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Tactic Deep Dive: Virtual Events

December 28, 2017

Look around and you’ll see them; things that many people do, but relatively few do well. Whether attempting home improvements, cooking, dancing or ordering wine in a restaurant, most of us know we’re not experts but due to necessity (trying to save money), foolish pride (trying to impress someone) or both, we make the effort.

The same phenomenon exists when it comes to b-to-b demand creation tactics. Despite their ubiquity, we commonly get questions about how to improve their performance, including when/how they should be used and for whom. To address these queries, SiriusDecisions launched a series of “deep dives” focused on optimizing a range of demand creation tactics; in this issue, we take a closer look at virtual events.

Setting the Stage

According to our research, b-to-b organizations spend the largest portion of their field marketing budgets - roughly 20 to 30 percent - on live events and trade shows. A lack of clear goals, strategy and proper execution has led a number of organizations to shift at least part of this investment to virtual events.

SiriusDecisions defines virtual events as online conferences, trade shows, seminars, internal events or customer sessions that seek to approximate the experience of attending a physical event. They hold appeal due to the fact they provide a personalized experience, and enable activity tracking and metrics that organizations can leverage to generate leads. They can be targeted to prospective buyers at various stages of the buying process, and at a much lower cost than holding waves of similar live events across a number of target market geographies. Finally, customer-focused virtual events can drive engagement, deliver value and solicit feedback in a way that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Hosting a virtual event requires a technological platform that at a minimum offers event registration, communications/interaction, the representation of a physical location (e.g. a conference hall for presentations and an exhibition hall for sponsors), creation of personal avatars for staff and attendees, polling/surveying and media/content distribution. Over the years, many of these platforms have become increasingly sophisticated, now offering one-on-one chat, video conferencing, social media elements (e.g. blogs, discussion forums), support for multiple languages, and integration with other systems including customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation platforms (MAPs).

Before the Event

Due to their lower cost, virtual events are often perceived as requiring less work than their in-person counterparts. While the logistics are certainly different, preparation and strategic planning require the same attention to detail. Appropriate staff (e.g. field marketing, product marketing, sales, IT) must be trained to “work” the event, with a detailed project plan that includes resources, content, public relations and marketing activities with milestones and deadlines. Before holding an event, key considerations include:

  • Promotion. Virtual events are typically promoted through three-pronged programs that include email, social media and telemarketing. Social media can be a powerful tool to promote virtual events by encouraging well-connected speakers to tweet and blog about their participation, and using LinkedIn and Facebook groups to drive awareness. One key difference is in the pre-promotional length; while offline events can begin urging potential attendees to “save the date” several months in advance, virtual event promotion typically lasts only between 60 and 90 days.
  • Training. Many accomplished speakers struggle to perform at virtual events because there’s little immediate audience feedback, so be sure to conduct at least one virtual dry run with each speaker. Offering training to speakers beforehand to build/sharpen their online presentation skills is a best practice.
  • Lead qualification. Virtual event platforms enable organizations to gather a tremendous amount of data on attendee activity during the event. Pre-define high value and qualifying activities (e.g. downloading selected content, completing forms, attending product demos) for attendees, and plan for ways to drive targeted visitors to engage in these activities.
  • Plan to engage. Since people will be attending a virtual event from their office or cubicle, there will be distractions, making it particularly important to identify ways to keep the audience engaged. While clearly unwise to charge attendees, when appropriate (and justified by high-value content), consider some type of fee just to encourage attendees to pay attention. Also, send reminder emails to all registrants one week out, and then two days prior to the event to drive attendance.
  • Regional issues. Hosting virtual events for audiences in various global regions presents additional challenges. Prepare to support multiple languages in all virtual environments, user interfaces and sessions, as well as in direct interactions with attendees. Also, be aware of legal differences in some countries; this can impact an organization’s ability to track user behavior and gather/use attendee information.

During, and After the Event

The morning of a virtual event, send a final reminder via email that includes event highlights and incentives for attending; be prepared to accept any late registrations the email attracts. Send attendees a Twitter hashtag for the event, and have all speakers remind attendees of the hashtag to encourage tweeting, raise awareness and draw more registrations. To drive engagement and encourage a greater range of activity that can be tracked and scored, don’t frontload the event with high-profile speakers and sessions; balance content to encourage attendees to remain and/or return later in the day. Provide digital show guides and use real-time messages and video in the event hall, at booths and other virtual rooms to drive session attendance.

Make content, demos, collateral and other assets that align with pre-defined qualification criteria available for attendees to access and track as part of their overall profile. Consider presenting a video welcome message as attendees enter the virtual event, reinforcing key messages and driving high-value activities. An online “booth” should be staffed the same way as an offline one; visitors must be proactively engaged, with demos and qualification questions asked by well-trained attendants able to read digital body language through chat and attendee behavior. Arm staff with pre-built messages, copy, introductions and answers to common questions to help them manage multiple chat sessions at once and ensure they stay on message. Finally, take advantage of every interaction opportunity that virtual event platforms afford, including using audio, video, polling and live Q&A, as well as virtual lounges where attendees can interact. Ask speakers and other subject matter experts to take shifts in communal areas to engage attendees. Finally, build networking time into the event schedule and monitor meeting areas to introduce visitors to one another, and ensure that all conversations remain civil.

Archive virtual events for at least 90 days, directing registrants who were no-shows as well as key contacts who never registered to view the archive. Depending on qualification level, follow up by telephone and/or targeted offers, or enter an attendee into a longer-term nurturing program. If the event included sponsors, exhibitors or channel partners, deliver qualified leads to them as quickly as possible and guide them on how to follow up. Finally, hold a post-event meeting with all staff and partners involved to gather and document key lessons learned to drive future improvement.

The Sirius Decision

In-person trade shows, user conferences and customer seminars will always play a role in the marketing mix; even the best virtual events can’t replicate the level of interaction and connection most feel when face-to-face with another person. However, virtual events are becoming increasingly powerful tools to help control event costs and provide insight into customer and prospect behavior/needs. If your organization hasn’t yet dipped its toes into the virtual event pool, try a smaller seminar for existing customers, participate as a booth sponsor for someone else’s event or host a smaller sales meeting. Using the learnings gained from such an approach, you’ll be ready to make a much larger - and more successful - virtual splash.