Cognos Inc. knows a smart business strategy when it sees one. After all, the Canadian company makes software that analyzes a business’ sales, information technology, human resources, and other areas to uncover best practices and what it calls “information sweet spots” hidden in those mounds of data. Cognos also holds a series of conferences each year, called Financial Forums, to keep its more than 23,000 customers spread across more than 135 countries up to date on its data-mining processes, to discover what they are most interested in, and to generate sales leads.

In Europe, the Financial Forums always attracted SRO crowds because the reasonably short travel distances meant that its target market — C-level executives and controllers — could easily attend in person. “We needed just four events in Germany to cover the whole country,” says Brian Chertok, senior marketing-programs manager at Cognos.

Although the 11 U.S. events Cognos hosted in 2006 were sold out, they weren’t drawing as many C-level execs as the company wanted. With travel distances for many prospective attendees hitting 200 or more miles at each event, busy executives didn’t have the hours to spare.

To redraw its Financial Forums map, the company examined one of its own proven successes. Cognos already had been repurposing select content from its real-world events into short, on-demand Webinars. “We already knew how popular the Webinars were,” Chertok says. “And with what we projected we could save on costs, we realized it made sense to try to extend the Webinars’ popularity into larger virtual events.”

Ten Cognos partners set up exhibits in the virtual Exhibition Hall, where booth staff could interact with visitors via live chat.

Cognos turned to Menlo Park, CA-based virtual-event producer Unisfair, which has produced more than 400 Web-based conferences, trade shows, and other events. A study by Los Altos, CA-based market-research firm FactPoint Group examined approximately 200 of Unisfair clients’ virtual events and found each event realized an average of 348 leads. What’s more, several companies, such as National Instruments Corp. and Quest Software Inc., report cost savings of 50 and 90 percent respectively on their virtual events over real-world ones, all without the budgetary burdens of food, facilities, and travel.

Scheduling the first online Financial Forum for June of 2007, Cognos began marketing the event about six weeks ahead. It reached out though personal contacts at client companies, print and e-mailed direct communications to clients, search-engine advertising, and ads at target-audience-friendly sites such as Cognos then sent 1,300 registrants a link that would enable them to enter the online event.

Much like the Financial Forums’ in-person formats, the online version featured a Conference Hall, Exhibition Hall, and Resource Center. Keynote speakers gave prerecorded presentations on a main stage in the conference hall’s General Session area. In a Breakout Session area, visitors accessed as many as five tracks of prerecorded sessions on topics such as financial management and controls, reporting, and business intelligence. While the breakout sessions had been prepared beforehand, the speakers were available live to field questions through a chat function for 15 minutes after each seminar was v-cast on the event’s opening day.

Cognos knew it was unlikely a busy executive would tune in straight through from the event’s opening bell to its conclusion. So it gave attendees the ability to log in and out of the show as often as they liked. While the actual live presentations and exchanges happened during one day, streaming versions of all content and information would be available for 90 days.

In the Exhibition Hall, Cognos and 10 of its partners, including IBM Corp. (which bought Cognos in January, 2008) and Deloitte & Touche LLP, set up virtual trade show booths. When a visitor entered a booth, that company’s staffers received an alert, while a chat function supported conversation. After that, visitors could download white papers and case studies from the Resource Center.

The face-to-face forums had always been successful — typically 100 to 150 registered and 75 to 100 showed. But over the 90 days the entire event was available, it drew 1,242 visitors — more than all of the 11 North America events in 2006 combined. Even better, costs plummeted. “I estimate the event cost us about 10 percent as much as the real-world counterpart,” Chertok says. The savings extended from food and beverage and room rental to sales leads themselves. The company calculates the average cost per lead for the June virtual event was 33 percent less than the average for the previous four events held in 2007.


Goodwill Industries International Inc. and fashion go together like white socks and tuxedos, right?

Wrong. “That is the popular misconception of Goodwill,” says Brendan Hurley, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Goodwill of Greater Washington, an operating group of the 106-year-old national organization.

In some ways, Goodwill hasn’t changed much since its founding more than a century ago by the Reverend Edgar J. Helms of Boston. The Methodist minister trudged door to door through Boston’s wealthier neighborhoods to collect the cast-off clothing and goods of its upper crust. Those discarded duds formed the template for what is now North America’s largest nonprofit provider of employment and training services that by 2007 generated sales of $1.8 billion through its 2,146 retail outlets.

In 2007, at least 300,000 people donated clothing and other items to the Greater Washington Goodwill and its nine stores in much the same way the citizens of Boston did so long ago. But as successful as the organization was, when Hurley first came on the job in 2003, he knew Goodwill had to shed its frumpy image that was more Kmart than couture.

Based on a market-research study of the general public that Goodwill commissioned, it found consumers mistakenly thought the stores were grungier
than Kurt Cobain’s closet, and the only nice clothes in them were the ones they donated themselves — despite the fact that on any given day Goodwill’s inventory might stock Polo Ralph Lauren pants, Ungaro blazers, Oleg Cassini dresses, and Steve Madden shoes. “We knew that most shoppers didn’t equate Goodwill with fashion, and that there was a large, untapped population of vintage-fashion shoppers that we were not reaching,” Hurley says. “Our strategy was to find a unique way to showcase the quality fashions available at Goodwill Retail Stores. We wanted to create a buzz that would get consumers to think differently about Goodwill Stores as a fashion resource — not just some place with broken antiques.”

Toward that end, the Washington, D.C.-area Goodwill produced gala fashion-show events at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in downtown D.C. Inviting 400 donors, politicians, and local bigwigs, the events were glamorous, black-tie affairs with 10 models preening down a runway showing off some of Goodwill’s inventory. While the shows were heavily covered in the local media and led to a 23.4-percent increase in donations and a 14-percent increase in sales from 2005 to 2006, there was a definite downside. Hurley and the rest of Goodwill’s management estimated each affair consumed 50 percent of the organization’s marketing and development offices’ man-hours between June, when it started planning the event, to September, when the show occurred. Choreographed and lighted by two Washington-area companies, the 2006 affair netted $100,000 for Goodwill, after expenses totaling $160,000. Though the exposure and the income weren’t exactly anorexic, Hurley thought the investment of time and money wasn’t paying enough dividends. “I wondered if there was a better way to do the same concept,” he says. “That’s when I thought of Victoria’s Secret.”

In January of 1999, the lascivious-lingerie maker aired its first-ever Super Bowl commercial, announcing the live Webcast of its Spring Fashion Show where the show’s D-cup ranneth over with more than 1.2 million people logging in and crashing its servers. Hurley believed a virtual show like Victoria’s Secret’s could touch more of its target directly than a one-off, real-world event, which relied on influencer-invitees as well as the media to spread the word to Goodwill’s potential customers. A virtual event would be available to anyone with a Web connection from Albuquerque to Zionsville, instead of just the invited guests inside the 400-seat ballroom in Washington, D.C. Taking the fashion show online could also extend the event’s run time as well, with content posted for days or weeks instead of a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow event that was over in three short hours.

To maintain continuity, Hurley scheduled the virtual show for September 2007. Em Hall, who had just joined Goodwill as retail-marketing manager, asked if she could create an ongoing blog that would be the nerve center of the virtual strategy: It would promote the show as well as Goodwill’s physical stores, along with its new eBay site, which had a soft launch in June and an official one in September. “The blog had to be more than just a one-dimensional pamphlet advertising the show and our fashions,” Hurley says. “It had to build a loyal fan base that would learn to trust Em’s ideas and recommendations, and then would roll over into the show.”

Dubbing herself with the nom de web D.C. Goodwill Fashionista when the blog debuted in early July, Hall crafted a sweet-smart persona. Starting slowly with 25 weekly visitors, she posted new content three days a week on a set schedule that covered more topics than a 5XL muumuu, including the Tuesday “Goodwill Good Buy of the Week,” featuring ensembles she composed from items found in its brick-and-mortar stores. She gradually accessorized the site with more content, such as interviews with other fashion bloggers, and exchanged links with many of them (she compiled 21 linkbacks from other sites at the time of the show). The combination of her creative persona and useful, witty information kept 35 percent of blog readers coming back for a second visit or more. With the readership growing like Hot Topic outlets — it now averages 1,500 unique visitors a week — Hall also leveraged the blog’s reach by linking to it from her Fashionista persona’s MySpace and Facebook pages and using it, as well as social-networking sites Pownce and Twitter, to keep her readers current about Goodwill and the upcoming show.

Viewers watching the virtual fashion show online could click through to Goodwill’s eBay store to immediately bid on the items they saw on the runway.


About two months before the virtual fashion show, Goodwill started promoting it through the blog and an e-mail newsletter sent to 36,000 names culled from its donor database. Goodwill also bought advertisements on style/shopping Web sites and, banner ads in the online version of a local paper, and announcements on 100 screens in Washington area movie theaters.

By the time the first pair of legs scissored down the runway on September 12, the mostly online pre-event promotions had touched an estimated 200,000 people. Running just more than eight minutes long, the show ran on Goodwill’s site from September 12 to the 28th, drawing 7,715 visitors for the 16-day run, or nearly 19 times the audience for the previous real-time shows. With viewers able to click through to Goodwill’s eBay store and immediately bid as soon as they saw an item they liked, 48 percent of viewers shopped at the store over the event’s 16-day running time. Costing Goodwill $25,000 to produce — a Filene’s Basement-like markdown of about 75 percent from the previous year — the virtual fashion show netted the nonprofit a whopping $75,000 in sales and contributions: an ROI of $3 to $1, and a return rate more than three times the rate achieved by the live version of the event.

Ultimately, virtual marketing became like a pair of jeans that fit Goodwill perfectly. Nearly 9,600 visitors surfed to its eBay site in the two-week period after the event officially closed, compared with 1,747 in the two weeks leading up to it. Overall September 2007 online sales were about 300 percent higher than August’s.

Taking a cue from Victoria’s Secret again, Goodwill re-ran the show on Super Bowl Sunday while offering live chat with the Fashionista, and received 169 visitors, almost twice the usual Sunday count of 85. To date, 15 percent of all viewers of the online fashion show have shopped in the eBay store, while 7.6 percent of blog readers have converted to online customers there.

“Virtual events are powerful because they’re not necessarily bound by finite windows of time,” says Hurley. Case in point: The show has now been viewed by almost 25,000 people since the September 2007 launch, and that number is still growing.

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “that we have to alter it every six months.” Maybe so, but for Goodwill, virtual events are a part of its marketing wardrobe that will never go out of style.


According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors that can be placed on a microprocessor doubles every two years. That rule of thumb has held firm for almost 40 years. But while technology may advance in exponential leaps and bounds, corporate events are often still stuck with the same old physical limitations: You can’t keep doubling the number of bodies you can fit into a hotel conference room like it’s a clown car, no matter how hard you squeeze. So when Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), the Sunnyvale, CA-based manufacturer of microprocessors, flash memory, and other products wanted to expand its events’ reach, it was like trying to cram an encyclopedia into an e-mail.

Shortly after AMD launched its Opteron processor for the commercial market in 2003, it started experimenting with posting online video that showed how its chips worked with some of its partners’ products. Over a two-year period, AMD tried this six times, with results that exceeded the company’s most chipper expectations. “People watched four times as much video as we anticipated,” says Bruce Shaw, AMD’s director of world-wide commercial marketing.

But AMD knew it needed to offer its B2B customers something better than what they might find on YouTube. That’s because the bar for online events was raised in late 2002 when Second Life was born. Businesses rushed Second Life’s doors, and many started to host events in other third-party cyber-environments, such as Inxpo Inc., iCongo Inc., and Expo3D Corp.

Turning to Design Reactor, a digital-communications agency and virtual-event provider based in Campbell, CA, AMD produced its first true virtual event, which it called AMD Virtual Event (AVE1) in September of 2006. Targeting influencers in North America, AMD advertised on a slew of industry Web sites such as SourceForge, Slashdot, and IT Manager’s Journal, and bought search-engine ad placements. While anyone could attend — “the doors were wide open,” says Shaw — the 15,000 who formally registered were automatically eligible for newsletters, giveaways, and a sweepstakes incentive.

What attendees saw when they surfed through the “doors” at was a convention-hall-like, augmented environment. There were booths for nine exhibiting vendors, such as IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp., which took part with video product demonstrations, as well as keynotes from Brad Anderson, a senior vice-president from Dell, and Robert Shimp, a vice president from Oracle.

The AMD Virtual Event featured keynote speeches from industry leaders such as Brad Anderson, senior vice president of Dell Inc.

Hoping for 500,000 attendees, AVE1 drew nearly 1 million unique visitors over the half-year it was available, which was the equivalent of fitting the entire population of Rhode Island into its event venue. Visitors downloaded almost 600,000 documents, watched the 56 videos a total of 200,000 times, and could talk to AMD and its partners using a limited chat function. “At a physical trade show, you would give away, what, maybe five or six hundred pieces of collateral,” Shaw says. “Here, we gave away a hundred thousand times that.” Written up in 29 articles in the press, the event “exceeded our anticipated goals in every measure,” he adds.

But AVE1 was only the beginning. By measuring how many started and completed watching videos, the number of downloads and visits to partner booths, and the average stay per booth, and layering it with attendee feedback, AMD found people wanted more downloads, more relevant videos, and to be able to communicate with one another just as they would in a real trade show. “A virtual event allowed us to measure attendees’ likes and dislikes with a precision that’s hard to match in more traditional, physical events,” Shaw says.

The second virtual event, held in 2007, came with a more intuitive design, including realistic 3-D graphics of an actual show floor with people milling about, customizable content, and better navigation tools on the opening page. While registration was still not required, those who did click the “Swipe Your Badge” icon to enter their company and contact vitals could open and download everything from white papers to 70 videos, and register for a drawing to win anything from branded T-shirts to a trip for two to Alaska. Then, cyber-badge in hand, visitors accessed the show-floor map to locate companies and presentations. A Community Chat supported real-time networking with all online attendees, while the digital Event Bag sent visitors home with a simultaneous download of PDFs from every exhibitor.

Using the first event as its benchmark, AMD wanted AVE2 to exceed 1 million visitors, 15,000 registrants, and 500,000 downloads. Still available, AVE2 has so far produced more than 1.1 million unique visitors, 16,500 registrations, and 600,000 downloads. Even more impressive is the fact that AVE2 has produced 12,000 sales leads to date.

And the event continues to evolve on its path to AVE3. “Virtual events are in their infancy,” Shaw says, “but the possibilities are just about limitless.” e

Back to Top