Virtual trade shows were not an easy sell at Quest Software. Eric G. Myers, director of Internet marketing at the technology company, wanted to test the online events medium, but product managers shied away from budgeting dollars for a platform that had not already proven its value within the company.
“We're a lead-generation-based business and a sales-focused, product-focused company,” Myers said. “Marketing has to be on its game and make sure we are delivering value to the business.”
He found his test case last November when a manager working with the Microsoft Exchange campaign bought into the concept. The company hasn't regretted the move—Quest held two virtual trade shows last year and currently has scheduled four events this year.
“Once we got that one person to take the chance on us and we were able to collect the data we wanted, it was very clear it was a success,” he said. “If it had failed, we wouldn't have done it again.”
Companies like Quest have increasingly gravitated to virtual events, drawn to a medium that allows organizers to cut travel and other event costs while interacting with customers in an environment that grabs attendee data and feedback.
“Virtual events have gone beyond the novelty to gain mainstream adoption,” said Brent Arslaner, VP-marketing at Unisfair, the virtual events producer that worked with Quest on its inaugural online show. The company's customer base has more than tripled in the past year, he said, with much of that growth coming from enterprise companies interested in putting together product launches and user events.
When Cisco Systems launched its new ASR 1000 router in March, for example, the news came via an online event, a prerecorded executive presentation that allowed attendees to ask questions in real time. The global event went live four times between 9 a.m. and midnight allowing the product to debut in disparate locations—the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, India—on the same day. It made a long day for the marketing team at Cisco, said Doug Webster, director of marketing for the service provider segment at Cisco, but it allowed the company to unveil its product with the flair of an in-person event.
“Companies are always looking for that onstage reveal,” he said. “We were able to do it, but it was very scalable.”
About 2,500 people attended the first session, drawn to the largest online event in the company's history not only by e-mail blasts and traditional media coverage but also by content distributed to bloggers and by such social networking sites as Facebook. “You're letting your audience distribute your content,” Webster said.
A separate, same-day launch on Cisco property in the virtual world Second Life saw more than 80 attendees walk through an online replica of the new router. The company bought banner ads on prominent sites to drive traffic to marketing materials on their site. It built a game around the new product and invited top prospects to take part in telepresence sessions that put them at a virtual table with company contacts.
“You don't want to translate your physical world approach to marketing to the virtual,” Webster said. “The Web allows you to do a whole lot more.”
The events and the marketing campaign created a strong buzz, he said. The company reached its audience. “There isn't one clean metric, but if people are talking about it favorably, we've helped the field engage with customers,” he said.
And over time—as potential customers register to watch the archived launch presentation, and the sales force starts to see what kind of revenue comes out of the leads generated through the event—Cisco will be able to measure more than buzz. Moreover, the company could be setting a marketing pace favorably viewed by analysts and other industry stakeholders.
All marketers do not approach virtual events with the same goals. For Quest, the sought-after outcome is three-pronged: “They hit on our three main objectives: lead generation, awareness and thought leadership,” Myers said.
Mimosa Systems, an information management solutions company, works with virtual event producer ON24 to create about a dozen webinars a year, focusing on lead generation. “Awareness is a byproduct of that,” said Sarah Howard, senior campaign manager and acting director of corporate marketing at the start-up company. She recommends testing extensively to get the kind of lead results desired. “Do several of them and really play with it,” she said.
Jerry Skurla, VP-marketing at Bradford Networks, said webcasts are helping the start-up security company expand out of its vertical market. “I do as much Web as I can,” he said. “It's [about] awareness and leads. We're a new company, and we want the world to know about us.”
While technology companies may be ahead of the virtual curve, marketers in other industries are finding the Web a useful platform as well. Seattle-based luxury travel company Cruise West, for example, puts on more than 800 virtual events a year, said Peter Rumm, manager-online marketing. Many of those events consist of small, interactive training sessions for travel agents interested in learning to sell the company's cruises.
“It's so simple,” Rumm said. “We have the most technologically inept people tuning in.” M