Virtual Events – The pros and cons of a new reality
Virtual events—those that occur almost completely on the Internet—offer companies an opportunity to build
a tech-savvy brand, expand audience reach, and drastically reduce costs. But they also contain elements of risk
if not planned and managed correctly.
Baldwin & OBEnauf, inc. – Corporate Communication, Design, and Promotion Summer 2009
Tough economic times and a boom in the popularity—and acceptance—of
social networking applications have led to rapid growth in business demand for The new media tools
virtual events. Companies are looking for new solutions to traditional business that drive engagement
practices to be more efficient and engaging, and to produce cost savings. more within a virtual event
than ever before, they are turning to virtual events to host internal and external environment offer many
meetings, especially those that need to reach a global audience. ways for attendees to
connect with your
The applications for virtual events across industries and business activities are vast.
They include traditional product-oriented trade shows, corporate sales or employee
engagement events, recruitment job fairs and invitational events, and more. Today, the
virtual event marketplace that previously served only the most technology-savvy
audiences reaches well into many less geeky corporate activities.
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Whether you’re executing your first event or your fourth, virtual events are likely to offer a near immediate payoff in one or more of the following areas:
• Improved Brand Positioning
Having the ability to be in front of attendees when they’re ready to engage can help you establish a powerful prefer- Virtual events
ence for your brand or service offering. That’s not just because of the “good will” perceived when you’re there for
prospects. It’s also because prospects will have many more opportunities to focus their best attention on your offering. offer companies
Beyond being the “more available” choice, virtual events offer companies an opportunity to connect their offering with an opportunity
new communication methods and emerging social customs. This used to work only with tech-savvy audiences… but to connect their
today it’s important for anyone who needs to connect with people of any age (mid-career and senior adults make up
the fastest growing portion of today’s networked society).
offering with new
• engagement Quantity and Quality
Virtual events don’t require a full-day or full-weekend commitment on the part of attendees. As a result, more of those
people who are invited can make time to attend. emerging social
Virtual events can offer 24-hour access and on-demand media viewing long after their initial start date. That means that customs.
even latecomers will have opportunities to see your content and, when planned properly, engage with your people.
The new media tools that drive engagement within a virtual environment offer many ways for attendees to find and
engage with your team members. They can conduct keyword searches to quickly find products or solutions. You can
search attendee profiles for instantaneous access to a highly focused audience. Attendees can—and are more ready
to—participate in surveys that identify them as valuable prospects or even qualified candidates.
• reduced Cost
Because virtual events don’t require a physical location, they offer enormous savings in facilities, lodging, travel, and
entertainment expenses for the hosting company. They offer similar savings for attendees.
But cost saving goes well beyond those highly visible cash outlays. There’s also a substantial reduction in staffing hours,
time away from the office, time away from families, and conflicts with other opportunities for team members. Those
hidden cost benefits also apply to attendees.
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We’ve all gotten used to new technology offering a downside. With virtual events, the good news is that the downside can be avoided with the right
planning and execution. The bad news is… you may not apply the right planning or execution.
That said, the potential risks of a virtual event can include:
• reduced interaction quality identify and use a
The difference between a real smiling face and a smiling emoticon, ;-), is huge. Event designers who overlook this fact platform that is
may be surprised to find that their virtual events fail to establish a credible engagement with attendees.
Effective event preparation, including careful and creative use of communication media, can easily help to overcome
and tolerant of
• Potential hesitation among slow technology adopters
Five years ago, it was a safe bet that if your audience wasn’t high-tech geeks, you should not be conducting virtual
events. Today’s environment is different. But there’s still a risk that you’ll invite the wrong audience.
In every demographic, there are individuals who are late to adopt new methods. Those individuals may hesitate
to attend an event on their computer.
If you’re concerned that the number of slow adopters is high among target attendees, there are two quick ways
to overcome this risk. First, identify and use a platform that is easy, intuitive, and tolerant of new users. Second,
communicate the ease-of-use AND the advantages of attendance to your target attendees.
• An old-school event management approach by hosting team members
Virtual events require a whole new way of thinking about interactions with your audience. Depending on the hosting
team’s culture, this may feel too risky. Everyone wants invested dollars to generate quick returns, and they can. But a
new perspective is required to make the most out of the attractively low cost of virtual events.
A great way to ensure that your entire hosting team is aligned with the new thinking required is to engage them in
the planning process, from the beginning when you’re exploring, and expressing a vision for utilizing virtual events.
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The Basic Elements of a Virtual Event
There are five basic elements that need to be planned for in every virtual event.
We like to look at these elements as a physical structure, where one element layers on top of the next.
The five elements, from the bottom up, are: People and Interactions
• Platform – the system on which all the other elements reside. A platform may be as basic as a
Web site or a conferencing system, or as complex as a virtual world.
• media – these are the applications through which you’ll deliver your messages. A basic media
tool would be the text content within a Web site. More complex media tools might be streaming
video, a slide presentation system, or an interactive application.
• Content – content is the material that is carried to the audience through the media. It’s important not to confuse
the two. You may have very cool media but extremely boring content (or vice versa). If you’re going to measure
impact, or get feedback from your audience, you should consider these two elements independently. Platform
• People – We can be fairly certain that the goal of your virtual event is to attract and persuade visitors. In most when you begin your
businesses—at least in those that are not completely automated—the event will involve people that come from
the hosting company. planning from the top
Your people will fall into two main groups. The first group, the support team, will facilitate the event’s content and down, envisioning the
activities (such as your marketing/event planning team, technology support, or visitor services staff). A second group,
the knowledge keepers, will provide attendees with critical information or related knowledge (such as presenters, sales quality and context
team members, recruiters, or executive team partners). of interactions you
It’s critical that the roles of each of these two groups be very well defined before interaction with attendees ever begins. want to have, you’ll
• Interactions – All of the previous elements build on the strength and flexibility of the previous to create the most be better prepared.
important part of any event: the interactions. These are the real-time connections between people or between
people and content.
Now your people strategy really kicks in. The goal of the support team during interactions will be to facilitate contact
between attendees and knowledge keepers. The knowledge keepers’ role will be to shepherd attendees through a well
planned information flow that satisfies their questions or objections and leads them to a positive and informed choice.
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Plan from the Top down
It’s true that the most significant investment in a virtual event is likely to be in areas of platform, media, and content. But when we consider
the experience of the visitor, the most critical experience in the persuasion process is almost invariably carried by the interactions.
When you begin your planning from the top down—that is, envisioning and planning around the quality and context of
Even when a visitor
the interactions you want to have—you’ll be better prepared to select the most efficient and effective content, media,
and platform. doesn’t choose your
As you envision those interactions, you’ll have an opportunity to break free of the old-school, physical event model. offering, they are likely
Consider that some visitors may visit in the middle of the night, or perhaps only for 15 minutes at a time. They don’t lack to carry information
commitment to exploring your product. YOU have an opportunity to make their exploration better fit the realities of
their world. with them to another
We know that virtual events can be very convenient because attendance costs less and can be more flexible. But it can potential customer
feel less personal as well. Find ways to build real, person-to-person interactions by selecting media that support real-time or candidate.
visual and verbal contact between visitors and your team.
As we think about people, we want to consider the needs and aspirations of the visiting audience, but also the technical,
product, and people competencies of your team. Do you know what your visiting audience most wants to know as they
face the choices in the marketplace? Is your team aware of those choices and how your offering measures up against them?
Critical to any successful interaction is understanding how the visitor is likely to approach it and what you want them to
do AFTER the interaction. If an on-the-spot choice is expected of the visitor, it would seem silly to send them off to a
Web site to learn more. It would be equally silly not to have interactions, people, and content that lead them immediately
to making that choice.
As simple as this part of the planning seems, you would be surprised to know how many clients don’t develop interactions
that support the desired visitor flow. This is where the assistance of a knowledgeable partner can help. Experienced
partners should help you understand and optimize all of the possible outcomes of a visit. Remember, even when a visitor
doesn’t choose your offering, they are likely to carry information with them to another potential customer or candidate
(and your brand lives on).
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Content needs to be simple to digest, persuasive, and lead visitors to the next step. This is where knowing the audience is
critical. Are they tech-savvy? Are they visual or verbal? Is their attention span long or short? Are they averse to marketing
messages? Do they want to control the interaction? with information that
Quite often, if the content is prepared to suit the visitor, they’ll feel the persuasion more than they’ll notice the content. differentiates your
That’s when you know you’ve done it right. You should develop your content while knowing the questions that the offering and helps
audience wants resolved. This often means providing critical information that differentiates the offering from competing
solutions, and helps the visitor draw a positive conclusion through their own intellect and emotion. That last point is them draw a positive
key… when the visitor draws their own conclusion, you have the most credible witness to the hosting company’s offering. conclusion through
meDIA their own intellect
From here on, our choices are about optimizing the content and interactions. If you choose your media because it’s cool, and emotion.
you have your priorities mixed up. Ultimately, some new forms of media may help deliver the message that the hosting
company is tech-savvy. But in most cases, high-tech, for its own sake, leaves the hosting company in a neutral position
with visitors. They will still measure you on the value of your content, people, and interactions.
As you plan your virtual events, you should focus on utilizing media that will optimize the interactions. Beyond that, the
media will be relatively transparent to the visitor. The result is an easy and intuitive experience.
Here’s the big “Aha!”: The biggest influence on event effectiveness and efficiency is often the most transparent element of
all. Choosing a platform that creates the best experiences and interactions for the visitor means helping them always
see beyond the platform. As a result, we recommend making that platform as intuitive (or transparent) as possible.
Don’t underestimate the task here! It will measure into the bottom line in the form of dollars, brand, and visitor impact.
Once ALL of the other elements have been envisioned, identify the platform that will make for an easy experience
without stealing the show.
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what can You Expect in Terms of cost and Value?
The business model for a virtual event is very different from its physical ancestors. Amazing savings in travel, shipping, and construction costs make this new
marketing approach very attractive. Ensuring that your event is a rich experience for attendees (and a rewarding experience for your company) will require
a 50% to 100% increase in spending for content development and planning.
Here’s the good news hidden in all of that for those who plan carefully: The increase in spending for content is usually substantially less than what you would
have spent on travel, shipping, and construction. What’s more, the potential for repurposing content for other promotions (Web sites, interactive promotions,
video that supports other events, or internal training systems) means your dollars can work a lot harder. Add to that the opportunity of being in front of
more visitors, when they’re ready to focus their attention on your offering, and you’re likely to win big with virtual events.
THe BOTTOm LINe
Executing a flawless event requires experience, and very likely, the help of a partner that has been there before. Few
Virtual events provide
companies will reap the maximum return on their investment with their first events. But it is very likely that a substantial
savings will be seen, even on the first try. the opportunity of being
It makes complete sense for companies that utilize events to gain experience with virtual events now. Here’s why: in front of more visitors
when they’re ready to
• Tough economic conditions make cost savings a priority for you AND for your competitors. Virtual events create an
focus their attention
opportunity for immediate savings, but also for immediate brand positioning in the marketplace.
• Firms that delay venturing into the virtual world will only delay the learning curve.They’ll also look less competent
on your offering.
once market pressure forces late movement into the virtual arena.
• As audiences become more familiar with the advantages of attending virtual events, physical events will become
less attractive and, very likely, more cost/benefit prohibitive.
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You can contact the authors directly to talk more about how virtual events may apply in your business:
Ray Ferreira Sarah Krisel
Vice President, Strategic Services Account Executive
Baldwin & Obenauf, Inc. Baldwin & Obenauf, Inc.
(908) 450-5414 (908) 450-5407
About Baldwin & Obenauf
Baldwin & Obenauf, Inc., established in 1981, is a full-service communication, design, and promotion firm providing
effective, customized, and strategic communication for business-to-business marketing; employee communication;
recruitment marketing; product and organization branding; product labeling; and health care communication.
Baldwin & Obenauf teams develop effective programs – that achieve real, bottom-line results – across a wide range of
communication media and across many industry categories.The company’s services are available in the United States
and internationally.Their clients range from entrepreneurial small businesses to Fortune-100 firms with a global presence.
Baldwin & Obenauf has been cited for overall successes as a woman-owned business and has received many industry awards.
The firm holds active memberships in the WBENC (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council), WPO (Women
Presidents’ Organization), and NJAWBO (New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners).
For more information, please visit http://www.bnoinc.com.
Tim Clark. Best Practices in Virtual Events, How to get the most from Virtual Events. Retrieved March 11, 2009. Web site
Frost & Sullivan. Webcasting: The New Essential Ingredient of B2B Success. Retrieved March 11, 2009. Web site
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