Hosting a Virtual Event
Hosting a Virtual Event
By Jon Bell, October 18, 2011
Until 2010, Compuware Corp. held an annual conference in Europe for users of its Uniface software applications.
But when the economy got tight, the $930 million company realized customers might not be able to justify sending employees across the globe. “We knew people didn’t have the budget to travel,” says Zulayka Martis, Compuware’s Uniface marketing campaign manger. “We started looking into other vehicles because we still wanted to communicate with our customers in the same kind of way.”
The answer: hosting a virtual conference.
The result, according to Martis, was impressive.
Compuware’s annual expo normally attracted about 250 customers. But more than 500 registered for the virtual event that the company held in February 2010. Because many registrations were for teams of people, Martis estimates more than 1,000 attended.
Compuware staged the event in three time zones so people in Brazil, India, Japan and elsewhere around the globe could participate, along with users in the United States.
The tab for the virtual event came to about $70,000, about a third of the cost of hosting the physical event. “It was a huge cost savings,” Martis says, so much so that Compuware has since held two other virtual conferences. “That was one of the ways we were able to convince the management team that this could work well for us.”
“The virtual (event) may never completely replace the great exhibit halls. But wise marketing professionals can use the technology to effectively reach customers and improve their bottom line.”Susan Friedmann, a consultant known as The Tradeshow Coach
Virtual events, from trade shows and user conferences to product launches and corporate meetings, are nothing new. But technological advances, along with tighter travel and trade-show budgets, have made them an increasingly popular choice for mid-sized companies looking to engage with their primary audiences.
“The virtual (event) may never completely replace the great exhibit halls,” says Susan Friedmann, a Lake Placid, New York, consultant known as the Tradeshow Coach. “But wise marketing professionals can use the technology to effectively reach out to customers . . . and improve their bottom line.”
An Engaging Concept
When Compuware realized it wasn’t going to hold its regular physical event, Martis looked online for other options. She discovered a virtual event platform run by InterCall, a conference-call company that acquired the virtual-event company Unisfair earlier in 2011.
“We call it virtual engagement,” says Joerg Rathenberg, InterCall’s products vice president. “We focus on what companies need to engage with their customers and provide them with an ongoing platform for doing that.”
InterCall provides what Rathenberg calls a “virtual engagement center,” a web interface that customers can customize to resemble a trade show, conference or any other kind of event – even an outdoor scene.
Companies then fill the online environment with content. That could include events, webinars, live chats and video conferences, analyst presentations, white papers, spec sheets and other documents, exhibitors who set up and staff virtual booths, and anything else attendees might find relevant. Once they register, attendees log in with a user credential to explore the virtual event, access content and search for and interact other attendees.
Virtual conferences aren’t like Second Life, the virtual world where users interact with each other by creating online alter egos. “In Second Life, you create an image of yourself that is nothing like you really are,” Rathenberg says. “That’s not what people want in a business setting. What they care about is seeing the business card of another person and making contact with people who are who they say they are.”
Compuware’s virtual events have included pre-recorded webinars and videos as well as live question-and-answer sessions with industry analysts and opportunities for attendees to network and interact. The meetings also featured an exhibition area with booths for attendees.
Compuware employees who were trained to navigate the environment were on hand throughout the event, virtual counterparts to a company’s traditional trade show booth staff. “When people go into a booth at the virtual event, it’s just like going into a real one,” Martis says. “If an employee goes up to someone in a booth and right away says, ‘Can I help you?’ people leave right away. Just like at a real show, you have to start a conversation first.”
The Case for Virtual
In addition to helping cut costs, virtual events allow companies to track attendee metrics. InterCall’s platform, for example, generates an engagement index that measures specific demographics, activities and interests and assigns scores accordingly to help qualify sales leads. For example, a company might consider an executive-level employee a qualified lead if she views a certain webinar, downloads a white paper and participates in a live chat. Attendees who didn’t meet such criteria might receive a lower score and, therefore, not be rated as highly.
Unlike conferences that last a few days before everyone breaks down their booths and goes home, content on virtual events can live for months after an event takes place. “It’s less work than a physical event,” Martis says. “But it’s also more gratifying because with a physical event, you put in all that work and then the look and the feel — it’s just gone. But our virtual event is on-demand for three months, so people can go and look at it again and again.”
Staging a virtual event can cost from $5,000 to more than $100,000 depending on the features and functionalities a company chooses and how long it remains online. InterCall, for example, offers fixed prices for one-time events that are available on an on-demand basis for up to three months after the original date. Customers who want a virtual event to remain online in perpetuity pay $36,000 a year and up to reserve the space on InterCall’s servers.
According to Martis, Compuware plans to continue using virtual events in certain circumstances, but it will likely still host physical events for large product releases. The company may also use virtual events to share information with customers to entice them to attend future physical events.
Even Rathenberg, the InterCall products vice president, says virtual events aren’t likely to replace physical meetings. They are, however, an effective alternative for companies looking to interact with customers. They also can be used in concert with physical events to create a hybrid experience that offers prospects more than just one kind of event or the other.
“People aren’t so willing to travel these days for cost reasons, but they’re also more reluctant to do to something if they don’t know what it’s going to do for them,” he says. “Virtual events attract people — more qualified people — and give them a snapshot of whether it’s worth it or not.”