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Virtual Events Extending Into New Strategic Areas for BtoB Firms

After gaining a foothold as a supplement to physical trade shows, virtual events continue to gain momentum with BtoB organizations. The virtual platforms have proven to be a consistent performer in terms of lead generation programs, and now are being sought out for their cost and environmental efficiencies for new areas including continuing education among prospects and employees, sales kick-off meetings and community building venues.

In one of the most recent success stories, Bluelinx, recently tapped Unisfair’s virtual events platform for their two-day Buying Show and Knowledge Forum in March 2009. Building on its position as one of the largest distributors of building products in the U.S., Bluelinx focused its virtual event on emphasizing sustainability, and the company was able to “walk the walk” by organizing a “virtually carbon-free” event, reaching 39 states, Canada and Mexico. At a time when employees, customers and regulators are stressing the need to improve the organization’s carbon footprint, the virtual event solution served as evidence of an organization’s commitment to green business practices and reducing energy use.

The 2,000 participants at the Bluelinx event had access to a resource center with a library of materials designed to help them understand sustainability in the building market. After the live event concluded, an additional 1,000 visitors viewed the on demand content. “Just by using the virtual environment we saved over 300 tons of CO2 from being emitted,” notes Shiloh Kelly, National Sustainability Lead, Bluelinx. “We built the virtual environment, not only to forward the understanding of sustainability through our supply chain, but also for our employees to visit booths and attend conferences.”

In addition to its eco impact, Kelly said the virtual event was impressive for its business stats as well. There were 1,727 file downloads of product literature and the most active booth boasted 523 visits. The average time spend in show was 61 minutes per customer and there was a 41% attendance versus registration rate. Kelly added that the sales pace at the Buying Show increased by 19.6% on the second day of the event, as well.

Brent Arslaner, CEO of Unisfair, says the ability to gather intelligence and track activity of attendees has been increasingly appealing to marketers.“Typically the main reason companies try out virtual events is for cost effective lead generation,” Arslaner says. “Because we track everything, it’s not just quantity of leads, but quality of leads based upon the granularity of the data that we provide with lead ranking and qualification. You can take data, segment it and accurate it accordingly.”

Extended Economic Benefits
Malcolm Lotzoff, CEO of InXpo, a virtual event platform used by Cisco, which hosted CiscoLive, an annual customer and partner event for community building, earlier this year, says the new realities of the business world are dictating companies look at virtual platforms for a number of different formats. “Since the recession began in the fourth quarter of last year, there has been massive adoption by corporations seeking to use our virtual event platform for internal virtual corporate events like sales kick-off meetings, product launches, partner events, customer events and general education events,” Lotzoff says.

Lotzoff points out that there has also been some integration between the virtual world and the growing social network community. “We are also seeing the emergence of different types of virtual spaces that are lit up with events to bring a community together,” says Lotzoff. “These won’t be called virtual events but will be invitation-only, privately-branded virtual business communities. For example, a business community for a company’s employees is sometimes called a Virtual Office. A business community for a company’s partners is sometimes called a Virtual Partner Space. These communities allow the organization to get closer to the applicable community, to control its brand, the content and the message.”

Sony Electronics also tapped InXpo to host a virtual trade show for professional and broadcasting equipment consumers, which replaced a traditional 15-city road show. The company estimated that the virtual event cost less than 50% of the physical show and enjoyed the ability to reuse content.
Denise Persson, CMO of ON24, the virtual platform most recently leveraged by BtoB Magazine for its Leading Edge Virtual Event, adds that marketers are seeing a quick return on their investment in the virtual platforms. “Virtual events also extend the reach of marketing and communication campaigns, enabling marketers to reach thousands with their brand and product messages and dramatically increase awareness and, ultimately, sales,” Persson says. “Furthermore, content is typically provided on demand after an event occurs, further extending reach…and improving campaign ROI.”

Persson agrees that the quality of leads outpouring from virtual events is higher and more cost effective. “It is the generation of rich market intelligence that makes the virtual event increasingly invaluable to BtoB marketers,” she says.