Love it or hate it there’s no stopping the trend: B-to-B events are moving from the convention center to the computer screen.
Despite their high-tech persona the appeal of virtual trade shows and meetings is grounded in traditional metrics that are decidedly old school: cost-effectiveness reach and access to new audiences. What’s not to like?
Some event marketers fear the virtual realm may cannibalize their livelihoods others have even ditched live events all together. Most say online events are helping bridge the gap between the end of one show and the beginning of the next one. How three brands are making it work:
Cisco Systems: The Virtual Pioneer
Cisco jumped into online events in 1999 when its road show schedule topped an unwieldy 1 200 stops. The company started building a web-based seminar program as a way to distribute content in a more scalable way. Today it hosts 350 virtual seminars and events each year. The expansive menu of virtual offerings now includes video on demand live webcasts of keynotes or trade show demos live polling and interactive messaging plus frequent tech talk sessions (melding audio content with PowerPoint visuals).
This year the company is moving into 3-D presentations that work effectively on- and offline. Cisco even held a live event in conjunction with a seminar at its Second Life territory. The flurry of online activity is a response to the changing expectations of its customers who are growing increasingly younger and more accustomed to driving their own experiences.
“[For these customers] it’s not ‘Wow you have an Internet offering isn’t that great ’” says Nancy Neipp Cisco’s director-event marketing. “It’s ‘Where’s the Internet offering?’ We’re trying to rethink from a traditional perspective how we embrace that change in our users.”
Is there a fear of offline programs being eaten up by online events? Neipp says there was some concern among Cisco’s event staff in the beginning but it quickly faded. Instead she says the virtual events are benefiting Cisco and its customers by creating experiences that hit more of the client’s touchpoints.
Cruise West: The Online Purist
Cruise West a small adventure cruise line made its first foray into online events in 2001 mostly because it was struggling to survive—let alone compete with deeper-pocketed competitors—after 9-11 and the dot-com bust. The company let go of its field sales staff disbanded its annual seminars and consumer events and tried an out-of-the-box solution called GoToWebinar which is marketed by Citrix Online. (A similar offering is available through WebEx.) The result you ask? The company hasn’t done a live event since.
“Our travel agents are such big fans that they’re referring their clients to come to our webinars ” says Leigh Strinksy Cruise West’s manager-online programs.
The company now trains its travel agents online and hosts weekly consumer seminars at up to 45 webinars per month; attendance ranges from six to 50. Strinksy says the company doesn’t miss the face-to-face interaction because the convenience and reach is so much greater—the company just trained agents in Australia for the first time.
And to keep VIP agencies happy those that used to get face-to-face visits now get private online sessions. “We see other companies in the industry offering this ” says Strinksy. “They’re recognizing that it’s a great way to reach a wider audience.”
Xerox: The Corporate Blogger
Webcasting isn’t new but adding two-way web-based communication between attendees and speakers is finally starting to catch on. At a Xerox analyst briefing attendees could submit questions and comments from their own laptops or visit one of three blogging stations that were set up on the perimeter of the room; guests watching online could contribute through the web too. Hosts on stage responded to the bloggers during the live presentation (Agency: Velocity Communications Alexandria VA). The result was a more casual and interactive experience that encouraged stronger audience participation.
“We always have a Q&A session but because people could enter questions on the blog throughout the presentation there were more thoughtful questions ” says Becky Dziedzic who manages Xerox’s blogs. “The answers given in realtime inspired more of a conversation.”
As a bonus the new blog lived on after the show to spark discussions in the online blogging community—a nice boost of cool for Xerox’s corporate image.