Can Virtual Events Deliver Real-World ROI?

These are tough times for marketing executives. Faced with shrinking budgets and increasing pipeline targets, they have to deal with delayed sales cycles and markets that don’t behave the way they were taught in business school. Corporations who implemented rigorous travel restrictions are hesitant to go back to their old ways once they see the benefits to their bottom line. Add to this the growing concern about carbon emissions and global warming, and it’s no wonder the virtual events industry is booming.

Virtual events can be used for anything from corporate training to road shows, user conferences or global product launches. Web-based platforms allow participants to enter a virtual environment where they can view live or on-demand conference sessions, enter virtual booths, network with peers, speakers and event staff — all from the convenience of their Web browsers.

While many virtual environments look like elaborate real-world conference or training centers, IBM recently launched its Virtual Event Center, where high definition video and realistic graphics make participants feel almost as if they are in a real building. Smooth transitions from room to room, conference halls that dim the lights as sessions start, together with easy navigation by clicking on a map or integrated hot buttons are all state of the (virtual) art.

The environment and technology advancements are not only convenient and fun for attendees, they offer incredible benefits for companies hosting virtual events. By dramatically increasing their reach to include a wider audience at a much lower cost, marketers who have executed successful virtual events are rapidly discovering another aspect: a steady stream of highly qualified leads.

Physical trade show leads often provide little more than business card data. The overwhelming majority of information never makes into the CRM system, simply because it is very hard to capture. How do organizers track someone taking a datasheet from their trade show booth? How do they record the question a visitor is asking at a physical conference session? At a virtual event every activity, every chat, every poll question is recorded and can be associated with the individual attendee. The marketing team will know where attendees went, how long they stayed, what they saw and who they met.

Sales organizations have taken note of leads with this level of detail. After hosting a recent virtual event, a Telus event marketing manager recalled that sales people were lining up in front of her office, asking her to release the leads from her first virtual event — something she had never experienced with any of her previous marketing initiatives.

So now that you know why virtual events are a good idea, let’s explore the “how.” What do you have to think about, as you are planning your first virtual event?

Before the event:
-¢ Content is king. Make sure your content is fresh and schedule speakers far in advance.

-¢ Promote the event on social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Both sites provide target group segmentation, which can be very granular.

-¢ Keep registration simple. Limit required information to four or five fields.

-¢ Provide an easy way for attendees to place your event on their Outlook calendar and send reminder e-mails one week before and one day before the event.

During the event:
-¢ Keep sessions short, around 15-30 minutes. Leave breaks between sessions to encourage attendees to visit the exhibit hall and to network.

-¢ Hold surveys, polls, group chats and networking sessions to promote the exchange of ideas among attendees.

-¢ Your booth staff should be trained to point visitors to ongoing sessions, videos, white papers, datasheets or other collateral.

After the event:
-¢ Track, track, track. Analyze how long attendees stayed, what they viewed, what questions they asked and how often they come back to the on-demand portions.

-¢ Provide a summary of trends captured from your event (e.g., results of your surveys and polls to your registrants) in order to maintain the conversation within your community and provide value and insight.

-¢ Follow Up. The beauty of a good virtual event is that registrants can visit it any time they like. Use e-mail and social networking tools to follow up with non-attendees, share some of the excitement and encourage them to visit the on-demand environment.

With the above best practices in mind, the ROI of virtual events can be incredible. Make the insights into individual participants available to your sales team as part of your leads process. Your attendees will appreciate a conversation where the sales person knows what they experienced, what topics they are interested in, and what questions they presented. What’s more, your sales team will appreciate how these highly qualified leads will enable more meaningful dialogue for less, which is after all, the proverbial “holy grail” of lead generation.

And because of that, your virtual engagement strategy will soon be an indispensable component of your corporate marketing mix.

Joerg Rathenberg is senior director of marketing for Unisfair ( Unisfair, headquartered in Silicon Valley, provides virtual events and environments that deliver highly measurable results for the world’s most innovative enterprises.

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.