With the recession eroding travel budgets, the traditional trade show is in trouble. The trend started five years ago, as the expense of events caused cost-conscious managers to eliminate attendees from their companies who didn't have a well-defined reason for attending shows. In the last two years, even tighter purse-strings have tamped down attendance even further — and as the events' attendees dwindle, the number of exhibitors also begins to fall, precipitating a vicious death spiral that has already claimed a number of big-name events.
Of course, the need to meet, learn and engage with others in the same industry still exists. Stepping in to fill that void are companies like Unisfair that provide services to create and host virtual events. Arslaner understands the various aspects of trade events, from the information gathering at booths to the lead-hunting by sales reps; he was vice president of product strategy at Kana Software and held a management role at PeopleSoft before coming to Jamcracker as vice president of marketing. Now, in a similar role at Unisfair, a full-service provider of virtual events, he's working to show that a virtual show has the same virtues for everyone involved — including sales staff — as a real-world event.
Arslaner talked to Focus about virtual events' adoption, what they mean for sales reps and how far a sale can progress in virtual space.
Focus: Of course, every event — virtual and otherwise — succeeds or fails on its own merits. But do you have data to show how well virtual events stack up against real-world events?
Arslaner: One key metric is cost in relation to leads. For example, one Unisfair client hosted a one-day virtual marketing event that generated 1,701 leads. And, because virtual events yield powerful marketing intelligence, the host and its sponsors were able to pinpoint their interests by tracking the booths they frequented (most attendees visit at least 20 virtual locations), what questions they asked and how long they stayed within the virtual environment (average duration was 168 minutes). What's more, the costs associated with hosting the virtual event equaled less then total shipping costs for physical events they had conducted in the past.
Focus: Beyond sparing themselves sore feet, what advantages do sales reps have at virtual events?
Arslaner: Virtual events can deliver some of the richest marketing data available because the anonymity of prospects evaporates. Sales reps receive detailed marketing data about attendees, including what presentations they attended, what booths they visited and what questions they asked. It's a real glimpse into their needs and challenges.
Focus: How readily are attendees to these events embracing them, and what do you need to build into an event in order to get attendees to participate to the fullest?
Arslaner: For attendees, it is much easier to gather information without a "booth vulture" physically pressing you for a business card. In fact, the majority of attendees are more apt to interact with an exhibitor, speaker or another attendee online than in person because a different set of social mores apply. New technology, including the most business-applicable elements of Web 2.0 and social networking, make it easy for professional networking to occur in virtual events.
As with any event, content is king. Perhaps it goes without saying that you must formulate an agenda that will attract your intended audience — both attendees and sponsors. The best content delivers value to your audience, and isn't simply a marketing pitch.
Focus: Can a virtual event inspire loyalty the way a face-to-face meeting can?
Arslaner: Momentum for embracing Web 2.0 technologies and social media tools is accelerating dramatically. The use of blogging, wikis and social networks has become second nature for most corporate cultures. 30 million LinkedIn users across 150 countries have proven that professional networking is both agreeable and effective, even when it doesn't occur in a traditional face-to-face manner. And our virtual events offer a great deal more interactivity than sites like LinkedIn or Facebook.
In fact, a Forrester Research survey of 145 global interactive marketers found the use of social media as a marketing tool is on the rise. And according to a survey from the Verse Group and Jupiter Research, an overwhelming majority (87 percent) of CMOs and marketing managers believe that branding initiatives need to be more flexible today, and 63 percent think traditional brand positioning and advertising are "broken."
Virtual environments are enabling marketers to create online communities that deliver higher levels of brand engagement and advocacy. The ability to create customizable, interactive and repeatable experiences — along with the promise of tangible metrics — sets virtual environments apart from other Web 2.0 technologies and in some cases, even physical meetings.
Focus: Anyone who's ever had conflicting appointments or events at a trade show can appreciate the idea of getting to various features of a show in their own time. How has the ability to make one's own agenda helped with attendee adoption?
Arslaner: The ability to create your own agenda is just one of the benefits of attending virtual events. They are also free and convenient and attendees gain access to valuable information before, during and after an event. Job satisfaction and employee morale is a noteworthy byproduct of virtual events when factoring in the challenges of air travel, including over-bookings and long delays, which take their toll on the traveling public. The headaches and frustration — as well as the productivity losses — of physical events are bypassed with virtual events, while affording employees the opportunity to learn and network from the comfort of their desks.
Focus: How has the technology evolved to help the user's experience over the last two years?
Arslaner: The technology has advanced to the point where our virtual events look and feel remarkably like their physical counterparts, while delivering similar knowledge-sharing and personal interactions.
More specifically, today interactivity is fostered among attendees, presenters, panelists, sponsors and exhibitors in real-time through rich multimedia, including text, audio, video and voice technologies and on average, attendees engage in 13 interactions via chat or email. In addition, event attendees can upload, modify and publish their professional profiles within a virtual environment. The Unisfair Professional Networking tool then searches the virtual environment and delivers recommendations on others who have similar business interests based on certain criteria.
Focus: Is the metaphor of the real-world event a help or a hindrance — and will that change as users come to understand the virtual environment more?
Arslaner: In today's economic climate, virtual events have a new relevance when compared directly to physical events. Case and point is a recent corporate travel spending survey by ACTE (Association of Corporate Travel Executives) that found 33 percent of companies will spend less on travel in 2009. Similarly, more and more green corporate policies are restricting travel in order to decrease carbon footprints.
But while travel may need to go on hold for a variety of reasons, key business objectives like lead generation and talent recruitment cannot and our virtual events provide a viable alternative. In some cases, they are generating leads and demand at 50 to 80 percent of the cost of a comparable physical event, and have the potential to dramatically reduce an organization's carbon footprint.
For example, one Unisfair client hosted a one-day virtual event that generated 1,701 leads. The costs associated with hosting it equaled less then total shipping costs for its previous physical events.
Focus: One of the few things going for live events today is that the people there are no longer looky-loos — companies can only afford to send decision makers, so the quantity of leads has gone down but the quality has gone up. Is this a phenomenon that's present in the virtual environment?
Arslaner: We are finding the same thing in virtual environments — decision makers are present. Plus, more C-level executives are able to attend virtual events because they have the luxury of popping in for just a couple of hours.
Focus: How far can the sales process go within the confines of a virtual event?
Arslaner: Throughout the complete life cycle from lead to closure, although it depends on the type of event. It is no different then a physical event.
Focus: Just how much of the face-to-face relationship will virtual events replace?
Arslaner: We predict that all face-to-face events will have a virtual component in the future. Virtual events will morph into year-round collaborative environments or business communities. Events invigorate communities and will likely transform into collaborative business In other words, Virtual Events are already starting to turn into virtual communities, or persistent environments that are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Companies are leveraging these ongoing environments to create collaborative communities centered on their prospects, customers and partners.
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