Online events move from mimicking live shows to creating social networking environments
It's taken several years, but virtual trade shows appear to have hit their stride. For one thing, the enabling technology has grown more robust and feature-rich. Just as important, attendees have grown more accustomed to the idea of attending a “show” from their desks—a behavior that has been encouraged, no doubt, by corporate budget-cutting and travel restrictions.
At the same time, media companies have learned that virtual events can be very profitable.
Paul Miller, CEO of United Business Media's TechInsights, hosted a pair of trade shows in 2003 and 2004. “We had good attendance, but they were so much work internally that we mothballed them,” he said. “We re-entered the market this year, and we've been blown away. The technology is easier to use; the social engagement is great; and the lead generation is second to none.” After producing one virtual event in the second quarter of 2009, TechInsights will produce six in the second half; it is budgeted to do 14 next year.
Make no mistake: Producing a virtual trade show is still a lot of work. But media company executives say the payoff is well worth the effort. “The revenue is four to eight times as much as a one-off webinar, and the profitability is 10 to 12 times,” Miller said.
Danielle Hartley, VP-associate publisher at MedTech Publishing, said the data generated from a virtual trade show is more detailed and better organized than a physical trade show, making lead prioritization and follow-up easier. “You have the demographics for every attendee. Then, everything is recorded—who the attendees are, where they went, how long they stayed. Chats and e-mail conversations are recorded, too,” she said.
Through its association with the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), MedTech put on three virtual conferences in 2008 and will do four this year. HIMSS also produces an in-person trade show that draws nearly 30,000 people, but Hartley said the new virtual events do not compete with it. “Between 70% and 80% of the virtual trade show attendees don't go to the physical show,” he said.
Reed Business Interactive has produced five multisponsor virtual seminars and one single-sponsor virtual seminar this year, but only two of RBI's verticals (supply chain management and engineering) have been involved so far.
“These are among our most sophisticated groups from a technology perspective,” said Kevin Maloney, VP-sales and marketing at RBI. The company is planning four times as many virtual conferences next year.
Networking is key to the growth of virtual events, said Eric Biener, VP-business development for Nielsen Business Media. “We're moving away from positioning these as virtual trade shows,” he said. “The experience might graphically mimic a trade show, but these are really social networking environments.”
Nielsen produced 15 virtual trade shows in 2009, more than double last year's number. They won't double again in 2010, but “there will be a healthy increase,” Biener said.
The next evolutionary step for virtual trade shows is “to close the loop for buyers and sellers” through e-commerce or request-for-proposal (RFP) tools, Biener said.
Earlier this year, Nielsen incorporated e-commerce into its PDN (Photo District News) Virtual Trade Show. “We provided this audience with an end-to-end solution. They could research, evaluate, discuss products with exhibitors and peers, then actually make a purchase,” he said.
For b-to-b media companies covering high-end products and services for which e-commerce doesn't apply, a closed-loop solution could be something like an RFP engine, which Nielsen incorporates into its Virtual Meeting World events, Biener said. M