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Insight/ Emerging Media

Build It and They Will Come

The rise of social media and user-powered applications has helped move online communities into the mainstream. This groundswell of social activity has not gone unnoticed among marketers, with many seeking to tap into community-based communication and networking tools to ignite their evangelists and stakeholders.

As a result, all kinds of social networking techniques are taking center stage in the marketing mix. In particular, companies are capitalizing on the power and reach of virtual events. To wit, according to an online survey Unisfair recently conducted among approximately 100 U.S. marketers, almost half (48 percent) said they are planning to increase their virtual event activities in 2010.

Why?

Virtual events can be used to deliver everything from large-scale trade shows and conferences to internal events, including companywide gatherings, executive presentations, departmental meetings, and product development sessions. In times when budgets are tight and live events are stagnant or shrinking, virtual environments foster exploration, networking, and customer engagement, and help build a stronger sense of community.

Forces of Nature
Clearly, the hype around Web 2.0 has caused the value placed on virtual communities to skyrocket. But economic and environmental factors are also playing a role as cost- and carbon-cutting initiatives continue to drastically reduce travel to “live” events that previously served as primary vehicles to motivate and energize communities.

In fact, according to a corporate travel spending survey by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE), 33 percent of the 131 companies surveyed indicated they would be spending less on travel next year.

Fortunately, virtual environments are allowing marketers to cut costs and carbon, while simultaneously enabling them to more effectively listen to, and connect with, their customers, partners, and employees. For example, last year a major design technology company eliminated five underperforming locations from its 20-city road show and replaced them with virtual events. By doing so, the company not only saved massive amounts of carbon, but it also reduced its cost per lead from more than $200 to $26.

In another instance, a U.S. manufacturer needed to reduce costs associated with its annual, multiple-city road show of developer events, while generating the same volume of leads and demand as the physical shows. The company took its road show virtual and attracted 2,000 engineers -- equal to the total number of participants in the entire three-month road show the year prior. What’s more, the virtual event cost 50 percent less than its previous physical events.

Put the ‘Social’ in Marketing
According to Lloyd Salmons, first chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau Social Media Council, "Social media isn't just about big networks like Facebook and MySpace. It's about brands having conversations." In other words, the most successful companies in this social media era will benefit from having their own customers recruit others, help buyers adopt new capabilities within their organizations, and encourage decision makers to spread the word throughout their organizations. Virtual events foster this type of interactivity because the environment serves as the basis of collaboration; the meetings really are a secondary activity.

For example, in the past year Unisfair worked with a leading supplier of networking equipment, which paving the way in embracing virtual environments as an integral means of building communities. The company wanted to give its partners an important, easy-to-use virtual platform to make contacts, share resources, and discover new opportunities. We helped them to create a dynamic, flexible space where its resellers, distributors, and solution providers could exchange leads and business opportunities, build geographic and technology practices, and access the latest IT tools and information.

The virtual environment puts Web 2.0 tools to use to enable around the clock interaction (in real-time) among a truly diverse global audience. The company then used this platform to host a “Virtual Partner Summit,” represented by 52 countries and more than 100 booths in multiple conference halls. The summit featured 25 different webcasts on enablement, industry solutions, and training.

Of the 1,800 initial attendees on launch day, a staggering 71 percent have since returned to the virtual environment on numerous occasions. On average, each booth has been visited 30 times. But even more important to the company was the quality of the interaction and engagement between partners in different parts of the world. Based on their unique skills and technology
focus, nearly 600 attendees have created profiles that showcase their experience and needs.

Best of Both Worlds
While customers are spending more time online than ever before, virtual activity won’t -- and should not -- fully replace what happens offline. The key to energizing communities is to successfully leverage the online environment to make physical connections stronger and more profitable in the "real" world. So, whether online or offline, we, as marketers, should look for new and innovative ways to help our customers explore, connect, and engage.

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