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What Virtual Events Can Learn From The Airline Industry


Source: flickr (User: Globalist360)

It’s an industry much-maligned, the airlines – flyer satisfaction has suffered over the years, due to flight delays, lost luggage, unsatisfactory in-flight service – and most recently, extra charges for in-flight meals and checking in baggage.  The virtual event industry, in fact, has been a beneficiary of decreased air travel, as more and more attendees (and meeting planners) opt for virtual events.

That being said, the virtual events industry could stand to benefit in adopting programs pioneered by the airline industry.  Let’s consider a few.

aadvantage_img

Source: American Airlines

Frequent Flyer Programs

According to Wikipedia, “As of January 2005, a total of 14 trillion frequent-flyer miles had been accumulated by people worldwide, which corresponds to a total value of 700 billion US dollars”.  What are frequent flyer programs all about?  Creating active and loyal customers.  You’re naturally incented to build up your miles on a single airline, in order to qualify for a free flight, free upgrade to first class – or, credits that can be used to purchase goods and services.

Virtual events, on the other hand, are all too often “one and done”.  Yes, you may attend a great virtual event, but a week or a month later, you’ve moved on to the “next thing”.  You may return for the same virtual event later in the year (or, next year).  But you probably don’t re-engage with that event until it comes around again.

And, guess what?  When you do come back to next year’s event, you’re asked to enter a blank registration page (from scratch) all over again!  Virtual event platforms – and, virtual event show hosts, need to consider affinity programs for virtual events.  Such programs make a lot of sense for:

  1. Ongoing virtual events that repeat once (or more) per year
  2. Ongoing virtual communities that are open 365 days/year

If a virtual event is truly “one and done”, an affinity program makes no sense.  However, for the ongoing events and communities, affinity programs generate:

  1. Activity and engagement
  2. Loyalty – an attendee enrolled in a virtual event affinity program is more likely to attend the next event [compared to another attendee who did not enroll]

So how might you award “miles” in a virtual event?  Map event activities to “points” and allow attendees to view their real-time point score – activities that might generate points:

  1. Visit a booth
  2. Attend a session
  3. Chat with a booth rep
  4. Submit an in-show blog posting
  5. Submit an online event survey
  6. Rate a booth

Importantly, when you register members to your affinity program, re-use the same profile data for the subsequent events.  This not only provides a convenience to your members (e.g. seamless access into all subsequent virtual events without having to re-register), it generates loyalty and continued attendance (since it’s so convenient to attend each event).

UPDATE: additionally, encourage members of the affinity program to invite their colleagues and friends to join.  Reward them with additional points (or privileges) for each referral that turns into a new member.

For the ongoing community, the points structure serves to reward the more active community members – incenting them to keep logging in and participating.  The key here will be an incentive program that provides real value to those members who have achieved high point scores.  More on that in the next section.

Source: flickr (User: golden_toque)

Tiering of Services

First class, business class, coach.  Which one you travel in depends on how much you’re willing to pay and how loyal a customer you are (i.e. how many frequent flyer miles you’ve banked).  Either way, you know that the airlines create clear differentiation between these tiers of service.  First class travelers can board the plane first, sit in much wider and more comfortable seats and be treated to premium food and beverage (that’s included in their ticket).

In virtual events today, premium services tend to be exclusive content that’s available on a “pay per view” (individual content item) basis – or, by way of a premium attendee package, which costs more than the standard package (which may be free).  Virtual event platforms – and, virtual event show hosts, ought to consider additional tiers of service within an event.  The key will be to create features for which attendees will pay extra – or, for which they’ll perform additional actions to achieve premium status.

As such, virtual event show hosts will need to create the airlines’ first class service tier – e.g. something attendees will actually yearn for.  These premium services would allow the show host to generate additional revenue.  In addition, the premium tier could be bundled into affinity programs, incenting more activity and engagement (from attendees) in order to reach premium status.

So let’s say I’m a frequent contributor to a technical forum – or, I frequently visit the Lounge and help other attendees troubleshoot technical issues.  I’m basically generating a lot of “value” for other community members, on behalf of the show host.  As such, if I’m in the virtual event affinity program, I should be awarded points (for my actions) that build me up to premium status.

At the premium level, I might receive:

  1. Free access to exclusive content (which otherwise would have an associated charge)
  2. Access to an exclusive lounge area with audio/video chat access to experts, executives, thought leaders
  3. The ability to host my own chat room with a video stream of myself (increases my visibility within the community)
  4. A special avatar for premium members only

Reward your loyal and most engaged attendees and you end up encouraging others to join the fray.

skymall_img

Source: SkyMall

Convert a captive audience

The industry (and, retailers like SkyMall) realized that they had a captive audience for the duration of a 2-hour (or 20-hour) flight.  Sure, there’s reading material, TV, movies (and increasingly, WiFi access), but there’s also a product catalog that’s neatly tucked into your seatback.  And when it’s near time to land and you need to “turn off all electronic devices”, it’s all too easy to grab the SkyMall and peruse through a product catalog.  Before you know it (for some of you), you’ve just charged $50 onto your credit card.

In virtual events, the active audience is a captive audience – attendees are busily viewing sessions, visiting booths, chatting with other attendees and chatting with exhibitors.  Show hosts and exhibitors need to provide this captive audience a valuable and convenient way to “convert” attendees.

Organize your content well – and provide tailored content to individual “personas” (e.g. “Storage Administrator’s Guide to Data Deduplication in the Financial Industry”).  Provide tools (e.g. an RFP requester) that allow attendees to conveniently reach out to multiple exhibitors at once.  Engaged attendees who are not converted from a “visitor” to an “opportunity” are merely lost opportunities.

In conclusion, I think the virtual events industry stands to benefit from adopting tactics used in the airline industry.  Now if only I could convert my virtual event attendances into frequent flyer miles!

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2 Responses to What Virtual Events Can Learn From The Airline Industry

  1. […] of virtual events).  Virtual event show hosts will need to consider the incorporation of gaming, creation of affinity programs and more.  The solution to decreased response rates will be a trend for 2010 – as innovators […]

  2. […] In addition to the assorted event types – we’re starting to see the use of virtual event technology to support ongoing business communities.  The community concept makes a lot of sense in conjunction with physical or virtual events – instead of “going dark” between live event dates, event planners can leverage the “platform” to keep the community interaction and dialog going – where the events serve as “momentum points” to drive continued activity within the online business community.  I brainstormed about tactics that could be applied to sustain virtual business community loyalty. […]

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