In a COVID-19 world, businesses are learning how to deploy digital alternatives to physical conferences and trade shows—and along the way are realizing some advantages to going virtual.

Conferences and trade shows conducted as physical events have long played a crucial role in driving revenue for B2B companies, but the coronavirus is forcing many to consider alternatives.

But producing effective replacements is challenging, industry experts say.

Our goal was to provide the same experience that our attendees have come to expect at an in-person event.
Lisa Riley, global head of events
Forrester Research Inc.

When it comes to driving marketing and sales efforts, “the No. 1 thing B2B companies spend money on is events,” says Laura Ramos, a vice president and principal analyst covering B2B marketing at Forrester Research Inc., who co-authored a report last year noting that B2B marketers spend on average 12% of their program budgets on events. That report also notes that 45% of B2B technology decision-makers worldwide rely on information at conferences and trade shows to explore and decide on technology investments, and that more than half of them consider conference and trade show materials among their top five content formats for technology information.

Figuring out new ways to generate demand

“Now, some companies say they need to figure how to generate demand in other ways,” Ramos says. “But if we were good at using other methods, we wouldn’t have relied so much on events.”

Changing from traditional, in-person events to ones that were partially or completely virtual has never gained much traction. In addition to providing educational sessions, events are meant for peer networking and connecting suppliers with customers and prospects—face to face, Ramos says.

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LauraRamos-Forrester

Laura Ramos, principal analyst, Forrester Research

Over her years of following and analyzing B2B marketing, she says, companies have often explored how to use technology to get a better return-on-investment from hosting and sponsoring events—by applying mobile apps and other digital technology to personalize events to the interests of attendees, helping them network with peers and directing them to the most useful sessions, while also gathering and analyzing information on how attendees spent time in educational sessions, at keynote addresses and in visits to exhibitors on a trade show floor.

‘No one ever asked about virtual events’

But the idea of using virtual events to complement or replace traditional versions rarely, if ever, came up in discussions with marketers. “No one ever asked me about virtual events,” Ramos says.

But now things are different.

During the business-restricting pandemic of recent months caused by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, many businesses are taking a harder look at digital events as they try to figure out ways to replace traditional in-person events as revenue-drivers.

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“It will force people to rethink why they’re holding these events,” Ramos says. “Physical or virtual, they can offer the same information.” But differences in how they offer information—and peer networking—can affect how well companies satisfy such goals as engaging conference attendees with personalized content and experiences that build lasting relationships.

4 principles of going digital  

In the report Ramos and her colleagues produced last year, “Increase B2B In-Person Event Payoff with Digital Immersion,” they highlight four principles of digitizing events that emphasize a personalized customer experience over more traditional event strategies of emphasizing what event sponsors want to sell. The four principles cover the use of digital practices to personalize the event experience to each attendee, using mobile apps to promote audience dialogue, distribute digital content to those who can’t physically attend, and use data on event traffic and attendee feedback to understand how attendees use events and to build long-term relationships.

Presenting complete or partial virtual events can support such principles.

The advantages of virtual events, Ramos says, is that the companies hosting them can present a large number of educational sessions and even keynote addresses that they can produce and digitally record ahead of time. They could then make available on-demand to diverse audiences who can choose among more sessions than they would be able to attend in-person at a live event. “Many of these may be more like TED Talks for 15 or 20 minutes,” Ramos says.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to a place where we go from purely physical to purely digital,” she says. “There’s a reason to go to events to connect with other people that have the same interests.” But virtual events can go a long way toward making those connections, in some ways even going beyond what physical events can do—such as by letting attendees attend more than one concurrent session through digital recordings, she adds.

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100,000+ views at Forrester’s digital Summit

Forrester’s own annual Sirius Decisions Summit, a completely digital, for-pay event that ran May 4-7, garnered “more than 100,000 views” of its sessions, which covered digital transformation, ecommerce, marketing and related topics, says Lisa Riley, global head of events at Forrester.

The conference featured more than 175 presentations, including 18 concurrent tracks, Forrester says.

“Our goal was to provide the same experience that our attendees have come to expect at an in-person event, so we invested in a robust platform that would allow a seamless experience,” Riley says, declining to name the digital technology platform Forrester used.

She adds that Forrester conducted several tests of the platform prior to the live event, identified potential areas that could cause technical glitches and worked out several contingency plans in case of problems during the online event. “Fortunately for Summit, we did not have to deploy any of the contingencies,” Riley says.

Counting the visits to virtual exhibits

Forrester worked with nearly 50 sponsors in the Summit’s virtual exhibition and shared data with sponsors both during and after the event on the number of visits to online exhibits.

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The virtual event “kept our brand and our vibrant community alive at a time when most organizations were canceling events or condensing them into webinars or live streams for free,” Riley says.

An additional advantage of the virtual event, she adds, is that it enabled Forrester to easily provide on-demand access to recorded sessions as part of post-event marketing campaigns. “At in-person events, this can often get delayed, as producing that content can take time.”

Hundreds of digital face-to-face meetings

In another recent virtual industry event, more than 70 retail industry buyers participated in 630 digital face-to-face meetings with suppliers in the first “virtual session” launched by Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing last month for connecting buyers and sellers in the vitamins, supplements and nutritional products markets, ECRM says. The event, known as the Healthy Living, Vitamin & Nutrition Program, was the first “virtual session” to go live on ECRM’s new virtual platform.

“ECRM has completely transformed the way they are doing business, quickly pivoting to an easy-to-use, convenient online platform for both buyers and sellers,” Jeff Curie, category manager for health and beauty products at Wakefern Food Corp., says in a release issued by ECRM. “It was definitely a valuable experience for me, and I look forward to attending future digital sessions.”

ECRM says it plans to host more than 50 virtual sessions across the Food & Beverage, Health & Beauty Care, General Merchandise and Pharmacy/Medical Markets categories throughout the remainder of the year.

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In other virtual event activity, events company Informa Markets and ecommerce company NuOrder are planning a digital trade show this fall for the fashion apparel industry, and IMC_di, the digital arm of International Market Centers, says sales volume jumped 116% in May over April and has remained strong in June on IMC’s ShopZio B2B digital platform. Home furnishings was the top category driving sales on ShopZio, says Eric Dean, president of IMC_di.

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