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Virtual Conference Extends Reach

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SAN FRANCISCO Engineers and scientists who used to flock to National Instruments' annual road shows to spend a day listening to presentations and sharing advice with their peers got the same information this year minus the catered coffee and muffins.

NI's popular traveling event grew to include 18 cities around the U.S. over a three-month period, attracting about 100 people at each city, and stretching organizers in NI's marketing department to the limit. "Logistically and costwise we didn't know how much more we could do, we needed to do something more scalable and more efficient," said Richard McDonell, group manager of product marketing.

The solution was a new breed of virtual conference, which gave participants a 3-D videogame type experience, with a modernistic virtual conference hall, seminar rooms and a casual networking lobby, all in their computer.

Produced by Unisfair, the 2007 National Instrument Automated Test Summit was held May 8 and in a single day attracted 1,800 people, equal to the total number of participants in the entire three-month road show for only a fraction of the cost to NI. The typical virtual event is about 20 percent of the cost of a comparable live event, said sources at Conference Call University, a virtual education company. Unisfair sources confirmed the 20 percent figure and said companies spend $30,000 to $100,000 on a virtual conference.

That means no hotel bills, no travel expenses and no need to ship the 40 large boxes of equipment that would have moved from site to site.

With NI's virtual strategy, "the ROI was substantial," said McDonell. Unisfair says ROI for most virtual events is 100-200 percent.

Virtual events are coming of age. In the last four years Unisfair has hosted more than 200 events for companies including IBM, Nortel and the Economist magazine, according to company representative Don Best. In 2006 it hosted 77 and this year it expects to host more than 150 events, he said. In the last six months the biggest names in telecommunications, software, and technology have used virtual events produced by Unisfair and others, said Unisfair CEO Guy Piekarz.

According to Unisfair's research from its events, the average virtual conference is two live days and 90 days on demand. An average of 1,600 people attend and spend nearly three hours at the event.

Unisfair's computer-generated grand entranceway, conference hall for keynotes, exhibition booths and professional networking lounges offer "a pragmatic version of what Second Life is doing for consumers," said a reviewer for Computerworld when the latest Unisfair software was unveiled in March 2007.

In the contemporary virtual conference, attendees can ask questions during a panelist session just as they would at a live event, and hear an answer via voice, said Brent Arslaner, Unisfair vp of marketing.

Attendees can also chat online with one another in a networking lounge using IM or voice. They can also control who they want to reach out to them. For instance, they can ask for only C-level executives to have access to their contact information. When attendees approach a booth in the exhibition hall, they can choose to see a demonstration, obtain additional information or chat live with a vendor representative. The conference system tracks every session and keynote online that each participant attends and notes all other interactions by participants, providing key marketing information to exhibitors and sponsors seeking sales leads, Arslaner said. Users can access content from the event for weeks afterwards. In NI's case the material is being is archived for 90 days post-summit on the company Web site.

An unexpected bonus at NI's virtual event: the high number of overseas participants. "We only promoted the online event in the U.S. but a third of the participants came from outside the U.S.," said Arslaner. Among that group, there was an "overwhelming response that we do another virtual event," he said.

Issues that nagged NI about its first virtual summit were how to keep the buzz alive that surrounded its physical events, and how to keep the attention of participants at work who were getting interrupted by normal office distractions, said McDonell. The company sought to generate buzz with online and offline promotions and insisted that all event presentations be no longer than 20 minutes to fit around office interruptions, McDonell said.

Unisfair's other clients include highly targeted business-to-business marketers and media companies that traditionally host physical events. Events range from marketing seminars and conferences similar to the NI summit, to tradeshows, job fairs, sales training and users groups. Most companies, including NI, host a combination of physical and virtual events, according to Arslaner.

What's next? Unisfair has been primarily serving b-to-b clients who do not charge participants to attend and who are looking for sales leads, the company says. But enthusiast groups who charge for admission to their events, such as automotive and gardening groups, are starting to get into the act, offering opportunities to marketers who want to sponsor the virtual gatherings. Also, event sites are starting to evolve into year-round destination sites that create a sense of community among users, said Arslaner. "Physical events will never go away, but this is a new component that will augment them," he said.

NI's McDonell had some advice for those who are considering a virtual strategy. Planning the virtual event can take as long as planning a physical event—in his case, about four months—but with a virtual event you have access to the best presenters, who are not always able to travel from city to city, he said. You should take advantage of access to customers outside of the U.S. who appreciate the 90-day availability of the event material. Finally, you need to create a sales mechanism to quickly follow up on leads and price requests.

Because physical events use an in-person sales force at the event, virtual event organizers need to offer equal service on the virtual front, something Ni is working on, McDonell said.

In summary, virtual events have been a less expensive and more convenient alternative for tech-oriented marketing conferences, expos, seminars and job fairs. Now, with the added "wow" from experiential software that feels like real life, these virtual tools can be useful to a wide array of marketers and consumers.