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When today's prospective customers picture a large exhibit hall swarming with conference attendees, the thought is likely to send shivers down their spines.
In-person events are starting to seem like relics of a former era as virtual events are at the forefront of event marketing conversations. Companies that relied on in-person events to generate leads must now pivot to a virtual event marketing strategy. Today's marketers should understand how to digitize events to enable personalization for customers, increase engagement and better collect customer data.
"Historically, event managers have spent [marketing budgets] on the events themselves; they didn't spend money on the technology to make the events more digital," said Laura Ramos, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
Virtual events bring the benefit of data
Marketers may view the elimination of in-person events as a loss; making a connection is undoubtedly easier to achieve when face-to-face with a prospective customer. A digital event can still bring value to both attendees and marketers, however.
"When there's a digital component, individuals can use their mobile devices and feel like they're part of the event," Ramos said. "They can see what their agenda is, they can take part in feedback sessions, they can ask questions."
For marketers, there's a significant benefit: the ability to more easily capture deeper data about the topics that attendees are interested in, rather than relying on attendees to fill out feedback forms days later.
The events marketing team at IGEL Technology, a global computer software company, used vFairs, a virtual event platform, to host Digital Disrupt 2020, a user conference. Due to COVID-19, the company decided to host the event digitally.
A reporting feature in vFairs enabled the marketing team to see how many times a user visited a particular booth, what sessions they attended and how long they stayed for those sessions.
"There's definitely more data that we were able to collect with the virtual event than with an in-person event," said Enit Nichani, vice president of marketing for North America at IGEL.
That kind of data can help marketers more easily calculate ROI for an executive team, Ramos said.
Marketers can also more easily feed that data into a marketing and sales system, depending on whether the virtual event software vendor offers the right integrations.
"That's a lot easier than trying to take a physical or even a digital form, and uploading the data into those systems," Ramos said. "Half the time, none of that ever happens."
Plus, hosting a virtual event is often less expensive than an in-person event, because companies no longer need to pay for a venue and other physical costs. The cost of IGEL's virtual event, for example, was approximately one third of the cost of its physical event, Nichani said.
Understand goals of a virtual event marketing strategy
Before marketers dig into the logistics of hosting a virtual event, they must evaluate the goals. Prior to COVID-19, the large portion of marketing budgets spent on physical events meant that marketers were often hyperfocused on generating leads, Ramos said.
"That kind of took the focus off of a lot of the other things that events are really useful for, like engaging with customers, building relationships, and having experiences that people remember in a positive way, that then reflects on your brand," she said.
Marketers should step back and take a high-level view of their customers, Nichani said.
"We have to think of our target audience and what they want to learn," she said. "Sometimes we can get too creative and forget who we're hosting the event for."
Marketing teams should know, for example, whether customers want to learn about the components of their products or hear from a peer in the industry. For the former, a lunch and learn event may be more appropriate. For the latter, a customer case study would be more beneficial.
Marketers should also avoid viewing events as a single, standalone experience, Ramos said.
"A lot of event managers focus on the event, not on what you have to do to communicate to people before, during and after the event to keep it as a continuous process," she said.
Choose and implement a virtual event platform vendor
There are a variety of vendors that can enable companies to host virtual events. Native virtual event platform providers, such as 6Connex, vFairs, Intrado, On24 and Engagez, attempt to replicate the experience of in-person conferences with virtual exhibit halls, sponsor booths, breakout rooms and chatrooms with attendees.
Other options for hosting a virtual event include using teleconferencing, web conferencing and video streaming companies such as Zoom, GoToMeeting and Vimeo, which are well-suited for simpler events such as a webinar or virtual lunch and learn.
Organizations should evaluate the type of event that they plan to host, and which features are most important to them.
Amy Mackreth, vice president of global events and field marketing at Databricks, a data and AI company in San Francisco, evaluated several criteria before deciding to use MeetingPlay as a virtual event vendor to host its annual conference, Spark + AI Summit. The highest priorities for the company were resiliency and integrations with its existing sales and marketing platform, Salesforce.
Augmented reality-driven features such as 3D exhibit halls were less of a factor, Mackreth said.
"When we evaluated [vendors with 3D exhibit halls], those features looked pretty initially," she said. "But then you go into the functionality, and it wasn't as interactive or engaging for our attendees."
Virtual event technologies are not simply plug and play; they have a ways to go, Ramos said.
"Some vendors basically say, 'Just buy our technology and you can take your physical event, plop it in this platform and it will magically be everything you need,'" she said.
There was a significant learning curve for the IGEL marketing team to learn how to use vFairs when it first purchased it, Nichani said.
"We didn't know the platform at all," she said. "We didn't have anything to work with other than the demos and documentation that they sent us."
The transition from an in-person event to a virtual event requires major investment from a company -- especially as COVID-19 requires an accelerated timeline to roll out the event, Mackreth said.
For a technology brand such as Databricks, that transition might be smoother due to a deeper familiarity with technology implementation and decision-making, but brands of all types can reap the benefits of a virtual event.
Create content that customers want
Delivering personalized, relevant content to customers is especially important as virtual event fatigue starts to hit for many attendees. It's easy to sign up for an event, but it's often hard for attendees to stay focused, especially as current circumstances present distractions, such as children and other family members at home.
"COVID has really put the spotlight on the fact that marketers can't rely on the traditional batch and blast to everyone with an undifferentiated message," Ramos said. "In the digital world, you have to be relevant, you have to be targeted, you have to be personalized, and a lot of companies are way behind on that."
Justin KellerVP of marketing, Terminus
Early in the pandemic, there was a big rush on virtual events -- but that is likely to wane as attendees become sick of sitting in a chair all day, said Justin Keller, vice president of marketing at Terminus, an account-based marketing company in Atlanta that relied heavily on in-person events prior to COVID-19.
"Bespoke, one-to-one interactions in which virtual content is intended specifically for an individual will be very valuable," he said.
To connect with customers in a more intimate way, the company began hosting customer workshops on specific topics. The marketing team segmented customers into lists, selected a small subset of customers and chose a topic that was relevant to those customers. The initiative was "wildly successful," Keller said.
"It was something that we didn't necessarily consider before COVID, but now that it's the only option, we leaned into it and it's become an impactful part of our customer expansion strategy," he said.
Databricks' marketing team relied on customer data to personalize its Spark + AI digital summit, Mackreth said. For example, the company offered suggested content based on customers' preferences to help curate their event schedules. It also offered a 'matchmaking' service to virtually connect attendees with individuals that had similar profiles.
The future of events
In-person events will return at some point, but they will look a lot different than the giant tradeshows that most people are used to, Ramos said. Instead, they will likely be separated into different satellite events based on where attendees live -- to prevent global or cross-country travel.
Events in the future will likely be a hybrid of in-person and digital components, Nichani said. For example, key speakers might gather in a specific location with a limited number of attendees, while other attendees watch at home from a live stream.
"COVID forced marketers to make events purely digital," Ramos said. "In the process of doing that, they're now seeing for the first time that's there's an advantage of having a digital component, even to a physical event."
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