Virtual events keep down costs

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A two-minute YouTube clip designed to drive attendance at the March 2007 eComXpo trade show encapsulated one of the best selling points of virtual events: attendance without the expense of travel.

That point—a boon for exhibitors as well as attendees—has contributed to the growth of the biannual virtual trade show for e-commerce marketers, which has seen the number of exhibitors jump from 92 to 571 in the space of two years, said John Grosshandler, founder and director of the show.

"They're able to deliver most of the benefits of a physical show without the hassle," he said, pointing to real-time interaction, networking and the ability to present a range of content.

That logic has applications beyond trade shows, said b-to-b marketers whose portfolios include virtual conferences and seminars.

For example, when data storage and management company Network Appliance participated in a third-party Web conference that drew 800 attendees, Angie Hill, senior director of online marketing, said she turned to her events director and asked: "Aren't you glad you didn't have to feed these people?"

Generating leads

Network Appliance participates in third-party Webcasts for one key reason, Hill said: "I need new names in my database."

Yahoo! Search Marketing participates in eComXpo for a similar purpose. The trade show attracts small-business prospects who might not have the time or money to attend a physical show, said Patrizio Spagnoletto, director of marketing. "EComXpo is more about lead generation," he said. "It's about small businesses."

Virtual events allow companies large and small to cast a wide lead-acquisition net and then segment leads based on participants' registration information.

"They're able to reach them for maybe a tenth of the cost," said Marty M. Fahncke, founder of Conference Call University, a virtual-education company. "It's a great tool for small businesses to make themselves look big."

Savvy marketers will participate in third-party events where the hosts' audiences correspond to their own, said Hill, who oversees webcasts and webinars at Network Appliance.

She leverages her purchasing power by investing in events put on by one or two media companies. The relationship allows her to negotiate guaranteed live and on-demand rates, as well as the category of registrants who count as qualified leads. "By negotiating down to title, I bring down my cost per lead so I only pay for my qualified leads," she said.

The expense of a virtual event extends beyond the production and real-time interaction, as marketers manage leads, Hill said.

"I don't think that webcasts alone yield a high-quality lead," she said. "They're great for awareness, but we don't know what [participants] look like, we don't even know if they've lied on the registration."

The company takes leads from webcasts and begins to whittle, she said, first with telemarketing calls and then with an invitation to chat with technology experts. Participants who register for the chat have been 14% more likely to become qualified leads, she said. Once the chat takes place, another telemarketing call goes out to set a sales appointment, she said.

"You have to look at the cost of all of that," she said, putting the average cost per lead generated by webcasts and technology chats between $50 and $100—significantly less than a physical event.

Managing content

For Yahoo! Search Marketing, lead management at eComXpo takes a different form. The company provides content that connects attendees to existing lead channels, Spagnoletto said.

Third-party producers of trade shows have developed software that makes incorporating such content fairly simple.

"Our show is really just a Web container," Grosshandler said. "Anything that can be on the Internet can be in the booth. We actually suggest that folks leverage existing content."

More specialized events, for example product launches or educational events, demand more attention to detail, marketers said.

"We'll do a webinar when we want to have complete control over our content," Spagnoletto said.

The company's webinars usually include a 25-minute presentation and 25 minutes for a real-time question-and-answer session, he said.

"It's important to keep it simple," he said. "It's very important to keep it short. You want somebody who is a good speaker. Title matters—people want to hear from someone who is important."

Titles also matter for marketers at Network Appliance, Hill said, where the industry has shown appreciation for peer-to-peer marketing.

The company benefits from working with third-party providers during lead-acquisition events, she said, but it produces 90% of its events in-house—an effort that calls for an integrated marketing approach that includes a dedicated Web group.

"The more the entire marketing organization wraps themselves around this, those events are going to be a lot stronger," she said.

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