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Virtual Events
We're thinking about adding a virtual-event component to our existing user conference. I think it'd be a great way to involve more customers and extend the reach of the conference, but I need more ammunition to convince upper management to move ahead with it. What are some additional benefits of virtual events?

For many live-event proponents, mere mention of the term "virtual" is like saying the name Voldemort out loud. This is because many event marketers fear that virtual conferences and meetings will ultimately eliminate live events and, with that, their job security.

In truth, virtual events and live events are two different animals. Since one revolves around face-to-face interaction - and the other has no face-to-face components aside from video chats - live and virtual events don't compete. Yes, they might be targeting the same attendees, but both components are meant to complement each other, not battle for the same ground.

Thus, virtual events are a great value add to an existing conference - creating a hybrid virtual/live event. Granted, you need to ensure that your virtual experience doesn't detract from the live one, and that a large portion of your live-event attendees don't defect to the virtual experience. But if you implement an effective strategy, both live and virtual events can easily coexist.

To help sell your management on the combo of virtual and live events, here are some of the biggest benefits a hybrid model has to offer.

Expanded Attendee Base. By creating a virtual component for your live event, your potential audience expands dramatically. In today's economy, where travel budgets border on anorexic, many members of your target audience may be unable to attend your live event simply due to travel costs. A virtual conference offers the consumer a cost-effective alternative to an in-person event that carries myriad budgetary, time, and travel constraints.

Accordingly, you're likely to draw more international attendees to your virtual event. Aside from expensive travel costs, international visitors must also invest considerably more time simply to get to a live event. Compared to an airplane, it's much easier for them to hop aboard the toll-free, virtual highway to your online event.

What's more, virtual events deliver information through various media - computers, iPads, smart phones, etc. - enabling participants to access content in the manner with which they are most comfortable. Plus, if your virtual event allows attendees to pop into and out of it at will, and to access content on their own time and from locations of their choosing, you're likely to gain more attendees. This way, attendees can continue their daily business tasks and work your conference into their schedules as their time permits. Whereas with a live event, attendees need to put aside their typical job responsibilities, or try to complete them while they're at your event, making the time commitment for a live event much greater.

The ability for attendees to stay at home (or at the office) while still obtaining much of the same content and experiences of live attendees is an attractive offer to those that can't attend the meeting. Your online event will spread your branding and messaging to a whole new audience it would not have otherwise touched.

Additional Revenue. Companies need to begin thinking of their events and conferences as year-round revenue streams. If your event offers something of exceptional value - be it educational content, access to industry leaders, a sense of community - your target audience will want access to it, and are likely willing to pay for it. A company might consider providing live-event attendees with free access to the virtual event as a bonus for attending, but in and of itself, registration for your virtual event can be a new revenue stream for your company.

Where you really start to accelerate revenue generation, however, is via captured content that can be used after the live event ends. If you record educational sessions, keynote speakers, or anything else that can stand alone and offer value once your face-to-face event is over, you can attach a nominal price to these items. Not only will this help boost revenue, but by reaching more customers and/or prospects more frequently, companies will generate awareness for themselves and their products via this year-round, low-cost content.

In addition, using virtual elements allows you to bundle and repurpose all of the already-generated content you've captured. For example, you could combine videos of three educational sessions related to cost-saving tactics, and make it available on your website for a small fee.

Clearly, numerous variables and opportunities exist when it comes to revenue generation with hybrid events. You just need to capture as much content at the live event as possible, and then use some creativity to see how you can make that existing content work for you.

Increased Awareness and Thought-Leadership Perception. When your live event rolls around, attendees (and perhaps even the entire industry) are focused on your company and its products. But when the show ends, the hype tends to vaporize. It's possible to keep the live event's momentum going if your companion online event extends beyond the show.

Companies need to stop thinking of themselves as an intermittent content source. When you allow your virtual event to exist as a stand-alone experience after your live event has ended, and bundle and repurpose its content, your company can become an invaluable source of information that customers and prospects will reference 365 days a year.

What's more, by offering valuable information to the industry, your company can establish or further cement its position as an industry thought leader. Rather than having, for example, a weeklong educational event, your virtual event becomes an ongoing source of education, and your company is now the expert. Recording educational sessions, keynotes, etc., allows for that content to be distributed at a later time and helps organizations to demonstrate thought leadership throughout the year rather than at just an annual event.

Along these same lines, once your company becomes a go-to place for industry and product education, it can also evolve into the place where people go to connect with each other. In effect, your virtual and live events (along with any social-media avenues your company pursues) can help create and foster a sense of community among attendees, customers, and prospects. And that sense of community, which also offers its members a sense of belonging, can often increase member loyalty to your company and brand.

These are just a few of the many ways in which virtual events can positively impact your company. To take advantage of these benefits, create an effective virtual-event strategy and engage your customers and prospects year round to determine what they really value and how they typically consume virtual content. With a little research and some careful planning, virtual events can be a wonderful partner for your live events - and a new revenue and awareness generator for your company.

- Brad Weaber, executive vice president of event services, SmithBucklin Corp., Chicago

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