While much recent talk about social media has focused on tools for marketing to, and managing, communities online, finding ways to build those communities can be a tougher hurdle. That's where virtual events can come in, says Way. "[Virtual events] are where communities … are catalyzed," he says. "Even if it's just for one hour, that's a community together discussing a topic. There are social and networking opportunities, and the ability to leverage that community into a greater one. … What we're seeing now is the development of social technologies in the last two years that really bring a wealth of opportunity to reshape these platforms."
Widgets and integration with social media platforms are just two ways virtual events are being connected to wider online communities. Vendors can collect Twitter and Facebook followers at their booths, and publishers can use these platforms for both pre-event promotion and building targeted, online networks.
"We did an event about social media where we had a [Forrester Research Inc.] social media guru speak, and … we engaged the audience directly before the event, asking them what they wanted [the speaker] to talk about during his keynote," Rathenberg says. "It's a way to engage with people and make it really their event."
At the Virtual Green Car Show, sponsors will be able to include Twitter and Facebook buttons at their booths, and attendees will be able to create their own impromptu networks while at the show by setting up scheduled chats with other attendees.
Social media also makes it easy to recruit new attendees during the event. A Unisfair client saw nearly 10 percent of attendees recruited while the event was in progress. "People were reaching out to their communities during the event saying, 'Why don't you join me?'" recalls Rathenberg.