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Planview saves its annual user conference by going virtual

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It's no secret that travel and entertainment budgets were slashed last year, severely impacting the use and effectiveness of trade shows and conferences as a marketing channel.

How bad was it? BtoB's "2010 Outlook: Marketing Priorities and Plans," an online survey conducted in October and November 2009, asked marketers which channels they had cut spending for during 2009. Of the 376 business-to-business marketers polled, 63.4% named events—the highest percentage of any other channel.

But even in the face of reduced budgets for live events, marketers have been busy discovering an intriguing alternative: the virtual event.

Unlike a webinar, which is essentially an online PowerPoint presentation with commentary, a virtual event attempts to mimic online the entire look, feel and vibrancy of a live event.

Typically, attendees logging on are presented with graphic representations of expo halls and training rooms, booths complete with sales personnel ready to answer questions via online chat, networking rooms, presentations in a virtual auditorium, downloadable collateral material—in short, an online emulation of just about everything one might encounter at a live expo.

Among the newly initiated in the world of virtual events is Planview Inc., a company that offers portfolio management software for IT and other departments. Last year the company faced a disastrous decline in registrations for an upcoming annual conference and decided to take the virtual events plunge instead.

"It took some time for people here to understand what it was," said Kimberly Stone, manager of Web and creative services at Planview, based in Austin, Texas. "It took an internal sales effort to psych us up and to begin to see things starting to click as we got closer to the event."

Like most software companies, Planview has held an annual conference for its lead customers. Its three-day yearly event, usually held in October, is filled with educational and consulting sessions, information about new products and upgrades, and lots of networking as users share their experiences.

But early in 2009, with the planning well underway for the autumn conference, Stone and her Planview colleagues started hearing from customers that attendance was going to be way down. Stone said Planview was anticipating attendance of only about 50 customers for a live event that typically drew 200.

"We had already committed to do the event, and had contracts on a hotel in San Antonio," said Stone. "But customers said they had the fee for the conference, but not for travel."

"We decided to go virtual," she said.

Full research mode
Stone went into full research mode, traveling to a California conference on the use of virtual events, to talk to vendors and see demos. She decided to go with a virtual events solution from Unisfair Inc.

"Companies are using virtual events as another channel to connect with their customers in a painless way," said Joerg Rathenberg, senior director of marketing at Unisfair. The strength of the virtual event echoes that of a live event, he said.

"At the virtual event, prospects can do whatever they feel like, and choose for themselves, on their own terms, to say they're ready to learn more about buying a product," he said.

Planview definitely wanted an online event that mimicked as much as possible its physical analog.

"This had to be our event for the year," Stone said. "We charge our customers for it, and they had to feel that they were getting their money's worth. It had to be as good or better than a physical event."

Planview promoted the virtual event just like it would with the live version. E-mail blasts urged click-throughs to a special registration landing page. There, the novel event was described fully, with plenty of screen shots of what attendees had in store for them. The company also did a series of webinars to describe the upcoming event to customers, and held training sessions for the internal sales team.

To help lure attendees, Planview offered package deals, enabling customers to "send" five employees for the same price ($1,100) as one in past years.

"I was a little worried, because our customer base has a lot of baby boomers," Stone said. "For example, I was worried how they'd adapt to the online chat technology, but they were totally fine." For backup, the company set up a live telephone help line, and staffed the online virtual help booth through the event.

On the day of the event, attendees logging in were greeted by a visual representation of 15 booths each focusing on different topics, as well as three partner booths. There were 29 on-demand sessions available for viewing on or after the event, plus six live sessions with live Q&As.

"The live events were not on-demand, so attendees had to be there to experience them," Stone said. "As a result, we really tried to put high energy into those two three-hour blocks."

A strong payoff
The payoff was strong, Stone said. Attendance reached about 500 people, an improvement of about 250% over the typical attendance.

"And the feedback was great," Stone said. "Attendees used the environment well. If there were any negatives, it was people saying they missed the parties. They weren't around for the beer."

After the event the company spent time poring over event statistics, analyzing which products drew the most interest and what customers chatted about, for subsequent use by the sales team. The data provided a degree of attendee profiling very difficult to obtain from live events.

"We asked Unisfair for very deep information," Stone said, in order for sales to score prospects. "For example, if an attendee went to the analytics booth, then went to a chat about analytics, and also attended three sessions on analytics—and they didn't own an analytics module—then they're probably interested in analytics."

Stone said that Planview will likely go back to its live event this coming October, although she is considering adding a virtual component. Meanwhile, the company is staging a one-day virtual event with eight booths for this month, in support of a product launch.

"Yes, we could have done another webinar about the new product, but that's not the same," Stone said. "With a virtual event, the environment is so rich. And everything is archived."

Rathenberg said a common misperception of virtual events is that it's an inexpensive marketing channel.

"The entry price is about $25,000, so it's not cheap," he said. "There's a significant amount of work going into building the virtual environment."

But Stone feels the cost is worth it.

"When you're trying to emulate a physical event, it really boosts the cost," she said, "but it's still cheaper than the physical event. It's not cheap by any means, but for small-to-midsized companies, I think a virtual event can be a reasonable solution."

How Planview salvaged its annual conference using a virtual event
Objective: To stage an annual user conference facing severely slumping live attendance
Strategy: Replace the event with a virtual version
Results: 250% lift over typical live attendance, and deeper analytics for lead scoring

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