Virtual events at 'tipping point' of acceptance

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Virtual events in all their shapes and forms may be reaching critical mass as a mainstream marketing channel. Marketers, well aware of the possibilities of webinars, virtual trade shows, video conferences and virtual training events, are planning to use them increasingly in 2011 to augment other channels, both external and internal.

These were among the key findings of “State of Virtual Events,” a study jointly sponsored and conducted by BtoB and virtual events provider UBM Studios, a United Business Media company. The study tracked the use of a variety of virtual events—including almost any communications or marketing interaction over the Internet involving audio and/or video.

The study was based on a survey conducted online in October, with 501 executives, directors and managers responding. It found not only that management is overwhelmingly (96%) knowledgeable about virtual events, but that corporate commitment to the channel is increasing.

“This year was the year of the virtual event,” said Kate Spellman, senior VP-managing director of UBM Studios. “I believe we're at a tipping point with this channel, that we've made the jump from merely virtual events to virtual business solutions.”

Fifty percent of survey respondents said they planned to increase their involvement with virtual events this year, while 48% planned to maintain their current commitment to the channel. Sixty percent said they planned to boost their use of virtual events next year.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) view virtual events as innovative marketing and communications vehicles, while 57% tout their ability to reduce sales and marketing costs.

“It's an interactive marketing environment, with social networking, blogging and community-targeted advertising,” Spellman said. “That's why we'll see virtual events grow. It's bringing all this interactivity together.”

Marketers strongly embrace webinars, with 71% of respondents currently using or considering using them. Internal learning, education and training (65%) also are popular uses for virtual events, with sales and board meetings (32%) and focus groups (23%) also used by many marketers.

However, a supposed strength of webinars—the ability to record them for later viewing—was found to have a relatively minimal impact on audience participation. Fewer than one-fifth of respondents reported increased viewership of their on-demand webinar presentations.

“There's something appealing about attending a live webinar, knowing it's happening right now and that you can interact with the speakers,” said Aaron Spetner, president of Spetnik Solutions, a website design and communications company and a respondent to the survey. “If it's not live, even if it's interesting, I just put off watching it.”

Thirty-five percent of respondents said the strength of virtual events lies in their being staged simultaneously with a live event. “Virtual events simultaneous with live events are great,” Spetner said. “If I can't go to the live event, I'll look over the schedule and tune in to what interests me.”

While marketers are intrigued by virtual events as innovative marketing and communications vehicles, there is an abiding sense that they result in a loss of the “personal touch”; 54% of respondents indicated this loss of face-to-face experiences was an obstacle to their using virtual events.

Forty-four percent of respondents said they worry about the prospect of poor attendance at virtual events, citing the still-emerging nature of the events as contributing to “a lack of acceptance in the market.”

“While travel costs are significant, it can be more effective to fly to Tokyo and have that face-to-face meeting because of those cultural protocols that can't be translated in the virtual interface,” said Jim Spinello, senior VP-marketing communications at rEvolution, a sports marketing agency.

Other concerns expressed by respondents included the reliability of virtual event technology (26%), costs (26%) and lack of personal understanding of how to organize a virtual event (18%).

These concerns don't necessarily conflict with the survey's generally upbeat findings, as respondents seemed to be saying that virtual events can be a strong addition as long as marketers don't assume that interest in the technology alone will drive success.

“We have exhibited at two virtual trade shows in the past, and the first one we fell flat on our face,” said Jonathan Floyd, director of accounts receivable consultancy Brown & Joseph. “It was a combination of who we were exhibiting with—they didn't set it up right to drive traffic—and that what we had put together for display wasn't exciting.”

Floyd said he picked a better show organizer the second time around, put together a prize package to attract visitors to their virtual booth and staffed that booth with better prepared company personnel ready to engage visitors.

“It drove traffic. We got good brand recognition and were able to generate two very strong leads, one of which turned into a sale,” Floyd said. “We tripled our investment. ”

The BtoB/UBM survey drew the largest share (27%) of its respondents from high-tech and communications companies, with strong representation from manufacturing, financial services and entertainment/ media companies. Eighty-- eight percent of respondents were VP or higher, directors or managers.

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