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The new playbook

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IBM Inc. produced more than 200 interactive online events last year, carrying marketing messages, educational sessions and expert advice to global audiences via a digital channel it calls the IBM Global Virtual Events Center. The digital event models on display in the perpetual environment reflect a new proficiency with an emerging medium. Hybrid events combine digital and face-to-face elements to increase reach. Some divisions of IBM use the platform to find speakers to add to event agendas. Year-round digital extensions of live events keep the conversation going, while virtual road shows home in on specific city markets. About 50 always-on permanent event spaces offer content organized around a business sector or other theme. “It's no longer looked on as a replacement of face-to-face, but as a much more strategic position,” said Larry Cook, manager-events and digital metrics at IBM. Cook joined the team that in 2010 introduced the IBM environment, which has welcomed more than 100,000 unique visitors since its inception. The strategic thinking expands beyond IBM and into the digital marketing industry at large, said Eric Vidal, director of product marketing for the events services division of InterCall Inc., the platform provider that manages the IBM environment. “People are getting smarter about leveraging virtual technologies,” he said. “They are integrating these technology processes into business practices now.” More companies are looking at virtual environments as channels for ongoing content, he said. “The challenge over the last two years: A lot of companies are moving toward this, but they've stumbled a bit. They didn't keep an active event.” Vidal recommended companies that have built perpetual environments develop a calendar around specific business goals and continually add fresh content to draw the audience back to the event space. “You don't want all of that conversation and connection to die.” Virtual environments also have moved beyond the event model, becoming more like next-generation websites than replicas of the show floor, said Kate Spellman, president of UBM Studios. The unit of media giant United Business Media develops virtual environments for internal divisions as well as clients. The same thinking that once recreated static magazine print pages as Web pages also led to the development of digital booth replicas, she said. But as people gain familiarity with the technology, those tropes can be shed in favor of easy navigation. “It's not so much about the virtual event anymore,” she said. “Physically these environments are looking more and more like websites. It's about user behavior, maneuvering online.” That's not to say that virtual environments do not share strong ties with events. The medium has been key to not only extending the reach of face-to-face events, but also driving attendance, informing audience and keeping the conversation going after the trade show floor has closed. But while events have served as the core inflection point, the impact is felt in marketing programs outside the event space. At financial services company Fiserv, for example, a perpetual environment developed with platform provider ON24 acts as a library of all the information that once had to be accessed through a link in an email blast. Newsletters have replaced multiple blasts, and clients know they can find the information in a searchable database in the environment where they can also access educational webinars and connect one-on-one with company representatives. “The email is no longer the vehicle to communicate,” said Dianne Morin, director-marketing and communications in the investment services division. “The solution center is the repository of all information.” The medium is still moving into new areas, said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Virtual Edge Institute. Platform providers are building mobile capabilities and working to align back-end systems with their platforms. Marketers are asking for embedded sites that allow an audience to interact with an environment in a familiar place rather than visiting a third-party website. Marketers are working to keep pace with the rapid development, but many companies still fail to analyze the data that has been one of the biggest selling points of the medium, Doyle said: “They're not measuring as much as they should. A lot of companies, especially in the events department, are understaffed. We get the data but we don't stretch. So what does that mean, how do we apply it to something?” As marketers become more comfortable with the tool, however, they do see virtual environments delivering results, said Kenny Lauer, VP-digital experience at George P. Johnson. Marketers are learning to integrate the technology into the overall marketing mix. “We're going to see all of these communications come back to form an experience and outside of the events structure, which is where it is sitting now.” The focus will be on collapsing distance, connecting people and creating deliberate behavior through campaigns that integrate physical and virtual event components, as well as other traditional campaign elements, he said. “That is a healthier way for organizations to start thinking about it,” he said. “Virtual is over as a standalone thing.” Lauer recommended looking first at the behavior that you want to inspire, then pulling from the entire bag of marketing tools to develop those outcomes. “At the end of the day, it's about marketing,” he said. “Don't get carried away.”
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