Are virtual conferences really comparable to traditional physical events?

When working on integrated communications campaigns, adaptability is key. As professionals, we are here to support our clients and help re-shape their strategies and implement a plan that will work for them. Nevermore so has this been true this year. 

When COVID-19 hit, the conference and events industry was hit hard. As we watched the physical events that we know and love fall like dominoes, clients called upon us to help them get the most from their investment as the event industry went virtual.  

Recently we were asked by a client to manage its virtual booth for an event they were ‘attending’. The event was being run from London, whilst the marketing lead was based in the US. Due to the time difference and needing someone ‘on the ground’ to manage the booth and social channels, we took on the opportunity. 

Our role was to be on hand to answer any questions that the team may have, promote demos and encourage conversation and engagement. But what did we learn? 

Love them or hate them – events are here to stay 

Industry conferences are a bit like Marmite – you either love them or hate them. There are many people out there that relish the opportunity to travel the world and network with likeminded individuals whilst soaking up the latest innovations and research in the field.  

Others err more on the side of dislike, knowing that they will be trapped in a stuffy conference centre for days on end with their feet hurting from walking the show floor. And this is after they’ve spent months planning and preparing the elaborate stands and getting demos and lust worthy freebies ready to entice visitors to the booth. 

No matter which side of the fence you sit on, there is no denying that conferences have long been a staple part of any organisation’s marketing strategy. Often a large proportion of the annual budget will be allocated for such events and key announcements are engineered months in advance to coincide with them.  

So, as we all turned to virtual ways of working it has led to the emergence of virtual events. In fact, Sooraj Shah recently wrote an interesting piece for the BBC looking at the future of the conference industry.  

Adjusting the strategy 

I’ll put my hand up and admit I was a tad sceptical about the concept of a virtual event. I’m not the biggest fan of traipsing around events, having lost count of the number of tights I’ve laddered, blisters gained or soles of shoes that I’ve worn through.  

I also struggled to see how anyone would get the same level of interaction and engagement virtually when it is hard enough to do when standing in front of people. We’ve all seen sales teams pleading with people to hop onto the stand, so they scan their badge, give them a demo and some data sheets with the promise of a follow up call. 

But on the flip side as a marketeer, you’ve got to make the best of a bad situation and ensure a return on an investment that has already been made. Afterall, there is still a marketing and sales funnel that needs to be filled.  

Don’t underestimate the intensity of a virtual event 

With our recent virtual event experience, each vendor had a virtual booth where they could display information on who they are and promote assets they have to share with the community. Individual Zoom rooms, where demos could be held, were also available.  

All the conversations were being held on a Slack workspace, with each vendor having a dedicated channel, speaker track channels and then lots of miscellaneous channels to promote jobs, competitions, networking etc.  

What struck me the most was the time needed to be spent managing the process, something I hadn’t appreciated when the event first started. With a multitude of Slack discussions going on, it can be hard to keep up with all of the conversations. Plus, you need to be confident just to jump into the chat and contribute to the discussion.  

There was also still the challenge in getting people to ‘stop by’ the vendor booth. Most of the discussions were focussed on the channels that discussed the key notes and track sessions, with questions flowing and often then peppered with a social element.  

Chatting with the one of the organisers at the end of the event, it emerged that it had been one of their most successful events using Slack. On day one there with over 1000 active users, with around 60% of users posting in the channels. 

Top Tips for attending a virtual event

Three tips when prepping your marketing and sales teams to attend a virtual event would be: 

  1. Preparation is key – This still holds true for virtual events. Try and prep as many of your social posts as you can in advance, with a rough idea of when you plan to post each of them. That way you won’t waste time having to conjure up posts on the fly. Instead you focus on chatting with other attendees. You may also want to consider lining up a few posts for the sales team to post at various points. 
  1. Get involved – If you spend your time waiting to be invited into a chat, then you may find yourself having a lonely few hours. It is called social media for a reason, so don’t just stick to your comfort zone. Join in the other conversations and tag others that you know could offer value to the chat to get the discussion going. This is also a great opportunity to promote resources such as infographics, research reports or blogs, that drive people to your website to find out more information.  
  1. Think outside the box – At physical events you get the ability to physically drag people onto stands and chat, with virtual events you don’t. When thinking about how you are going to engage with attendees, don’t keep it constrained to the demo. Think about what else you can do to get them interested. Maybe schedule an AMA (Ask Me Anything) during the breaks and networking times, set up a flash poll or a competition with a must have prize.  

If you’ve done a virtual event and want to share your hints and tips, then drop me a line as we’re always keen to learn from others and share experiences! 

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Episode 11 – How to launch research projects that deliver results across PR and marketing