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Virtual Reality 2.0
While virtual events may not be gaining the kind of traction many anticipated, the technology continues to gain momentum – especially for firms with relationship- and awareness-based objectives. By Travis Stanton
n 2011, EXHIBITOR launched a benchmark survey to measure the degree to which virtual events had impacted companies' face-to-face marketing efforts. The somewhat controversial findings implied that virtual events were not gaining the traction many digital firms had hoped for, and the report was blasted by critics who attacked the data and claimed our readers were technophobes and neophytes for not embracing virtual alternatives much more wholeheartedly.

So in an ongoing attempt to gauge how virtual events have evolved and continued to impact our industry, EXHIBITOR launched a follow-up research initiative. And according to the results of our 2013 Virtual Events Survey, things haven't changed all that much in the past 24 months.

Even today, fewer than four out of 10 respondents report corporate participation in any form of virtual event – a figure that is essentially identical to our results from 2011. But despite the fact that the percentage of companies employing virtual options has plateaued, it appears their commitment to and satisfaction with those options has inched upward.

Previously, just more than a quarter of companies reported devoting any portion of their marketing budget to virtual events, with the majority of them allocating less than 5 percent. Today, a solid one-third of respondents are earmarking funds for virtual-event purposes. The vast majority still invests less than 5 percent of their overall marketing budgets, but the resulting virtual efforts are achieving higher approval ratings than in 2011. At that time, only 28 percent of marketers who had experienced or hosted virtual trade shows and events reported that those efforts met or exceeded expectations. Today, however, half of marketers who have hosted virtual events report those events met or exceeded objectives.

It's unclear, though, whether virtual events are driving heightened returns, or whether marketers have become more realistic in their expectations of virtual platforms. After all, while the majority of respondents who track metrics for their virtual events report a lower cost per lead for virtual efforts when compared to live shows and events, a large portion also report that the leads obtained through virtual channels are less qualified and less likely to result in a sale when compared to leads gathered via face-to-face channels.

Our conclusion, which is supported by the data, is that virtual options are best utilized for marketing efforts not directly related to lead-generation or sales-driven goals. The most consistent outcomes of virtual events converge around softer objectives such as brand awareness, relationship building, and market insight.

Given that information, it's not surprising that respondents ranked webinars and online meetings as the most effective forms of virtual options, outranking digital versions of more traditional lead-generating tactics such as virtual or hybrid trade shows. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to drive return on investment (ROI) via virtual events. Twenty percent of marketers who have explored virtual alternatives claim they increased sales leads, and 11 percent report increased sales.

Finally, it appears that virtual events – and, in particular, hybrid models – continue to gain momentum. While 57 percent of respondents say they'd rather host a live event (most notably because virtual events lack the energy and networking of a live event and attendees seem less engaged during virtual events), nearly three out of 10 believe a mix of live and virtual components is the best approach. Furthermore, 45 percent anticipate the value and importance of virtual events increasing "somewhat" or "significantly" in the coming year, while an additional 27 percent expect to increase spending on virtual alternatives.

The information below contains key data points from our 2013 Virtual Events Survey, along
with a handful of participants' quotes in response to open-ended questions regarding virtual
and hybrid events.

In Their Own Words
The following quotes are a representative sampling of exhibit managers' responses to our open-ended questions regarding how they feel about virtual events.

I'm not sure if our virtual events directly increased sales of our products, but I do know that they helped us to keep the conversation going with interested prospects.


We use GoToMeeting on a daily basis, and just based on my experience with those virtual meetings, I think full-scale virtual events could have significant value.


Many in our industry are not afforded the ability to travel to live events. Virtual events give access to everyone, regardless
of their ability to physically
attend.


We have noticed that it's difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the kind of networking that happens during the 'off hours' of a live event. But that doesn't mean virtual alternatives aren't also worth exploring.


This is still a developing field. For anyone to say they know everything about virtual events is shortsighted. So I think it's important we pay attention to virtual and whatever new, related technologies
develop.


Live events and shows allow me to visually gauge the interest and attention of attendees, but that is something I find really hard to do during virtual
events.


We have a very limited budget, and we are funded by the federal government, so my organization is very risk averse to trying anything new or innovative like virtual events.


I don't have the time to explore virtual events, and I'm not sure I really care for the platform to begin with. So I doubt we'll be hosting anything virtually anytime soon.


Management doesn't think it takes as much time and effort to plan a virtual event, so we often end up scrambling at the last minute, and I think our events suffer as a result.


Our virtual events have been relatively well attended, but I'm not sure the real decision makers are logging in and staying as engaged as they typically do with our live events.


We've planned and hosted several webinars, but our problem is attracting attendees. And when only a few people show up, it almost backfires and makes our brand look bad to those who do.
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