So you think you own me?

The previous post You’ve got to deliver what the audience really  wants has provoked discussion in a number of forums and the responses have made for interesting reading, not least because of the seeming inability to move on from old arguments.

So let’s look at the topic from a different angle, by considering two industries closely related to producing live events; so closely related in fact that you would consider them siblings; i.e. publishing and broadcasting.

In both of these industries, the key players are referred to as Media Owners. Because they own the medium through which the content is broadcast. And for years this is exactly what they have done; decided when, where and what information and entertainment their audiences or readerships were going to consume.  They have made and broken many a star, politician or company profit, simply through the editorial decisions they have taken which have influenced the masses.

Conference and exhibition organisers, be they commercial operations, industry bodies or associations, continue to believe that they must operate in a similar way.  Developing programmes of content that they perceive the audience wants, choosing speakers and selecting participating exhibitors (via an economic filter it is true) and presenting a finished product to the visitors at a time, date and venue over which the latter has no control.

Then along came the Internet and social media and the shift in power from owner to audience was seismic.

Because the concept of expertise ownership by a few large corporations doesn’t fit any more.  You can’t tell me what I should be watching, what information I need, or who I should be networking with.  You can’t stop me finding organisations who can’t afford to exhibit at your event or who haven’t got a charismatic speaker, because if their Search and SM strategies are good I can do this on my own.  And, you can’t stop me telling people, a lot of people, about the experience your organisation offers me, within minutes if I so choose.

So let’s bin the argument about virtual not replacing face-to-face; because we all know it won’t.  Let’s stop finding fault with virtual technologies, because frankly some of them are pretty amazing.  And let’s stop pretending that we still own audiences and industries because of the events we produce because we don’t. Let’s embrace the new to enhance the old rather than dismissing it as a fad that has nothing to do with us.

What we need to be doing, with or without the help of virtual technologies, is to work out how we build and maintain relationships with our communities; how we facilitate communication and collaboration between individuals both through a single live day and an online presence; and how we use the unfettered enthusiasm of our audiences to create a profitable business model for the future.

hellen @missioncontrol

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You’ve got to deliver what the audience wants

It seems like the technology has finally been toppled from its place at the top of the virtual events debate and we are, at last, getting back to the basics of looking at the needs of the client.  We are once again talking about the multi-faceted communications approach that engages all sectors of an audience.  There is no sense in trying to shoehorn all comms activity into a one-size-fits-all solution, when every other sector of business is constantly trying to find new niches to occupy.

The evolution of virtual events is being driven by one major factor: as more virtual events happen, more people are participating in them and the better we can measure their behaviour.  So rather than making assumptions and creating technology in a vaccuum, we are delivering the goods the customer ordered.

Two research studies* have been released recently which serve to confirm just how quickly behaviour is changing in the physical and virtual meeting industry; their core findings make for interesting reading, not least because of the gulf of expectation between event organisers and their audiences:

  • Live content, be it video or webcasts, is the most popular on a virtual site, and yet only 43% of physical events capture any of their content to post online, and where they do it is often less than 10%.
  • There is as yet little commercialisation of virtual events, whether this is a conscious business decision, a resistance from the marketplace or the resource issue below is as yet unknown.
  • Organisations worry about the additional staff time needed to execute a virtual event to the cost, the quality of the experiencefor the visitor and the complexity of technology.

The benefits for the organiser though are seen quite clearly; more than 82% of past users of virtual events and 84 %of future users questioned in the Tagoras study mentioned the potential increase in audience numbers, an important consideration where physical events were only enabling them to reach a fraction of their total target audience.

So why are event organisers still so reluctant to embrace virtual technologies.

Meanwhile, the potential audience shows no such reticence:

While organisers of physical events continually state that people want to do business with real people, the Business Motivations and Social Behaviors for In-Person and Online Events study found that:

  • 80 percent of respondents are comfortable connecting and networking with strangers.
  • 70 percent are comfortable using a video/webcam to chat and meet others.
  • 33 percent share information by instant messaging at online events, while 28 percent do so at in-person events.
  • 41 percent use Twitter at online events, while 51 percent do so at in-person events.

Another objection often raised by physical event organisers is that online attendees are easily distracted.  But attendees in real time also check their emails, text, tweet, phone and message while sitting in an auditorium.  The only difference is that the virtual attendees can come back to it later.

Respondents seek similar information from exhibitors whether booths are live or virtual: more than half want to see what a company does and how it can help them, and nearly half of respondents want to get company, product or solution information for review or want to see a demonstration or the product itself.

Where virtual events really begin to draw in the attendees though is in accessibility:

  • the environment’s ease-of-access;
  • the ability to ask questions and participate actively;
  • reduced travel costs and hassles
  • reduced time away from family and office

Given the solid evidence, it is hard to see why so many event organisations continue to find more reasons not to embrace virtual technologies than to explore the possibilities. Perhaps it will take some new entrants into the marketplace to steal a march on the naysayers, establishing great virtual events that morph into fantastic physical ones that take the old-guard by surprise.

Remember: if you don’t listen to your customers, and give them what they want, you are giving them every excuse to go somewhere else.

* The two studies quoted are:

Virtual Event Study, done in collaboration with the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, Relate Content & Community Solutions and Tagoras, and funded by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events:

The Business Motivations and Social Behaviors for In-Person and Online Events, a study sponsored by the Professional Convention Management Association, UBM Studios and Virtual Edge Institute:

Educating exhibitors in the etiquette of virtual events

The Death to the Booth debate rumbles on and is unlikely to be resolved any time soon as the closest we have managed to get to an alternative title for this universally understood term is meeting point and that doesn’t quite fit the bill.

But another important theme has emerged, one which chimes very closely with the experience of live event organisers – that of educating your exhibitors to ensure that they get the very best out of their investment and meet the goals they have set themselves for attending.

Goals… now there’s a concept that some organisations haven’t grasped right from the start.  Motivations for being at an event are many and varied: from “my major competitors are going to be there, so must I”  to “I want to tell everyone of your visitors what a big player in the market I am” (generally said by someone with a 2x3m stand, no display graphics and no literature to hand out).  For some organisations, the concept of using an exhibition as the hub of an integrated marketing approach is a complete anathema: there is no dedicated sales message; inappropriate or old literature is taken to the event; there are no experts on hand to talk visitors through very specific issues; there is no pre- or post-event marketing efforts planned.

A presence on a booth in a virtual environment is no different.  During the live days visitors expect to be able to communicate with representatives in real time; to find a wide variety of documentation that is clearly targetted at them; perhaps some instructional videos; or even an opportunity to join in a chat session with the CEO.

With no print costs, and an almost unlimited array of media that can be taken advantage of there really is no excuse for not grasping the opportunity to really engage with virtual visitors in all areas of the virtual environment.  And as organisers of virtual events it is up to us to educate our partners to do this, and do it well.

But then there’s no excuse for sitting on an exhibition stand that represents £50K of company investment reading a newspaper, and yet people still do it…

The Booth is dead. Long live the Booth*

GE RSNAHumans, if nothing else, are creatures of habit.  Which goes a long way to explaining why it can take a seemingly inordinate amount of time to introduce a new business practice or why the first reaction to change is often resistance.

The development of the Virtual Experience Platform has followed a path that has taken this need for security in acquaintance into account. The first iterations of the technology frequently been labelled Virtual Event Platforms: two-thirds of which are clearly understood by the majority of the business population and one-third which requires but a little explanation.

By creating an environment online which replicates much of what we would experience (except the transport delays, bad coffee and lack of seating) at a live event, early pioneers of virtual events have been able to cross that line from innovation to familiarity in a very short period of time.  With an inherent understanding, participants know that to view a presentation they must navigate to the auditorium, to participate in a moderated chat they must go to a meeting room and that in the exhibition halls they will find organisations and their representatives promoting their products and services on digital booths.

And therein lies the difficulty.  To many, the term Booth just doesn’t cut the mustard.  It says static and without innovation, like the Grandma at a teenager’s party.

The discussion Are trade show booths in a virtual event really relevant any more?  was started on LinkedIn by Richard Feldman in the Virtual Events and Meeting Technology group and has already managed to traverse into other virtual events related groups on the site.  Amongst the comments about the unsatisfactory nature of the Booth in the virtual environments are some that would be awfully familiar to a live event producer: lack of information and content from the booth owner; and the need to illustrate real ROI, particularly where the booth has been paid for as part of a sponsorship package.  A number of individuals comment that sponsoring companies should be scattered around the virtual environment for best exposure rather than having a single site presence (aka a Booth) – but why can’t they have both?

Which brings us to another conundrum… if you aren’t going to have Booths at your virtual event, what are you going to have to push your delegates to part of the site that the sponsor owns, you can’t have lists and links need to go somewhere… You need to create an area that the sponsor owns and can create as their own.  Ideally you should be using one of the high performing platforms such as 6Connex, Ubivent, On24 or InXpo that allow this creative and design flexibility so that Booths don’t necessarily have to look like… well Booths.

Perhaps this is one of those chicken and egg discussions, where we pretty sure that we aren’t happy with the status quo, but there doesn’t seem to be a suitable, more effective or as easily understood alternative. Rather than concentrating our energies on trying to find a ‘booth-alternative’ shouldn’t we be focusing on getting clients and participants enthused and engaged in the concept of creating great, relevant content for the virtual audiences?

*Booth = Stand

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.