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The Virtual Conference Format Is Improving – But Is It A Worthy Replacement?

In January, Dora Wirth (Languages) Limited (DWL), attended our last face-to-face conference, in the Netherlands, before the COVID-19 outbreak signalled an end to conferences, tradeshows and business networking as we know it.

The travel to the conference was easy, the accommodation convenient, and the chance to work and spend time in another European city (home to the recently relocated European Medicines Agency) was an attractive feature of attendance to the event.

The content of the presentations was engaging, and the format of the roundtable discussions were immersive for delegates and exhibitors alike.

The networking opportunities during the conference were abundant. There were opportunities to catch up with existing customers and as exhibitors we pitched our services to delegates who balanced paper coffee cups on plates of finger food with our brochures stashed in their DWL branded tote-bags.

The ability to maintain eye contact, fish out a business card, mid-coffee, while vigorously shaking hands is surely the sign of a stalwart of the international conference circuit.

For delegates the conference week was full of education and exchanging of ideas with representatives from the European Life Science community, and for the exhibitors a valuable exercise in promotion and relationship building.

It’s a traditional format, and very familiar to most of us who use these events to seek out opportunities to do business.

Then came the COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing lockdown.

Any conference organisers planning to go ahead with events from March to May faced a decision to make expensive adjustments or to cancel altogether. Many were able to move the conferences online and coupled their existing digital platform with some form of video software.
As the year progressed into summer the pandemic showed no signs of abating and many organisers spent time creating better functioning online experiences to recreate the networking side of the face-to-face conference. Of course this aspect is essential to finding and developing leads.

Some form of virtual platform is now the norm for most industry events where delegates may interact with each other, watch presentations on Zoom and establish contact with show sponsors.

The question is, how do you make the most of the online event as an exhibitor?

It was immediately obvious to exhibitors early in lockdown that the benefits of traditional face-to-face trade shows and symposia were missing.

The loss of direct eye-contact and other social cues create a digital barrier between attendees. Also apparent is the uncomfortable intensity of one-on-one conversations with relative strangers on Zoom, without the tradeshow atmosphere and ease of movement between other conversations happening around you.

Whereas salespeople at exhibitions in 2019 had to catch the eye of busy delegates in the same manner one might try to catch the eye of a waiter in a restaurant, salespeople at virtual tradeshows in 2020 need to take advantage of every feature available in order to elicit conversations with attendees.

Here are some tips to make the most of virtual conferences. One thing is clear, sales efforts at events must be redoubled if we are to get a return on the high costs of exhibitor/sponsorship price tags:

  1. Contact in advance: the more meetings you can arrange before the conference begins, the better. ‘Partnering’ was commonplace at many conferences before lock down but now that all conferences are virtual, delegates are splitting their attention between presentations and their rapidly filling email inboxes.

Therefore, if you can arrange to speak in advance, then you have a better chance of keeping their attention and having good quality conversations around the rest of the agenda.

  1. Increase visibility: it’s essential, now that flashy exhibition booths are no longer possible, that if there is an opportunity to upload media to the online platform that you do so. Video interviews, animations and PDFs are all ways to display your services in an engaging manner.
  1. Speaking opportunities: whereas exhibitors at tradeshows in the past would use their exhibition booth to show off their services in a visual format, on a virtual platform it is easy for delegates to overlook your profile on the list of exhibitors.

Taking a Speaker slot is a great way to avoid anonymity, and secure the opportunity to deliver an informative and persuasive pitch to a large number of delegates, usually culminating in a Q&A session.

  1. Request data about visits to your company profile in order to measure the success of your promotional materials and understand what your potential customers are browsing.
  1. You could also direct delegates back to ‘gated’ content on your website to gather leads which may be followed up by your team.

This method pre-qualifies the delegates who agree to exchange their details in order to view the content on your site.

Is there another way?

If we agree that this ‘new normal’ could last at least another year while we wait for safe and effective vaccines to become available and be rolled out, then we must accept that we will not be shaking hands and congregating with hundreds of people from around the world in enclosed settings for some time.

However, if we also agree that the existing online format for tradeshows and conferences does not bring us the ROI we are used to, then we must come up with innovative alternatives to fill up the top level of the sales funnel.

Innovation may come in the form of producing media such as podcasts and video content or creating associations or ‘accountability groups’ on LinkedIn. Or, we may see certain aspects of conferences entirely ‘gated’ so that in order to gain access to relevant information, delegates are required to submit qualifying information and contact details.

Time will tell whether we return to business as usual in the next year or so and whether conferences continue to be a great opportunity to develop brand awareness and high quality leads.

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