For those seeking to reshape strategy in line with a changed economy or strengthen their primacy in the ever-developing digital world, virtual conferences provide a tantalizing alternative that foregoes face-to-face interaction in exchange for some distinct advantages.
Potential cost savings: Virtual events eliminate the need for team travel and hotel costs, and they save you from booking a snazzy venue. They might also pose less interference on staff productivity: There is no travel time, and team-member involvement can be easily ramped up or down during the day of the event as needed.
That said, virtual events certainly aren't free, and ancillary charges for additional attendees or extra features can quickly up the investment, so a full evaluation is necessary to calculate your true savings.
Broader reach: Given the absence of travel costs, there are fewer limitations on who can attend. Moreover, several virtual conferencing technologies allow the virtual environment to be translated into multiple languages so that a more global audience can be served.
Most platforms also make event content available on demand for months following the conference; as a result, scheduling conflicts or other emergencies have less of an impact on total attendance, and additional prospects can be reached over time.
Data tracking: It's much easier in the virtual world to identify who attends, how long they engage, and how and where they interact during the event—valuable information both for exhibitors and for the event host.
A smaller carbon footprint: Of course, less travel all around also contributes to a healthier environment and signifies a company's commitment to the larger global community.
In many ways, virtual conferences require the same level of effort as physical events:
- There's still a need for strategy and selection of a theme.
- In-demand content, knowledgeable speakers, and awareness-generating promotions all continue to play important roles.
- Paid sponsorship becomes perhaps even more imperative as market forces trend toward a free-attendance model.
- Finally, just like a physical event, putting it all together takes ample planning and time.
Though the technology itself can be up and running within a week or two, production of a well-organized virtual conference event requires a minimum of 60-90 days, according to Malcolm Lotzof, CEO and cofounder of virtual event solution provider InXpo.
But there are distinguishable differences in how these types of events are planned and carried out—and the technology is just the beginning. The following insights will help you effectively navigate that process.
1. Selecting a platform
Assuming you're confident that your target market or industry will be open to participating and engaging on a virtual conferencing platform, one of your first tasks will be to identify the appropriate technology solution for your needs. Reputable candidates include InXpo, On24, Unisfair, and Webex. Your consideration process should assess whether their solutions meet your requirements around the following criteria:
- Functionality and ease of use: Determine which interface and interactive elements (such as text chat, surveys, etc.) will provide for an enjoyable—and intuitive—experience for your team, exhibitors, and attendees.
- Scalability: Verify whether the customized platform can be readily augmented if more attendees show than planned, whether there would be any downtime involved in such an instance, and how your pricing would be affected as a result.
- The registration process: Some vendors may handle the registration process for you but require access to your internal database to make that happen. You need to decide whether that tradeoff is acceptable or you'd prefer handling registration in-house.
- Reporting capabilities: Find out ahead of time what types of data will be collected, whether you'll receive raw data or summary information, whether reports can be customized, and how accessible that data will be for your sponsors.
- Turnaround time: As noted earlier, platform customization will likely require far less time than the actual planning of the event; nonetheless, you'll want to know what to expect in terms of timing, as well as how soon after the event content will be made available on demand.
- Level of support: Especially on your first run, the virtual event stands to be an unfamiliar experience for most involved. There will be questions. There will be unanticipated challenges. But what you can establish ahead of time is the level of support provided by the vendor before, during, and after the conference. Find out what kind of documentation the vendor provides, whether it offers training (for your team, and for your exhibitors) and there are any costs involved for training and support, and how many vendor representatives will be dedicated on the day of the event to handle any backend issues.
Also do a little research to find other organizations (not just the vendor's references) that have experience with the company's solutions so that you can get an independent perspective and solid feel for the platform's reliability.
2. Attracting sponsors
You'll likely need to rely on a sponsorship model to help make up your costs, and signing up exhibitors may prove challenging, especially initially. Your goal should be to first find an influential few that are willing to test the waters, then use those signups to convince their competitors and others within the industry.
Some suggestions for enlisting sponsors:
- Building pilot booths: Lotzof suggests building a branded sample booth for a few key prospects so they can get a feel for what it will look like and how their presence will be felt.
- Offering different package levels: Enable sponsors to start small with a basic booth package, then offer additional promotional and branding opportunities—sponsorship of the auditorium or networking lounge, or the keynote presentation, for example—at a higher cost.
- Providing in-depth lead demographics: Since attendance is free, you're entitled to ask attendees for detailed information such as title, industry, and company sales revenue, in order to assist sponsors in their lead-generation efforts.
- Highlighting the long-term advantages: Just as content is made available on demand for 90 days or longer after the event, sponsor booths also remain open to those who visit the platform. And sponsors continue to collect lead information on anyone who visits their booths throughout that post-event period.
3. Drawing quality leads
The challenge of enlisting sponsors has much to do with the possibility that lead quality may not be great, since attendees will not be charged—and therefore are not as vested—and could come from any industry or geographical region worldwide.
To encourage more-qualified leads to attend, try the following:
- Concentrate your promotions on niche sites and channels where your sponsors' ideal targets are more likely to engage.
- Offer focused presentation content that appeals to a select group.
- Schedule your event at the most appropriate hour for the time zone you want to reach.
- Drive in the opportunities for industry networking and explaining whom they'll be able to meet.
- Frequently remind registrants of the conference during the lead-up to the event.
4. Overseeing a successful event
For your event to be considered successful, you need both satisfied sponsors and contented attendees. If you've used the advice above to attract the right crowd, you're off to good start, but engagement during the event is equally important. The following tips will help you assure an optimal experience on the day of the conference:
- Offer guidance: Educate sponsors and attendees on where to go, how to access materials, how to chat, etc. Prior to the event you might send an email featuring best-practices, as well as place materials and videos within the conference environment. Information for sponsors should include pointers for building visually attractive booths and engaging attendees in a non-face-to-face environment. You might also include a virtual concierge to help greet and direct attendees.
- Make it interactive: Offer engaging elements such as lounges, chat rooms, blogs, and surveys, and keep the conversation active by employing a moderator or engaging attendees in those arenas yourself.
- Integrate social media: Designate a Twitter hashtag and encourage sponsors and speakers as well as attendees to tweet behind the scenes.
Last but not least, be realistic on your first time around. Though you may be tempted by the many features available through the digital platform, Lotzof suggests sticking to the basic elements for your first event so that you can keep it straightforward for newbies and focus on making those elements shine.
Want to learn more about virtual conferences and webinars? Attend our online seminar, Secrets for Building a Successful Webinar Program, to learn everything you need to know to plan, produce, and promote an online event that really stands out.
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