Part 1 of a series about the value of virtual events
What is a virtual event? It’s a Web-based event that replicates many aspects of a traditional location-based conference, membership meeting or trade show through webinars, webcasts, discussion groups, social networking or other online platforms. It might take place on a standalone basis, or in conjunction with a location-based event. A virtual event can feature multiple sessions (as opposed to a single topic webinar or webcast), and may include keynote presentations, training, educational workshops, discussion areas, exhibits or other features. Virtual event “activities” can take place in real time, on demand or a combination of both.
Additionally, some organizations include a “trade show” component to their virtual events. This enables online attendees to visit vendor booths and speak with exhibitors through chat or webcam features. Even colleges and universities use this trade show format to conduct virtual college fairs for prospective students.
Consideration criteria for virtual events
Contemplating a virtual event? Treat it as a business decision, just as you would any other type of programming you’re considering. Some questions to ask when considering whether or not to host a virtual event:
- What is the general type of meeting we’re holding?
- What is this meeting’s purpose?
- What is our desired outcome from this meeting?
- How will we measure and track progress toward our desired outcome for this meeting?
- What key business opportunities are we trying to address by potentially holding a virtual event?
Answering these questions above can help ensure that a virtual event fits into your association’s overall business strategy. If your association cannot justify hosting a virtual event based on existing or potential resources, however, the benefits of hosting a virtual event are numerous:
- Expand the reach of your event. Reach existing or potential members who would not otherwise attend your in-person event. Travel costs and time out of the office can make even a premier event out of reach for some members. Making portions of event content available live or on demand are extremely attractive benefits to members who can’t attend in person. If your goal is to reach a global audience, consider collaborating with a sister organization in another country to share costs and programming responsibilities.
Tip: Look at the percentage of attendees who reside within 300 miles of your event locations. If the majority of attendees don’t fall within that radius, you may be excluding a sizeable portion of your membership, and miss an opportunity to engage with them. Offering a virtual event in conjunction with or in place of certain events may open up the possibility of attending to more members.
- Flexibility. Associations have more flexibility to get highly sought-after speakers if their presentation can be recorded and pushed out to attendees later.
- Save money. Event space, speaker fees, food and beverage, unused hotel rooms and on-site materials quickly add up for live events. Virtual events are not free, but much less expensive than a physical event. Think about it: No paying for block rooms that don’t sell, ballroom space or travel for speakers. Virtual attendees pull up their own chair with their own cup of coffee to enjoy your event from the comfort of their office or home.
- Identify new non-dues revenue opportunities. Associations can replicate many revenue sources typically found at onsite events – a bookstore or resource center, sponsorships and foundation fundraisers. Attendees already use Amazon and YouTube in mainstream culture, so taking your book sales or sponsor ads to Web platforms within your virtual event won’t be foreign to them.
- Reduce event planning time and post-event resource availability. Not having to book meeting space 18 months in advance or to spend time on other facets exclusive to in-person events (food, lounge areas, etc.) reduces the overall time it takes your association to plan the event. Because all sessions and presentations are automatically recorded during a virtual event,–sometimes in advance of the virtual event opening to attendees– the time it takes to package content and edit it for post-event consumption is reduced. Your members can have permanent access to your event’s components faster with a virtual event.
While these benefits appeal to many associations, there are some barriers, real and perceived, to holding a virtual event:
- Members don’t want to attend virtual events? Has your association asked them lately? If not, incorporate a few questions about the desirability and viability of members attending virtual events in your next membership survey. Gauge their interest though personal conversation at your next live event. Test out a small virtual event with a segment of your membership and see how well it goes (or not). You may be surprised – or you may find that the using virtual event technology isn’t your members’ strong suit just yet. Either way, you’ll have concrete evidence about how well virtual events fit your membership’s needs.
- The quality of the learning opportunity is not on par with in-person events? This used to be a legitimate concern of organizations that wanted to host virtual events. However, broadband coverage across the continent has improved significantly in the last decade. Laptops and mobile devices have become more affordable and more user-friendly. Accessories such as webcams, microphones, device-to-television tools and even the cost of Internet service itself are very affordable and prolific, so that even a modest professional can easily equip themselves with the tools needed to enjoy a virtual event with crisp, clear audio and graphics. Web platforms that provide the technology for virtual events have also improved, so that the user experience is more seamless than ever before.
- Virtual events will cannibalize existing events and revenue streams? Virtual events rarely replace face-to-face events because the desire for members to network and meet up with old friends remains strong. Despite the costs of travel, time off work and away from family and the long hours events sometime entail, members still rank in-person events as one of the top benefits of association membership.
Need more convincing that virtual events won’t replace on-site events? Back in the 1960s, some NFL franchises didn’t want to televise their team’s home fearing that fans would stop attending the games in person. Obviously there was no need to worry: almost 17.3 million tickets were sold to NFL games in 2015. Because the NFL took a chance on televised (virtual, in a way) games, the league now earns an estimated $5 billion per year from media sponsorships and television rights.
Virtual events can be a welcome, practical addition to your association’s event lineup. Virtual events offer convenience and flexibility for speakers and attendees. They often cost less to produce than live events and the savings from which can be passed on to members, making it easier to be engaged with your association. Although there are some perceived barriers to hosting a virtual event, today’s technology largely provides a quality experience even for the most basic computer setup. The revenue opportunities for virtual events match, if not surpass, those of live events thanks to the ease and speed with which attendees and sponsors can purchase and interact with virtual content. The next time your staff or board is planning events, consider adding a virtual event to your association’s programming.
Tracy Tompkins is a business development director for Naylor Learning Solutions. She focuses on delivering learning and event solutions ideally suited for associations.