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VIRTUAL EVENTS

A few trade shows in which we exhibit have launched corresponding virtual events, and a handful of others have replaced their "brick-and-mortar" shows with virtual-show experiences. If we participate in these online options, I'll have to manage our presence, but I don't know a thing about them. What are some key things I need to know about virtual trade shows and events before we dive into cyber exhibiting?


Virtual trade shows have come a long way in the past five years. Today, they're more widely accepted as valid marketing tools, and their speed and interactivity have kept pace with typical Web applications. For example, chat and real-time interaction with speakers is common now; whereas, these opportunities were practically unheard of when virtual shows first became part of the event-marketer's arsenal.

So for many companies, virtual trade shows are a viable option to generate added exposure and gain access to attendees that don't - or can't - attend traditional trade shows.

But just like traditional shows, virtual shows come with their benefits and challenges. Before you can even begin to plan a successful virtual-show
presence, you need to carefully consider your goals. If they don't line up with the opportunities offered by a virtual show, there's no point in moving forward. After all, you can't toss together a successful presence - be it virtual or physical - on a whim. It takes time and energy, along with a bit of show-specific research, to make your presence successful.

If, however, you discover that the show's offerings can somehow help meet your goals, it's time to ask some questions. Here are seven key questions to ask show producers before you participate in a virtual event.

1. When was the virtual show launched, why was it launched, and what statistics can you provide regarding its success? Before you agree to participate, you need a little history about the show and its purpose. For example, was the show a result of attendee or exhibitor demand, or is it just another revenue stream for producers? Has the show established a following, or is it fresh out of the gates and almost invisible to your target audience? What type of success rates have other exhibitors seen? And most importantly, how many of your targeted customers and prospects typically visit the virtual show, and how long do they spend viewing virtual exhibits?

2. What is the cost of my virtual-show experience, and what does that include? Most show organizers offer exhibitors an online booth with the ability to post collateral, videos, white papers, demos, etc. Some shows also offer the opportunity for live chat with attendees, and there should always be some kind of lead-capture ability. In fact, some exhibiting packages offer a minimum number of guaranteed leads, but be sure to inquire as to how these leads will be counted, and how and when the show will deliver them to you. Before you agree to participate, be sure you know exactly what you're getting for your dollar.

3. What post-event data will be shared with exhibitors? Will you get all of the data from each lead, or just part of the info? Also, will you be able to see which other stores/exhibits each visitor perused, and can you determine how long visitors spent within each product section of your exhibit and which documents each person downloaded? Producers will likely have much of this information, but it may or may not be available to you as a part of your participation fee.

4. What are the show's start and stop dates? Often, a virtual show will remain open for the duration of the physical trade show, and then extend 30 to 60 days after the show. Obviously, you'll want to know how much bang you're getting for your buck. For example, is your entry fee buying you 10 days or 60? You'll also want to know how many days attendees have access to your online exhibit so you can continue to update it with press releases, product information, etc. You don't want your online news to go stale before the show closes.

5. How will you promote the virtual trade show? No matter whether a trade show is in person or online, it needs a strong promotional strategy to be successful. Make sure show producers are using multiple promotional methods to reach both live-show attendees as well as members of your target audience not in attendance.

6. Can I get a demo? Ask the producers for a demo of the environment in which your virtual booth will exist. Inquire if your staff can receive a tutorial of any features such as live chat or message boards that will require their attention when the site goes live.

7. Who is my emergency contact? Since virtual events depend on servers and individual connections, you'll need adequate technical support. Ask which person you can contact that will: a) actually answer the phone, b) be able to help you with any problem, technical or otherwise, and c) be online during the live event.
Virtual trade shows may be a relatively new tool in the event-marketing mix. But since you already have a basic knowledge of their physical counterparts, these questions will help make sure your first cyber show is a virtual success.

- Chris Bombarger, events manager, National Instruments Corp., Austin, TX


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