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The evolution of virtual events – from novelty to smart business

Lisa Farrell, CMO of 6Connex, discusses how virtual events have evolved for B2B marketers

Talk to B2B marketers who’ve been around a while and chances are good they have participated in a virtual event, either producing an entire virtual show, sponsoring/manning a booth or speaking on a live session. Those who tried the virtual tradeshow model early on likely have war stories to tell, and they might be hesitant about the ROI, but the platforms and use cases have truly evolved, giving many B2B marketers reason to take another look.

Let me step back. “Virtual events” can mean different things to different people. When I talk about a virtual event, I’m referring to a virtual environment, with different “rooms” – traditionally a lobby, auditorium, lounge and exhibits – where attendees view sessions, access content, connect with each other and with event representatives. While some people consider webinars or webcasts as virtual events, I see them as one part of the virtual event experience, often the mainstay of a live agenda and often the primary driver of live attendance.

So what’s changed and why should B2B marketers care? In my experience, virtual events have been through 3 primary stages in the last 12 or so years. I call these novelty, business critical and smart business.

Novelty

Twelve years ago, the virtual tradeshow was a true novelty. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM jumped on the “cool” factor, creating virtual worlds where each visitor had their own avatar to “walk around,” simulating a physical event. At the other end of the spectrum, virtual tradeshow vendors offered large expos, with static booths and pre-recorded videos.

Both provided a great jumpstart to virtual events, but they were often clunky, requiring a steep learning curve for attendees. They were also plagued by bandwidth and other technology challenges.

Business critical

2009 was the year of no business travel. Countless physical events were cancelled, especially those massive sales kick offs in Las Vegas, with thousands of reps traveling to attend. Physical tradeshow attendance also took a hit, as expense accounts and travel budgets were cut to the bone.

Virtual events became critical – employees needed training and customers needed information, but it all had to happen without anyone getting on a plane. Marketers and vendors alike dove in head first, often almost drowning as they figured out together how to execute. Virtual events got the job done, but everyone left a bit exhausted and battle weary.

Smart business

When marketers were given a choice versus a mandate, it was clear that virtual events had value, as an extension of a physical event (thus the term hybrid event) or as a unique driver for customer and employee engagement. On the tech side, the issue of “not enough bandwidth” was finally resolved for most and it became “normal” to connect online for both personal and business needs.

Smart B2B marketers realize virtual events can both make money and save money for their companies. And they are finding new use cases every day, whether that’s a persistent virtual theater to house weekly webinars, a virtual extension of a physical roadshow or a partner education portal. Virtual events are used to attract, nurture and upsell customers, with a broader reach and a lower cost.

I’ve been in the middle of this space, all things webcasting and virtual events, for 11 years now. I’ve been a participant in the evolution, and I have the battle scars to prove it. I’m more excited than ever, though, as I talk to B2B marketers and help them execute great programs. No longer novelty, virtual events truly are smart business.

Want to know more? In upcoming blogs, I’ll share how B2B media companies are breathing new life into their virtual event programs, and I’ll give you my best tips for planning your first virtual event. I’ll also share my ideas for using both virtual events and webinars a bit differently, adding more impact to your B2B marketing plans.