I’m excited to announce the launch of The Virtual Buzz, a new venture that I’m undertaking with Donna Sanford of Sanford Project Partners. I had the pleasure of working with Donna, first as editor of EXPO Magazine and then as part of our work on behalf of the Virtual Edge Summit.
At the end of February, the Virtual Edge Institute (VEI) announced a new certification program for digital event strategists (Disclosure: I do some consulting for VEI). While webinars and webcasts are an integral part of the marketing mix, digital events are fairly new for marketers and event practitioners. Besides those who experiment with the new medium, there are not many professionals experienced planning, building and implementing virtual events.
The timing of this new program is just another indicator of the momentum that virtual environments is gaining within organizations – both as a marketing tool and for event marketers. Until now, one of the main obstacles for organizations is to find and employ people with the appropriate expertise to manage virtual event programs. By training people on the ins and outs of digital events, this will further spur the growth within this industry. Here are a couple of responses to date:
Jessica L. Levin, Seven Degrees Communications, “I really like this idea. I think this is an area that is new, technical and requires a lot of education. I love that they use ‘Strategist’ in the designation. This tells me that the learning goes beyond mechanics and it a deeper, higher-level approach. All certifications should be taken with a grain of salt, but I appreciate the opportunity to get some formal education.”
Todd Hanson, ROI of Engagement, Catalyst Performance Group, “This is going to be an excellent thing for the industry! I applaud the efforts.”
What do you think? Leave your thoughts below.
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.
I highlighted three basic types of virtual events. In subsequent posts, I plan to highlight key questions you should ask as you evaluate your virtual event technology provider under the following categories:
1. Event Support & Experience
2. Virtual Event Planning Tools
3. Engagement & Experience
5. Metrics and Analysis
6. Product Roadmap/Innovation
This first part focuses on overall virtual event support and experience.
Number of Events Does Not Equate Experience
Many vendors cite the number of events they’ve developed as testament to their support and experience in creating successful virtual events. However, the number of events produced demonstrates only a company’s ability to, well, produce events. Would you select someone who did 1,000 poorly designed events or one who did 200 very well-conceived and implemented events? I argue you would select the latter.
So how do you get beyond the “number of events produced” response to delve into the characteristics you need to plan, build, design and implement a successful virtual event?
1. This is my first virtual event. What is your process with customers like me? What documentation do you provide to help me understand the steps and questions for a virtual event?
2. How many events do your event directors manage at any one time?
3. What is the event director’s experience in planning, building and implementing virtual or physical events like mine? Can you give me sample events s/he has been involved in?
4. How quickly does your team respond to clients? What is the average time elapsed for responses? 30 minutes, 1 hour, 1 day?
5. Do you survey your customers on their satisfaction? If so, what were the results? If not, why not and how do you know if you’re doing a good job with your customers?
6. Can you provide me with 3 customer references similar to my association, corporation or industry?
7. What is your recommended timeline for an event like mine?
What additional questions are there? Share them below in the comments.
While attending the Virtual Edge Summit 2011 last week, one question asked by attendees is “how do I create an engaging experience.” I would argue that the experience relies not on the platform you select but rather how involved you are in planning, designing, building and implementing the environment. However, many are new to going virtual and are unsure of how to proceed.
As such, I plan to write a series of posts to help meeting/event planners and marketers understand the process for going virtual. Please feel free to forward me your questions.
First, there are many types of “virtual events.” Let me highlight three flavors of virtual events that include multiple locations, such as an exhibit hall and auditorium, chat functionality and presentations.
Virtual Event “Out-of-the-Box”
A couple of the vendors are touting that they can build an event in one day. This is possible as certain features have already been pre-selected for you, such as presentation window and chat. While you can add a logo and some other basic branding, there is not much more to this. What you see is what you get with this virtual event.
Pro: Quick and easy set up with minimal monetary outlay (estimate of $5,000-10,000). Once created, you can reuse over and over again as a central library for your archived content and future events.
Con: You get a standard “virtual” event as defined by the vendor with minimal customization. This may or may not work for your particular audience with regard to providing an “engaging” experience. If you plan to use more than once, there may be additional charges for each new “event/presentation” with in the environment.
“Template-Based” Virtual Events
The next level is adding some customization options in terms of the location look-and-feel (usually selecting from a vendor’s library of themes) and adding/taking away certain features such as group chat, locations (i.e. an exhibitor space) and social media with a click of the mouse.
Pro: You have more control over the look-and-feel and how attendees interact with the environment. Like the “virtual event out-of-the box,” once you’ve created it, you can reuse the set-up for future virtual events you hold.
Con: Increased price tag to about $30-60K depending on the features, limited to stock library of images or providing images that fit a specific criteria, and requires more time and effort to design and implement. Furthermore, if using the same format repeatedly, you have to consider additional charges to light-up the environment, as well as if the look-and-feel will become dated.
Fully Customized Virtual Event
The high-end is working with the vendor to develop a fully customized environment from a branded look-and-feel to adding features beyond chat and social media, such as games and quizzes.
Pro: You are intimately involved in the building of the virtual environment that is customized to your event, brand and audience. This provides you with the best option for engaging your audience. Once built, you can add new features to further customize the experience.
Con: This takes a lot of time (recommend at least 6 months to plan, design, build and implement) and can be six figures or more. If you decide to add onto the environment, the challenge is how to integrate any new functionality seamlessly into the overall experience.
In the end, you need to find the right partner based on your budget, expectations and overall experience requirements. In my next post, I’ll highlight the types of questions you should ask when evaluating a virtual events platform provider.
What other pros and cons are there with the above three virtual event scenarios?
NOTE: I am providing pr/marketing services to the Virtual Edge Summit. This post reflects my personal opinions and is not representative of the Virtual Edge Institute or Virtual Edge Summit.
I previously wrote about some of the efforts we undertook to promote the Virtual Edge Summit. I would like to highlight some of the buzz coming out of the Summit and what this means for marketers. Interestingly, I anticipated hearing some innovations from the key players in the US virtual events market – INXPO (Note: I was previously employed here), 6Connex, and Unisfair.
Rather, for me, I was intrigued by the number of mobile developments by other providers at the show, Altus, Digitell Inc. and Social27. While this was surprising, it fits into my overall predictions about the industry, that newcomers will help push the innovation for virtual and hybrid events. Here’s a quick summary of the announcements. I also had the opportunity to speak briefly with Altus and Social27. Here is a quick overview of the Altus and Social27 news, and I plan to post the videos once I get those completed.
Altus Brings Conferences to the Palm of Your Hand
Altus highlighted their announcement as an extension of physical to provide a “hybrid” experience. The mobile application allows conference organizers to put the conference agenda, sponsor information and even presentations on your mobile device.
Why you should take a look? Since attendees proactively download the app to their device (supports many operating systems), conference organizers can continue pushing updates to attendees long after the conference has ended. If you leverage this as an opportunity to continue a conversation, you can keep members engaged while driving interest for the following conference, as well as open up possible revenue opportunities via sponsorships.
Taking Social Interaction to the Next Level with Social27
Social27 originally started as a service to bring social collaboration to enterprises. Seeing an opportunity, Social27 is moving into events and conferences. The company has a philosophy of “Social, Mobile and Local”, which Ike Singh Kehal, CEO of Social27, explains in his video (coming soon). Like the main U.S. players in the market, Social27 provides an environment with 2D locations for networking, exhibitors and sessions. Since the company comes from the social collaboration space, Social27 provides a simple integration with the key social networks.
Why you should take a look? Social27 does the social collaboration and networking well. I would venture to say that it provides the simplest and most intuitive interface to date. Furthermore, the company leverages the wealth of your social graph to provide “matches” to assist with networking. Currently available on Windows mobile phones, expect Social27 to expand the services to additional mobile OS. By adding the geographic aspect as well, Social27 provides marketers with the ability to search, seek and network with prospects – virtually or in the real world.
The Virtual Edge Summit provided great insight into how marketers can leverage virtual and hybrid events as part of the marketing mix. And an integral part of the experience is extending the event to mobile devices. Do you agree or disagree?
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.
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