The Virtues of Virtual Conferences?

blogpic3Virtual conferences are popping up everywhere. The IBM Common User Group offered one earlier this month and last week it was Penton’s turn. I was an attendee at one and I manned our ‘virtual booth’ at the other. This was about the third or fourth time ProData has joined the virtual expo to show our wares. I remember how cool I thought it was creating our virtual display from the templates offered, selecting what brochure-ware to include and finally selecting the avatar to represent me. I felt like I was playing Sims, the new age ‘barbie dolls’ of yesteryear!

Just like a live Expo, I (ie. my avatar) stood in the booth, hoping to attract a chat or two. And while I did get a chat or two, I never felt like anyone was fully engaged with me. No handshake, no eye contact, just words on a screen. Unfortunately, I was also unaware of the traffic around the booth. I swore we didn’t have but a handful of prospects looking into our offerings. I can say I was happily surprised the following day to see a report listing over 70 people who checked into our booth. Still my avatar was unaware and wished she would’ve know it as the event was unfolding!

While many in our industry may not be afforded the ability to travel to live events, these virtual conferences do have their virtues. The events give access to everyone regardless of their ability to physically attend. This really expands the audience that we typically cannot reach. Customers from rural Nebraska, who would have to travel far to reach an airport to hop a plane to one of the ‘event cities’, can log in and listen to some of the great speakers they seldom have access to. And they can visit our virtual booth or at least see our logo and our offerings.They become exposed to things they only see in the trade rags.

But what about the all important happy hour? That’s one thing virtual conferences cannot recreate. The networking that happens ‘off hours’ of a live event is critical to sealing the deal in some cases. People meet people and talk about their work environments. They learn what others use product-wise in an off-the-cuff conversation over a cold beer. Beers don’t do much for an avatar! So while virtual conferences are good for brand awareness and market insight, the personal touch is missing. This means I’m half in, half out on this virtual conference trend. The verdict on the virtues is still out. But I’m willing to play the game!

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