Virtual events' success grows

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Event marketers are increasingly turning to the virtual world for staging large- and small-scale events. A recent white paper released by FactPoint Group, a market research firm, studied events created by Unisfair, a virtual event provider, and found that moving events to the virtual world can reduce spending and boost attendance, lead generation and attendee interest.

The study examined more than 200 Unisfair virtual events that totaled nearly 3,000 sponsors and 500,000 attendees. The results found that the average virtual event has a registration of 3,102 people with an attendance of 1,587. Leads generated for each sponsor totaled 348 per event, and attendees spent an average of two-and-a-half hours at each event while visiting an average 16 locations and completing at least five downloads.

Those numbers may sound surprising, but event marketers that have held virtual events for clients and partners agree that, in the b-to-b space, virtual events can be incredibly successful. Eric Myers, director, Internet marketing at Quest Software, a company that provides application, database and Windows management tools, recently held a virtual event with Unisfair aimed at clients upgrading their Microsoft Exchange software to the 2007 version.

Low Cost per inquiry

"We had more than 1,300 visitors sign up prior to the start of the show and more than 100 sign up the day of the show," Myers said. "That cost about $46 per inquiry. If you factor in the sponsorship, it drove [the cost] down to around $20 per inquiry … there's no way we could have gotten it down to that kind of cost per inquiry for [a live show]."

Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing at Advanced Micro Devices, a company that makes processors, graphics cards, flash memory and semiconductors, held a virtual event last year with Design Reactor, a digital communications agency and virtual event provider. According to Shaw, the success rate for AMD's event well exceeded expectations: "When you look at the physical trade show, we'll maybe give away 700 to 800 pieces of collateral. At a virtual event we can get 500,000 downloads."

For last year's AMD virtual event, held to promote the launch of a new product for the company's partners, the company was expecting about 400,000 clicks and 100,000 attendees. "What we ended up with was 1 million visitors and half a million downloads of content," Shaw said. "We also looked at session time. [On an] average Web site, folks are on less than three minutes. We were getting session times ranging between 10 and 11 minutes on average. [In addition, AMD targeted the event] toward influencers in North America. That's where we advertised it. However, we had about 200,000 hits from overseas."

"Here's the thing about events," said Don Best, director of marketing at Unisfair. "There are three reasons a person goes to an event: To gain knowledge from rich, accessible media and live interaction, to network and [for the] exotic location. … The technology has come to a point that supports that. We're never going to replace physical events, but what our clients are doing is they're using these [virtual events] to augment physical events."

And people are showing up. One of the reasons, according to Design Reactor CEO Leon Papkoff, is that in the b-to-b community, the convenience factor reigns above all else. "B-to-b people are so busy, and the world is really moving to an on-demand environment," Papkoff said. "In the physical world, [an event] has to be a set date; but when you're dealing with a virtual experience, why not allow the user to come to it whenever they want? Let them listen to the webinars and video, explore product and meet other individuals—[even if they] are online Saturday night at midnight."

The convenience factor allows even the most unlikely attendees to take time out of their busy schedules to attend. "Eighteen percent [of attendees at the AMD event] were at the VP level or above. That's one of the things we started to notice," Papkoff said. "It's more challenging in today's market when the CEOs and CTOs are somewhat like celebrities. They can't be out in the physical space as much. The virtual environment gives the opportunity [to attend an event]. For the next [AMD event], we've added a unique technology that allows CEOs to talk to other CEOs live at the site itself. … Our software will filter out the right people so they can communicate."

It's Comprehensive

Aside from convenience, event marketers have found that the reason virtual events have proven so successful is because they can mimic nearly every aspect of live events. "We do events on a real-world scale," said John Jainschigg, executive director of CMP Metaverse at CMP Media, a media and marketing solutions company that holds its virtual events inside Second Life. "[Our events are] six days long, [with] 50 presenters, a weekend of tutorials, a full convention center show floor, social events, networking events—it's a comprehensive thing."

"In virtual reality, if somebody gets bored they have a million other things to do [online] … or turn off their computer and go have a real life. The fact that they don't is [due to] all that the environment brings to the table in addition to great content," he said.

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