While virtual event platforms can certainly support a 365 day-per-year virtual community, my estimate is that 95% of the use case (today) on these platforms is for the single day or multi-day live virtual event. I’ve seen some pick-up in the “ongoing community” concept and I believe that by this time next year, the 5% share (for virtual communities) will be more like 15 or 20%. As I’ve written several times before, there are plenty of ways in which a virtual event platform can support a virtual community:
- The future of newspapers as virtual communities
- Online dating, powered by a virtual event platform
- An ongoing virtual crisis center to combat swine flu
There are important distinctions to keep in mind when considering a virtual community. If you’re a veteran of virtual events and want to consider the community concept, I outline five key differences between the two – differences that will change the way you fundamentally plan and execute each one.
- Outbound marketing vs. inbound marketing – with a live virtual event, 90% of your registrant and attendee base will come from outbound marketing. And today, most of that outbound marketing comes in the form of email blasts to assorted lists. With a virtual community site that’s available 365 days a year, attracting an audience is more about inbound marketing – such as search engine optimization (SEO) to attract visitors to your community from search engines. You’ ll want to complement the inbound marketing with some outbound promotion, but you’ll start to wear out your lists by promoting your virtual community site too often. One common tactic is to use social media (e.g. Facebook fan page, Linkedin Events listing, Twitter, etc.) to drive visitors and attendees to your virtual event and virtual community.
- Local vs. global access – most live events take place during the course of a business day – and typically within a narrow timezone (e.g. the schedule is arranged around a US/Eastern or US/Pacific schedule for US-based events). While I’ve seen attendance at North American work-day events from visitors across the globe, it’s the middle of the night for these folks – so 60-80% of the audience participate from the local timezone(s). So for live events, the top priority of the virtual event platform is to support the local language at that timezone (e.g. English). For a virtual community, access is 7x24x365, which means that all languages can apply. As such, the virtual event platform ought to support rendering in as many languages as possible, both single and double byte.
- Concentrated vs. intermittent audience – live events are great, because a large and captivated audience can result in valuable interactions between attendee and attendee, as well as between attendee and exhibitor. For a virtual community, a large, ongoing and engaged audience is nirvana – but, the more likely experience is that a few attendees will be in the environment at the same time you are. This places more onus on the community organizer to provide compelling content and useful asynchronous tools (e.g. blogs, message boards, etc.) to keep the visitor from wandering away and logging out.
- Large staffing commitment vs. minimal staffing commitment – for a live event, you want an entire team of booth reps who can “man” your booth for the extent of the live show. For a 7x24x365 virtual community, it’s not practical to have booth reps online in the environment around the clock. Here’s where technology innovation can help – virtual event platforms that support an auto-attendant, for instance – a “chat bot” that engages visitors in text chat, which attempts to provide automated answers to common questions. Or, perhaps some auto-triggered notifications to booth reps. For instance, 5 visitors happen to be in my booth right now – so I receive an email alert that encourages me to login to the environment right away.
- Intra-day support vs. ongoing support – for the virtual event producer, the priority is to provide support for the duration of the live event. For a virtual community, you want to ensure the service has 100% availability, but it’s not practical to personally monitor the environment at all times. Here, you might want to rely on automation to continually monitor key indicators and send you email alerts (or text messages) when exceptions occur.
Here’s a thought – do a little of both (above) – think of your virtual event as an experience that has a repeatable schedule. Once a live event has concluded, it transforms into a 7x24x365 virtual community. And when it’s time for the next live event, you simply “light up” the live features within the community. Then, when the live activities have concluded, you dim the lights and return to the community focus. Either way, make sure you think about the importance differences I’ve outlined. And have fun!