15 Tips to Profit From Virtual Events
As 2009 comes to a close, flat remains the (not so) new up in magazine publishing. Print advertising continues to take a flogging, online revenue is still an enigma to many publishers, and trade shows/exhibitions and conferences are taking a hit for many as well. One bright spot, however, may be virtual events—which, due to their no-travel-required nature, actually could be benefiting from the dire economic climate.
Virtual shows are like webinar series on steroids: An alternative to face-to-face conferences, they allow thousands of qualified registrants to log on to Web browser-based virtual environments to access conference programming, networking lounges and exhibit halls. Attendees can view live or recorded conference sessions; exchange virtual business cards; and "chat" with other attendees, exhibitors and sponsors—all without leaving their desks or incurring travel expenses. Best of all, they're a fast, relatively simple and fairly inexpensive way to link your advertisers to large numbers of qualified leads, strengthening your relationships with your audience and advertisers in the process.
While they are significantly less expensive to produce than a live event, it still will cost you to use any of the virtual events platforms on the market. (And costs will vary depending on different factors, such as the features you opt to include in your virtual show.) Experimenting with an unfamiliar product such as a virtual event can be daunting—especially in these times—so Publishing Executive queried virtual-events veterans about the keys to successful and profitable shows.
1. Don't just wade in—dive in.
To maximize success—and profits—it's important to commit the appropriate staff and resources to virtual show production. "For publishers getting into the space, they need to make a commitment to treating it as they would a physical event," says Robin Klombers, vice president of client services, InXpo, a Chicago-based provider of virtual event solutions.
2. Realize that content is the No. 1 key to a profitable virtual event.
A number of elements are important to a successful event—marketing, sales, the virtual platform itself—but, like a physical show or a magazine, it all starts with content. If the content is compelling, the registrations will come. And what better way to catch a prospective advertiser's eye than with a first-rate show registration list?
"Content needs to be at the core," says Martha Schwartz, vice president of group sales, InformationWeek Business Technology Network, whose company produces 18 virtual events each year.
"If you don't have good content and you don't have recognized content creators, you're going to have an uphill struggle," cautions Jeff Miller, director of e-strategy sales and marketing for Rockford, Ill.-based WATT Publishing.
3. Even when marketing the show, it's still "all about content."
"I started experimenting with our e-marketing big time, where I would have multiple messages designed, all text-oriented, and I would send A/B testing on the same day to see what subject lines and what messages got better traction," says Miller. "… And what we found is that, as you would imagine, it's all about content. The more that we highlighted the keynote presentation and the balance of the presenters in [other] presentations, the higher the traction we got for attendees."
4. Engage attendees.
"Offer a compelling visual experience, combined with high-value content," says Denise Persson, chief marketing officer of ON24, a San Francisco-based provider of virtual event solutions. The virtual environment has so much more to offer than a run-of-the-mill webinar—one-to-one and group chats, video, audio, scheduled discussions, and an exhibit hall loaded with interactive ways to match attendees with vendors. Don't underutilize these capabilities. The more attendees can do, the longer they are likely to remain logged in to the show.
5. Get an early start.
"You have to be ahead of the curve when you're marketing the show, and … have your [conference] agenda set up … at least two months ahead of time," advises Ginger Szala, group publisher/editorial director, Futures Magazine. "Make sure that you have a multi-integrated media marketing plan, which includes ads in your magazine if you have a print product, as well as getting lots of media partners to be able to push the word out. Start as early as you can."
Educating Your Exhibitors
Let's face it: A virtual event's financial success rests largely on the event producer's ability to sell it to advertisers. The vast majority of today's virtual events are free to qualified attendees, and if the attendees come, exhibitors should follow. A virtual show with no exhibitors and sponsors is like, well, a physical show with no exhibitors and sponsors, and will make for one ugly bottom line. But the real challenge is familiarizing a potential exhibitor or sponsor with an unfamiliar product. Here are a few tips to help educate those folks.
6. Designate an internal "champion" of your virtual events.
Miller, who spearheads all of WATT's virtual events, says, "You have to have a champion on the inside from the sales and marketing end. … Our publishers are swamped with the … day-to-day necessity of the business environment we're in … so, instead, we look at the publishers and sales reps as lead generators. … We train them on what the [virtual show] is … and they have enough ammunition to get some buzz going with exhibitors. Once they get the hooks set, they schedule a demonstration with me. I personally handle every client."
7. Poll potential customers on their interest.
"I always encourage my clients, if they are just getting into this space, to talk to their best advertisers," says Klombers. "Get their feedback as to whether or not this is something that they will be interested in participating in."
Be sure, however, to keep that input in context—e.g., if virtual events are new to your advertisers, they may not understand the possibilities enough to elicit their interest.
8. Sell the cost savings.
"… Vendors who go to physical trade shows, … pay for a booth, … send people out, and pay for their travel and hotel, … the only leads they actually get are people who stop at their booth," says Szala. "We were just talking to a [prospective exhibitor], and they only got 200 leads from their booth at [a recent live event]. If they would have been at our virtual show, they would have had 3,000 leads, and they wouldn't only have had the name and maybe the guy's address and e-mail."
9. Use training sessions to familiarize
exhibitors with the virtual environment.
"I encourage publishers to use tools such as desktop sharing to show what a virtual event is," says Klombers. "I encourage them to use Flash tours, which really create a unified message with pictures and visuals that explain not just what a virtual event is, but also the value … the fact that they're tying it in with registration, that there's reporting associated with it that's going to track everything an attendee sees, … does … [and] that it ties into lead generation for them."
"Before each event, [we host] an exhibitor preview day for all booth reps to access the show early and walk through the features and functionality of the virtual event platform," says Schwartz. "A dedicated project manager will train the booth reps on all of the communication features, and also provide best practices for the exhibitors so they are fully prepared." This helps ensure that the event will be a success for them.
10. Conduct post-event conversations.
Seek feedback from your exhibitors and sponsors on what they liked, and encourage constructive criticism. This input makes for better future events. "I interview all the sponsors individually, and I think that's crucial," says Miller.
Marketing Your Event
11. Use targeted, multiplatform campaigns.
"We've found that targeting our audience is the first step to an effective campaign. We don't send out e-mail 'blasts' to everyone … in our database like our competitors do—the recipients of the e-mail invitations are carefully selected based on their interests and their job functions," says Schwartz. "… Having a well-rounded campaign is also very important—we use e-mail invitations, promotional banners throughout the brand sites that host the event, and the lead editors involved will cross-promote the event with other related articles, or in their Twitter and social media tools."
12. Beware list fatigue.
"If you're doing nothing to maintain [a fresh list] and not cause list fatigue, [you're making a mistake]," warns Klombers. "… What are you doing to drive more readership or audience gen[eration] at this point? You should be using the Web and social media."
13. Involve your exhibitors in marketing.
"You should be making sure … that the sponsors and exhibitors have links on their Web sites so that they drive traffic to the event," says Klombers. "Some of that audience gen[eration] ties back to the sponsors."
14. Promote tweeting and social media use.
"Include social media within the event so it drives additional attendance and … new leads, because of people's social and professional network," adds Klombers.
15. Choose your provider wisely.
"Look for [a virtual events provider] who helps you market, is really there to educate you on the [virtual platform] and will help … [work] with your clients," suggests Szala. "We've had [InXpo's] sales representative go with my salespeople on sales calls to make sure that they understand the system."