Selling tech without touch—how to ace the virtual trade show

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Mark O’Toole

Vice President, Managing Director
01.26.2021

It’s fair to say that everyone reading this has attended a virtual event in 2020. But, in a twist of COVID-era irony, the shift for businesses from face-to-face to virtual meetings poses a challenge to the very industry that has made it possible.

Technology companies have long relied on the trade show floor to roll out new products—particularly those with complex features that are more easily sold through a hands-on demo than a prospect download or virtual viewing. With exhibition halls dark for the foreseeable future, tech reps are moving from one online event to another, driven by a need to stay competitive but unclear about what success looks like in a virtual world.

Virtual trade shows simply don’t serve the same lead-generation function for tech products that live events do. Not only must companies find other channels through which to engage their targets, it may take a quantity of channels to even come close to replicating the exposure of a physical show experience and meeting a prospect live in your booth.

That doesn’t mean virtual events have been a bust. Far from it. In some cases, they are easier to produce. Executives often have more time to participate due to reduced/eliminated travel schedules. Prerecorded content provides an opportunity to control event timing and flow far better than in unpredictable live event scenarios. On-demand virtual event content allows these events to function like Netflix and other streaming habits to which we are accustomed. In a virtual world, small companies can look bigger and big companies can deliver more intimate content than before.

So, there are pros and cons, as always. Here are the areas virtual event organizers must pay attention to to assure their event can be considered a success.

Looks matter.

To stand out and attract an audience in a virtual event world requires a dynamic visual presence. Powerful imagery, captivating video and animation, meaningful taglines and calls to action—getting these elements and more to work together to surround prospects is critical to success when a business is confined to a digital presence.

Think about the prospect “walking in” to a virtual event like an industry trade show. Your company must look different than the sea of businesses and their own virtual presences. Or, if you are hosting your own event, how does your look and feel play across digital channels? Is it clean, accessible, memorable? Does it work on your website and within your social channels? Does it lend itself to animation? Think about that big Vegas trade show you attend once a year and what draws you to visit a booth. Do you feel the same pull from your brand in a virtual setting?

Measurement matters more.

When lead generation matters—and with technology industry events it usually does—establishing what success looks like is critical. With any marketing communications plan, businesses must establish what they need to measure—and what a good result will look like—ahead of the event or virtual event.

Technology companies often have complex offerings, long sales cycles and small, targeted audiences. For these businesses, it’s about engagement, getting a prospect to attend an event, participate and respond. For tech businesses with mass-market products and services, lead volume matters. The approach and efficiency of lead generation is entirely dependent upon which type of prospect or sales cycle is at play.

Just being there isn’t enough.

Not only do companies need to find other channels to engage their targets, but it may take a quantity of channels to even come close to replicating the exposure of a physical show booth. Account-based marketing (ABM) has been around for a while; treating a virtual event as a part of an ABM activity can be effective. Including email marketing, content-generation from virtual event presentations, paid and organic social media posts, press releases and blogs posts, and even direct mail can be effective (as some people return to offices).

The varying returns from virtual events should be reason enough to try as many communications channels as possible to reach a prospect, if budget allows. For audiences, a real benefit of virtual events is that many have converted from paid in-person events to free online events. This has, for bigger events from well-known companies, driven larger audiences. Companies recognize they won’t be generating the same revenue from formerly profitable events this year and have focused on creating more access to their brands to capture leads.

Budgeting matters.

Cost for virtual events is a big variable. If a company is hosting a large virtual event on an existing platform, costs may be much lower than for a live event. There are no travel costs, no booth construction costs, lower entertainment expenses. However, building a robust, interactive virtual event platform that works hard to replicate the actual event experience can be expensive.

This has been a year when we all needed to learn these platforms in a hurry, get educated and make decisions about what worked best for our clients. That said, there are a variety of platforms at varying price levels if you are building your own event, or varying levels of immersion, sponsorship and exposure if you are participating in a technology industry event. Regardless, we’ll go into 2021 with a bit more experience. But this remains a radical shift in doing business, so the right event opportunities and related costs are still very much a work in progress for most businesses.

When big-budget, exhibition hall–style events return and we can all travel again, will the industry embrace these expensive ventures? 2021 will teach us a lot about the maturation of virtual events and the engagement (or lack of it) that can lead to brand awareness, lead generation and sales.

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