Trade shows and conferences have been forced entirely into the digital realm by COVID-19. They’re still incredible marketing opportunities, but success at these events requires keeping your eye on an evolving set of best practices.
Yes, current circumstances are driving the virtual push. But if you think this trend will stop the moment the pandemic ends, think again.
The truth is, as the rate of shows moving to a virtual setup continues to increase, we are discovering some significant advantages to the virtual format. They are a different experience, absolutely, but they can also be an extremely effective prospecting and marketing tool.
That’s if you adapt your game to the new virtual setting. The following best practices, with tips from top trade show experts, will show you the way.
Key trade show statistic: Virtual events increase from 15% to 41%
Wondering if you could ride out the virtual experience trend? Consider the July survey from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research:
“Among organizers forced to cancel 2020 events, the shift to digital has grown to 81%, compared to 69% in the April survey. What is most notable is the increase in full virtual trade shows, 41% compared to 15% in the April survey.”
Source: CEIR 2020 June Update on Impact of COVID-19 on U.S. B2B Exhibition Organizations
This trend will continue after the pandemic, according to trade show expert Corbin Ball.
Face-to-Face events will slowly reemerge after the pandemic, but virtual events and hybrid events will play a permanently larger role in how people connect.
But like many facets of our life, the trade show and conference world we knew in the past will be altered. Consider the benefits, and you’ll understand why.
Top virtual trade show and conference benefits: Save money and get specific
Corbin Ball explains the technologies enabling virtual meeting experiences have yielded some significant benefits, including:
Lower cost: No travel costs, no hotels, no catering experiences, no hassles for organizers, no physical booths and equipment.
Lower environmental impact: No travel means no airplane or taxi rides. The only environmental ding is to your utility bill to power that PC.
Easy recording and online distribution: Any event can be recorded and then distributed to attendees.
Increased audience size from all over the world: What might have been a regional event is suddenly an international event.
Better metrics: With anything online, you have improved metrics in documenting attendance and participation.
These benefits will likely result in a transition from large-scale events to what Spencer X Smith of AmpliPhi Social Media Strategies predicts will be the emergence of hyper-focused, niche events.
If we continue down the virtual conference route, it’s going to result in a very niched audience, for people who want to learn one specific thing. You’ll get subject matter experts that you couldn’t get access to otherwise.
How to make the most out of attending a virtual trade show or conference
Ok, so virtual events are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Let’s find out how to boost your return from attending. Here are some insights from some top trade show experts:
1. Make a list of key takeaways you’d like to get from the show
Chris Luecke, host of the podcast Manufacturing Happy Hour, believes having defined goals upfront is important.
When going to a show – whether virtual or in person – you should always have a list of 2 or 3 key takeaways you’d like to get from the show. Is there a certain skill set you’d like to develop or area where you’d like to know more?
Focusing on those key areas will help you quickly decide what sessions to attend and which people to meet.
2. Don’t just be a spectator – make appointments ahead of time
Terri Lynn Yanke, who has built the events business Eventful Advantage LLC, notes that she typically attends events for the content. But if you’re just listening to people talk all the time you’re going to get burned out.
Peruse the list of attendees, and know who’s there. Then make appointments ahead of time. Also, try to hear from people you don’t know and use the breakout rooms to chat.
3. Get familiar with the platform and avoid day-of tech issues
Unlike an in-person event, where your biggest concern is finding your lanyard and knowing where the nearest bathrooms are, an online event can be different.
Get familiar with the software system the trade show is running on so you’re not spending your time during the show trying to deal with technical support and issues.
4. Use the platform to educate attendees about yourself and prime the conversation
Brian Rasmussen, the publisher of Insight magazine, will be teaming up with NEWMA to host the popular manufacturing conference, Manufacturing First. He said the digital platforms are rapidly changing to allow for the networking and dialogue you’d experience at face-to-face events.
This year, Manufacturing First is using Brella, which allows you to create a profile of yourself before the events and publicize it to other attendees.
Share more than your background and profile. Use your own social proof: Include a unique case study that will compel people to ask more about what you do and your approach. As Brian puts it:
Prime the conversation. When you fill out a profile, give the reason why you’re different. Some platforms have different categories you can select for your business. How do you stand out from other attendees?
5. Follow up after the show – virtual or otherwise
When I organized my first trade show booth several million years ago, the point of emphasis for the sales team was what would happen after the trade show. We held a giveaway, collected a bunch of phone numbers from attendees, then followed up with phone calls after the show.
Virtual events are no different, thanks to LinkedIn. Connect with attendees, and tag them in the future with relevant content.
Set aside 2-4 hours immediately after the event to follow up with prospects. Absolutely mission critical.
6. Take advantage of matchmaking opportunities
As we noted earlier, Manufacturing First conference is using Brella, which has a matchmaking feature that recommends potential networking opportunities for attendees. Check out the article in InsightDigital.biz, which explains how the interest-based matchmaking works.
Manufacturing First will feature AI-powered virtual matchmaking.
Bonus Content: Marketing your company at a trade show or conference
We’ve talked about attending a trade show or an event on a personal level. Now what can you do to market your company?
7. Make a Presentation
One of the best ways to generate leads and create brand exposure for your company is to present at virtual conferences. You don’t have to be a keynote speaker, either. Many conferences are looking for speakers in their breakout sessions.
This will definitely take some prep work and advanced planning. Gene Hammett has written a great post on how to fill your pipeline with speaking engagements.
Recent breakout session at AMA-Madison conference.
8. Sponsor the event (or even the happy hour)
Sponsors are coveted at virtual events. Besides logo exposure and extensive mentions throughout the show, you may also get VIP introductions to companies and exclusive access to networking opportunities.
Work with the event sponsors. We sponsored a happy hour at last year’s AMA-Madison event, which made us quite popular with attendees!
9. Make your virtual trade show booth more than a brochure
Trade shows are now featuring “virtual booths.” Built on a website page, they can include videos, images, and can host webinars. They can also be “staffed” with virtual chat rooms to connect with a representative of the company.
Rockwell Automation’s booth.
Besides being a podcaster, Chris Luecke works for Rockwell Automation and has helped manage their virtual trade show booth. He encourages presenters to “humanize the experience and guide people to the most important content.”
If you’re making the investment in a virtual trade show booth, make sure you’re using it as more than just a glorified brochure. Create videos specifically for the event that point people to the most important things in your booth. Tell them where to click!
10. Use the platform to create inbound links to your website and generate referral traffic
If you’re exhibiting as a company, be aware that most trade shows allow you to include your company’s profile. This allows you to build engagement with other attendees, but these profiles can have a dual purpose.
They also are a great method for referral traffic to your website and for inbound links, which are valuable for search engine optimization.
The domain authority of many of these events is high, so this can be valuable from a backlink perspective. Note the backlinks from Labelexpo Europe for a participant profile. Those are great links from a site with high domain authority!
11. Volunteer to introduce speakers or host small breakout rooms for networking opportunities
Conferences are often looking for volunteers to help introduce speakers and facilitate discussions in breakout rooms. For example, I was recently invited to introduce a speaker at the recent AMA-Madison Renew Conference – and allowed to share a bit about what my company does.
Since Zoom breakout sessions are also important, you can also volunteer to host and lead discussions in these as well. These are great micro-opportunities to market your company.
Mindset + tactics = Virtual event success
We’re marketers. We’re not paid to mope. We’re paid to adapt to change, and keep ourselves and our organizations in front of people.
That means adapting both a positive mindset and the strategies you need for success.
COVID-19 has brought with it a heap of lemons. Use the marketing strategies and tactics we’ve shared from these top marketers, and you’ll be making lemonade for a long, long time.