A Perfect Storm for Virtual Events Social networking and slashed travel budgets boost the appeal

Publication: Folio
July 31,2008
By Matt Kinsman

At the Circulation Management Show in June, keynote speaker and Access Intelligence CEO Don Pazour highlighted the shift his company is making to online media but drew the line at virtual events, which he said make as much sense as “virtual sex.”

For other publishers, however, virtual events aren’t a replacement for face-to-face events but a complement. And as more end-users experience social networking via LinkedIn and Facebook, the idea of connecting during an online show is becoming more appealing. Adoption rates are growing. Unisfair says 225 events will use its virtual platform this year while business-to-business publisher PennWell will do 20 virtual shows.

UP Media launched its first virtual event in February and will do another in November. “We have been looking at virtual events for the past four or five years but the market didn’t seem ready for it,” says vice president of sales and marketing Frances Stewart. “Earlier this year the planets came together with travel budgets cutting back, the rise in social networking and the ability to reach an international audience.”

While typical virtual show attendance ranges from a couple hundred to 1,000, eComXpo, which runs on the InXpo platform, draws between 5,000 and 8,000 attendees. But with the cost of a virtual event starting between $20,000 and $50,000, virtual events remain the purview of larger and mid-sized publishers.

Publishers as Matchmakers

Two years ago, a FOLIO: editor participated in an online “cocktail reception” in which attendees could interact via their own personal avatars. Or that was the idea anyway; in reality, the technology failed to let anyone communicate. Today, most virtual event platforms allow attendees to create personal profiles, set privacy preferences and chat with other attendees. ON24, a leader in Webcasts that recently launched a virtual show solution, offers a communications center with scheduled or ad hoc group discussions as well as the chance to post and reply to forum discussions on the message board. “Virtual events have always been very good at the education part, now you’re starting to see better social networking,” says Unisfair vice president of marketing Brent Arslaner.

The social networking opportunities are getting more sophisticated with virtual events. InXpo now offers video chat. “When someone can see someone else it’s like the difference between HDTV and a black and white set,” says InXpo CEO Malcom Lotzof.

Forbes.com hosted its first “iconference” in May with the All-Weather Portfolio Strategies Show featured investment gurus and the chance to connect with those advisors almost on a one-on-one basis. Live Q&As were held after each session. “In one section, one of the speakers was really bullish on silver and this conversation developed between attendees on the merits of investing in silver,” says vice president and editor Matt Shifrin. “Occasionally Forbes.com editors would chime in but by and large attendees had their own conversation.”

Forbes.com is looking to go beyond the audio-conference portion of its iConferences and add more rich media. “This surpassed our revenue expectations,” says Shifrin (who declined to say what the revenue was). “This was ROI positive at launch.”

Ziff Davis Enterprise has developed a series of custom virtual events for IBM that expanded the client’s original objective of online seminars to include social networking. “The seminars would have been a one-way dialogue,” says Johanna Rivard, vice president of demand generation at ZDE. “It wouldn’t have had peer or vendor interaction. Now IBM gets the benefit of an educational platform and peer interaction.”

ZDE has expanded the custom virtual event series for other clients, with pricing ranging from $50,000 to $125,000, according to Rivard.

Virtual events typically let exhibitors create “smart booths” that offer personalized content based on attendee profiles (such as providing technical specifications to IT or tips on business strategy for business professionals). ON24 offers a “moving” exhibit floor in which the building, booths and exterior landscape move at different speeds to create a sense of “walking” through the exhibit hall. Most services also let vendors track attendee activity.

“The exhibitors can get access to the attendee database in a way they can‘t get at a live event,” says Stewart. ‘They have the ability to see who’s attending and chat with them one on one.” UP offers a three-tiered pricing plan for exhibitors at $5,000, $7,000 or $10,000 based on how much content they to put on the booth.

UP Media will work with ON24 for its next virtual event, partially because of customer support. “Forty-five percent of our attendees are outside North America so we better be ready to man the booths virtually 24-7,” says Stewart.

Next Step: From Mass to Niche

Publishers continue to explore optimum use for virtual shows and are adding rich media and leveraging the events as niche vehicles. “We’re looking at coupling online events with more targeted tabletop events,” says Stewart. “When we compare our virtual events to a live event on contribution levels, it was as successful if not more successful because you don’t have expenses like hall rental and F&B. I think this event can stand side-by-side with our largest live event and at some point may exceed it in revenue and contribution.”


Training Exhibitors on Virtual Events

While virtual events offer new opportunity for exhibitors, they also require a new set of rules. “The dynamics of how attendees want to walk a virtual show is something we need to further understand,” says UP Media vice president of sales and marketing Frances Stewart. “If I walk into a live show, the pouncing begins. How can we train our exhibitors to not pounce on attendees virtually? We need to train the exhibitors on maximizing their participation.”

Below, Stewart offers advice to exhibitors on how to approach a virtual show.

·          As an exhibitors, be sure your company has no firewalls in place prior to the event that could limit or deny access. Unlike in a live event, firewalls and other such “tech” issues can stop you dead in your tracks. All booth staff should thoroughly text their O/S prior to the event.

·          Live booth etiquette still pertains. For instance, don’t go “squat” in someone’s virtual booth and steal attendees.

·          Use a photo for your avatar. Attendees may recognize you and photos actually come across more professionally than some of the avatars. Of course, each market/industry varies, but in ours, the photo seemed to work better.

·          Post surveys and giveaways in your booth to make the experience for attendees as interactive as possible. This avoids “pouncing,” but still allows for interaction.

·          Completely fill out your profile prior to the event. This helps attendees get to know you, determine if you are a fit for their networking, etc.

·          Learn to “leave” your booth periodically. Unlike a live event, in a virtual event you can “walk” the floor, check out the lounge and other booths and still receive pings/alerts and continue to chat.

Vendor Breakdown: Which To Choose?

With Webinar platform provider ON24 introducing a virtual event solution, the choices are growing for publishers that typically had to choose between InXpo and Unisfair. From personalized formats to audience reporting, the providers are offering many of the same features. Choices will be made on the balance between price, glitch-free platforms and customer service.


Clients: Forbes, TechTarget, Penton Media

Price: $20,000 to $50,000

Best features:

Professional Networking: Has the ability to visually match attendees with sponsors and exhibitors. Participants note their interests and experiences and the system automates a list of the other attendees and or/exhibitors with similar interests.

VOIP: Voice over Internet Protocol allows attendees and exhibitors to have conversations in real time without typing. Chatting can occur via a computer headset or via phone through an anonymous phone number.


Clients: Nielsen, PennWell, ZDE


Best features:

Scalability: The system has a high capacity and can handle events with a couple hundred people and 10 booths to tens of thousands of attendees with hundreds of booths without performance degradation.

No downloads: InXpo is Web-based and requires no downloads for the host, the attendees or exhibitors. You can enter the event from home, work, a hotel or business center or any Internet-ready computer in the world.

Booth builder: InXpo can send attendees a link that walks them through step-b-step instructions on how to create and enhance their own booths. Hosts can have very little involvement or they can build the booths with their exhibitors. Ziff Davis Enterprise, for example, handled the entire creation of its recent virtual event itself, relying only on InXpo for its technology.


Clients: UP Media Group

Cost: Can range from $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the number of booths in the show.

Best Features:

Real-time audience tracker: The solution also provides real-time information on attendee activity during the show, including document downloads, presentations viewed, average viewing times, participation in discussions and responses to polls and surveys.

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