Virtual now part of show

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Portfolio management software company Planview stepped into the virtual events arena in 2009 when the financial crisis threatened to gut its annual face-to-face user conference. “Our customers didn't have the funding to get there,” said Kimberly Stone, manager-Web and creative services. “We didn't want to not have it at all, and a lot of the value comes from them getting together and exchanging best practices and tips. Webcasts would not replace the event.”

Planview developed an online conference that attracted a record number of attendees; but, in the end, the format did not prove to be a good match for its goals. The company developed content for live and on-demand sessions, and built a Meet the Expert feature that offered one-on-one chatting sessions at the expense of upgraded phone lines and the transport of experts to man those lines. “We were trying to match [our physical event] one-to-one,” Stone said. “But it's not the same level of connection you get in person.”

Customer travel budgets freed up the next year, and the company went back to its face-to-face conference, but the retreat did not mean that Planview had written off virtual altogether. Like many marketers that first dipped a toe in virtual waters after the economy drove down face-to-face event attendance, the company shifted strategies.

“We're now mapping the technology to a program,” Stone said. “We're thinking about the best way to get information out there. We're not really thinking about travel budgets.”

And while the company had never done face-to-face product launches, it decided to replace direct mail and webcast programs with a virtual launch.

“Virtual absolutely produced the best results,” Stone said. More than 300 customers attended the live event, and the company has built on that success with a subsequent virtual launch.

Planview also created themed industry virtual events designed to solidify the brand's position as a thought leader. “We put experts and product developers in the booth—people who can talk deeply,” Stone said. “We want that feeling of participation. There's not a real sales push around these events. If you are a thought leader in your space, that will lead to sales.”

More than 750 people attended on the day of the virtual event, drawn to the live portion by contests and giveaways offered via such social media sites as LinkedIn.

You can also see a real shift in the core competencies of event marketing, said Michael Doyle, executive director of Virtual Edge Institute, an organization that promotes the use of online events.

“The technology is there, but marketers are challenged to take the event creativity that [they've] always been able to apply to the physical world and apply it to the digital world,” Doyle said. The institute in June will introduce the industry's first certification program, focusing initially on getting event marketers and producers familiar with the technology, then building out events strategy.

In the meantime, marketers such as Cisco Systems and event producers like United Business Media are helping to drive innovation. Dannette Veale, virtual and social technology strategist at Cisco's Global Sales Experience, led strategy for the award-winning hybrid Cisco Live 2010. The event experimented with everything from live video streams on Facebook to attendee-based “heat maps” and integration with Twitter.

“I get to play in sandboxes that other people don't,” she said. “Cisco is all about risk.”

When Kate Spellman, president of UBM Studios, talks about the future of virtual events, she describes hybrid environments that combine the best of physical and virtual worlds, as well as what she calls “evergreen virtual events.” These multievent branded platforms connect on the back end and allow marketers to manage content and analyze data across the spectrum. “We're at the very beginning of this,” she said.

And though a virtual event may complement a face-to-face trade show, its interface does not need to replicate the look of its physical counterpart, she said.

Platform providers are also creating self-service products that bring down price points and reduce the number of hours invested in creating the virtual event environment. “We have to simplify event creation and maintenance,” said Malcolm Lotzof, CEO of INXPO Inc. In January, the company rolled out a new platform that allows users to assemble an event in about an hour. “The bulk of the time spent on the event should be around content.”

His company demonstrated his view of the booth of the future at a hybrid event the same month. “We split the booth down the middle,” he said. “We had stations where we demonstrated [the new platform] and, on the other side, we had an emcee. She was pulling people off the show floor and talking to them, watching the Twitter feed and watching the sessions. It was produced on the fly and streaming, but what a low cost to reach a bigger audience!”

Return on investment should be about three to 10 times the cost of the event, said David Rich, senior VP-program strategy at experience marketing agency George P. Johnson Co. But it should not be the only thing marketers consider.

“You've got to think about the future if this is going to have growing viability,” he said. “If you can start to build an early base of people who attend virtually, you have an advantage.”

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