At the 2011 ECEF Conference(Exhibition & Conference Executive Forum) Gary Shapiro, CES President was quoted to say, “I have yet to hear about a virtual trade show that is successful.” Also, 44% of ECEF execs surveyed would NEVER do a hybrid event. Why do a large percentage of exhibition executives and many event marketing managers resist virtual and hybrid events?
I think the big challenge is that many in the industry think that a virtual event is the same thing as an in-person event – just online. That’s where the metaphors keep us hung up. The online event looks like an in-person event, acts like an event, is called an event – therefore it must be an event. If we’re going to break the mold, marketers will need to look at online events with new eyes much like newspaper, e-mail and web sites are different engagement types. They’re all written text but users interact with each channel differently and marketers need to adjust their strategies for each form factor.
The definition of ROI (or better yet, Return on Engagement) should be defined differently for each form factor as we do with all major marketing channels. For example, you may use online events to play a larger role earlier in the sales cycle at the awareness and consideration stage while the deeper engagements and relationships may be a key for your in-person events. How you use online and in-person events depends on your audience and a huge number of factors — but you just can’t think of the two as the same thing. Marketing managers need to smash the event paradigm and think outside the booth.
Online events are disruptive. As with most disruptive innovation, the traditional torch bearers feel threatened and want to maintain their turf. Much like the high cost of travel, a poor economy, bird flu and 911 have impacted convention travel, I think the conference industry feels threatened by digital and will build up their defenses to maintain their status quo as best they can. To them, new is not necessarily good.
It should not be one format or the other. Digital and in-person events can work well in synergy. Each form factor has its own strengths and weaknesses. We need to understand those differences, build upon the strengths and integrate the two together in a strategic marketing plan along with social media, customer support and community development.
A virtual/hybrid event is not an in-person event. Once we understand that, we can build our customer engagement throughout the spectrum of opportunities.
Thanks to Ben Chador, Heykel Aouriri, Samuel J. Smith and the others who have helped contribute thoughts from the LinkedIn Virtual Events discussion board. Join the conversation.