Virtual exhibitions have been around for some time. In fact, the first virtual exhibition took place way back in 1993. ConventionView used videos of trade show booths attached to an HTML floor map to provide a presentation to investors at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. The technology may have been a little different, but the concept was the same: to create a platform that would bring the tradeshow experience to virtual attendees who were in a different location to the exhibition itself.
Over the course of the last three decades, technological development has accelerated at an incredible rate. And with it, the potential efficacy of virtual events and exhibitions has exploded.
Developers spotted gaps in the market that could enhance the virtual exhibition experience as more companies recognised the benefits of delivering their events to people who may otherwise be unable to attend. In addition to the pre-recorded video approach that the original ConventionView took, virtual event organizers, can now choose from a plethora of ways to deliver their content. Whether through similarly pre-recorded, on-demand content, scheduled live-streaming, or a combination of the two.
During the recession of the late 2000s, demand for virtual exhibitions grew as they were identified as an alternative, lower-cost route to attendance for those that were having to watch their budgets:
- Exhibition organizers could utilise a virtual platform that would provide a significantly lower initial outlay than physical venue space.
- Exhibitors could enjoy the reduced cost of virtual “floorspace” and removal of the design, print, installation, and transportation costs of traditional event stands and marketing collateral.
- Attendees could reduce or entirely avoid the cost of a physical ticket that would otherwise be used to cover some of the organizer’s outlay, plus save the additional travel, accommodation, and expense costs. In a B2B (business to business) environment, this also provides a win-win for the company's travel and expense budgets.
A closer look at virtual exhibitions
The hybrid choice
With any marketing channel, offering choice often produces better results as the audience are empowered to consume your content in a way that best suits them. For events and exhibitions, a hybrid approach of running both a live exhibition and a virtual counterpart has been embraced by many in order to provide that choice and enhance accessibility options for attendees.
Hybrid exhibitions offer the option to attend in person for the visceral experience of meeting face-to-face, while also making your exhibition content available to view, interact with and participate in remotely – including keynote speeches, seminars, polls, exhibitor stands, and so on.
In addition to convenience, a hybrid approach also covers all bases for those that may have specific accessibility needs. For example, those with disabilities that may impede their physical access to exhibitions halls are still able to take part. Providing pre-recorded video talks and demonstrations also allows content to be delivered with subtitles for those that may be hearing impaired and give the viewer control to watch (and absorb exhibitor’s messages) at their own pace.
Covid-19’s effect on virtual exhibitions
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, organisations faced the prospect of national lockdowns and international travel restrictions forcing the cancellation of their meetings, conferences, events, and exhibitions.
For many businesses, events represent a major part of marketing strategy and are a significant contributor to the sales pipeline. And that’s before you consider the fact that they’re the essential income of companies operating in the events industry itself.
According to a 2020 pre-Covid report by The Business Visits & Events Partnership (BVEP), the industry was worth over £70billion and provided over 700,000 jobs in the UK alone. The Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, represented not just an inconvenience or the need for companies to rethink their marketing budgets, but (as with many other sectors) a huge disruptor for the events industry, its wider supply chain, and all those employed within it.
At the height of the pandemic, adapting to a new normal (remember that phrase?!) was not an option, it was a necessity. And going virtual was really the only viable alternative to perpetual postponement or outright cancellation of events while living with such tight restrictions on who we could be in a room with.
As with almost every aspect of life (e.g., shopping, work meetings, exercising, weddings, socializing), more and more events moved online. Thankfully, for the most part, the technology needed to achieve this was already available and it was a case of companies embracing and deploying pre-existing platforms that could support their event needs.
The fact that so much of our lives were being seen through a webcam, whether work Teams meetings, Zoom pub quizzes, or Skyping your family, would serve to make event audience adoption that little bit easier.
The benefits of virtual exhibitions
Putting aside the fact that many may have felt forced into trying this new way of approaching events, there’s actually a whole host of fantastic benefits for everyone involved, and plenty of ways that virtual exhibitions can provide an enhanced experience for both your audience and for you as marketers or event organizers.
The benefits for exhibition organizers
Exhibitions are incredibly complex events with a wide range of factors that need to be considered by organizers. Once objectives and a strategy have been set, running a live exhibition requires a dedicated team of planners that can:
- Source a suitably sized and equipped event space.
- Market and sell exhibition floor space and speaking opportunities to relevant companies.
- Provide marketing resources for exhibitors to use in their campaigns.
- Book keynote and speaking opportunities that will resonate with the target audience.
- Act as liaison between numerous parties that could include exhibitors, stand builders, health and safety, food and beverage, venue teams, ticketing, entertainment, and more.
- Promote and sell tickets to conference visitors.
Many of a planner’s tasks can be simplified when organizing a virtual trade show. There’s no need for a venue – only a platform with sufficient scope to scale to meet anticipated demand.
Virtual floorspace may be easier to sell to would-be exhibitors with a vastly reduced outlay in return for potentially greater data-led insights into the audience. The chance for additional speaker slots may also help to entice additional exhibitors, given the potential for more virtual break-out rooms than a physical venue might be able to accommodate.
The need for third-party suppliers including AV, food, and beverage, and so on is also removed, simplifying the planning process and allowing organizers to focus much more on marketing to exhibitors and attendees. And those exhibitors and attendees can now much more easily come from every part of the world.
The benefits for exhibitors
In addition to cost savings passed down from organizers, companies looking to embrace the opportunity to exhibit at a virtual event can benefit in several other ways.
While the face-to-face interaction that a live exhibition provides may be seen by many as unparalleled in terms of the opportunity to build bonds with your audience, approaching a virtual event in the right way and delivering your virtual exhibition presence with confidence can go a long way to bridging that gap. Virtual exhibitions allow you to get really creative with the way you present yourself. You’re able to prepare a range of digital materials to have on hand, ready to engage with each of your virtual visitors to present your ideas, products, or services in a way that suits them.
You may find that some attendees come out of their shells a little more in a virtual setting. The physical barrier of the screen can encourage some to speak up and engage when they may have been less inclined to do so face to face. This is especially true of younger audiences, in line with the shift seen elsewhere in the world; a preference to move away from a direct conversation in favor of instant messaging and live chat.
Offering a range of communication options during your presentations or speaking slots will also improve upon this and you may find that audience interaction for things such as live polls increases. This in turn can both enhance your presentation at the time and provide additional valuable feedback and direction.
Using pre-exhibition communication, you could even empower attendees by inviting them to build out a profile with their preferences, allowing you to then tailor your sessions accordingly. And with a virtual exhibition, you’ll be able to accommodate any number of these in separate virtual break-out rooms.
Marketing and virtual exhibitions
For exhibitors, marketing and events are inseparably linked. Business objectives dictate marketing strategy and that in turn ultimately commands event attendance plans and campaign themes.
Traditional live events then need to employ a range of marketing disciplines to realize that strategy and produce tactical marketing output that will achieve those objectives and the best possible ROI. This might include:
- A multi-faceted omnichannel marketing campaign pre, during, and post-event.
- The design, delivery, and build of a stand or booth are in keeping with your campaign theme.
- A range of digital and physical marketing collateral (and potentially giveaways) that follow your campaign and are compelling enough that they won’t simply become “bottom of the exhibition bag” (or bin) fodder.
Planning to take part in virtual exhibitions needs just as much thought and planning but may require a different set of skills to ensure you are able to achieve the best possible results.
Understanding the technology available and taking the time to familiarise yourself with the virtual exhibitions’ underlying platform is a good first step. You may find it allows you to better leverage data and serve much more personalised, targeted communications, collateral, and event content to your audience.
For those virtual exhibitions that utilize pre-recorded content, marketers can also take the time to ensure messaging is delivered 100% on brand. Presentations and video content can be developed, edited, and carefully polished to ensure they deliver campaign messages in the right way and have the best chance of resonating with the audience to reach their fullest potential.
Data and customization
Data is the driving force behind intelligent marketing, and virtual exhibitions offer great opportunities to utilise audience insights to deliver an enhanced, tailored experience. Again, much will depend on the underlying platform being used, but with the use of profiling and segmentation, marketers may well find that they have further options to create tailored exhibition experiences for their virtual visitors.
In addition to virtual exhibition platforms themselves, technology has also come a long way in live exhibitions in recent years. One way in which exhibitors and organizers have attempted to use it is in capturing feedback and insight from audiences at events. This provides a slicker audience experience. Typically, this might include things like:
- Utilising social media platforms or specific hashtags to garner and present event feedback
- Polling software used during presentations to make sessions interactive
- Physical devices such as badge scanners to encourage and simplify data sharing
With a virtual exhibition platform, all of these and more can be incorporated into the event experience that much easier, as attendees are all based behind some form of connected device.
A Virtual event platforms themselves often incorporate some of this functionality as standard, keeping the entire experience within one software ecosystem. Attendees don’t need to download additional apps or hang onto separate physical devices, and in fact, may not even have to open a separate browser window.
Making the experience straightforward and intuitive will improve the likelihood of your audience participating. This gives you more chance to interact, gain insights and potentially build a fuller profile of both your target market and individual attendees. When it comes to immediate event interaction, the path of least resistance will often produce the best possible results.
Benefits for the attendee
The most important people at any exhibition are the attendees, and the same remains true in a virtual exhibition setting. With that in mind, virtual exhibitions must demonstrate tangible benefits to the attendee. Thankfully there’s a range of them, which can include:
- Reduced ticket costs – those exhibitions that do charge attendees are often able to pass on the savings to them directly, making attendance that much easier.
- Removing the need to travel – this is a factor for many who may have to pay for travel, meals, and accommodation, take additional time out of their working (or non-working!) days. And, of course, the current appetite for and ability to travel is a huge post-pandemic factor that can be instantly eliminated in the virtual world.
- Providing a more customised experience – as we’ve explained, organizers and exhibitors can tailor the event experience in a much more individual way, so attendees benefit from an experience that feels like it’s been built with them in mind.
- Enabling anonymity – in addition to being more tailored, some attendees will prefer the more anonymous nature of being at a virtual event. While turning off your camera may not be actively encouraged, it’s an option, and you won’t have to run the gauntlet of gangways between physical exhibition stands (and the salespeople trying to grab your attention) to get to where you’re going.
- No lines for food, coffee, or the bathroom – in other words, you can enjoy the exhibition from the comfort of your home or office (or home office).
Conclusion: A new, new normal
Now that we’ve seen Covid restrictions ease and the chance for events to return to some level of normality, the appeal of a hybrid approach has vastly increased. The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally changed human behavior.
For some, new habits formed throughout the pandemic that will be hard to break. Whether that’s through companies and individuals embracing the additional benefits that virtual events have proven to provide, or because of new anxieties some will undoubtedly continue to hold when considering the scale of exhibition space.
It’s clear that virtual and hybrid exhibitions are here to stay, so it’s important to give them the same level of thought and planning as any other marketing channel.
By Square1 Marketing