Time to wake up and smell the coffee chaps…

While rummaging through my email inbox this morning I stopped and read the one from the professional institute of which I am a member.

It’s compelling, and beautifully written, as it ought to be and it was asking me very nicely to attend the annual conference.  And offering me a discount.  What’s not to like about that?

What caught my eye though was that the early booking discount was £200 + vat.  If that’s the discount I thought, how much is the conference?  A mighty £445 + vat no less.  Which means that if I don’t book before the early bird discount runs out I’ll have to fork at a eye-watering £645 + vat to attend a conference run by the association I pay to be a member of.  Wow.

Possibly not for the right reasons, the organisation now had my full attention.  Surely this must be a two day event I thought… but no, this was for a one day 09:00 to 17:30 affair (with an hour and forty minutes of break time; you’ll be relieved to hear that lunch was provided) where I could attend ten sessions (if I had the fortitude to get through it all) of which there were some of only marginal interest.

The marketing line what smaller companies can learn from the “big boys” illicited a wry chortle. Because at that price how many small businesses are actually likely to attend.  The HMRC definition of a small company is if your turnover is £5.6million or less or have fewer than 50 employees.  In reality many small, and very dynamic, businesses fall well below these thresholds.  In the Marketing Week/Ball & Hoolahan marketing salary survey for 2012 the salary for a marketing manager is somewhere in the region of £36,000.  If you extrapolate down from this you can work out that this conference organiser is potentially asking a company to pay a quarter of an employee’s monthly take home pay to attend a one day conference from which there is marginal company-wide return on investment.

You don’t need to absorb much media in the UK to work out that these are straitened economic times.  There is many a managing director trying to work out whether they should pay the wage bill or the suppliers, and telling their employees that “we’re very sorry but there will be no wage increases this year”.  Training budgets may survive, just, but spending on expensive conference days out (we haven’t factored in travel and accommodation/lost productivity costs in all of this have we?) isn’t a priority for many.  And what about those who have embraced redundancy and become freelance marketers… if you take the cost of the conference and the loss of a day’s earnings why on earth would you even consider booking a place.

And conference organisers wonder why their attendance rates are down… Discriminating against large sectors of the audience by virtue of price isn’t going to help much is it? And membership organisations are more at risk than ever because we’re not even sure we need you any more guys.

It is in times like these that great innovation often occurs. Exhibition and live event organisers have recognised for years the need to add more and more value to their offerings, creating environments where visitors can get information or experiences that they just can’t get elsewhere.  It’s time that conference organisers did the same. There is no point telling a potential attendee that they will learn new things and network with their peers, because they can do this via LinkedIn without spending a bean or having to get up at 6:15am to get to the venue, and a day full of plenary sessions with tiny comfort breaks (because the programme is crammed to make it look like it is value for money) doesn’t deliver for many people.

So dear conference organisers I challenge you to do three things differently this year:

  1. Start your pricing strategy from how much you think your conference is worth and how much your delegate is willing to pay rather than from how much money you need to cover your venue costs.  If the answer is £99+vat then find a solution that fits.
  2. Stop trying to cram too much into a programme to justify the huge sum of money you are asking for.  Remember how exhausting it was to sit in a lecture theatre for a couple of hours as a student and ask yourself why you think people can endure it for eight hours or more now that they are older.
  3. Embrace some new technology to deliver to your audiences and members in a different, more inclusive and accessible way.  Get out of that traditionalist box right now.

At present most conference organisers (associations included) attract on average less than 5% of their target audiences to their events.  Which means that for every delegate you get there could be another 19 waiting to engage with your organisation. Time to go get them.

hellen @missioncontrol

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Virtual Shakespeare – fancy that!

My pre-teen loves Shakespeare.  It’s not something I can take any credit for since I didn’t really pay much attention in English Literature (I blame the teacher) and the sight of Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard and Keanu Reaves striding around in riding breeches in the 1993 film version of Much ado about Nothing probably stopped me from appreciating the complexity and vivacity  of the language.

Despite having the RSC and Globe Theatre more or less on the doorstep we haven’t quite managed a trip to see the Bard’s  offerings live as yet, so there was little to reference when confronted by a project to design the stage setting for MacBeth.  However, we were saved from having to trawl through countless videos on YouTube by a brilliant event produced by Florida Virtual School on the 6Connex virtual experience platform.

The Florida Virtual School develops and provides virtual K-12education solutions to students in Florida, the U.S., and the world. Founded in 1997, it was the country’s first, state-wide Internet-based public high school. Today, FLVS serves students in grades K-12 and provides a variety of custom solutions for schools and districts to meet student needs. Its virtual Shakespeare festival was live on 26-27 April and once we had logged in we were able to see presentations from FLVS students as they acted favourite Shakespeare scenes or added their own interpretation.  With vignettes from other Shakespeare companies, including the very excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company, we were able to absorb a lot of content and styles in a very short period indeed, presented in a way that felt extremely accessible.

Was something lost by the presentation of theatrical works in video that was a bit grainy and certainly wobbly in places? Possibly yes.  But many children and young people (and the rest of us!)  today live off a diet of YouTube video and homemade entertainment delivered via phone, iPad and PC so  my 12 year old wasn’t remotely phased by a lack of cinematic quality.  What she really enjoyed was being able to interact with the actors and presenters in real time. Networking was easy in this virtual environment  and the fact that most of the other participants were 4,500 miles away was of no concern.  Did she learn anything – definitely.  Did she enjoy  the experience – absolutely.

The debate about virtual vs live rumbles on, and on, but what this event shows is that these environments are  not just a business solution.  They offer a real opportunity to open up access to real live knowledge and expertise for all.

hellen @missioncontrol

Construct a virtual event in the same way as you would build a house

We are delighted to welcome Cece Salomon-Lee, founder and Principal of PR Meets Marketing, and co-founder of The Virtual Buzz as our guest blogger today, who shares below her thoughts on best practices for how to effectively design and implement a virtual event.

2010 was the year that virtual events – or digital solutions for meetings and events – were embraced by the larger physical meetings and events industry. No longer seen as an either/or situation, going virtual is a way to further extend an organisation’s audience reach, expand brand awareness and drive business objectives forward.

Though the benefits of virtual are more widely accepted today, best practices for how to effectively design and implement a virtual event vary from organisation to organisation. Oftentimes, organisations will select a technology solution first, and then work backwards, resulting not only in a poor user experience, but also falling short of business expectations.

Rather, a virtual event is very similar to constructing a house – start with the design, estimate costs, and end with the building phase.

Design with objectives in mind

If you’re building a house from the ground up, would you ever put up the walls and roof before consulting with an architect? Probably not. You need to consider each room’s function, how the occupants will interact with the room, and the best layout to accomplish this. The same is also true for a virtual event.

To develop your virtual event design, invite key stakeholders to participate during the design phase, such as IT, marketing manager, and executive sponsor. Key questions to address include:

  • What are the business objectives of my virtual event? Lead generation; customer appreciation; product launch; extend to global audience; etc.?
  • Is this purely a virtual event or an augmentation for a physical event?
  • What is the technology prowess of my audience? Novice or advanced?
  • How do I want to engage my audience? Broadcast only or engagement with video chat and games?
  • What is my budget?
  • What is my timeline?
  • What resources do I have to plan and staff this event?
  • How many people will be attending?
  • Private or public?

Estimating: engineer the costs

A virtual event strategy is equivalent to architectural designs for estimating the costs of your online event and even narrowing down which vendors to invite for your proposal. For example, you can eliminate providers who are unable to provide the full suite of solutions you’re seeking, such as social media integration and real-time language translation, or those who are too cost prohibitive based on your budget.

Furthermore, you are able to compare each proposal side by side and determine if there are any factors you haven’t considered. When comparing the proposals, consider these points:

  • Did the vendor address each item in my proposal?
  • What will the additional costs be if I add an additional webcast? Exhibit Booth? etc.
  • Did the company augment my proposal positively? For example, the company recommends adding ask-the-expert video sessions for your product launch.
  • How will the company staff my project?

Building: Construct to design

Once you’ve awarded your project, the next stage is overseeing the construction phase. To ensure that your virtual environment is built on time and to your design, don’t assume that the virtual event vendor will manage this on your behalf. Assign a project manager who will act as a liaison, monitor the timeline and track all milestones. Additionally, schedule a weekly meeting with your vendor to review progress and address any issues.

Biography

As founder and Principal of PR Meets Marketing, Cece Salomon-Lee has 15-plus years’ experience translating technology innovations into cohesive and successful campaigns that cross from public relations to marketing and virtual events. She has been an active participant in the emergence of the virtual events industry as co-founder of The Virtual Buzz and contributor to the Virtual Edge Institute.

 

Getting to grips with hybrid events

Still a bit confused by what this Hybrid Event is that everyone is talking about?  Let us bring you up to speed…

Hybrid events are physical events—tradeshows, conferences, product demonstrations, executive showcases—augmented by virtual technology marketing. They unite the best of both technology and offline environments to create a more powerful and profitable experience. They bring together the most compelling aspects of onscreen, in person and online dynamics.

Participants who can’t get to your event can join in from afar, interacting with exhibitors and attendees, and accessing presentations and content. Visitors who do make it to the physical event can view, download, and forward content from booth kiosks and displays on laptops and mobile devices (at last a proper use for that Internet Cafe you’ve been building for years).

There are three types of hybrid events —Concurrent, Inclusive, and Successive.

A concurrent hybrid event is a physical show launched in tandem with an online virtual counterpart that can be accessed anywhere in the world.

An inclusive hybrid event integrates key virtual elements inside an established physical environment such as an Executive Briefing Centre, sales facility or event specific “command centre” headquarters.

A successive hybrid event is essentially a two-part marketing experience. At the conclusion of a physical event, a virtual version is launched and made available to previous attendees, as well as new customers and prospects.

Want to read more? Read the complete White Paper which is available online now.

Overcoming human nature to deliver success

If the human brain performs best in situations of conflict and the human psyche thrives on competition, how do we reconcile this with the human race’s dependence on cooperation for survival?

Even organisations where we would expect individuals to work together for a singular common aim, such as healthcare, have been permeated by competitive tendencies, whether this be the personality of the major decision maker or in the tendering for the provision of services.  Will this human instinct to incentivise by prize ultimately lead to our demise?

Or could there be a better way?

If you were to take a look at The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies 2011  list, and spent some time drilling down into the narrative for some of the organisations, you will find some common themes:

  • Inspirational leadership
  • Employees who feel valued and that they have a voice
  • A common ownership of purpose
  • Excitement in the direction the organisation is taking
  • A sense that ‘doing it right’ is as important as the drive for profit

All of these boil down to just two key factors: listening and ownership.

But if you have 20,000 employees/associates/partners, how can you possibly deliver this?  How can you pick out the important bits from a multitude of conversations?  How can you ensure that people having the same conversation in different geographical locations are brought together?

Once upon a time it would have been nearly impossible.  Virtual technologies have changed the status quo.

Come out of the kitchen and join the party

Back in January the marketing team at 6Connex posted the following:

Here’s a list of live (as we write today) virtual environments to give you an idea of how the virtual technology platforms (6Connex and others) are being used:

  • Secure international sales and marketing conference (3 of these)
  • Continuing medical education center
  • Partner portal with both secure entitlement and public access options (4)
  • Association trade show (14)
  • Executive briefing center with public access (2)
  • Product line marketing and communication portal (6)
  • Consumer product information center (31)
  • Highly secure pre-patent (executive only) poster show on new technology
  • Medical equipment tradeshow (4)
  • Hybrid events – virtual component to a physical show (22)
  • Sales training conference (3)
  • Thought leadership knowledge center (2)

If ever there was evidence that virtual event solutions are becoming an integral part of the mainstream, surely this is it.  And every day there is yet another announcement from a technology provider about new clients and new uses for the platform.

With the possibilities only limited by your imagination, if you haven’t already investigated the opportunities, don’t you think it’s time you did? Come and visit us to see for yourself.

Are virtual events too predictable? Three reasons to embrace randomness, unpredictability and the unexpected

Following on from yesterday’s post about taking a non-determinist approach, we are grateful to Ike Singh Kehal from Virtual Events Hub  for giving us permission to republish his very interesting blog post from 31st March.

Consistency is the best foundation for the unexpected

Over the last several years, virtual event companies have created reliable frameworks and systems to help their clients drive more leads and maximize event ROI. Unlike virtual worlds, such as Second Life, virtual event platform providers aimed to develop consistent and controllable experiences that their Enterprise customers could trust. This consistency of experience was critical to the development of the virtual events industry and without it online events might have been a non-starter.

At the same time, while consistency is a worthy goal, I sometimes think that it is holding us back from optimizing our online experiences for attendees.  Humans are not information consumption machines. They need to be entertained. They delight in the unexpected. And, they choose their friends emotionally, not rationally. For all of these reasons, virtual events will increasingly need to embrace randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected if they are to win the hearts of attendees and not just the minds of event organizers.

Three reasons to embrace randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected

Random reinforcement in game dynamics – Over the last 18 months, virtual event providers have started to embrace game dynamics as a way to encourage attendees to engage with event content and connect with each other.  But, for the most part, the dynamics that providers have focused on have been fairly linear: do X –> get 10 points –> win prizes. The problem with this approach is that, as anyone who took Psychology 101 will remember, fixed-ratio schedules (where a reward is given after a set number of actions), are not particularly good at driving behavior. A better approach would be to introduce a level of randomness into the system to keep customers engaged.  For example, in addition to earning points for set activities, attendees might occasionally encounter unexpected prizes that are not announced up front. Small unexpected prizes would drive individual satisfaction and engagement, while larger prizes would drive buzz within the attendee community.

Unpredictability in content and experiences – Every event manager knows that people love surprises. As a result, it is somewhat surprising that virtual events rarely embrace unpredictability in terms of content and other experiences. Why not organize a surprise session on a previously unannounced hot topic? Why not invite the most active attendees to a VIP chat session with an industry expert of company executive? What impact would random acts of kindness (small unexpected gifts) have on driving attendee satisfaction.  For more on the topic of why we need to make virtual events more fun, check out my previous article Bring On the Virtual Bar.

Unexpected relationship building – many companies are investing heavily in Social CRM as a way to connect attendees at virtual events. These systems identify other attendees that you might want to talk to, based on your profile. Over the next year, the trick will be to develop systems that merge the science of social CRM with the art of relationship building. In other words, we need to match people based on their interests, but, we need to make the process of meeting feel as organic and “real” as possible. For example, rather than just giving attendees a list of people with similar interests, we should use games and game dynamics to get people to work together to solve problems and interact with event content. Studies show that people tend to feel closer to people that they work with to solve problems and we should definitely leverage this to the benefit of attendees and event organizers alike.

Do you expect the unexpected?

 Over the last several years, the virtual events industry has been built on a platform of consistency. However, in order for virtual events to reach their full potential, we need to build experiences that give event organizers the control that they need and attendees with the surprises that they crave. Doing so will require event organizers to embrace randomness in game dynamics, unpredictability in content, and unexpected relationship building.