February 17, 2009

Primer on Virtual Event Marketing: 10 Tactics, 3 Strategies to Draw Visitors, Sponsors

SUMMARY: Virtual events offer a less expensive way to reach thousands of potential customers in the U.S. and overseas. Here are 10 tactics, 3 strategies and some tips from three marketers on how to create successful virtual events.
Glen Mac Donell, Director, Lodging Programs & Airline Relations, American Automobile Association, ran eight virtual events in 2008. Unknown expectations about a year ago turned into a way to reach many more people in a much more cost-effective way.

Mac Donell says that, most of the time, you see virtual events in a business-to-business atmosphere. What makes their events different is that they occur in the business-to-consumer sphere.

AAA had been holding virtual-like events in their brick-and-mortar locations for years, he said. They wanted to reach consumers – especially younger consumers – who wouldn’t go to their in-store events, he says.

Post-event surveys show that 90% of attendees thought the virtual events have been good or excellent. “In a lot of cases, there are a lot of new customers, people we’ve never reached before,” Mac Donell says. “We find the ROI is very good because … if you can get 10% or 20% of these folks to make a purchase with you, it is a very attractive model.”

Here are tactics, strategies and tips Mac Donell’s team and two other virtual event marketers use:

Marketing a Virtual Event: 10 Tactics

->Tactic #1. Partner with associations

Look for partners to help market virtual events. Here’s an example.

Martha Collins, Vice President Marketing, PlatformQ, a virtual event production company, set up partnerships with standardized testing associations, such as the ACT, to publicize the virtual college fair, CollegeWeekLive. The partnership required the ACT to send emails about the virtual fair to their database of students and guidance counselors.

“If they say they’ll email guidance counselors on our behalf, the main thrust of our email is to get guidance counselors to some sort of demo environment, to show them what the virtual environment is because it’s not something they’ve seen before,” says Sal Giliberto, Interactive Marketing Manager, PlatformQ.

Guidance counselors were targets because they are great advocates for the event, Collins says. Guidance counselors and association partnerships comprise the largest group of CollegeWeekLive attendees.

Collins suggests asking these questions to help you choose the right association to partner with:

o Is the association a nice fit to your target audience?

ACT was a great partner for CollegeWeekLive to team up with, for instance, because it communicated with the target audiences – high school juniors and seniors and their guidance counselors.

Another example: PlatformQ partnered with the National Association of Manufacturers to help spread the word about their Virtual Energy Forum to the target audience: corporate energy executives.

o Is virtual event valuable for association’s audience?

The thinking here is: Why wouldn’t an association want to partner with your company in promoting a free event that’s going to benefit its members? If an association views a virtual event as one that’s complimentary to their business, the association will work with the company, Collins says.

“For us, doing partnerships with associations or other publishers or organizations within the category has been really crucial,” she says.

->Tactic #2. Invest in PR

Virtual events can attract press coverage. Collins and her team worked with CNN, for example, on a segment about the Virtual Energy Forum. ABC News did a segment on CollegeWeekLive.

The team attracted this kind of television coverage by partnering with a former news anchor who told former colleagues about the events. In addition, colleges and universities that purchased booths at CollegeWeekLive helped the event get local coverage in small to major daily newspapers.

“Colleges are great advocates,” Collins says. “They tend to be helpful with media outreach at the local level.”

->Tactic #3. Get exhibitors involved

Ask exhibitors to tell their constituents about the event. Ask them to use their resources to get media coverage. This is an inexpensive way to spread the word and boost attendance to virtual events.

->Tactic #4. Advertise on relevant websites

AAA uses online advertising to drive attendance to virtual events. The association places banner ads, for instance, on travel sites that have consumer traffic with a possible interest in their virtual events.

The association advertised their cruise-themed virtual event on the website, CruiseCritic.com, for example, because Mac Donell’s team thought visitors to that site might be interested in the virtual event.

->Tactic #5. Market to internal email database

AAA’s virtual events centered on products, such as cruises, traveling to Europe, or DisneyWorld vacations. With more than 50 million members, AAA sent emails about their virtual events to their internal database of members.

“We target consumers that have a propensity for the product we’re showcasing,” Mac Donell says.

AAA looks at members’ previous buying habits to determine their interest in the product showcased by a virtual event. For European travel, for example, the company segmented their internal database by people who traveled to Europe in the last few years.

->Tactic #6. Email registrants the day before and the day of an event

Virtual events require people to register with a password and email address to attend. Email campaigns generally have a formal reminder process.

The best time to remind registrants about logging in and attending the event is the day before and the day of the virtual event, says Malcolm Lotzof, CEO, InXpo, a provider of privately-branded virtual events.

->Tactic #7. Use social media to attract attendees

Look through LinkedIn or Facebook or other social networks, says Lotzof. You might find a group interested in the virtual event you’re marketing.

Leave a message on the group’s network page. Or set up a profile for the virtual event and invite the group to be your friend on Facebook, for instance. If your company already has a Facebook page, try putting a link to the virtual event’s microsite on your page to let your friends know about the virtual event.

->Tactic #8. Emphasize the value of the event

Sometimes just emphasizing the time- and cost-effectiveness of the virtual event is a great way to attract registrants, says Collins.

“We’re lucky because our events are free to the end user,” she says. “Our revenue model is really dependent on the exhibitors and sponsors.”

At the same time, it’s important that the virtual event fills users’ needs. The event’s concept must appeal to the target audience and give them information they won’t get from other sources.

->Tactic #9. Use the virtual event’s microsite

A virtual event might have its own microsite, Lotzof says. Use it. Do the following:
- Provide a link to the microsite from the homepage
- Provide a link and a “Register Now” button
- Ask exhibitors to put the link on their websites
- Ask other partners, associations to put the link on their websites

->Tactic #10. Use sweepstakes as an incentive

“We typically have great offers in conjunction with the show,” says Mac Donell. “If they purchase something within a week of the event, we’ll give them a great discount or a value-add or another incentive to buy.”

AAA usually offers a sweepstakes to win a vacation for two. The sweepstakes acts as an incentive to attend the event and fill out lead-qualifying surveys.

3 Strategies for Ensuring Virtual Event Success

->Strategy #1. Encourage interactivity

The more interactive the virtual event, the more repeat attendees you’ll have, Lotzof says. “The most important part of driving traffic to the event is a great event experience.”

To improve interactivity, incorporate:
o Video chat
o Text chat
o Web casting
o Blogs
o Forums
o Q&A after presentations

“What we’re finding is more user-generated content in a booth,” he says. “Like a chat room in a booth, a survey in a booth, or a forum in a booth.”

People will return to a booth that offers discussion. The only effort it requires from an exhibitor is someone to monitor the discussion and answer questions.

->Strategy #2. Gather lead-qualifying info during the event

Don’t gather too much lead-qualifying information during the registration process, says Lotzof. The more information you try to gather on the front end, the higher your chances of losing registrants.

“Find a balance between getting key questions answered and then expanding on that throughout the rest of the process,” he says.

When an attendee comes to a booth, for example, the exhibitor could have them answer a few more questions. When attendees go to a presentation, ask a few more questions. Entice them with a sweepstakes. Say: “Fill out this survey to win …”

Lead-qualifying information attracts exhibitors and sponsors.

->Strategy #3. Conduct a post-event survey

A key benefit of a virtual event is the possibility to tweak the platform for issues that might arise. That’s part of the reason it’s important to ask for feedback in a post-event survey.

Post-event surveys also help gauge the success of an event. Some questions PlatformQ asks in a survey:
o Would you attend another CollegeWeekLive?
o Would you tell another person about the event?

The survey is emailed to all attendees. CollegeWeekLive got a 10% response rate to the post-event survey, with 84% saying they’d attend another virtual event, and 91% saying they’d tell a friend about it.

Attracting Exhibitors & Sponsors

Sponsoring and exhibiting provide greater and/or more specialized reach than a physical conference or trade show, says Collins. Emphasize these benefits to convince sponsors and exhibitors to participate:

o Detailed lead information on each attendee, including what areas attendees visited, how long they spent at a booth, what documents they downloaded, what presentations they attended, etc.

o Attendance stats and demographics of past events. CollegeWeekLive, for example, gets about 28,000 attendees.

o Ability to communicate with leads and qualify leads in a virtual environment.

o Reach an international audience that doesn’t travel to physical events

o Reach a younger, tech-savvy audience

o Reach new prospects

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Bigger is generally best for physical events. The more exhibitors or speakers you have, the more a company might justify spending on flights, lodging and conference tickets.

For virtual events, bigger isn’t necessarily better, Lotzof says. Niche or focused virtual events can have a more intimate feeling and generate more valuable communication between attendees and presenters.

“The smaller and more focused they are, the more interactive they are,” he says. “The more networking takes place.”

Here are some guidelines Lotzof offers about size:

o Don’t hold a virtual event for 20 to 50 people. That’s a good size for a Web conference, not for a virtual event.

o Once you have more than 100 attendees, the virtual event platform with Web casting becomes more suitable to create the atmosphere.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from PlatformQ and InXpo:

CollegeWeekLive – microsite for the virtual college fair produced by PlatformQ:

ACT – a partner in spreading the word about CollegWeekLive:

Virtual Energy Forum – microsite for the virtual energy event produced by PlatformQ:

National Association of Manufacturers – partner in spreading the word about Virtual Energy Forum:

AAA’s virtual events page:




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