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Out of the box: Thought-leading events don't have to cost a fortune

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Events have long been a mainstay of b-to-b marketing, but their high cost has frightened most companies away from realizing their potential as thought-leadership vehicles. Now, a mostly forgotten social media platform is offering intriguing new possibilities. "Virtual worlds technology" is lowering the cost and complexity of events and enabling companies to deliver high-quality content from independent experts that breaks out of the typical lead-gen model. When a vendor can transcend salesmanship to become a visionary, the payoff can be impressive. Virtual events attempt to replicate the conference experience online with 3D graphics, avatars and multimedia that enables attendees to interact with speakers, exhibitors and each other. Virtual worlds enjoyed a surge of popularity a few years ago on the wings of the Second Life social network. Performance and usability problems plagued Second Life, however, and its star faded as Facebook grew. Virtual worlds technology is very much alive, though, and it has found a home in the events business. Planview, a 300-person maker of portfolio management software based in Austin, Texas, went the virtual route when it staged its first Pipeline conference in late 2010. The company saw a gap in the market for information about how to apply portfolio management discipline to product innovation, and it created Pipeline to be a vendor-independent source of wisdom and collaboration. "There were a couple of conferences about the topic, but no one looked at the process holistically," said Linda Roach, Planview's VP-marketing. “We figured if there wasn't a forum, let's create one." Planview licensed the Unisfair virtual event platform to support presentations, a simulated trade show and attendee registration. Now in its fourth year, Pipeline has drawn more than 1,100 attendees from 79 countries, with attendance increasing about 10% each year. Virtual event technology enables Planview to budget Pipeline at a fraction of the cost of a traditional conference. The program is limited to one day and features seven general sessions and a handful of breakouts. Speakers are recruited from around the industry and compensated solely with promotion and a copy of their presentation video for reposting. To keep costs down and attract quality speakers, presentations are pre-recorded and speaker interaction is done through live chat. General sessions are capped at 20 minutes each, and breakouts at 15 minutes, limitations meant to keep the attention of the continually distracted Web-viewing audience. An archive lives for 90 days online. Planview handles Pipeline like an independent event. It offers paid sponsorships to partner companies and has recruited several media partners. The sales pitch is kept to a minimum; attendees aren't treated as leads unless they volunteer their interest. “If they didn't interact with our content or come to our booth, we don't follow up with them,” Roach said. Planview estimates that about half of Pipeline attendees are qualified prospects. Planview doesn't pay much attention to ROI. In fact, Pipeline loses money, but that's OK. The value of thought leadership is enough to keep the momentum going. Pipeline 2013 is scheduled for May 16. Roach offers a few tips for companies that are considering the independent conference route:
  • Create content the audience wants. Ditch the pitch and bring in academic leaders, practitioners and sponsor speakers who know the subject matter. If you promise value and then deliver a sales pitch, people won't come back.
  • Keep sessions short and mix on-camera and traditional slide-show visuals. Virtual conference viewers are fickle, so don't ask for too much of their time.
  • Give people reasons to stay. Planview steadily releases speaker presentations during the day and mixes in chat sessions with presentations to create mini-events within the bigger conference.
  • Consider geography. This year's conference begins at 4 a.m. Central Time in order to reach European visitors at the beginning of their workday. Prerecorded presentations and virtual delivery make this fairly easy.
  • Ask for feedback and use it as a guide for the next event.
Paul Gillin (gillin.com)is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB. He can be reached at paul@gillin.com.
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