Note: Unless indicated, comments are based on my experience going into various platforms and are not indicative of any one platform’s pros/cons:
With any new initiative, the ability to tie results to objectives is instrumental for receiving continued stakeholder support for the initiative. While many vendors tout their capabilities to provide detailed statistics, the question is how to go beyond raw data to actionable data. Furthermore, how easily can I take this data to develop the right reports and analysis for my stakeholders.
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.
So you’ve decided to move forward with a virtual event. You have your team in place and have established a structure for planning the event. Now you have to design and build it. Since “virtual” event experiences are so new, many event and meeting planners are turning to vendors and suppliers to counsel them through this process.
The challenge is how to avoid “cookie-cutter” virtual event experiences that may not be appropriate for your audience and objectives. Consider these questions under the specific topic areas (* are questions contributed by Donna Sanford of Sanford Project Partners, your outsourcing partner for events, print and digital media). What additional questions do you have?
1. What works best – audio, video or video-only presentations?
2. Presenting virtually is quite different than in-person. What recommendations do you have for designing the presentation? This includes length of preso, use of slides, inclusion of polling questions, etc.
3. What training can you provide my speakers to address a virtual audience?
4. What type of social media integration do you have within the presentation console for virtual audiences?
1. What tools are available to familiarize my audience before they enter the virtual event?
- can these be branded with my logo?
- what if I want something customized for my event? What is the cost and time constraint?
- do you have an attendee guide that people can download? For those who prefer a manual, this document would provide screenshots of the key elements of the event and what each function is.
2. I have to drive audiences to a specific presentation, booth, etc. for my sponsor/exhibitor. What is the best way to do this?
3. How can we create an experience that easily guides my audience through the virtual event?
- How do we map this out before we begin building the event? The purpose of mapping is to ensure that your key objectives are forefront during the planning stages.
- What are the average number of clicks it will take for someone to do activity X? This can include: getting to a presentation, attending a group chat, sending a vcard, engaging in a one-on-one chat, visiting a booth in the exhibit hall, etc.
1. What chat functionalities do you have? These usually include text-based one-on-one, many-to-many, and group chat. Video chat is just emerging and worth asking about.
2. What social media integration do you provide?
- Where/how does one access the social media capabilities?
- Are these consistently available in every area of the virtual event? For example, is twitter available in the group chat area but not in the exhibit hall. Why or why not?
3. Do you have match making capabilities? How does it work? And do they bring in my existing social graph from other social networks?
4. How do you connect speakers with the virtual audience?
5. How do you help exhibitors/sponsors engage with attendees?*
6. What kinds of tools or programs do you have for attendees to engage with one another?*
1. What tools do you have for the in-person and virtual attendees engage with one another?*
2. With regard to the physical event, would you program the virtual event exactly with, separately from or a combo of the two? Based on my event, what would you recommend?
3. Should my virtual event be visually similar to my physical event?
3. Pulse Staging: Tips for Presenting to a Virtual Audience
4. A Wider Net: Why Engagement Matters More for Virtual Events
In this installment of PRMM Interview, I spoke with Dennis Shiao, author of the It’s All Virtual blog and “Generate Sales Leads With Virtual Events.” This video highlights the motivation behind writing his book, top tips for generating leads via virtual events, and a special offer for his book.
A common thought is that the existing physical event team can “add” virtual as an additional responsibility. But in a recent post, Dannette Veale of Cisco refuted this approach, advocating that a virtual team be in place to manage your virtual event. Another misconception is that your virtual event vendor will provide the necessary tools to smoothly proceed with your event.
Also, don’t estimate the amount of collaboration that will take place. Have a systematic approach to capture these conversations, collaborations and decisions is key to minimizing misunderstandings and mistakes for your event. Consider using a centralized location for this. If the vendor doesn’t have an intranet/extranet, consider using something like Google Docs (share documents) or PBWiki (share docs and track changes with wiki functionality).
In the second in a series of posts, here are questions to consider when working with your vendor:
- 1. Do you have a handbook outlining all the steps for planning my event?
- 2. What is the typical timeline and milestones that I need to be aware of for this event?
- 3. Do you have a project timeline that we can mark our progress against?
- 4. What is the process for collaborating and documenting changes/decisions for the virtual event?
- 5. Is there a central place for our respective teams to collaborate?
- 6. I have never done a virtual event before. What are the key differences between planning a similar event virtually versus in person?
- 7. What team are you putting in place to help me with my virtual event? What are their roles and responsibilities?
- 8. What is the ideal virtual team that I should have in place? What are the roles and responsibilities for each person?
Other Posts In the Series:
For nearly 3 years, I’ve been writing about PR, marketing, social media, and most recently virtual events. At times, I’ve been very prolific and other times I’ve gone weeks without a post. As a commitment to myself and to you, my readers, I wanted to share some updates for the site in a short video message that I hope will make the blog more useful for you.
Briefly, I am enacting an editorial calendar to help develop a schedule of posts and expectations. My writing schedule will be Mondays (virtual events), Wednesdays (pr, marketing, social media), and Fridays (PRMM interviews with industry experts).
I also want to invite you to submit your ideas for potential blog topics and interview subjects (email or video). Here are some high-level bullet points on what I’m looking for in guest posts, interviewees and/or blog ideas, such as surveys highlighting key trends, case studies that demonstrate ROI, interesting case uses of technology, someone who is truly visionary, etc.
But, most importantly, read my past posts first before connecting with me.
If you’re interested, please drop me a note either in the comments or via email. I look forward to hearing from you and watch here for future announcements.
Cece Salomon-Lee is director of marketing for ACTIVE Network, Business Solutions division, and author of PR Meets Marketing, which explores the intersection of public relations, marketing, and social media.
This blog contains Cece's personal opinions and are not representative of her company's.