There’s no doubt that virtual events have their fair share of naysayers. Access Intelligence CEO Don Pazour once compared them to virtual sex.

But as the market begins to stabilize in what is now the new norm, no one is laughing as virtual events become go-to resources for publishers in every market. Vendors have ramped up social media offerings to meet clients’ needs—InXpo, for example, was the first to fully integrate Twitter—while magazine publishers tweak show offerings to attract hyper-targeted attendee leads.

“A big area of improvement that I’ve seen on virtual platforms is the virtual lounge area,” says Eric Biener, vice president of business development for Nielsen Business Media. “It allows the audience to communicate. I don’t consider these types of events ‘virtual tradeshows,’ but actually white label b-to-b social networks.”

No longer are virtual trade shows a place to log on and zone out; they are valuable lead generation tools and virtual playgrounds for attendees to interact.

Better Leads Through Exclusivity hosted its second annual “iconference” in June on the InXpo platform, which included 16 sessions over two days. The major change from 2008 is the targeted attendance of financial advisors—a “higher-level and more difficult conference to accomplish”—says Forbes Media vice president and investments editor, Matt Schifrin. The goal of the iconference was to draw a high-level audience (retail investors are the typical attendees), without charging a fee. For these highly-targeted advisor leads, Forbes was able to price sponsorship packages between $7,500 to $37,500.

Forbes sent invites to select financial advisors. They then received a coupon code to attend the virtual event for free while Forbes charged $75 for attendees who joined without a code. The incentive for busy advisors? Ten continuing education credits awarded through the Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards.

In May, Nielsen’s Photo District News launched its first virtual tradeshow, powered by ON24, free for professional and advanced amateur photographers. The tradeshow consisted of two events held two weeks apart. The first day was designed for photography professionals; the second for a targeted “pro-sumers,” serious consumers interested in new technologies. This second event  featured “a major e-commerce component in which attendees were be able to buy equipment directly within the virtual exhibit booths,” says Biener.

While Biener tends to “shy away from [virtual event] bells and whistles,” PDN’s first foray into the photo marketplace had “enhancements and incorporated high-definition graphics and robust video” to appeal to more visual attendees as opposed to its typical b-to-b sector, content-focused attendees. The virtual event, launched strategically around Father’s Day (when the bulk of large photography purchases are made) attracted more than 18,500 registrants, with a follow-up series planned for later in 2009.

Metrics That Woo Advertisers

Watt Publishing, a b-to-b publisher specializing in the agri-business market, ran its first virtual event in April with the InXpo platform. Besides using its Twitter integration, Jeff Miller, Watt’s director of e-strategy sales and marketing, says the company focused on learning how to use the metrics InXpo offers. “What we felt was helpful was not only looking at who was visiting the booths but the ability to create profiles based on the visitor’s actions in the environment itself,” says Miller. “At its core, this is a lead generation device.”

While virtual events are developing stronger marketing plans and incentives for sponsors and exhibitors, Summit Business Media’s Futures, targeting futures, options and derivative traders, is considering upping the cost of entry for its i-Trade shows. Exhibitor booths are priced around $4,500.

“We try and base this price on the cost per lead, which is tough to determine because we don’t have an exact number,” says Futures publisher and editorial director Ginger Szala. Currently, its virtual event silver sponsorships run $10,000 per show, with a $12,500 gold sponsorship offering sponsors the option of a separate speaking time that won’t conflict with the tradeshow’s pre-scheduled speakers.

‘Conferences Will Never Be Replaced’

A number of publishers have opted to forgo their live events this year due to cost restrictions and as a response to across-the-board cuts in travel budgets. However, Haymarket Media, which uses Unisfair’s platform, has decided to integrate both virtual and physical events for its SC Congress (a spin off of IT security title SC Magazine). Exhibitors at physical events will be able to buy a booth inside a year-round virtual environment for an additional fee, according to director of business development Tony Keefe. “We are trying to underpin our physical events by offering a guarantee to give sponsors and exhibitors more confidence,” he adds.

Exhibitors are guaranteed at least one virtual event per month; on the low end, those who only buy a booth in the virtual environment are guaranteed 100 leads, according to Keefe. E-conference sponsors, which have their distinct speaking sessions in which they can address the audience, are guaranteed 500 leads, with no extra charge for more leads than that.

Nielsen Business Media has grown revenue and online event execution by 50 percent every year over the past three years, says Biener. “Of all of the features marketers are looking for, there is nothing else that answers the questions in legacy media better than virtual events.” However, “We aren’t producing these in place of actual events, but as complementary resources. Physical conferences will never be replaced.”



Virtual Vendors: What’s on the Horizon

As virtual events continue to boom, vendors are trying to keep up with technology extras while still offering affordable packages. Here, some of the latest platform innovations and what’s to come this year from some of the biggest vendors.


Publishing Clients: Forbes Media, TechTarget, Ziff Davis Enterprises, Summit Business Media
Price Range: $25,000-$35,000, but this price tag can range up into the six figures for more extensive branding, environment customizations, booths and Webcasts.
What’s New: InXpo was the first to fully integrate with Twitter, allowing for full information integration into back-end reporting. The platform is enterprise-ready, so it can easily plug-and-play into any third-party technology.


Publishing Clients: Penton Media, Haymarket Media, The Economist
Price Range: $30,000-$50,000 per event.
What’s New: Unisfair has separated the user interface from the event management functionality, allowing customers to control the entire look and feel of the virtual experience. It also offers lead ranking and qualification analytics, which allow customers to rank leads based on a comprehensive data model populated during the event.


Publishing Clients: Penton Media, United Business Media, Nielsen Business Media, McGraw-Hill, Crain Communications, Reed Business Information
Price Range: Hosting will cost $20,000-$50,000 on average.
What’s New: ON24 offers enhanced interactivity and increased engagement with advanced 3-D technologies. They also have new applications which include e-commerce capabilities, mobile and virtual learning centers.



Archive Etiquette

As a value-add for sponsors and exhibitors, it’s become common practice to keep sponsor logos and exhibit booths alive on publisher sites. How long an event is archived and how a publisher markets the event after it is archived depends on the publisher and advertiser expectations. Here, three publishers weigh in the etiquette behind maintaining and promoting archived events.

“InXpo suggested that we keep our conferences on demand for two months after the live event. We not only do this, but we also have an e-mail account set up specifically for attendee questions. Even though our iconference is on demand, we continue to advertise the event. Also, we take content from the iconference and excerpt it, so, for example, I can spin off short videos for”
-Matt Schifrin, Forbes Media

“All of our digital events are archived for three to six months. We have a full production staff (two producers, two editors, three sales) and don’t treat our virtual events like a subsidiary. Our archive is exactly the same as it is live; the exhibitor booths are up but instead of being instant messaging-based, they are e-mail based. Our exhibitors can refresh their content themselves, or with our coaching and help. Our team does a majority of the heavy lifting on refreshing this content since exhibitors are not only paying for the delivery, but for our customer service team.”
-Eric Biener, Nielsen Business Media

“We send a weekly e-mail that informs attendees about updates to exhibitor information. We suggest exhibitors and sponsors put new information in their booths (and keep logos intact) throughout the three-month period that the event is on demand. This way, we can market it for them.
-Ginger Szala, Summit Business Media

Growing & Leveraging Your Audience Database
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Audience data is more expansive and insightful than ever. Audiences exist in an array of silos—print, mobile, web, events, email,…