Virtual events emerged as a technology for meeting professionals and event marketers to consider during the recession. Until now, most of the media coverage and research has been focused on how corporations and publishers have implemented this technology for their respective objectives. A new report, “Association Virtual Conferences: The State of the Sector,” was published in January 2011 that provides the first look into the current use and potential use of virtual conferences within the association and non-profit space.
The report is published by Tagoras, which helps organizations to leverage online learning to grow revenues and engage customers. After reviewing the review, three things emerged for me: generating revenue is a focus; growth within in the association’s space is still nascent; and whether or not virtual conferences will lead to perpetual environments.
“Simply throwing up a virtual platform and attempting to replicate what happens in a place-based event – many of which are not particularly engaging or effective from a learning standpoint – is a recipe for failure. There will be a learning curve as both association educators and association learners grapple with how best to take advantage of virtual platforms, but I have little doubt that they will play an important role in association education in the coming years.” – Jeff Cobb, co-founder of Tagoras
Generating Revenue Is a Focus
The report provides interesting stats that highlight that virtual conferences are no longer a novelty for associations and non-profits. While driving audiences to the virtual conference may not be an issue for those who have done virtual conferences, the question of generating revenue from virtual conferences is ever present.
The business models range from charging virtual attendees similar prices as for physical conferences, to incorporating exhibiting and sponsorship opportunities to virtual conferences. At this juncture, many are looking to the physical world analogy to develop revenue opportunities for virtual conferences. I argue that this analogy may inhibit creativity to create experiences that are truly unique to online audiences; thereby discovering new ways to monetize the online conference.
Rather, organizers will be challenged to drive traffic to specific sponsors, deliver better insights into online conversations, and better match exhibitor with potential customers:
“For many exhibitors, however, the different type of interaction that occurs in a virtual booth can feel less productive, and the nature of the environment also increases the likelihood of attendees ignoring exhibits altogether. On the other hand, virtual exhibit halls do offer exhibitors a new opportunity for exposure, and because virtual conference platforms are database-driven applications at their core, there is the potential for collecting valuable data about prospective customers. Whether these benefits outweigh the challenges for most exhibitors remains to be seen.”
Virtual Has Room to Grow
According to the report, the authors state that the rate of adoption of virtual conference will triple in the next 12 months:
“In a survey conducted from November 18 to December 23, 2010, 349 nonprofit membership organizations responded to a question about whether their organization currently delivers any form of instruction via computer, including a virtual conference. Only 8.6 percent, or 30 organizations, indicated having already offered a virtual conference.
While the percentage of organizations that have already embraced virtual conferences is relatively small, association use of this format appears poised to grow significantly in the coming year—among a subset of 257 organizations, 11.7 percent have offered a virtual conference, and 23.7 percent indicated that they plan to implement one within the coming 12 months. In other words, use of virtual conferences among this group may triple in the coming year.”
While the “rate of adoption” will triple within the next 12 months to 35.4%, nearly two-thirds of associations (64.6%) have no plans to incorporate virtual conferences. From my perspective, this indicates that 1) more education is required about the benefits of virtual, 2) associations have no intention of going virtual or 3) associations are still struggling to recover from the recession and virtual is not part of the equation at this time.
Perpetual Environments: Pro or Con?
While not highlighted as a challenge to date within the report, there was indication of how associations may leverage the virtual environment for ongoing activities with their audiences, leading to perpetual environments. I anticipate this to be an ongoing issue that many organizations – both associations and corporations – will face. Organizations that have already developed communities via social media or on their own website are now creating an additional “community” through the virtual environment.
“Representatives from two other associations are working on ways to attract people back into their virtual environment for activities throughout the year. ‘Once it’s built, it’s just there,’ said one of these interviewees, ‘and it’s very inexpensive to host it for a full year.’”
While inexpensive to host the content after the initial event, continuing the virtual conference as a perpetual environment or community presents additional considerations such as proper staffing to oversee the environment, consistency and integration with existing communities, alignment with corporate objectives, and more.
According to Jeff Cobb, co-founder of Tagoras, “Perpetual environments appear to be an emerging trend among some of the early adopters in the corporate world – IBM, for instance – but I have so far spoken to only one association that is seriously considering it. That said, I think it makes a great deal of sense for organizations that hold multiple place-based events and/or Webcasts throughout the year. A perpetual virtual environment has the potential to become a valuable extension of their bricks and mortar infrastructure – or, for the increasing number of associations that operate virtually, it can become their main infrastructure. I don’t expect to see associations rush to embrace this option, but it has enough common sense to it that I would be surprised if something along these lines did not emerge over time.”
Conclusions: Achieving Full Potential of Virtual
While written for an association-based audience, the report provides useful information for organizations regarding virtual conferences from the typical features of a virtual conference to varying case uses. In addition to the number of graphs on areas about (include the items), the report provides lessons learned from early adopters and 20 top tips about virtual events.
When asked about the role of virtual conferences for learning, Cobb responded, “The most obvious is that they have the potential to increase access to education. As we point out in the report, most associations reach well under a majority of their members through place-based events. Virtual events increase the possibilities for reaching and delivering value to members who may currently be under served.”
And that is the full potential of going virtual.