Disclosure: I work for a virtual event platform vendor (InXpo).
The increase in demand for virtual events brings with it a common question: “Which virtual event platform should I select?“. Some clients find a vendor and stick with them – others will end up doing business with all the major platform vendors. My preference would be to find a long-term partner and stick with them, as changing vendors can be painful for all involved.
For me, selecting a virtual event platform comes down to six P’s: People, Platform, Production, Price, Process and Partners
While virtual events encompass a wide range of innovative technologies, we’re very much a services industry today. This is never more true than on a client’s very first virtual event on a given platform – that first event is all about the platform vendor’s team working closely with the client to jointly achieve the client’s overall goals (and produce a great show, event or community).
In this model (in which that platform vendor handles 75-100% of the production activities), the customer experience is entirely defined by the services (and service level) provided by the vendor. Providing an extraordinary level of customer care requires that the vendors’ company culture be built around servicing the customer – in a manner similar to how Nordstrom, Disney and Zappos have done it.
Of course, a great customer experience is ultimately delivered by individuals, which means that vendors with the right people, the right knowledge and the right experience really make a difference. And that spans the entire spectrum, from Client Services to Development to Marketing to Finance to Legal – all departments in a company end up “touching” the customer in some way.
When considering a particular platform, I suggest you request a profile of the team (i.e. the individuals) behind the vendor’s services – and if you’re far enough in the sales pipeline, information on the specific individuals who will be assigned to your account. Similarly, when speaking to other clients of the vendor, be sure to ask about the type of customer experience they received.
Now that we’ve covered the services piece, the underlying technology comes next. The evolution of our industry will see a shift from 80% vendor-producing events (today) to 80% client-self-producing events in a few years. As that shift unfolds, the industry will move away a bit from its services focus – technology then becomes a critical factor, with nothing more important that the technology to enable the self-servicing itself.
The first challenge you’ll face is that platform comparison is entirely qualitative today – there are no quantitative measurements on the technology (yet), like you have with computer hardware (e.g. megahertz, FLOPS, etc.). While there are key quantitative metrics (e.g. %-availability, peak simultaneous users supported, etc.) – today, the claims are just that – with no independent, third party verification.
Given this, you’ll have to rely on other companies who have been clients of the platforms – try to find a company if your industry (even a competitor) who has produced an event similar in scope to your’s. For instance, if you’re doing a virtual product launch in the pharmaceutical industry, try to find similar customer references – you’ll receive better and more direct insights than if you speak to a technology company who did a virtual sales kick-off meeting on the same platform.
I base my platform criteria around the following:
Flexibility - You want the ability to shape and mold the platform in a way that suits your unique requirements – this may include seamless integration of third party technologies or it may mean customization of features or layout that suit your unique needs.
Reliability - The platform must be available when you need it – and that includes everything from the event environment itself, to the registration system, to the reporting system, to the email system.
Scalability - The ability to scale up to tens of thousands of simultaneous users (if your event requires it).
As you become a steady producer of virtual events (e.g. 1-2 events per year to start, growing to 5-10+ events per year), you’ll likely want to shift production from the vendor’s team to your’s. In doing so, you’ll take on more control over the timing and delivery – and, save on cost (to the vendor – obviously, you need to staff appropriately to make this shift occur).
Keeping this eventual path in mind, you’ll want to select a vendor with strong “self service” capabilities. The capabilities should allow you to create unique experiences – with the growth of virtual events, it serves you no good if your event looks identical to your competitors’ events. The platform should allow you the highest level of customization directly without custom development.
Any virtual event platform can create a highly unique experience – but if that’s accomplished via custom development, then the model is not scalable and repeatable – and you’ll end up paying the vendor dearly (on the custom development costs).
As with all purchasing decisions, price is always a key factor – you likely have a budget in place (either set by yourself or your management) and ultimately, the vendor’s price needs to fit your budget. However, pricing should be a secondary focus – first make sure you have the right vendor on people, platform, production, etc. – then, for those who “make the cut”, determine which ones fit into your budget.
If you’re willing to make an investment beyond a single event, most vendors are open to negotiating volume discounts, based on the size of your commitment. Be sure to ask the vendor about event costs if/when you shift production to your own team. You may be pleasantly surprised. Lastly, think twice if your selected vendor has a price that’s significantly lower than the rest of the pack. Sure, they may be very incented to get your business, just make sure you don’t “get what you pay for” – use those customer references to ensure the vendor can meet your key requirements capably.
“Process” goes back to my first point about “People” and the production of your very first event. It’s critical that the vendor have an established process for getting you from the starting line to the finish line – it should be based around project management best practices, while being flexible enough to adapt to unexpected developments or changes. In fact, the vendor ought to show you a project planning template or timeline, so ask them for a sample to see their “execution lifecycle”.
In addition, give higher marks to those vendors who have successfully produced virtual events in your market – they’ll be able to take their learnings from the prior events and apply them to your’s – the process will be based on prior learnings and the vendor already has a sense for how the event execution process will unfold.
Most virtual event platform vendors provide a somewhat specialized offering: the virtual event technology (and production) itself. The vendors then rely on a set of partner companies to fill in the gaps (e.g. A/V, streaming, experiential marketing, strategy consulting, etc.). Do you need an “agency” to manage your overall event experience creation and execution? Or, are you planning to do hundreds of on-site video captures and want the resulting footage streamed within your virtual event?
Determine your entire set of needs, then review the vendors for their own capabilities – along with whom they’ve partnered with. Chances are that by combining the vendor and its partners, you’ll have a comprehensive solution to suit all of your needs. Find out from the vendor whether all the “books” run through them (e.g. general contractor model) or whether you should make separate arrangements with the individual partners.
Like any other major purchasing decision, selecting a virtual event platform vendor (and partner) can be a daunting task. A vendor with strong grades on the six P’s will serve you well. What other selection criteria have you used?
Note: I invite you to connect with me on Google+.