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Virtual Events: An Evolution of Marketing and Selling

Within the business-to-business (B2B) realm, large enterprise corporate events are often a major component of the marketing organization's operating budget. These events are frequently held at resort hotels or conference centers in popular destinations, such as Las Vegas. They're very expensive to produce.

What are the typical event goals? How does this investment deliver results?

In many cases, these events are funded as 'sales progression' activities. Meaning, the company invites key contacts from their existing customers that they know are already likely to purchase products and services. In reality, there's very little 'selling' that takes place.

More often than not, the event execution actually revolves around scheduled hospitality (meals, cocktails, and entertainment) rather than a definitive business objective. Keynote sessions set the tone for the remainder of the event. Education and certification opportunities are sometimes offered to attendees.

On the whole, the outcomes are somewhat predictable. Attendees appreciate the hospitality and knowledge transfer. Given this backdrop, what happens when B2B organizations must shift to virtual online events?

Virtual Events Market Development

Online conferencing applications were already in wide use prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. When the pandemic created the need to move in-person events to virtual meetings and conferences, these event hosts had a huge challenge. To a large degree, they were looking to replicate their 'in-person' experiences in the virtual world.

Some of the most common activities when attending an event in person are engaging in conversation, socializing, and networking with other attendees as well as exchanging business cards. Attendees at virtual events want to pursue similar activities by posting to social media, interacting with other social media handles, and exchanging LinkedIn profiles.

In fact, International Data Corporation (IDC) found that nearly half of all attendees at virtual events engage using social media, compared to just 16 percent at in-person events. But few event organizers actively facilitated this kind of attendee interaction with less than half of the events offering live chat to ask questions of speakers or for audience interaction.

"Live events are an important source of information for attendees and this is a function that organizers can handle very well with live streaming and content downloads," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director at IDC.

But an equally important reason to attend these events in person is the opportunity to meet and network with other people. According to the IDC assessment, organizers still have some work to do here to deliver an experience that will be equally beneficial to a remote and distanced audience.

The sudden shift to virtual events in the first half of 2020 produced mixed results in terms of attendance. While just over half of the events lost the audience in the transition, 46 percent gained attendees as a result. Removing travel requirements and audience familiarity with video presentations worked together to keep event attendance largely intact.

Moreover, it's a significant shift in execution -- moving from a focus on in-person hospitality towards delivering meaningful and substantive education content that provides real value in exchange for the attendees' time and attention. Minus the hospitality benefits, the attendee bar of expectations is raised.

Overall, about half of the attendees at these virtual events were neutral on their experience, more or less getting what they expected. But nearly a third indicated that they had a better experience than expected with some stating they had a better experience than an in-person event.

From an event organizer's perspective, the virtual events were largely seen as a success. The metric used by most organizers to measure success was attendance, but downloads, revenue, and audience engagement also scored well.

In general, technology companies were more successful with audience engagement while companies with branded communities saw higher session attendance and greater social media hashtag usage. Overall, nearly half found the virtual event to be less expensive to produce than an in-person event.

When asked what could have been done better, event organizers and attendees both identified 'engagements' during the event as one of the top areas for improvement along with 'audio quality' (organizers) and the need for 'closed captions' (attendees) on the technical side.

Both groups also identified 'networking' activities as something warranting further attention.

Outlook for Virtual Events Superior Value Creation

"Looking ahead, virtual events are people’s new 'real world' events," added Kurtzman. "To succeed, make sure attendees have easy ways to engage with each other, the organizers, and speakers. Use platforms that were meant for the purpose and prepare the platform, your social team, and support teams. Finally, make the impression a good one with video, lighting, and audio – and usable, authentic content."

Furthermore, I believe that when virtual events are executed effectively the marketing and sales return on investment can be a remarkable improvement over the more traditional in-person conference and exposition that's produced at an expensive hotel or conference center venue.

Besides, rather than merely inviting existing 'familiar' contacts at current customers, virtual events should also host 'unfamiliar' net-new client contacts and net-new prospective customers. Virtual events must be envisioned as a catalyst for 360-degree buyer and sales enablement -- where the attendees are exposed to thought-provoking ideas that enable them to achieve a business outcome.

Therefore, let's reimagine corporate event modality, and evolve beyond the status quo mindset of the past. Let's fully explore the untapped potential of utilizing digital media to convey bold and brave commentary about upside opportunities. Dare to be different.

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