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‘It Helps You Understand Your Audience’; the Data and Connectedness From Virtual Events Give Them Value

It has become a bit too easy to undersell the value of virtual events. People still want to be connected. One media company, Winsight, went as far as not doing them, turning instead to online sponsored communities. (Still emphasizing connection, however.) While it works for them, virtual events can still be successful with the right expectations—on both sides. And even when in-person comes back, virtual will remain vital because we will not want to lose that audience. So may be worth it to get them right.

In a recent webinar hosted by exhibitions association UFI, Liz Irving, EVP, head of marketing, technology and customer experience, Clarion North America said that the need for connection—yes, digitally—has never been stronger than it is now. Her company has spent a lot of time conversing with its markets.

“We found new ways to take our markets forward by helping them address their needs today and connect in new ways digitally,” she said. One virtual event they did offered a series of live product demonstrations from people’s homes. “It doesn’t replace face-to-face, but it allowed those connections to be made further upstream.”

Here are more reasons and ideas for keeping and boosting your virtual events:

Create sub-communities. Irving said you can really “home in on specific customers that sellers are looking for, “just on a smaller scale rather than one massive event every one or two years.

Be proactive about managing customer expectations. Emphasize the positive outcomes that attendees can expect—how-to lists, video examples immediate surveys and polls. “It’s really important to manage those expectations and show them that the value of virtual events lies in the reach of the data,” said Laura McCartney, head of exhibitor experience, EMEA, Informa Markets.

Consider the data you can collect virtually. “When you overlay it, every click, every video they watch, every interaction they have, it’s all trackable,” said John Capano, SVP at Impact XM, on an EventBuzz podcast last week. (There’s a transcript.) “And that really helps you understand your audience and develop your next meeting and prove your ROI to your bosses and all those things that you want to do with an event.” That’s a similar advantage to something in my article yesterday, where Sam Yagan who founded OKCupid wanted every interaction to happen on his site where they can track it.

Smaller audiences can reap bigger rewards. “The key is to really understand the different markets you serve and develop strategies specific to each of those markets, panelists agreed,” Sue Pelletier wrote in Trade Show Executive. “Also, digital events can extend the reach of those audiences beyond just the scheduled day of the show by keeping the community and connections going year-round.”

Look at your virtual attendees as an opportunity to market for future in-person. FOMO is a real thing. Capano offered the words you’re looking to hear: “Hey, I went last year online, and it was awesome and I saw how much fun people had on site, I gotta go this year.”

There is incentive to stay with virtual events in some form to stay connected. “I’m going to spend the extra time and effort to get through this year because there’s a lot of value in that live [aspect],” Capano said. “If you asked anyone about trade shows two years ago, or even some live events that weren’t highly engaging… everyone’s like, ‘oh, trade shows are so old school, nobody wants to go to them.’ And now all of a sudden, people are dying to get to trade shows, like ‘I miss it so much. I want to see my friends, I want to be there.’ So really it’s kind of a snap back to realize that virtual well done, and hybrid well done is going to drive the heck out of your success for live going forward.”

Sustainability is a thing—young people especially have indicated in surveys that it affects their decision-making. “Live events take a lot and have a big carbon footprint,” Capano said. “And so doing an event where maybe it’s a smaller live portion, but a much larger online portion, you can get the same benefit and the same engagement for a much smaller carbon footprint. And obviously, that is important and should be important to many of the folks that we work with. So this is really a ton of benefits there. Your cost per attendee, all that stuff is better when it’s hybrid over just live.”

As Irving said, “We do have to educate folks on the value of digital and how it looks different than face-to-face. But Clarion’s business model now will have digital, and it will have face-to-face. You can take some or all of it to help reach the suite of folks you want to find in your industry.“

Vote on Questions, Reimagine Swag and Get Out a Bit to Reenergize Your Events

How I would’ve loved to vote on which questions get asked at the many panels and interviews I attended in-person pre-pandemic. Now we can. What else can we do to liven up our virtual events in 2021? Swag, speaker walks, a new networking game. One thing is for sure–it’s worth the risk to be a little creative.

In a park in Palatine, Ill., in March last year—with birds really chirping—a bundled-up Wylecia Wiggs Harris, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), addressed members on Facebook Watch before taking a much-needed walk. She wanted to assure everyone that she and her colleagues were okay, and, of course, make sure that members were doing okay as well.

It was a very effective use of video and the elements. I thought of this again when reading a 2021 recommendation that we encourage our speakers to take us somewhere new this year—literally.

“In-person keynotes and education sessions are compelling partly because dynamic speakers walk around the stage or even draw a picture or do something else creative while presenting,” Samantha Whitehorne wrote in Associations Now. “Find a way to get your virtual presenters to do the same. During his prerecorded keynote for the Turnaround Management Association’s IMPACT 2020 virtual meeting, Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation at Disney, walked around, used different camera angles, and had large paper slides hanging behind him that he illustrated himself.”

While most agree that virtual events will take a supporting role—in the name of hybrid—once in-person events return, that does not mean that they can’t improve this year. Here are a few more ideas that I’ve seen that can improve the virtual event experience.

Network like the old days. Fast Company calls Gather “half video game, half video call.” “Spend time with your friends, coworkers, and communities like you would in real life,” their site says. Everyone at a gathering is “represented as little controllable avatars that can stroll around and talk to each other. When your avatar approaches another one, the real-life video from your respective webcams will pop up on-screen so you can converse face-to-face. Walk away, and the video disappears. Small talk has never felt so fun!” It’s free for up to 25 users, with paid plans starting at $7 per user, per month, for additional features.

Explore new ways to pick questions for Q&A. (From The Economist) At one conference, questions were displayed in a queue. Attendees could donate “points” to other people’s questions based on their interests—like a Reddit upvote. The moderator then asked the highest-ranked questions first. This ensured that the questions asked were those that mattered most to attendees.

Provide transcripts. (Also from The Economist) “Pre-recording sessions means event organizers can arrange for text chats, closed-captioning, even ASL interpretation. Even if you do the presentations live, providing transcripts later is enthusiastically welcomed. And there is now a wide range of AI tools that can provide accurate transcripts.”

Consider mingle-with-speaker sessions after panels. We did this for our BIMS 2020 conference—letting attendees chat with one another and the speakers on Zoom directly after a session. I was the lookout/moderator for a few of these. We did not have huge crowds join us in the Zoom rooms—maybe 4-6 people—but the people who were in there said they got great value by being able to ask questions in this more intimate space. So it felt worth it.

Reach out to presenters—look for enthusiasm. Asked what makes a virtual event great, 49% of respondents in a recent survey said when “presenters are enthusiastic and engaging.” Three in four respondents (74%) said passion and good online delivery were essential qualities in a great presenter—well ahead of being knowledgeable about the content (22%). To improve events, 51% said “being able to access the presenter after the event in an online forum” (see previous bullet) and almost a third said smoother technology.

Re-imagine swag. This idea—sending items to participants ahead of time—really picked up steam as the year went along and will probably get even more popular in early 2021. In late June, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and the Association of Genetic Technologists sent swag boxes to attendees—JAM Packs—that included a kazoo. Guess what the concerts were called? The Daily Kazoom. BIO Digital (Biotechnology Innovation Organization) took place in June with more than 7,000 participants from 64 countries. To foster community, they changed the meeting’s tagline from “Beyond” to “Nothing Stops Innovation.” Then, in advance of the conference, BIO mailed all speakers a custom mug with the new tagline.

‘We Will Never Do a Virtual Event’ – Why Winsight Is Doubling Down on Sponsored Communities in 2021

Events are big business for Winsight, which pre-COVID 19 produced nearly 50 trade shows and conferences (including the 40,000-person National Restaurant Association Show).

However, unlike many of its peers in B2B media, Winsight has not jumped on the virtual event bandwagon. “We will never do a virtual event,” says Amanda Buehner, Executive Vice President of Convenience Media and Events. “They don’t work. In our space, we have restaurant owners and operators who can’t spend a couple hours away from their jobs. Webinar attendance and engagement were going down even before the pandemic. We knew we needed to do something different.”

Instead, Winsight is focused on producing online communities offering participants unique content and interaction and sponsors direct contact with highly qualified prospects.

Last year, Winsight tested the model with the launch of three online groups (Outlook Leadership, Restaurant Technology and Restaurant Recovery) and last week announced the upcoming debuts of three more, including Restaurant Community (which goes live Jan. 28), CRU Community (which builds off Winsight’s Convenience Retail University conference and launches Feb. 23) and FSD Community (which serves food service directors and launches March 23). A fourth, FSTEC, will roll out this summer.

Each community is built around three pillars—community, content, connection. “The community part is about the audience,” says Buehner. “Our live events can draw a couple hundred to several thousand attendees. With a virtual platform, we can reach more than that and knew we wanted two-way discussions instead of webinars just speaking at you.”

Content, Connections and VIP Access

The communities produce new content each week that Buehner describes as “raw and real,” including “Talks from the Top” interviews with C-suite executives, Origin Stories on how industry figures got their start and By the Numbers, featuring industry metrics and analytics supplied by Winsight’s data and research arm, Technomic.

Within the communities, Winsight handpicks 20 VIP members to be part of Share Groups that have direct conversations around topics such as workforce, technology and more.

There is no fee for participants but members must provide registration information as well as answer drill-down questions on their qualifications, budget authority, need and timing. Each sponsor gets to meet these qualified retailers/operators one-to-one.

“If you can connect me, as a supplier, with people who are not only registered but also have the excitement, the need, the budget and the authority to purchase say, open air refrigerators for restaurants, that’s cool,” says Buehner.

Building Communities

The Communities are built on a proprietary platform that Winsight developed in-house that locks into a user’s single Winsight sign-on, while discussion boards run on Vanilla Forums.

Every week, a dedicated e-newsletter for each community targets between 40,000 and 80,000 uniques touting new content and upcoming programs.

“E-newsletters are the biggest push,” says Buehner. “We’re also doing social media for branding and air coverage and using every tactic possible within our own sites, including interstitials and chat bots. For Restaurant Community, we have more than 2 million impressions within the Winsight platforms and social media.”

Buehner expects thousands to register for Restaurant Community over the next few months. While the initial three communities launched last year had lower user targets (due to only being live for three months), each exceeded their goal, she adds.

Sponsorships and Sales-Qualified Leads

The communities are monetized exclusively via sponsorships, which command between $7,500 and $50,000 and offer three components:

  • One-to-one meetings with qualified buyers. “Every one of our sponsors can join a Share Group, listen and learn, and have one-to-one meetings with qualified buyers,” says Buehner. “We are giving our sponsors the opportunity to engage with sales-qualified leads—to date we have only seen marketing-qualified leads.”
  • Speaking opportunities, ranging from leading educational sessions to aligning with thought leadership by introducing CEO speakers.
  • Air coverage (branding) that includes the sponsor’s logo in the weekly e-newsletter, logos within the communities, the chance to include branded collateral in sample boxes sent to the members of each Share Group and dedicated microsites. “Notice we are not using the term ‘virtual booth’ – that doesn’t work,” says Buehner. “We have heard so many key sponsors say, ‘I don’t want to talk about a virtual booth.’ People purchase through the meetings we concierge for them.”

Retraining Events Staff for New Roles

While most event professionals lucky enough to retain their jobs pivoted to producing virtual events last year, Winsight retrained its events teams to produce communities.

“This is all-hands-on-deck,” says Buehner. “We told people across the company that we needed between 20 percent and 80 percent of their time to get this up and running.  We all learned new jobs in the last six months–marketing teams that were doing live events previously are now doing communities. We had to retrain our sales team to sell communities and convey value.”

Fifteen different areas within Winsight collaborate on the communities, including Content, which manages speaker topics and recruitment; Platforms, which vet the technology and manage logins and registration; Sponsor Relations, an existing team that now pivoted to selling community sponsorships rather than booths; Editorial, which runs discussion boards and moderation; and Recruiting, an essential component of building and maintaining the communities.

“You can put out two million impressions promoting these communities but it’s those personal relationships that get these owners and operators to register,” says Buehner. “We have a whole team that’s constantly sharing the story of the value of our communities.”

When Events Return

With most of the industry hopeful for the return of live events in the second half of 2021 (Informa recently saw a stock jump when it announced plans to resume live events in the U.S. in June), digital communities will continue to play a major role going forward, according to Buehner.

“This is another touch point for our audience and sponsors,” she adds. “We will continue the communities since not everyone can attend every live event, but they can always make it to a community. For sponsors, this is a great complement to our live event—they can meet with potential partners then see them at the live event. We set goals internally for these communities and three weeks into 2021, we’re halfway there already.”


‘You Can’t Get That Kind of Reach in Person’; Take Advantage of Being Virtual

“Virtual events break down geographic barriers to attendance. Stretch your event across time zones so participants can experience it live wherever they are. Leverage digital conferencing platforms… that enable live captioning and translation for speaker remarks so audience members can view subtitles in their local language.”

Bob Bejan, Microsoft corporate VP, in a Fast Company article titled “8 Ways to Rethink Virtual Events for the Age of Social Distancing”


There’s no doubt that there are some drawbacks to virtual events. After all, we are social creatures. But there’s also a lot to embrace. Bejan, who will be delivering a keynote fireside chat at our upcoming BIMS event featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit—see the incredible list of speakers here—has some definite ideas on how to make your virtual events shine.


Here are some of those and other ways publishers can take advantage of virtual events.


Think outside—or extend!—the box. There’s no reason anymore that your event has to be just 2-3 consecutive days. Do a special hour of content every Monday afternoon and call it your Magic Monday conference. BVR’s Divorce Conference scheduled sessions weeks before and after. Instead of their annual conference, the United Fresh Produce Association created United Fresh LIVE! 365, a year-round online platform featuring a permanent expo, social gatherings, on-demand education, webinars, conference programming, and networking opportunities for the global produce industry. “We basically built a year-round convention center,” John Toner, VP of convention and industry collaboration, said.


Go global. As mentioned above, there should be no barrier besides time difference why you can’t have a bigger global audience, if that works for your niche. Content from virtual events can also be put on-demand, so if the time difference is a hindrance, they could watch it anytime. “At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them,” Bejan writes. For Pro Farmer’s first virtual Crop Tour in August, four online, 90-minute broadcasts brought in more than 18,000 total viewers coming from all 50 states and 12 countries. (Historically, the typical audience across the four days and seven Midwest locations has ranged between 2,000 and 3,000.) “You can’t get that kind of reach in person,” said Joe May, marketing and sales director, indicating that Pro Farmer will most likely keep some of that digital component in future Crop Tours.


Make it a conversation. You want your audience engaged with presenters throughout a virtual conference, Bejan writes. “For example, connecting via your social communities where your customers are already engaged can help build conversation leading up to the event and get people in the mindset to learn and ask questions. Enabling attendees to engage with each other and ask questions ahead of time can also help presenters prepare to address what’s top of mind for their audience.” He also points to the importance of a good moderator to encourage that conversation.


Parse the data, while the event is going on. “There’s definitely more data that we were able to collect with the virtual event than with an in-person event,” Enit Nichani, vice president of marketing for North America at IGEL, told TechTarget. The article said that a reporting feature in vFairs—their digital platform of choice—enabled their marketing team “to see how many times a user visited a particular booth, what sessions they attended and how long they stayed for those sessions.” You should use the data to even make changes during the event, if need be. Maybe some type of Q&A worked particularly well on the first day or a chatroom or exhibitor showroom didn’t. You’ll know.


Always think about what’s different. Eric Shanfelt, founding partner of Nearview Media, told us how important it is to provide opportunities for people to meet one-on-one. But then he also warned not to make these too short. One “speed dating” type session he attended gave just two minutes and that was barely enough time for introductions. Again, in person, 3-4 minutes could be okay to say a couple things and tell someone you’ll see them at happy hour. But virtual is different. He also advised integrating sponsors into sessions and Q&As, making sure they’re not just dumped into separate areas.


Again, watch Bejan live at our BIMS event featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit, Dec 2-4. Also see a Power Panel on the Future of Events.


‘An Acceleration of Innovation’; Virtual Events Can Provide a Place to Grow

This morning I happened on a release posted by Craft Brewing Business titled, Here’s a How-to Guide on Virtually Attending PACK EXPO Connects Next Week. Although I do like craft beer, I found it because PACK EXPO is produced by PMMI Media Group, a member of our sister Connectiv division.


This guide is actually an excellent idea for anyone producing virtual events. “The PACK EXPO Connects site, search and planning tools are all designed to help registrants easily identify opportunities that are relevant for their company,” says Sue DaMario, director of marketing, PMMI Media Group. “Planning ahead will ensure a rewarding online experience.”


The recommendations for attendees include:


1. Build a MyConnects Planner: “Once registered, attendees can search a multitude of ways including keyword, product category, new products and more in order to start building their MyConnects Planner.”


2. Add sessions and live demos to your personal calendar. “Check out the incredible line-up of Innovation Stage sessions. Be sure to add those of interest to you to your MyConnects Planner…”


3. Plan ahead for live chats: “Attendees can add companies they want to chat with, then during the chat hours can immediately strike up a conversation. To connect outside of show hours, attendees can click the envelope icon under the exhibitor’s contact information to send a message.


“Research shows that engaging with product engineers and technical folks is a top priority among equipment and material buyers. We’re excited about the ability for registered attendees to make direct, live connections with technical experts who are staffing showrooms. It couldn’t be easier,” said Dave Newcorn, senior VP of digital and data at PMMI Media Group.


This is all so sensible for a few reasons. First, the event being just a few days away, it reminds people to attend—especially when registration is free. PMMI Media also gets customers such as Craft Brewing Business to send this to their audience. It’s helping both the customer and the attendees. And as we know, nothing’s better than a third party actively supporting something you are doing.


I was fortunate a couple weeks ago to do an email Q&A with Joe Angel, president of PMMI Media Group. He could not have been any nicer and praised DaMario, Newcorn and the entire staff for the great job their doing in these challenging times. He emphasized the responsibility they have—“Almost all the manufacturing markets we serve are deemed essential”—and that, above all, they were actively listening to their audience.


“Our editors conducted multiple surveys to gain insight into what was happening in packaging and processing plants across the country. We were uniquely positioned to be able to share industry-specific intelligence with essential businesses,” he wrote.


That kind of inside information then became the basis for their pivot to PACK EXPO Connects—and to innovation.


“The new virtual show caused an acceleration of innovation for our media products,” Angel wrote. “And, while I can’t speak specifically to revenue, we have generally experienced an increase in media sales over the same period last year… Many of the features available at our virtual event were developed exclusively for us by Map Your Show, the platform on which PACK EXPO Connects is built. We also modified some of our traditional media offerings to support suppliers navigating a new way of doing business. And we developed new products, like our Virtual Event Guide, which is polybagged with our October issue of Packaging World… What we have learned will position us for future hybrid models and potential new virtual events.”


All of this doesn’t come out of thin air. The biggest criticisms of virtual events have been with difficulties for sponsors and vendors to connect with attendees. PMMI approached this event with sponsors and exhibitors in mind. On the PACK EXPO Connects site, there’s an Exhibitor Blog with articles such as: How to Continue Generating Leads After the Event; How Your Virtual Showroom Can Stand Out; and Seven Steps to a Successful Show Without Live Demos.


As for that future, Angel is “cautiously optimistic about 2021 but [is] budgeting conservatively. With no vaccine or proven treatment for COVID-19, it is hard to say where we’ll be. PMMI Media Group has a tremendous portfolio, and PMMI is known for its very successful trade shows.”