Since December 2010 I have posted that query on this blog, on LinkedIn’s MarketingProfs discussion Groups, and various other forums. The response from these channels and within each stream has been so lively and informative that I felt compelled to aggregate, interpret and present the combined groups’ responses here. I hope you find it worth my effort to give you a handy, occasionally refreshed digest on the subject. I continue to update this post from time to time to with current insights, wiki-style, to help readers gain some historical perspective on how knowledge and experience continue to evolve on this topic.
I wish to personally thank Steve Lubahn, Lydia Sugarman, Beth Harte, Ronn Irving, Julia Geyerhahn, Joan Saunders, Paul Welsh, Cathy Goodwin, Paul Ardoin, Kimberly McCabe, Fred Mikkelsen and and Steve Nesich, for your willingness to share your extensive knowledge and your thoroughly professional commentary.
Below you fill find (a) the original post, (b) an analysis of the commentary, (c) the unabridged dialogue stream from multiple forums, so you can read it and draw your own conclusions, and (d) a periodically refreshed list of additional resource links.
And, of course, if the mood strikes you, feel free to comment using the handy comment form on this page!
Here is my original post.
Online marketing: Virtual Trade Shows – worth it?
Virtual trade shows combine some interesting elements of both inbound and outbound marketing.
Recently I convinced a firm to participate as a Sponsor for a virtual trade show run by a professional organization serving their industry.
Compared to a live trade show, the virtual version provided some distinct advantages, as well as some eerily similar behavioral analogies.
Firstly, there are obvious cost savings in travel, lodging, meals, shipping, logistics, downtime and dead tree media.
Beyond that, a number of distinct advantages occurred. For starters, the price tag was about half the comparable expense for a live in-person event, yet the traffic was higher than any of the dozens of events we had done in the same year. I suspect the low price is partially due to the reduced production cost, but I can’t help wondering if prices are artificially low and might inflate in the next year or two, as virtual trade shows catch on and sponsorships become more of a premium (the old supply vs. demand conundrum). I guess time will tell. (Update: on the other hand, if they catch on, perhaps the “scale” will reduce individual costs by spreading them over a greater number of participants).
Operationally, the virtual event had some distinct characteristics I really liked. For example, exhibitors had the ability to:
- post all manner of media – video, white papers, demos, brochureware, available for unlimited download and access, and all without killing any trees.
- empower virtual booth attendants – the sponsorship package we selected permitted the creation of 3 avatars, each represented in real life by myself and two colleagues, who would take turns “staffing” our virtual exhibit – that is, being online to receive automatically generated alerts each time a visitor accessed our virtual exhibit, and operating a chat window feature provided with the virtual exhibit.
- track and nurture visitors – Most importantly, exhibit and show traffic was better than any live event over the past year, and it was all visible to us, not only during the event but for up to 90 days after the show dates. We could see who had accessed each type of content, how long they visited, and any questions they had logged or discussed in chat sessions. Any time a visitor logged in, we could see what content they were accessing and make some determination about how best to follow up. Genius!
This last feature is roughly the equivalent of having a dedicated micro-site, laser focused on a specific audience, complete with profiling, analytics, reporting and live alerts. All data was stored and accessible in spreadsheet format for easy download and transfer to our in-house CRM software. All for the same price.
If all this is not sufficient testimonial in favor of virtual trade shows, consider: the professional organization whose virtual event I sponsored has decided to make their big annual conference a virtual event too.
Pre-event training offered by the virtual event company was well worth attending; it kept us out of the woods and guided us in attaining successful results.
Have you sponsored or managed a virtual event? What has your experience been?
B. Analysis & Highlights
Here is my capsule analysis, where I categorize and summarize the commentary along the following topical lines: Attendance, Engagement, Exposure, Lead Quality, Lead Volume, Efficiency and Cost.
Attendance. All of the commenters noted having attended live trade shows, half had attended virtual trade shows, and 1/3 had sponsored both live and virtual shows. Both the live event and its virtual variant were seen to have experienced diminished attendance numbers lately, as the Recession has eaten into marketing and travel budgets. Optimism prevailed about the coming year.
Exposure/Engagement. Perceptions seemed correlated to commenters’ familiarity with and use of online media. In other words, the more comfortable you are with virtual environments, the more you are likely to exploit and benefit from a virtual event. Having said that, both camps report that live events provide two important dimensions of communication not available online: visual and aural sensory input – put simply, face to face networking. Humans have evolved, over milennia, the ability to interpret facial expression, visual cues, and spatial relations.
- Presenters can interact with an audience more effectively live than online;
- Attendees at live events can visually scan a show floor and absorb more people, activity and information more quickly and efficiently than they can at an online event;
- Online event participants, by contrast, are seldom singly focused; they are at work, multitasking and distracted, and not fully engaged.
Still, some virtual event sponsors were “wowed” at the effectiveness of virtual events.
Lead Volume/Quality. This element seemed less affected by choice of medium (live/online) than by preparation. People who said they prepared well for a live or virtual event seemed satisfied with lead flow, and others who admitted a lack of preparation expressed discontent with lead flow. Lesson learned. Fail to plan, and you plan to fail. Moreover, some savvy people viewed virtual events not so much as a cost-cutter or a replacement for live events, but rather as a recruitment channel for live attendees.
Efficiency/Cost. Notch a “Win” for virtual events, which expand on the limitations of badge scanning, capturing information such as duration of visit, clickstream, collateral downloads and visits, and visitor comments, all of which can easily be downloaded and exported to your CRM. In terms of participation cost, virtual events seemed to cost about half that of a live event.
ROI. While the entire group expressed great interest in measuring ROI, only a few seemed to have a firm grasp on their metrics and could unequivocally state the ROI case for either type of trade show. Interestingly, participation in a virtual event seems an additive investment, not a replacement for live event participation. Moreover, some savvy marketers use virtual events to (a) recruit more live event attendees, treating the virtual event as a “content-light” forum to build interest in the live event as a richer experience, and (b) do some cost-effective experimentation with event content to help guide live event strategy. Live interviews on the show floor with dignitaries, displays of attendee lists, and promotions of “live-only” aspects of live events all seem to help with the recruitment.
C. Comment Stream
Here is the unabridged commentary from both forums.
Steve Nesich wrote:
Some differences are obvious: the production cost of doing a virtual event is significantly less. No travel, no meals, no lodging, no room rental, no booth construction, shipping or storage, no booth space rental, etc.
But the results and the ROI from a virtual vs. a live event are still unclear. It varies from show to show, company to company. My research, thus far, is showing a clear pattern: generally, with a virtual event, although you’ll have a lower cost, you’ll also have less engagement between the attendees and the speakers/exhibitors.
People who log on to a webinar, webcast or virtual trade show are, of course, in front of a screen, where the “multitasking” work mode is in high gear. Yes, the attendee is “at” your event, but they are also answering email, composing a document, surfing another website or talking on the phone with the sound of your presentation muted.
There appears to be some evidence that there is a trade-off between the lower cost of a virtual event and the number and quality of leads that result from a (less expensive) virtual event and a (more expensive) live one
Steve Lubahn wrote:
Most virtual trade shows I have looked into are too expensive relative the real benefits. Be sure and ask for actual stats, not just visitors, but also clicks to vendors. I have also contacted other vendors who use the virtual exhibits to get their experiences, most often they tell me they are not even sure what their results are, or they do not plan to sign up the following year.
Lydia Sugarman wrote:
Personally, I have *never* actually attended any virtual trade show for which registered. Now, I just don’t even bother registering. For me and I think, most people, the real benefit of trade shows is face-to-face conversations and networking with other attendees. Needless to say, that just can’t be adequately replicated virtually.
Ronn Irving wrote:
Ed, I planned and worked many tradeshows – mostly technical equipment. Expensive, lots of effort and long days from organizing to follow up. We often wondered if it was worth it. Yes, 80% of your annual revenue flowed through those 5 days on the floor in Vegas or wherever. But when it was done, we had a stack of leads, lots of handshakes and muttered promises that we would talk after the show. That’s the way it works when you are a small company dwarfed by the Palaces of Sony and Panasonic.
I recently attended two Virtual Tradeshows. I came away with lots of good information from the vendors – some excellent White Papers and Case Studies and superb Webinars – now available on demand – from some of the industry professionals. I have not looked into the costs, but suspect the cost per lead is lower. I imagine the quality of the leads generated are higher. The technology to integrate those leads into a CRM for follow up is obviously very efficient. The ability to chat and interact with both vendor reps and clients was valuable too.
Does the “convenience” of a virtual trade show offset the lack of face time? At this point, I would vote maybe.
Ed Alexander wrote:
All good points, gang. I agree there is no substitute for face to face meetings, and as Lydia pointed out, a virtual event lacks the visual in-person effects. For example, at a live show, you have a matrix-type experience in that you can scan the show floor visually and note the presence of colleagues, customers, and prospects. At the virtual event, it is a linear experience – people have either clicked or they haven’t, and there is no nuance in between.
So then the question becomes, what can you interpret from the virtual event data? Almost all the clicks are deliberate i.e. the visitor has a purpose. I will post additional feedback in terms of actual traffic quality results as the weeks unfold.
Thanks for all your contribution to a balanced discussion!
Julia Geyerhahn wrote:
In my opinion, virtual trade shows an be more valuable than f2f trade shows. At live events, you probably wouldn’t walk up to an attendee and start a conversation. Plus, you’d spend a lot of time finding someone from a company you might want to talk to. Trying to attend sessions and get in quality time with vendors is challenging. And on top of all of that, trade show traffic overall is way down. Companies have less money to spend on sending their employees to attend, and vendors have cut their trade show budgets as well. In the virtual world, however, you have attendees at their desks – no travel budget required. They are much more likely to start conversations via chat with other attendees. And vendors can start discussions and have the attention of multiple people at once. I think virtual trade shows are highly valuable.
Lydia Sugarman wrote:
Historically, there is absolutely no follow-up on fully 79% of all leads generated at trade shows. Fail! I would venture to guess that percentage is even higher for exhibitors and attendees not adequately preparing for attending trade shows. As the old saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” If a trade show is worth attending, plan which sessions you’ll attend. Decide what companies or customers, present and future, you want to meet with and call to schedule an appointment. Plan a dinner for your top customers and make reservations far in advance. Make use of your website, newsletter, and social media accounts to let people know you’ll be attending. Trade shows are huge networking opportunities, so you should be striking up conversations at every opportunity. If not, you’re doing yourself and your company a disservice. Get and give cards and organize them at some point every day, enter them into your CRM app with a note to remind you why that person is relevant and what the follow-up should be. Don’t party too hard. You’re there to work.
I used to sell syndicated TV programming and the big annual domestic tradeshow is NATPE. Well before leaving New York, every good syndicator had an appointment calendar that was filled with appointments with the most critical, most important stations and confirmed dinner invitations with station group executives. The little free time on the floor was given over to the mom-and-pop stations in small markets who were wandering the floor aimlessly.
I think these points are valid for both types of tradeshows. To have a successful experience, you must first have purpose about everything you do.
Ronn Irving wrote:
@ Lydia – Sage advice. I too have done NATPE and about 20 years of NAB shows, and you are correct, many of the exhibitors, small and large, have poor planning. One of the things I am most interested to learn about the Virtual Tradeshows is how well they convert the leads they get into opportunities and ultimately sales. I see V Tradeshows as an add on, not an alternative, to the tried and backbreaking ones. That may change over time, especially for the software-based companies. I have a link to one of the ones I attended – it appears to still be active. I will be glad to share it with anyone, but in deference to Beth, I will send it to anyone who requests it.
Joan Saunders wrote:
This is a great discussion and a very relevant one in these tough economic times for business. I agree that there is a place for both types of trade show. And this is coming from someone who actually sells virtual trade shows. At the moment, I think cost and positioning of virtual shows is the barrier to entry. I believe they are perceived as being quite expensive for what you get – a one day, two day show. Yes, you do have the archives, which is a distinct advantage to a live trade show, to which you can continue to drive an audience and so extend the ROI. It is true that attendance is way down on live trade shows, yet the virtual shows have not taken off quite as one would have expected. I don’t believe this to be the forum or the content – I do believe it is the cost. When the cost of producing virtual shows comes down, which it will over the next year, I think the usage will sky rocket.
Paul Welsh wrote:
I haven’t attended a lot of virtual trade shows but the one Marketing Pofs had in September blew me away. I’ve probably told 50 people about my positive experience. After spending most of the day at the show I told my friends not to invest their money in airlines of convention hotels because once virtual trade shows move through the adoption process travel and hotel dollars will be on a downhill slope.
Cathy Goodwin wrote:
We tried exhibiting at a virtual trade show – and found the traffic and results disappointing for the investment. Compared to a traditional tradeshow the engagement is very superficial – an online chat is completely different from an in-person conversation and the chance to see, feel, and experience a product. I would want to see higher traffic, lower costs, and a more engaging interactive experience to deem another virtual trade show as a solid investment.
Debra De-Jong wrote:
Do you guys think that the sort of product/service a company offers is a limiting factor for participating in a virtual tradeshow? I organized CeBIT, Infocomm and NACS for high-tech companies I worked for, and the face to face demonstration and explanation was crucial for understanding the product. I also noticed that visitors like to touch – being it a computer screen or a real product.
Steve Lubahn wrote:
I think it is an issue less about the actual product, and more an issues of the venue and price of the virtual tradeshow. There are many ways to represent a product or services online, but you have to get the visitors to come and spend time to search out what they are looking for before the product presentation can even occur.
Joan Saunders wrote:
Ah, yes, there in lies the issue. Getting people to come! It is the same as any type of show / meeting, whether virtual or live. I can tell you from 16 years experience producing virtual events that most sponsors still believe that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Not so. Most sponsors do not spend sufficiently on generating the audience. To have a successful event, you need good attendance. To get good attendance you need to spend money on getting the audience there. At least one third of the budget for any event should be spent on audience generation. Sorry to go on about this – it is one of my pet peeves. I deal with it practically every day of my business life – unrealistic expectations! And that is the second point – I think most individuals do have unrealistic expectations of virtual trade shows. Of course it will not be the same as a live show, but it certainly has many advantages. Ultimately, cost will be one of those advantages. It is for attendees now, but it will be more so for sponsors as this forum evolves.
Paul Ardoin wrote:
I recently organized and ran a B2B virtual event, and while it was 25% the cost of the face-to-face events (even less when you include travel), the traffic was horrible. Almost no one engaged with us when we tried to start a conversation. We had some visitors to our virtual booth, but almost no one visited for longer than 1 minute. There were several hours where no one at all was in our booth. We were also limited by the templates as to the artwork we could show — and could not show demos. We wanted to bring people into demos outside the virtual show, but never got that far with any visitors. A much lower percentage of people have returned our follow-up emails/calls (vs. F2F tradeshows). I have been meaning to speak with other vendors from the event to see if that was their experience as well.
Unless I find out that I did something wrong when planning this–and figure out how I can fix it–I’m not planning to do another virtual trade show again. It was a horrible experience.
Steve Lubahn wrote:
Paul, I think your experience is similar to many others when it comes to virtual events. The main people getting rich are the people putting on the “virtual event”, not the exhibitors.
I have had some luck with directory listings that is longer term, not just one or two day events, where you can have an actual profile with links within your website, be even there be sure you ask for website traffic and results before committing.
Paul Ardoin wrote:
I’ve been to a couple of virtual events as an attendee, and it’s waaay too easy to blow off the vendors. And, sitting at your desk, it’s waaaay to easy to get distracted by the minutiae of a typical work day.
Kimberly McCabe wrote:
I have attended 3 virtual conferences. I found the most memorable “take-away” was how boring they were to navigate. The second: how much memory the conf zapped from my CPU. There were far too few vendors. Timing issues meant I wasn’t connecting with people but sending messages. I got lots of follow-ups from companies along the lines of “Thank you for visiting our virtual booth…” even when I went in….saw what the company was about and immediately left. Some of the booths were good. But I think there is something missing. The companies hosting the websites are focusing too much on making it like SecondLife. There is too little info before the conference about the webinars and the companies exhibiting. The human element is too far gone. I think it would be more valuable if people were available via web-cam…or if there was more of a “live” feel. Personally Joan, so far I think most companies are better to spend their marketing budget on hosting their own webinars than partaking in a virtual conference.
Fred Mikkelsen wrote:
“Going to a show” is viewed as, and managaed as, a company perk. Perks for the marketers, the attenders, and the press. Managers cannot say, “As a reward for your success on this project, I want you to sit on this WebEx for four hours.”
As budgets have cut back, live show attendance has been more about marketing to marketers, and the biproduct of hooking up with the most successful inside achievers, and most influential press, has faded.
Small regional shows already offer reduce travel costs and seem mostly to be uninspired. People come-and-go quickly leaving the at-any-time attendance even more disproportionally low. Vendors fall-back to the boring tri-fold, table-top displays that can never wow, and the cycle of apathy accelerates.
The big show has also been a vehicle for presenting strategic direction. Breaking news at a small show does not get significant press. Breaking news on a virtual show would not get significant press.
If it’s not a reward for your best employees; if it’s not a way to meet the best employees of other firms; and if it’s not a way to break strategic news, I’m left wondering what the appeal of a virtual show is compared to YouTube, and how it could follow-on in the tradition of the trade show.
The genre of the trade show may be filed away with “whistle stops” and “green stamps” as quaint ways marketing used to be done.”Going to a show” is viewed as, and managaed as, a company perk. Perks for the marketers, the attenders, and the press. Managers cannot say, “As a reward for your success on this project, I want you to sit on this WebEx for four hours.” As budgets have cut back, live show attendance has been more about marketing to marketers, and the biproduct of hooking up with the most successful inside achievers, and most influential press, has faded. Small regional shows already offer reduce travel costs and seem mostly to be uninspired. People come-and-go quickly leaving the at-any-time attendance even more disproportionally low. Vendors fall-back to the boring tri-fold, table-top displays that can never wow, and the cycle of apathy accelerates. The big show has also been a vehicle for presenting strategic direction. Breaking news at a small show does not get significant press. Breaking news on a virtual show would not get significant press. If it’s not a reward for your best employees; if it’s not a way to meet the best employees of other firms; and if it’s not a way to break strategic news, I’m left wondering what the appeal of a virtual show is compared to YouTube, and how it could follow-on in the tradition of the trade show. The genre of the trade show may be filed away with “whistle stops” and “green stamps” as quaint ways marketing used to be done.
~end of commentary~
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D. Additional Resources
- Drive Physical Attendance Virtually (BtoB)
- Demand Sparks Better Integration of Online, Physical (BtoB)
- People are not ‘present’ when they attend something digitally (sharemarketing.wordpress.com)