Event Marketing on Customers' Terms

Virtual conferences help build customer engagement-and improve sales lead quality.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the first recorded tradeshow in history was the annual fair in the city of Leipzig, Saxony. People came together for several days to exchange goods and services and learn about trends and market developments. Foreign merchants traveling to the event were guaranteed safety for their persons and goods, even if their rulers were at war with Saxony. Its success influenced policies and led to the creation of unprecedented wealth. Since those days, trade shows have enjoyed wide popularity.

Still today, marketing managers, whether in B2B or B2C markets, invest heavily in trade shows and conferences as part of their customer engagement strategy. While these events come in many shapes and sizes today, one bottom line remains: Vendors are there to generate qualified leads for their sales teams.

A changing landscape

The combination of globalization and the economic downturn have put a damper on tradeshow activities worldwide. Travel budgets have been tightened across the board. Attendees are less willing to hop on a plane halfway around the globe for a few meetings with uncertain ROI. On the vendor side, exhibitors are faced with stagnant budgets and rapidly growing pipeline targets.

Consequently, companies have sought out ways to meet and engage without the hassles of travel. Online collaboration tools and web-meetings became pervasive in the corporate world. However, the attendee experience of these technologies was somewhat limited. More widely available network bandwidth led to the growing popularity of webcasting - streaming video over the Internet. With this technology, large audiences could experience live events on their screens in a richer way.

Recently, virtual business environments have enjoyed dramatic growth and acceptance in corporate marketing departments. By combining aspects of web meetings, webcasting, and social networking, virtual events and environments offer a more stimulating attendee experience. Innovative companies of all sizes are leveraging virtual environments to reach more people, reduce customer acquisition cost, and stay connected with their audiences around the globe.

Take Compuware for example. The software provider had to reevaluate its customer engagement strategy during the "economic crisis" in 2009. Compuware realized that hosting its worldwide 2010 conference physically wasn't an option, as management knew people couldn't afford to travel to attend. So, the company replaced its physical event with a "follow the sun," global virtual conference in February 2010, which was open for three hours in each region, doubling the attendance rate of their previous physical conference. They repeated the event in April 2010 and held the annual conference again virtually in May 2011. At each event Compuware was able to greatly extend its reach and, most important, generate more pipeline in the virtual environment than at past physical events.

The next wave - hybrids and 24-7 environments

By combining physical with virtual-and creating hybrid events-marketers have found a new way to revive their stagnant physical shows and conferences. In fact, according to a Unisfair-sponsored survey conducted in 2011 among 550 U.S. marketing professionals, 46 percent of participants expect that within the next two years half of all corporate events will by "hybrid," meaning they'll include both a physical and a virtual component. While initially dedicated to episodic one-off virtual events, virtual environments have emerged as a powerful platform for companies to connect with customers and prospects anywhere on an ongoing basis.

For example, in response to the high cost of event execution, unpredictable attendance, decreased travel budgets, and increased pressures to remain in the office, last year IBM created an "always on" and integrated client-facing virtual environment to more effectively and frequently engage with worldwide clients and prospects, from C-level to business decision makers - across all businesses and segments.

From the attendee perspective, IBM's Virtual Event Center is like a large interactive campus with multiple buildings and classrooms - all under the IBM brand, but each specializing in its own area of thought leadership, issue focus, or industry expertise. Creatively, the virtual environment looks and feels much like IBM physical events anywhere in the world - with a range of small, medium, and large architectural environments with branded signage and multimedia, populated by avatars of visitors and IBM representatives.

The bottom line

As one-off web meetings and webcasts transition into always-on virtual business environments, they facilitate continuous conversations between an audience and a brand - a key benefit for hosts and sponsors of virtual events. This model allows marketing teams to collect unprecedented marketing intelligence, while reaching much wider audiences. And it helps mature leads without the constant barrage of email and phone calls that are part of other lead maturation models.

Customers appreciate that they have a platform to freely engage with a brand on their own terms, without being pressured by sales reps. After all, customers would much rather have a conversation about a company's products with another customer, peer, or product expert. An integrated and configurable engagement index indicates when a lead has matured to a point that it will automatically be transferred to the CRM system as sales-ready.

What's more, the cost per lead for U.S. trade shows averages somewhere around $200 to $500, depending on industry and location. Companies like IBM, Novartis, 3M, Staples, and many others are using virtual environments to bring the cost per lead down by an order of magnitude. Sales organizations appreciate the value of the virtual environments as a "customer acquisition machine," which automatically qualifies and matures leads and provides them with highly granular information. And because of that, virtual business environments are on their way to becoming an indispensible component of every company's marketing mix.