This September, Crain Communications' AutoWeek will be rolling out the AutoWeek Virtual Green Car Show, highlighting innovation in automobile design, engineering and hardware. On display will be "green" power systems, hybrid and electric vehicles, and utility companies touting their role in a "green" future. Educational sessions will cover "green" technology, community infrastructure, recycling and legislation—all presented in a virtual trade-show environment provided by ON24.
The show is being billed as the first-ever business-to-consumer virtual event, and may point to a future where Web-based events and webinars make up an ever-increasing part of the revenue pie for a variety of publishers looking to both satisfy sponsors and audiences, and lower overhead (compared to the costs of in-person events for both event producers and participants).
"I think we are going to see more of this," says ON24'S Chief Marketing Officer Denise Persson, who believes virtual events' next frontier may be marketing to enthusiast and other consumer communities. Early indicators of this trend include Oprah Winfrey's 10-week webinar series run with author Eckhart Tolle for his book "A New Earth" in 2008, and the growing popularity of book club webinars in general. In addition to its partnership with Crain, ON24 recently hosted a "hybrid" event with Nielsen Business Media, aimed at professional photographers and serious hobbyists.
AutoWeek, which has put out a special Earth Day edition annually for the last 20 years, sees the virtual car show as a way to extend its brand, both through content and the utilization of an eco-friendly format.
"This event … is not only for car enthusiasts. It's for people who follow the 'green' movement, as well as the general public," says Tony Foster, advertising director at AutoWeek. "We think this will show us as being a leader in presenting a unique event, and [providing] opportunity to both our clients and our subscribers.
"When you look at the amount of money that is invested by the car manufacturers when they exhibit at a physical car show, their costs to be a sponsor at our show are 1 percent or less compared to [that]," he continues. "… You save money on shipping fees, drayage fees, lodging, airfare, not to mention the benefit to the environment [from] an attendee being able to attend a show like this from the comfort of their home or work."
Overhead cost savings are one of virtual events' and webinars' most important benefits, agrees Ken Molay, president of consultancy firm Webinar Success. "[Return-on-investment] improvements are mainly due to your ability to reach a wider geographic audience without incremental investments in travel, lodging, local advertising … and so on," he says. "A single webinar can involve prospective advertisers or affiliates from across the country or even around the world. A compelling topic or value proposition can result in many hundreds of new registrants, who become a part of your target audience for future promotion, marketing and sales campaigns."
The Revenue Promise
As the virtual events market grows, publishers are working with vendors to find innovative ways to monetize the platform. The most compelling revenue-generating prospect, believes Joerg Rathenberg of virtual events provider Unisfair, is lead-generation. "One thing about online, as opposed to [an in-person] show, is you have complete control over the data … being generated. We have a very detailed way of reporting exactly what happened at the event, and that's very good for lead-generation," he says. "We know who [attendees] are, what time they arrived, how long they stayed, which booths they visited and what kind of chats they had with booth reps—the entire content of the conversation—which is not normal if you go to a trade show."
This detailed attendee information allows publishers to offer sponsors targeted lead-generation. ON24 assigns scores to names, weighing their relevancy and worth based on an individual's activity level at a virtual show and the nature of their interactions.
Unisfair also offers a lead-ranking tool, which allows sponsors to customize an index to the specific lead types they are looking to generate—say, chief financial officers on the East Coast who visited a specific session and downloaded a certain whitepaper. "If these [conditions] are met, then this is a qualified lead that can be sent over to sales," notes Rathenberg.
"The platform ON24 is providing us will enable us to give our sponsors a great deal of feedback and pulse-reporting from attendees … [to] the show and individual sponsors' booths," Foster notes. "After the show is over, we will be able to tell our sponsors how many people attended, how many walked into their booths, how many requested information or downloaded a marketing brochure, how many watched the video … in their booth."
Unisfair client Haymarket Media Inc. offers booth sponsors lead guarantees, along with incentives to ensure sponsors put effort into their presentations. "You only get the leads that come to your booth, so you still have to do the work," notes Tony Keefe, director of business development at Haymarket Media. "If you want to exceed the guarantee, which most of our companies who participate do, you need to be active at the virtual events. … [There needs to be] someone at the booth who can answer questions in real time, and they need to tailor their content around the subject matter of the event."
Haymarket's use of virtual events for its b-to-b title aimed at information security professionals, SC Magazine, offers a good example of the innovation possible when these events are built into an overall product structure. SC runs 15 virtual events a year and maintains an ongoing destination where IT security people can access archived events and supplementary information. "We created a year-round, permanent virtual environment with a trade-show floor populated by vendors who bought into the concept of the 12-month cycle," Keefe says. The structure dovetails well with SC's yearly physical trade show, SC World Congress. "You have the option of buying a [physical] trade show booth on its own or you can package it with a booth that sits inside our virtual environment, which means you are there for the 15 virtual events we run during the year," Keefe says.
While not every Haymarket brand that hosts online events is maintaining a perpetual online environment, "The principal of following the lead-gen model and running events that kick back leads to supporting vendors … is being followed pretty much universally," Keefe says.
Haymarket replicates the conventional trade-show environment, with sessions throughout the day, virtual exhibit halls, speaker and networking lounges, and resource centers. "We find … the more you replicate a traditional trade-show environment, the easier it is for people to find their way around," Keefe says.
However, options exist for hosts looking to break out of the traditional "convention center" mold. "You can just as well take a green tree in a meadow and have a picnic," Rathenberg notes. "Intel had a huge [virtual] sales conference and did all their sessions on a beach, meeting in huts with speakers with Hawaiian shirts. They had a blast."
Publishers that don't want to stray that far from the norm can still offer attendees a variety of engaging features, such as the ability to download materials into a "virtual show bag," build in virtual hosts (avatars) who look like real people and interact on the show floor, and announcements made via pop-up notices that highlight certain sessions or sponsor booths. "Basically," Foster says, "attendees [at the virtual car show] will be able to do everything they can at a physical show ... [except] sit inside a car."
Sponsors can utilize green screens with logos, build in informational videos or take advantage of scrolling marquees and other banner opportunities. They also can get creative with booths, making them essentially private meeting rooms, allowing public and private chats to occur simultaneously, even in some cases utilizing live translation. "If you chat with someone in China, you can type everything in English, and [he or she] will read everything in Chinese," Rathenberg says.
Publishers not ready to jump into virtual events can derive some of the same benefits from hosting individual educational sessions, or webinars. Asking the right questions of attendees (via registration forms or audience polls)—such as if they are planning to buy a certain type of equipment in the next 30 days—can go a long way toward building quality leads, says Nick Balletta, CEO of TalkPoint. Webinars are also compatible with paid content models; last year, TalkPoint handled more than $2 million in pay-per-view transactions through the company's e-commerce process, he says.
Webinars and virtual events can be great ways for publishers to leverage subscriber and contact lists to sponsors' advantage, Molay says. Webinars hosted by the publisher, but featuring content provided by the sponsor, can be promoted to a magazine's subscribers, attracting valuable leads for the presenter. "Done properly, this can be a triple win," Molay says. "The audience gets access to relevant subject matter they care about, the third-party businesses get exposure to new contacts, and the publisher gets revenues and a reputation as a value provider. Done incorrectly, the publisher is seen as a pushy marketer willing to waste their contacts' time in exchange for nothing more than an obvious marketing pitch."
When planning to host a webinar, Balletta says, avoid the temptation to throw all effort into the marketing side at the expense of good content. "Revenue people start thinking this is low-hanging fruit, and become so focused on sponsorship dollars, they start losing their audience," he warns. "The idea is to get face-time with the sponsors to try to glean that revenue stream, but sometimes [presenters] miss the need to be thoughtful in terms of what content they are going to distribute. … The idea is to get people to want to come back on a regular basis. That's what [really] drives sponsorships."
If you decide to host a full-fledged virtual event, be sure to plan ahead, allowing at least 3 months for sales efforts, advises Persson. "If someone is trying to sell me a $10,000 or $20,000 sponsorship, I need time to plan for that in my budget," she notes. "You cannot sell sponsorships six weeks before the event and be taken seriously; … [and] you need to start planning your virtual event five to six months out. It's not that it is difficult to implement, but you need that timeline to develop sponsors [and] content."
Paul Way, senior director of business solutions at ON24, says the learning curve for new clients actually tends to be quite fast, especially if they have done live events. "It's actually very similar," he says of the process. "There's a million moving parts to staging any sort of collaborative event, and someone who has experience doing that, whether a breakfast panel discussion or three-day trade show, understands what it takes."
"The problem with the virtual event is people think it's automatic, it's on the Web, it's easy and you have everything there," says Rathenberg. "You still have to put in the work. You still have to make sure you prep your speakers, you have to practice, you have to do a dry run to make it a really professional event."
Molay says it's key that webinar and virtual events presenters constantly focus on audience value and benefits: "This needs to be emphasized in the event title, … description, … marketing and promotion, and … the content. … Give the audience what they came for as quickly as possible. People can (and will) leave a webinar within minutes if they view it as being for the producer's benefit rather than their own."
Don't use live video of your presenter unless you have the technical skills necessary, Molay adds. "Presenters can look uncomfortable on video, they can't reference their notes as unobtrusively, and modern audiences take note of every subtle production aspect such as framing, focus, lighting, clothing and background. We expect smooth and polished video from businesses because that is what we see on TV. It turns out to be difficult to reproduce that quality in a casual Internet production," he says.
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.
While virtual events have many benefits, they need not be seen as replacements for live events. "I'm a [physical] trade show fan," Rathenberg says. "We're not trying to put physical events out of business." He believes virtual events should be seen as an addition to any publisher's stable of revenue- and audience-generating products, and cites one creative hybrid model in particular, that of a client who held a worldwide-focused virtual show and then took it on the road, staging a series of smaller events to meet with local stakeholders. PE