Turning first dates into relationships

Just like a short-lived romantic encounter, a traditional virtual event has a beautiful beginning and (most of the time) a mutually agreeable end. The purpose of such virtual events is to meet an immediate need for connection, share information and ultimately generate leads. These events come and go and like a good Las Vegas rendezvous, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. To be sure, one-time virtual events can lead to the formation of valuable connections. But, while these connections are kindled at the event, they needed to be developed through other mechanisms.

As the industry continues to mature, the door is opening for a completely different type of event – one that will turn first dates into ongoing relationships. These virtual events will abandon the definition of an “event” as a defined set of activities at a specific time and will embrace the opportunity for always on experiences. At these events, content, resources and company representatives will be available 24/7/365 to build long-term relationships with customers. In other words, virtual events will not only be places where long-term relationships begin; they will be places where long-term relationships are developed and nurtured. In the future, virtual events will never end; they will continue to add value over time, well beyond the initial kick-off day.

When virtual events become “virtual experiences”

While the concept of always-on virtual events is still far from the norm, there are several great examples that are worth paying attention to. These long-term events are designed to create collaborative and engaged communities that come back on a regular basis to experience products and engage with company representatives.

An example of the creative use of virtual environments to build relationships year-round is SC Magazine. The publication, which targets IT security professionals, runs numerous virtual events a year. In addition, it maintains an ongoing virtual destination where IT Professionals can assess archived events and supplementary information. In their own words: “We created a year-round, permanent virtual environment with a trade-show floor populated by vendors who bought into the concept of the 12-month cycle.” These virtual events as well complement their in-person events.

Five questions for an always-on virtual events world

Ironically, the technology already exists for companies to organize long-term virtual events that add value over time. In my experience, the biggest barriers for companies that want to create a sustained virtual presence are related to people, systems and processes. Following are five questions that every company who is thinking about organizing a long-term virtual event should think through and discuss with their virtual event provider.

  1. How can I keep content fresh over time? Content development is one of the most important aspects of preparing for a virtual event. This is even truer when the event represents a long-term commitment. Rather than leave things to change, in many cases, companies should assign content ownership to a member of the event team and insist on having a written content strategy and editorial calendar several months into the future.
  2. What can I do to enable ongoing interaction between attendees and sponsors? No matter how fancy the user interface of your virtual event platform, it is difficult to call a virtual event an “event” without human-to-human interaction. At the same time, in many cases it will not be possible to have your sponsor’s star booth reps available at all hours of the day. As a result, each organization hosting a virtual event should really think through the levels of interaction that they want to achieve at their event. For example: An event owner can allow sponsor microsites to provide product resources that can answer attendees’ questions. Or, they can let attendees scan their badge at the sponsors microsite so that a booth rep can follow up with customers at a later time during or after the event. They could also allow sponsors to schedule times for Roundtables in or outside of their microsite with expert product managers to answer attendee questions. Of course, each sponsor is different, but the point is to have a plan up front to avoid having them “go-dark” in the days after the initial launch of the event.
  3. How can I manage a long-term presence between planning cycles? Since always-on virtual events require a sustained investment, careful planning is necessary to make sure that they do not fall victim to internal planning cycles. The last thing that a company wants is to establish an online community around a virtual experience only to have momentum fizzle while budgets are reshuffled between priorities.
  4. What behaviors do I want to drive over time? Many virtual event providers have already build game dynamics and other behavioral mechanisms into their platforms. These tools become even more powerful in a long-term setting where customers can be encouraged to interact with content, employees and each other over time. While companies do not need to understand all of the ins-and-outs of the technology/process, they should take the time to think through which behaviors (end actions) are most important to them over the long term and discuss these needs with their platform provider.
  5. How can I leverage profiling to tailor my experiences? While one-day virtual events offer explicit profiling (the information that people provide when they register for the event), always-on events offer opportunities to capture organic profiling information too. Organic profiling involves capturing and using information regarding the activities that users participate in and the content that they respond to most favorably. By thinking ahead, companies can develop a plan to customize each virtual event experience to the needs of individual customers based not just on what they say, but also what they do.

Virtual events – a never ending story…

While it is impossible to predict the future of the industry with any certainty, one thing is clear – virtual events in the future will be neither purely “virtual” (they will have physical components) or “events” (they will reach out well beyond the launch day). Perhaps all that we can say with certainty is that the model that virtual events represent (a model that uses technology to connect people, ideas and places) will permeate every aspect of business life. In short, virtual events will become a paradigm for a more connected business world, not just a better way to hold meetings.

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