The beginnings of online events in the late-1990s consisted of webinars (also known as eSeminars) and web casts, straightforward attempts to port the live experience to the computer. They haven’t changed much over the years and are still used by many companies to launch products, educate consumers, soften PR problems and more.
The significant changes in online events are the dazzling technologies such as telepresence meetings and virtual events – marketers now have even more choices with these newer, sexier showcases to swap out with their less flashy cohorts. The result? With a mix of the webinars and newer online events, some companies are cutting trade shows, seminars and other in-person events altogether – that is a mistake.
The argument for leaving live events off the roster has been made for some smaller, nimble web-based companies in these times of shrinking budgets and growing computer sophistication among attendees. Add to that shorter times to execute webinars at less cost and with fewer resources and that decision can make financial sense for them.
But for the majority of companies now reslicing the event pie, it is a myopic view to cut live events altogether. As much as in-person events are given a bad rap for bloated budgets, unnecessary fluffery and fuzzy ROI, online events also have their inherent disadvantages of hollowness, distracted attendees, occasional breakdowns in technology, and lack of feedback. Though there are certainly online event ROI tools to measure activity and clicks, how does one value metrics for the human connection – that elusive “X” factor? This may be the speed bump on the cyberhighway we are ramming over. There is a completely different psychology, awareness level and interaction that takes place face-to-face human exchange that online communication can never replace.
If we look closer at online events, they have four basic outcomes, from least desireable to most: 1) Cancellation – Since the commitment is low and they likely didn’t pay 2) Inattention – The person could also be filing their nails or having a conversation with their cube mate (ironically, I recently received a webinar invitation to “How to engage multitasking webinar audiences.”) 3) Paying Attention – Asking questions of the presenters, responding to event surveys, wanting more information 4) Ready to Buy – The person wants a salesperson to call or is ready to click and buy –this of course is the best outcome, live or not.
Contrast these actions with a live interaction at a trade show, conference or networking party. The result could be the same but could also be changed real-time: There may be the opportunity for conversation and extended discussion, read the person’s body language and facial expressions, answer questions, and even change their opinions and buying objections. Add to that some peppering of personal discussion of common colleagues and interests and you have a real engagement. This face-to-face encounter cannot be seen, heard or felt online at any more than a superficial level – a cyberspace click — if at all.
This is just one example to consider. What about the annual user conference that suddenly goes online? How will that affect your customers and their perception of its importance to your company? Or the one trade show you exhibited at every year that you are now absent from? Ultimately these types of business decisions will be based on your goals, target audience, and perhaps most importantly, budget. But when evaluating what events to add, remove, and replace in your events mix, take a close look at how interacting live verses cyberspace will matter, or not. This factor may not be calculated into the equation.
And make no mistake – quantifying and persuading management that human encounters are worth the cost can be difficult. Analyzing the hard numbers, online events will always win out as more attractive cost-per-lead, but the intangible benefits of live interaction may not be able to be measured long-term. Online events, strategically used in conjunction with live ones, keep just the right distance and closeness with your prospects and customers.