physical conferences and trade shows.
In fact, according to the first annual Unisfair Marketing Survey, some 44% of technology marketers are planning to decrease spending on physical conferences and trade shows in the short term.
Virtual events, however, are one of the few marketing tactics gaining steam. In fact, as shown by a recent market outlook report from the Virtual Edge Institute, 70% of companies with more than US$250 million in annual revenues have already integrated virtual events and conferences into their marketing mix.
Virtual events typically take place within a highly interactive online environment with rich content, multiple locations, and webcast sessions. Unlike their physical counterparts, though, virtual events can generate highly qualified leads for the organiser while providing the audience with a quick and easy way to collaborate, learn, and network.
As virtual event technology evolves, so does the planning methodology, and best practices behind it. According to Rathenberg, the best way to look at the planning process is by categorizing it into three stages: pre-event, during, and post-event. For example:
1. Define your event goals Just like a physical show, you must define your virtual event goals. Are you creating a virtual event to drive leads, generate brand awareness or both? Is your virtual show set up for a product launch, recruitment fair, or an internal training session? The event goal will define the event type. Your event goal also goes a long way in determining your virtual environment look-and-feel, promotional strategy, budget, and programme content.
2. Select your platform provider Critical to your virtual event success is finding an experienced platform provider. The platform must be easy to use for attendees, fast to build for the organiser, offer multi-language features for global events, and deliver good reporting for ROI. Your provider should have a team with solid event experience that can support you throughout the event creation process and following the event.
3. Create outstanding content In the virtual world, content is still king. Select interesting speakers, engaging subjects, and timely themes that resonate with your audience. Invite industry experts, customers, and preferably at least one high profile speaker who can draw a crowd. Limit each webcast session to 20 minutes or less; it's better to have multiple shorter sessions than a few long ones as the information is more consumable for an online audience. When developing the programme agenda, remember to leave some time in between sessions to allow the attendees to network, collaborate, or simply peruse the virtual environment.
4. Generate your audience Execute an integrated campaign using email, online advertising, e-newsletters, and social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Work with partners for promotional opportunities. Depending on your promotion period, send out at least two to three invitation emails. In addition, send reminders to all registrants one week before, one day before, and the day of the event. Combine your registration with an industry poll, survey, or offer a prize incentive.
If you have enough time, ask your audience for input on the agenda. Unisfair produced a virtual event where, through an online poll, it allowed the audience to vote for the topic for its keynote speaker. Remember the earlier you launch your campaign, the greater the chances of higher attendee registration. It's recommended that you start to promote your virtual event 60 - 90 days before the event date.
- During the event...
1. Animate your event Leverage advertising panels, logo banners, environment-wide announcements, and green-screen videos of "virtual hosts" to generate a feeling of 'live' excitement. Send reminders to all attendees driving them to scheduled webcasts, forums, or giveaways.
For example, Ariba, a global spend management company, had its CMO as the virtual host welcoming attendees to its virtual event. Over a 2-day period, AribaLive garnered over 2900 registrants, 1600 live-day attendees, and served as a springboard for its 6-city world tour. For its first virtual event, software provider Planview sent out "Welcome Packages" to its registrants upon sign up, with mugs, t-shirts, and other conference material. On the live day attendees were catered breakfast or lunch depending on the registration package purchased.
2. Social media plays Use the Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and blog features within your virtual environment. This allows attendees to share thoughts and insights live with their communities in real-time. Social media creates and extends buzz inside and outside your event, and may lead to viral registration during live day.
3. Staff ready Ensure your booth staff is trained and prepared to answer a multitude of questions, ranging from programme agenda, to sponsor and collateral location, to product information. Create a Frequently Asked Questions document. Staff your booth appropriately; more booth reps for larger events and less for smaller. Also consider staffing other locations: e.g. the Networking Lounge to moderate discussions between attendees.
4. Schedule other activities Launching a live-day poll or survey can generate higher levels of engagement within your virtual event. Publish the results in real-time to keep the buzz going. Similarly, create a live-day challenge or game with a prize giveaway attached. Also, schedule chats or forums within the Networking Lounge or at a major booth sponsor to promote networking. Encourage your speakers to be available for 1:1 or group chats after their sessions. The idea is to provide a sense of continuous activity for the attendee and encourage participation wherever possible.
1. Collect and inspect As the organiser you have the ability to track attendee data throughout the virtual event. This includes capturing their movement, reporting on the collateral they've downloaded, webcasts they've viewed, and people they've networked with. Rank, categorize, and distribute these leads internally. But take action quickly: aggregate the data the day after the event, and make it available to your sales team right away.
For example, TELUS, a Canadian communications company, measured attendee engagement using a new technology called the Engagement Index. This aggregate index allowed TELUS to rate attendee activities, interests and demographics (e.g. 20 points for viewing a webcast, 10 points for downloading specific collateral, etc.), summarize the results, and finally rank them to be identified as 'hot' or 'cold' leads for its sales team. The result: TELUS generated 55 highly qualified leads during a 1-day virtual event, surpassing any previous physical event.
2. Follow-up matters Typically 50% of registrants attend the live virtual event. Your follow-up plan must include getting the other 50% to attend the event on-demand. Send out a 'thank you' and a 'sorry we've missed you' email a day or two after the event. Summarize key findings and outcomes from the event. Run another integrated campaign to promote your on-demand event using targeted email, online advertising, SEM, and other components. Launch a survey to your attendees, sponsors and organisers to gauge their opinion of your virtual event.
3. Analyse carefully Conducting a post-event meeting with your team (within a week) after the virtual event allows you to identify metrics, challenges, trends and lessons learned while your memory is fresh. This meeting should include the core team members (platform provider and your internal team). Use your web-based reports to analyse attendee behavior in detail. Set up your ROI metrics and wait for at least one sales cycle (depending on your product about 3- 6 months) and then calculate your event ROI. Capture this information in a document and use it as a guide for future events.
Defining your virtual event and fully leveraging the platform capabilities are pivotal to your marketing success. Unlike its physical counterpart, the virtual event allows you to capture detailed information about the demographics, activities and interests of your target group. It also allows you to extend the life of your content far beyond the 'live day'.
Many marketers have already realised these advantages and are moving from episodic virtual events to long-term virtual engagement. As a result, the virtual event platform is turning into an always-on virtual engagement centre where companies can connect with their audiences, anytime, anywhere - at the same time providing a new channel to reach customers, partners and employees.