Virtual Event ROI

May 31, 2009

Virtual Edge 2009 Panel on Measurement & ROI

Virtual Edge 2009 Panel on Measurement & ROI

What’s a hot topic on the minds of virtual event marketers? I’ll give you a hint – it’s spelled R-O-I. At Virtual Edge 2009 in Santa Clara, CA, I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of virtual event ROI.  It’s pretty clear that virtual events are driving significant ROI today – signified by the interest in last week’s conference, the keen interest from marketers and the growth of the virtual event industry.  However, the audience questions from this panel discussion make it quite clear that ROI discussions and analysis need to advance to the next level.

Here were the 3 hot buttons raised by the audience:

  1. Tracking ROI via closed sales – yes, I know that virtual events will drive awareness, engagement and great overall statistics.  But at the end of the day, I need to know that my investment drove product sales.  And I’m just not sure I can quantify that today.
  2. Understanding user/activity profiles – my company wants to produce a virtual event for the C-level, but we just don’t know whether C-level employees will attend virtual events – and if they do, we certainly don’t know the typical activity profile of a C-level employee within a virtual event.  As such, we’re not sure we can recommend the investment to produce one.
  3. More meaningful engagement statistics – it’s great that I had 200 private chat sessions with attendees – but there’s a difference between a “I can’t find the auditorium” chat and a “can you provide me with pricing information” chat.  How do I make the distinction when analyzing my ROI?

Let’s address each of these hot buttons.

ROI via Closed Sales

Here’s where the platform provider needs to work hand in hand with the client.  First, the provider and client need to develop certain engagement patterns that are meaningful for the client.  One pattern may be as simple as, “attendee initiated a private chat with one of my booth reps”.  Another pattern might be, “attendee downloaded more than 5 documents from my booth and had more than 2 return visits”.  Once these patterns are defined, the following should occur:

  1. Platform provider – upon detection of a pattern match, insert (or update) a record in the client’s CRM system (e.g. Salesforce.com, Siebel, etc.).
  2. Client – have the processes and technologies in place for a timely response.  Then, have a secondary process to accurately track and measure the actions/outcome that result from the sales inquiry.

The job of the platform provider is to detect the engagement pattern and seamlessly update the client’s CRM system.  By handling the CRM import automatically, the platform provider is significantly accelerating the potential payoff (ROI) – since a marketer or sales rep is no longer required to manually import the sales opportunity from an Excel spreadsheet.

The client, then, needs a process to have the right person respond in a timely manner to the sales inquiry (e.g. Inside Sales, direct sales rep, etc.) and be able to track the eventual outcome.  The outcome then needs to be mapped back to the source (e.g. virtual event) – to complete the equation.  If these pieces work together, you’ll be able to track closed sales to your virtual event investment.

Activity Profiles

As noted during the Virtual Edge panel discussion, platform providers and clients will need to agree on the use of aggregate event data.  Today’s contracts specify that the client (event producer) owns all data on registrant profiles, activity data, etc.  To publish industry-wide data, it will be important for the lion’s share of clients and vendors to participate.

The data will not be as meaningful if large players (clients or vendors) are not part of the effort.  In addition, vendors and clients will need to agree on standard definitions – for instance, what is “C-level employee” defined as – and how do we map that definition back to registration fields?  A single vendor may have 10 clients – and 10 unique registration forms (with unique registration fields).

Unique registration fields make data aggregation challenging.  In addition, both clients and vendors will want to disclose (to virtual event attendees) that their activities will be utilized in reporting and analysis (at an aggregate level).  This discussion, in my mind, leads me to believe that an industry wide standards body is needed – an Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) for virtual events.

More meaningful engagement tracking

On the specific topic of deciphering chat content, technology is beginning to emerge to perform natural language recognition.  In child-based virtual worlds, I’ve read that technology can attempt to detect the presence of child predators within virtual world environments (where text chat is occuring).  I believe this technology can be applied to the business setting of a virtual event – whereby the sales worthiness of a chat session can be rated.

Have a look at this very interesting article from The New York Times – Software That Guards Virtual Playgrounds.

On the disclosure side, I think we need to make attendees aware of the use of this technology – so that they understand that the private chat they engage in may be read by a computer.

These are all interesting topics for the industry to address – I believe that in doing so, we’ll advance the industry significantly – and generate even stronger growth than we’re already seeing.

Related Links

  1. Blog posting: Increase Your Virtual Event ROI
  2. Blog posting: Virtual Event Adoption by the C-Suite
  3. Blog posting: What CPL Should I Pay For VTS?

Day 1 Recap: Virtual Edge 2009

May 29, 2009

The ABC's of Virtual Events (Virtual Edge Session)

The ABC's of Virtual Events (with Kenny Lauer, GPJ & Kelly Graham, Cisco)

That’s right, even the Virtual Events industry has a need to meet face-to-face.  Thursday (05/28/09) marked Day 1 of Virtual Edge 2009 – a 2-day face-to-face “summit on virtual events, meetings and communities”, held at the Santa Clara Convention Center.  By my estimation, the event had over 150 attendees and approximately 50 exhibitors.

Most of the presentations and panel discussions had “standing room only” crowds.  Two of the noted presentations of Day 1 were “The ABC’s of Virtual Events, Meetings & Marketing” (featuring Kenny Lauer of GPJ and Kelly Graham of Cisco) and the keynote presentation, featuring Paul Salinger or Oracle and Sandy Carter of IBM.

The sessions were streamed live into the virtual world – a combination of live video (via Stream57) and live video in a 3D immersive world (via VirtualU from Digitell).  A physical event on virtual events, which was then simulcast virtually – neat!  The “concurrent virtual”  allowed global access to event, for folks who were not able to attend in person – and that included some speakers, who (of course!) presented their sessions virtually.

In the afternoon, I participated in a panel discussion titled  “Measurement, Tracking & ROI”.  Two of the main themes we heard from the audience were:

  1. Better measuring event engagement – sure, we know about registration-to-attendance ratio, number of live attendees, average session time, etc. And Stu Schmidt of Unisfair introduced the notion of a “virtual engagement index”.  The calculation of that index (or score), however, may need to get “smarter” – for instance with a chat session.  Dannette Veale of Cisco noted the difference between a “where’s the Auditorium” and a “can you send me pricing information” comment – whereby the latter should carry a higher score from an engagement or “prospect worthiness” point of view.
  2. Aggregate profiles by user type – customers are in the need for published profiles by user type, so that they can better plan targeted virtual events.  For instance, if an enterprise is interested in a virtual event for C-level employees, they need to see a published profile (e.g. what does the C-level do in a virtual event), to determine whether the event is worth pursuing (aka what’s the expected ROI).  The panel responded that there are data privacy issues that need to be worked out – since all data is “owned” by customers – and NOT by the virtual event platform vendors.

While I was able to sneak out to attend a session or two, I spent most of the day in the InXpo booth.  I had the pleasure of meeting (face-to-face!) with many colleagues in the industry and also spoke to countless attendees who are considering their first virtual event.  For attendees from corporations, many had already executed virtual events – and were there to learn best practices and refine their game.  On the other hand, I met several folks from the event marketing industry, who were looking to leverage virtual events to complement their clients’ physical event strategy.

For me, Day 1 marked a momentous occasion for the virtual events industry – the creation of a physical event speaks to the legitimacy of the industry – while the turnout speaks to the timeliness and interest in virtual events.  Today, our industry is like the TV sitcom Cheers (“Where everybody knows your name”).  I imagine that this industry will grow quickly enough that it will be challenging to remember everyone’s name – and in a few years, the venue will have to shift to the Moscone Center in San Francisco! Looking forward to Day 2 today.

Related links

  1. Virtual Edge 2009 program: http://www.virtualedgesummit.com/program.php
  2. Virtual Edge 2009 program – to attend virtually: http://www.virtualedgesummit.com/virtual-event-schedule.php
  3. Dean Takahashi covered Day 1 for VentureBeat: http://venturebeat.com/2009/05/28/virtual-events-draw-a-live-in-person-crowd/

Bringing Virtual Benefits To Business Travel

March 14, 2009

Source: Virgin America

Source: Virgin America

Recently, I embarked an a now-uncommon routine (for me) of a business trip – flying round trip on Virgin America, one of my favorite airlines.  Since most of my business these days is conducted virtually, the logistics of checking in at the airport, waiting in the security line, boarding the plane, checking into the hotel, etc. – gave me plenty of time to reflect on the dynamics of business travel.  Here are some observations:

  1. By its nature, business travel means that you’re constantly in close proximity to other businesspeople – some of whom are in your industry – or, could benefit you as a business partner (or vice versa)
  2. Those who are less outgoing / personable may only meet 2% of the fellow businesspeople they travel with – and really get to know only 1% (or less!)
  3. On my return flight to SFO, I’d guess that 1 out of every 15 people was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  If you were a start-up entrepreneur and on that flight, I’d guess that 1 out of every 25 on that plane was a Silicon Valley venture capitalist – or, someone who had funds to invest in your company

And while we’ve all heard stories about the sales deal or business partnership that was sourced by the “person next to me on the plane”, how many other business connections fall by the wayside because two or more individuals never connected?  Lots, I’m sure.  Technology helps flatten the world – but it can also be a further flattener to enable strangers in physical proximity to connect.

We do know that business travelers are quite active on social networks.  There are plenty of business travel blogs out there.  And, users of Facebook and Twitter are quite active while traveling.  They’re constantly chiming in from airports, conferences, hotels and restaurants.  They’ll also tell you whom they’re about to go in to meet with – and how it went.  So we know that busniesspeople are active on social networks during travel – but, how often are they engaging socially in person?

And there’s the irony – social media allows you to connect and socialize globally – but while you’re tweeting from your BlackBerry in the hotel lobby, might you be missing out on an introduction to a potential business partner who’s about to grab a cab to the same place you’re going?  Here’s where localized social media –  targeted at the local business traveler – could be a big win.

Some ideas:

  1. Virtual Flight Lounge, powered by Virgin America RED – when booking your Virgin America reservation online, Virgin asks you to opt in to their Linkedin connector – by opting in and supplying your Linkedin credentials, Virgin is able to capture key data from your Linkedin profile – and, obtain a list of your Linkedin connections.  Once on board, you pull up RED (Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system) and it displays Linkedin connections of your’s who are on the flight.  Additionally, it recommends business partners (with their seat numbers) based on a comparison of your profile against other profiles of passengers who also opted in.  If you’re interested, you can engage in RED’s seat-to-seat chat with your new-found friend.
  2. Marriott Virtual Lobby – when making your Marriott reservation online, you’re prompted to opt in to the hotel’s business networking feature.  You’re asked to provide information to populate a profile, such as what business you’re conducting, what business opportunities are you interested in, what are your food preferences, what are you in the market to purchase, etc.  Once you arrive at the hotel (and connect to the hotel’s paid wireless service, of course), you’re invited into a virtual lobby (similar to a virtual event), where you’re able to see all other guests who have opted in to the service.  You’re able to perform search, view guest profiles and participate in private and group chat (either via text or webcam).

In each scenario, the idea is that two or more potential business partners could discover one another (via their published profiles) – connect virutally and then arrange for the old-fashioned cocktail at the hotel bar or a steak dinner downtown.  That’s right, virtual begets physical.

Why would Virgin or Marriott do this?  The costs are fairly low (and fixed) – and can earn a high and recurring return – that being customer satisfaction and retention, which sure has a high ROI in this economic environment.  And what’s the value to the business traveler in opting in and using such a service?  Well, what’s the value of a new business partner or a new client?  I’m sure it’s much higher than the hard cost (zero) and worth the time and effort.

The concept here is similar to the popular “Who’s Close To Me” service provided by TripIt – but the difference is that here, you’re sourcing brand new business contacts, as opposed to discovering if your existing contacts are nearby.  So if I don’t bump into you in the security check at SFO, perhaps I’ll connect with you virtually and then grab a coffee with you in person.


Utilize Surveys in Virtual Events

December 19, 2008

Online marketers often speak of hard ROI (explicit return) and soft ROI.  In this economic climate, soft ROI is being cut and marketers are focusing (with rare exception) on hard ROI.  But what if you could generate hard ROI and soft ROI simultaneously?  Would your CMO or CFO like that?  I’d bet that the CMO would, at minimum.

So consider the use of surveys within your virtual events.  Let’s say you generated 200 visitors to your booth.  And let’s say 70% of those visitors completed an online survey that was available right there in your booth (equalling 140 survey completes).  You might think I’m crazy to suggest that 70% of visitors would actually fill out a survey.  But what if you provided a prize?  And, you qualified visitors into the prize drawing via completion of the survey?  I’ve seen it with my own two eyes – one particular event had 70% of booths visitors completing the exhibitors’ in-booth survey (i.e. for those who chose to utilize a survey).

140 survey completes results in a statistically significant sample size.  And you’re likely not going to generate such a high response rate if you message to these visitors post-event.  Here are my Top 3 reasons for doing a survey in a virtual event:

  1. Plan your marketing content – let your target audience tell you what they’re interested in, what media formats they like to consume, what content they want (from you)  as they evaluate your products and services.  Leverage this valuable information to plan your White Papers, webinars and follow-on virtual events.
  2. Generate insights for your Product Manager – partner with your company’s product managers and ask them what info they’d like from customers and prospective customers.  You’d be a hero to Product Management and the success will certainly bubble up to the CMO or VP of Products.  And, by the way, this may help your company design better products.
  3. Intelligent lead follow-up –  survey questions are very similar to the qualifying questions that online marketers use on lead gen registration forms.   Don’t be afraid to review individual survey responses to better plan your lead follow-up with selected leads.

Now, what’s the cost of doing the survey?  Well, the prize will set you back a few hundred dollars (e.g. for a GPS, Nintendo Wii, iPod, etc.).  When evaluated against the soft ROI you can  generate,  I think the investment is worth it.  As Richard Dawson may ask, “Survey says?” – YES.


Virtual Tradeshow Technologies

December 17, 2008

Virtual Worlds group

LinkedIn: Virtual Worlds group

I participate in a virtual worlds group over at LinkedIn.   A few members there asked me about a Virtual Tradeshow’s (VTS) underlying technologies.  I don’t pretend to know the full set of technologies that power a VTS, but I will list my Top 3 (in order of importance).

  1. The SaaS Engine Virtual Tradeshow platform providers often call this the “self service utility”.  What it boils down to is a 100% web-based interface that allows event organizers to build a VTS environment from scratch.  Every last detail of the event (down to the number of pixels to use on a particular image on the show floor) can be configured or selected via this web app.  While some clients will always want the extra attention of a “full service model” (where the VTS provider’s staff uses the same web app to build the entire show), consider the power of “self service” – VTS platform providers can scale their businesses by selling leases on their SaaS platform, where their clients do all the heavy lifting.  This means that the better you build this web app, your clients will create more events and they’ll create them more quickly.  This means more revenue and (possibly) earlier revenue recognition.
  2. The Chat system – Today, the power of a VTS lies largely in the text chat sessions that attendees engage in with exhibitors (or, attendee<->attendee sessions).  Platforms used to employ basic HTML to support chat, but the trend is towards client/server technologies, such as Flash Media Server (FMS).  The platform needs to account for corporate firewalls, as many firewalls are configured to block chat-like protocols – if your users cannot chat within a VTS, they lose out on a significant show feature.  If you employ a workaround – such as HTTP tunneling – beware, as some corporate firewalls can utilize deep packet inspection, to figure out that you’re trying to tunnel FMS within HTTP.  And, they then block those packets from reaching their destination, which means that chat fails.  Finally, as webcams and Skype-like video chat emerge in virtual tradeshows, keep in mind that moving from text chat to video chat means that you lose the ability to save a transcript of the chat.  This may be an opportunity for platform providers to support such a feature (e.g. auto-transcribe the audio from a video chat).
  3. Event Reporting – For event organizers, an open-ended web reporting system is useful.  Give them the ability to generate custom reports, kind of like a rudimentary business intelligence app.  For exhibitors, the creation of easy-to-understand canned reports is important.  For both organizers and exhibitors, the reporting system is critical.  Once the live event is over, the reports (and the data contained in them) are the “living record” of the show’s success and both constituencies will lean on the reports to derive their ROI on the event.

What technologies do you feel are important in a VTS?


Online Marketers: How to Sell Virtual Tradeshows to the Boss

December 15, 2008

Has Bruce Springsteen (The Boss) ever participated in a Virtual Tradeshow (VTS)?  I’m not sure, but if I were an online marketer, here’s how I’d convince my Boss on them.  The first thing I’d do is look for B-to-B publishers who are “flooring” industry virtual events that align with my product marketing initiatives.  Go find out (from the publishers) who’s already committed to sponsor the VTS.  If you’re picking the right events, you’ll notice that your competitors are already on the list.  If they’re not there, then perhaps you need to seek out alternative events.  But wait – you could also be “first in” with the right event – so just be sure the event’s theme aligns with your marketing plans.

So the first point to make to your boss is that your competitors are already on board.  So, NOT participating in the same event is a lost opportunity to have a place at the table alongside your competitors.  I do see attendees at virtual events ask, “Why isn’t <COMPANY> here?”.  If it’s a prominent industry VTS, your absence can speak volumes.  Next, develop an explicit goal for your boss  that clearly demonstrates the ROI.  For instance, how about a goal of 5 late-stage sales engagements – where you’d have to come up with a clear definition (for your boss) of “late-stage”.

Now that you have your boss’ ear, go with the lower tier sponsorship available.  These sponsorships are priced less because rather than receiving all leads (including no-shows), you only generate leads from attendees who directly interact with you (e.g. visit your sponsor booth or download your content).

This puts the onus on you, because you become directly responsible for the success of the campaign – the more visitors you can drive to your booth, the more leads you generate.  The upside, though, is that you can influence the cost per lead (CPL) that you achieve.  And there’s a possible win-win scenario: low CPL’s and a better qualified lead.  Your boss might like to hear about the low CPL, but make sure to emphasize the qualified leads – they’ve had direct interaction with you and their actions with your people or your content tells a lot about them.

Now, to get you to those 5 late-stage sales engagements, you have more work to do.  Remember that these are shared leads, not exclusive leads.  If a VTS had 10 exhibitors, a given attendee might have visited 7 of the 10 booths.  This means that they become leads for 6 other companies, some of whom are your direct competitors.  You’ll need to convert these leads more effectively than your competition.  And often times, this comes down to the simple determinant of, “who acts first”.  Don’t let those hot VTS leads sit in limbo in a spreadsheet or CRM system queue.  Get those leads over to telesales (or direct sales) and call them tomorrow.  If you don’t, you can be sure that your competition is.  And that hot lead suddenly becomes your competitor’s customer.  A shame!

So in summary, here’s an approach that leverages VTS to fuel the sales pipeline at a reasonable cost (making you and The Boss look good):

  1. Convince the boss
  2. Go with the lower tier VTS sponsorship (costs less – but places onus on you)
  3. Be an All-Star performer at the VTS (see related article)
  4. Close the loop by having Sales follow up with the hottest leads
  5. Reap the benefits
  6. Lather, rinse and repeat!

If you’ve never exhibited at a VTS before, enjoy the ride.  I think you’ll find it to be fun.


Breakdown: Exhibitors of Virtual Tradeshows

December 13, 2008

I’ve had the privilege of working with dozens of Virtual Tradeshow (VTS) exhibitors, ranging from scrappy start-up technology vendors to Fortune 100 giants.  I’ve found that each exhibitor, independent of the type of company represented, approaches VTS differently, with a wide range of knowledge, experience and plain old know-how.  Here is my breakdown of VTS exhibitors:

  1. The savvy elite (1%) – they know how to best leverage the VTS experience – they understand that a Live VTS embodies characteristics of social media, conventional online lead generation and face-to-face events.  They’re active and proactive.  They utilize tactics to drive interest to their brand and traffic to their booth.  They leverage tricks of the trade from physical events and translate them well to the online world.  Some gain this status from experience at past virtual events – others “get it” during their very first VTS.  The savvy elite excel not only on the front end, but also on the back end – in their ability to extract the valuable engagements they’ve generated and place that data in their CRM system.  By perfecting the back-end, the savvy elite hand their salesforce focused and prequalified leads.  Here, the VTS accomplishes the two-step process of lead generation and lead qualification.  The savvy elite can re-use their telesales staff on other programs, where more rigorous qualification is necessary.
  2. The group with good intentions (15%).  This group understands the potential of a virtual event.  For the most part, they do an effective job at interacting with attendees/prospects.  Some could use a little fine-tuning in their approach.  Where this group ultimately falls short is on the back-end.   They are sending Sales a mix of hot and cold leads, leaving Sales to pursue nine or ten  (or more) leads before they find one that’s worthy.
  3. Needs significant assistance (79%).  Here’s your bulk of VTS exhibitors today.  They need help on the front end and the back end.  On the front end, they tend to sit back and wait for attendees to contact them.  Imagine doing that at a physical tradeshow – you’d end up speaking to very few people.  This group requires a little more handholding on what works and what doesn’t – things that the savvy elite know instinctually.  On the back end, this group tends to throw all generated leads “over the wall” to telesales.  And the result is phone calls or emails to leads with no explicit association with the virtual event (quite a shame).  So here’s the opportunity to B-toB publishers and VTS platform providers: provide the necessary tools, utilities and reports (to this oversized constituency) to highlight the “best” leads to the exhibitors, based on automated analysis of the attendee engagement data.  If I had 57 private chat sessions with prospects, tell me which ones I should care about.  By doing this, all parties will derive more ROI from these events – you take a pre-existing set of leads – and instantly make them better.
  4. List buyers (5%).  They sponsor VTS’s in order to buy themselves a list of sales prospects.  They tend not to staff their booth.  They place little to no content in their booth.  They send the entire list of leads over to telesales and hope for the best.  On the back-end, this group sees significantly lower sales conversions compared to the savvy elite.

With 2009 being the year of virtual events, I’m hoping that the savvy elite grow from 1% to 10% share.  That growth won’t happen magically – the publishers and the platform providers will need to do their part.  If they do, it only serves to make virtual event marketing all the more compelling.


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