At a marketing roundtable I attended his morning, the topic was “Virtual vs Face-to-Face: Events that Hit the Mark”.  The event was hosted by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and SMA, and featured   six panelists – marketers from larger technology solutions providers who shared their experiences and insights  on the effectiveness of both virtual and live events.

It was quickly established that, for all panelists, both virtual AND face-to-face events had their place in the marketing mix.

Live events still win in terms of value

Although it can be more difficult to obtain registrations for live events, the pay-off is worth it according to results tabled by panelists.  For one thing, drop-off (no shows) is much higher  – 66% or more –  on virtual event registrations than live ones where it tends to be 50%, and much lower in some Canadian cities.

The same goes for “partial engagement”.  Distractions  – email, IM, etc – are rife on a webinar or virtual conference participant’s desktop so the likelihood of losing them partway through a presentation is much higher.   Attendees of a live event tend to sit through a presentation if only because they don’t want to be rude in front of everyone else.  (The ITAC rep  at the roundtable drew a good laugh when he took the opportunity to leave the room as this statement was made.)

Here was the kicker for me.  It seems that the  rapport built through live interaction is just not replaceable:  one participant stated that they’d been able to measure closed business as a result of live vs virtual events.  Live events didn’t generate more deals, but they did result in deals that were 25% larger.  Pretty compelling argument for selling this more costly tactic to senior management.

Virtual events

Virtual events – which were interpreted as anything from a webinar or webcast to a virtual conference or trade show with streams and chat rooms – were generally deemed to be a great tactic for some scenarios:

Virtual trade show exhibit

Virtual events can include teleconferences, webinars, or even trade shows

  1. developing a relationship that had begun with a live interaction
  2. as a means of cost-effectively delivering education about a topic and by extension generating awareness about the company
  3. as a means of developing content that can be repurposed

The limited or non-existent ability for attendees to interact with each other was deplored as devaluing the experience.  Although participants conceded that integration of IM or Twitter can mitigate this somewhat, it can also distract attendees from the main event in a way that doesn’t happen in a face-to-face situation.

Connecting for meaningful follow-up by Sales and Marketing was also generally deemed to be more difficult, in all likelihood due to the lack of ability to connect personally during the event.

However, the often much lower cost per person for a virtual was acknowledged as a significant plus.

Tips for effective events, whether live or virtual

Here are some helpful hints shared by panelists and attendees of the roundtable.

1. Content and a credible speaker are critical to drawing your audience.  An eloquent, dynamic speaker is even more important for virtual events, to counteract the distraction factor mentioned above.

2. Providing the option of clicking to add your event to prospects’ calendars really helps. One panelist’s organization takes that even further with a greatly improved success rate.  They draw up a list of “must have” attendees for live events.  The marketing department works closely with sales to send out personal calendar invites to those people.  Even if invitees don’t accept the invitation immediately, the date and time blocked off in their calendars, greatly reducing the chances of  other meetings being booked.  This is obviously something that can’t be overdone, or it can backfire mightily.

3. The partnership between marketing and sales is key.  This is true of all programs, of course, but is most important when it comes to getting customers and prospects to sign up for an event.  The most successful organizations have shared goals and mutual accountabilities, in some instances with marketing held accountable for a percentage of the sales pipeline value.

4. Time of day also needs to be considered.  One participant who focuses on SMB switched from breakfast events to early evening events, resulting in a  much higher take-up. (Know thy audiences… always.)

Roundtable format and facilitation led to a great discussion

Moderated by Bob Becker of SMA, the roundtable was smoothly guided through a useful series of questions, while still providing the opportunity for attendees to ask questions and go off on a couple of highly informative tangents.  A couple of nice touches also kept everyone fresh and alert.  Panelists were seated in a circle, with attendees seated in another circle around them – which meant that attendees were staring at the back of some panelists’ heads.  Halfway through the session, Bob asked panelists to switch places, so that attendees got a change of scenery.  The addition of a 15-minute case study, with attendees split up into groups and each group working with a panelist, rounded out a great session.

Canadian technology providers interested in participating in future roundtables can find out more here.