Virtual event strategy has grown to encompass much more than branded booths that populate online exhibition halls. Media companies are learning to craft a diverse array of digital environments, from educational centers to tours of model homes.
“We're really seeing a shift,” said Kate Spellman, president of UBM Studios, which leverages virtual technology for United Business Media brands and clients. All 32 online events that the company developed in 2009 were trade shows. This year, UBM will produce more than 200 virtual environments, including trade show companion models, career fairs and investor briefing centers.
The shift is not just a cosmetic one. Media companies are learning to leverage virtual tools that build community and facilitate conversation, giving sponsors the opportunity not only to meet new prospects but also to strengthen existing relationships.
“It has been a year of learning,” Spellman said. “A year ago, it was all about the technology. It's becoming about content and community. It's about engagement rather than the lead. How do you get the customer engaged and nurture that relationship along?”
Ziff Davis Enterprise moved in 2010 to increase investment in its virtual portfolio, bringing digital events pioneer Elliot Markowitz back on board. The company introduced an interactive online learning center (called Digital University) and has grown its events calendar from one to nine online events per month.
Markowitz's strategy centers on the development of quality content. “The overall objective is to provide editorial services that drive value,” said the senior VP-director of editorial content. “We bring in third-party experts and focus on pressing trends.”
Ziff Davis' online environments employ only the virtual bells and whistles that are relevant to goals, he said. Tools that facilitate communication provide the most value, and event producers actively seed conversation.
The company is focused on building an overarching strategy that integrates virtual offerings with face-to-face events, mobile sites, white papers and other editorial components, Markowitz said. “Everyone talks about an integrated offering, but the fact is that it's usually siloed. At Ziff Davis, the focus is to integrate all of that together so we can pull the thread through it. That's where it's going to grow.”
Hanley Wood also is focusing on integration, said Rick Strachan, group president of the residential remodeling division. A virtual show home featuring remodeling projects for the baby boomer market will be tied into the company's existing webinar and virtual university offerings, as well as face-to-face events in the vertical. “We think it will maintain [currency] for at least a couple of years as we add educational material to it,” Strachan said.
The virtual show home, slated to debut next July, offers a marketing extension on several fronts. While residential construction shows in the Hanley Wood portfolio have featured physical show homes in the past, events in the remodeling niche have not had the attendee heft to support the endeavor. “It's a new resource for trade professionals that adds value for exhibitors,” Strachan said. “We also feel an educational effort needs to be done on the consumer side.”
Hanley Wood will promote the model home in a special print issue of its flagship Remodeling and at its Remodeling Show. The company will work with a consumer partner that will point its audience to the Hanley Wood site.
“A lot of emphasis has been placed on virtual trade shows,” Strachan said. “This is a very different opportunity.”
Virtual offerings will continue to diversify as companies look for new revenues, said Deborah Greif, managing director at bXb Online, a marketing company that focuses on developing digital extensions of face-to-face experiences. “These are investment opportunities,” she said.
Demand for feature-rich environments has grown as organizers, sponsors and audiences become more comfortable with virtual technology.
“You've got to continue to innovate,” said Rich Erb, managing director-Robotics Trends at EH Publishing. His division hosts a perpetual virtual environment with quarterly live events. “Events need to be more collaborative, more social—and provide interaction to make attendees feel closer to the individuals they want to meet.”
That does not necessarily mean that virtual events need to incorporate the most sophisticated tools available, he said. Organizers need to weigh the benefits of collaborative tools such as telepresence against increased production costs.
BNP Media, for example, has made team interactivity a focus of its marketing push, but the company is only beginning to look at video chat. Event communication relies instead on the combination of a simple instant-messaging tool, Twitter hashtags and share features linked to social media sites, said Sarah Gorajek, online events manager.
The most essential ingredient is staff support. “During the show, it's all hands on deck driving interaction,” she said. The company, which launched its first virtual event last year using the ON24 platform, currently produces six virtual and more than 20 physical events. “One of our big focuses next year is going to be hybrid,” she said.