The Future of Virtual Events for B2B Companies
Not long ago, online conference calls were considered a painful way of doing business—virtual room passwords stretched the length of computer monitors, the “share screen” button caused mass hysteria for messy-haired presenters, and internet speeds made frozen-faced memes out of us all. In March of 2020, everything changed—virtual conferencing became the saving grace for many companies and employees that shifted to remote work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the months that followed, the painful way of doing business became the only way of doing business.
Out of necessity, web conferencing software quickly turned into the most important communication tool of 2020. Zoom, a clear winner in online web conferencing, claims its users have increased from 10M meeting participants in December 2019 to 300M in April 2020. Zoom and the COVID-19 catalyst have ushered in a new generation of software, online business trends, and virtual events.
While the mass cancellation of in-person events in 2020 significantly impacted everyone, for B2B marketers who depend on global conferences and large-scale conventions for doing business, it has been a unique challenge. According to a Gartner report, 68 percent of CMOs canceled or postponed customer-facing marketing events in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many uneasy B2B marketers were forced to adapt and quickly fill the lead gen void of traditional events with virtual counterparts to keep a healthy pipeline. While there may never be a substitute for a good old-fashioned handshake on the showroom floor, it’s clear that the convenience of virtual events was underestimated until now.
Virtual events offer a myriad of advantages compared to their physical counterparts. The limitations of physical events are not a problem now that virtual event technology allows thousands of people to be connected simultaneously from anywhere on the planet with nothing more than a Wi-Fi connection. Due to some of these benefits, the number of organizations planning a virtual event doubled compared to 2019 numbers.
No longer at the mercy of geographical and time barriers, attendees who wouldn’t normally be able to travel and attend an in-person conference can pencil in a few hours of virtual events throughout their days. On top of that, virtual events allow B2B marketers to engage prospects both on the live date or after with an on-demand recording.
According to a Wild Apricot survey, 84 percent of organizations that had already hosted a virtual event in 2020 reported that they spent less money on virtual events than in-person events. When done right, virtual events greatly reduce costs compared to physical events, eliminating the expense of renting spaces and equipment, travel, and other accommodations.
The savings from virtual events is shared by the companies that attend as well. With attendees no longer having to book plane tickets and hotel rooms on the company dime, more team members can attend and see demos firsthand. To add perspective, direct spending on business travel by domestic and international travelers, including expenditures on meetings, events, and food, totaled $334.2B in 2019.
There are also the less obvious expenses that quickly add up. For example, Uber and Lyft combined for 16 percent of all recorded business expenses in 2019, making rideshare apps the greatest expense for North American businesses. By not sending employees to events, companies saved billions of dollars in expenses as well as mitigated the cost of essential employees being out-of-pocket for multiple days at a time.
Quality tech is essential for virtual events, and the software you choose can make a big difference. At this point, tech is no longer a hindrance but instead a huge asset to event marketing. Now, attendees can raise their hands, ask questions, and answer polls in real-time. Soon, the capabilities of virtual events will only be limited to the imagination of the host.
Since online events record every registration, login, click, download, and share, tracking event ROI is easier than ever. Unlike in-person events, virtual event performance can be evaluated using hard data points. B2B marketers can then create smarter event strategies that improve the performance of upcoming events based on hard numbers from previous events.
Because of the mitigated cost of producing events, it’s easier to create a targeted experience to separate audiences. For example, it may be more beneficial to separate strategy sessions and working sessions to create a better experience for managers and practitioners with different business priorities.
Notice how it hasn’t been said that virtual events are easier to produce than in-person events. That’s because virtual events are equally as challenging as their physical counterparts. For some B2B marketers, 2020 is the first time producing a virtual event. To profit off the advantages of virtual events, it’s equally important to understand and prepare for their challenges.
At this point, even Joe’s Body Shop is running its own webinar series. The mass production of virtual events means that prospective attendees are becoming even more selective. When planning for events in the future, it is equally important to be strategic with your event calendar and do fewer events but when you do, go big and get creative!
New tech comes with sunk and unsunk costs. The learning curve of new software takes time and resources that may not have been planned. This may be a new line item for 2021 B2B marketing budgets and beyond.
Getting people to participate online is certainly a challenge. If no one participates, you can’t help them evaluate and eventually purchase your products. While anonymity has its benefits, it can decrease engagement. For this reason, it’s even more important to bake interactive features like polling, Q&A sessions, and beefed up chat boxes into the mix. Moreover, with recent advanced technologies, including AI, VR, and AR, virtual gatherings are opening even more possibilities than in-person events to create a wow factor.
Planning the logistics of an event is already a difficult task, but teaching a team member how to operate virtual event software adds a layer of complexity. Thankfully, many resources are available from companies and marketers that have been around the block a few times.
By their nature, virtual events are great for top- and mid-funnel objectives. If your audience is daily or technical contacts then virtual events are definitely more effective than in-person events. However, the C-Suite is harder to engage with virtually so having a mix of offline/online events to boost engagement will be critical in the future.
For B2B businesses, the question remains: “When will things return to normal?” With more corporations announcing permanent WFH extensions, virtual business is here to stay and normal may have a new meaning. And that may be a good thing. When live in-person trade shows and conferences eventually start up again (and they will), it’s impossible to think that virtual events will cease to be just as important.
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The two will simply work together and it’s time to start planning for what the post-COVID virtual balance will be. Those who do will find themselves in a better position to recover and grow faster than their peers.
Posted by Grant Weber
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