If I had a dollar for every time I heard or read the phrase “nothing will replace face-to-face meetings,” I would be rich (er). The sad truth is that in some cases they’ve already been replaced. The recession, green movement, costs to exhibit, travel hassles, generation Y’s social networking predilections (pick one) have opened the door to virtual events with good reason—they save money and environmental resources while attracting a new audience of exhibitors and attendees. Rather than run towards the exits with brains on fire fearing the cannibalization or elimination of live events by virtual platforms, it’s time to take stock of the real opportunities that virtual event platforms offer to stimulate live attendance and grow face-to-face events.
The bad news
At the same time virtual events are on the rise, face-to-face trade show producers are experiencing their share of challenges. Many organizers are struggling to get a handle on how to grow their events in the face of increased competition from new media channels, continued economic volatility, and rising costs. Exhibitors remain irritated by labor practices and the ever-increasing costs to exhibit. The recent uptick in attendance numbers at some shows doesn’t change the general lack of industry growth overall.
The good news
When done well, virtual experiences stimulate immersion, flow, and presence—the primary reasons why virtual games like World of Warcraft (WOW) are so addictive. To a lesser extent, virtual trade shows and conferences perform in the same way. Like every great concert, sporting event, or cocktail party next door, watching and listening to the action from a distance only makes you crave being there when the opportunity comes along. Incidently, BLIZZCON, the live conference for WOW gamers, sells out almost immediately after the dates are announced every year.
To prevent the further shrinkage of live events, producers must develop a strategy that allows each of the two mediums—face-to-face and virtual events—do what they uniquely do best and treats virtual platforms like any other content strategy that adapts to address the various stages of the sales funnel:
Stage I: Webinars. Bring in live subject matter experts to deliver regularly scheduled, FREE, and interactive presentations to an audience that is both familiar with the live event (jazzed from attending the year before) and entirely new. Content delivered virtually at this stage should create brand awareness, pique the interest of newcomers and reinforce the loyalty of your customer base.
Stage II: The Virtual Preview. Use your live event speakers and keynote presenters to offer a glimpse of what’s in store at the face-to-face event. However, lest you think you can get away with something brief, commercial-like, and only at 50% power, think again. This is the point at which you MUST go after potential live attendees with both barrels, offering original content for FREE with the understanding that the virtual attendees are in a buying mode.
Stage III: The Hybrid Event. Stream content live from the physical trade show and conference to the virtual audience. This is an opportunity to appeal to serious potential participants—remote attendees, exhibitors, and even sponsors—who want to learn about the event with the intention of participating the following year. This is your opportunity to showcase your product in a three-dimensional way. The best way to do that is to not treat the virtual audience as voyeurs or second-class citizens. You have to engage them, give them a voice, allow them to participate, and frustrate them (in a good way) so that they regret not having attended the live event.
Stage IV: The Live Trade Show and Conference. Reward loyalists who have made the shift from virtual attendee to live attendee with an experience that emulates the online environment but cannot be duplicated online—rich human interaction, unlimited opportunities to engage in small groups and intimate settings, information on demand, and plenty of tactile experiences. The content and engagement delivered by the live event must be so compelling and actionable that it pushes live attendees back into the post-event virtual stream to form the live event’s virtual community.
The Takeaway: This virtual rescue plan forces live events to differentiate themselves from virtual platforms by offering a level of engagement that virtual events cannot deliver. The richness of the live experience drives attendance. The online content (unique information delivered by live speakers, not archived presentations) recognizes where virtual attendees are in the buying (attending) cycle and delivers content commensurate with that stage of the sales funnel. It allows potential participants—attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors—to jump into and out of the content stream all year long. Yes, this is a long-term approach. Yes, it requires deviation from conventional growth strategies and a level of investment on the part of the event organizer. But, some would argue, the only way forward for the live event industry is not to look back.