January 14, 2009
Case Study

5 Steps to Double Conference Attendance: Inject Virtual Webcast & Trade Show

SUMMARY: The recession is cutting into travel budgets. So, event marketers must adopt new strategies to attract attendees to their trade shows and conferences.

Find out how a conference sponsor used a virtual component to double attendance. A webcast and virtual trade show also produced archived online content to continue generating leads from the event.
The recession has put corporate travel budgets under the scope. That’s the environment Nigel Clear, Commercial Director, Elsevier, faced while marketing last December’s second Vaccine Global Congress in Boston.

The three-day conference for vaccinologists worldwide is sponsored by the Elsevier scientific journal, ‘Vaccine’, and the International Society for Vaccines. Clear’s team worried that many prospects with limited travel budgets would have to skip the event.

“For every one conference delegate we can attract, how many more can’t make it because of time constraints or limited travel budgets?” says Clear. “Scientists and researchers in developing nations, in particular, often can’t afford the expense. We wanted to take our scientific knowledge to as wide an audience as possible.”

The team was familiar with the potential reach of online products. They wondered if a virtual component tied into the on-site event could replicate the conference experience.

Clear and his team developed a free Vaccine Virtual Congress held during one of the three days of the Boston event. It featured audio and video presentations streamed live from the conference, and a virtual trade show complete with online chats and visits to sponsors’ booths.

Five steps to market the virtual event:

Step #1. Choose presentations to feature

Clear and his team first focused on ways to satisfy the two primary reasons prospects come to conferences:
1. Access relevant content from industry experts
2. Network with their peers

For the content, they streamed six presentations on the broadest range of topics, including:
o Research on specific applications, such as Pneumococcal conjugate vaccines
o Vaccine research models for influenza
o U.S. government funding for vaccine R&D and acquisition
o Vaccine safety

They also looked for a mix of speakers with a good draw, including:
o Representatives from major pharmaceutical companies, such as Wyeth and Novartis
o University researchers
o A representative from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

To test reactions to different virtual formats, they offered full streaming video for three presentations, and audio and online slides only for the other three.

For online networking, the team offered:
- Q&A with the presenters at the end of each session
- Instant messaging capability between virtual attendees
- Online discussion forums and chats

Attendees could begin their own discussions, but the team also prepared a schedule of specific chat topics to get conversations started.

All virtual sessions and interactive features have been archived and made available on-demand for three months after the live event.

Step #2. Invite sponsors to create virtual booths

Replicating the conference experience online included creating a tradeshow floor with sponsor booths. Because they tested the virtual conference concept, the team didn’t sell virtual booth space. Instead, they included it as a feature for their in-person conference exhibitors.

Five sponsors created virtual booths. In the online booths, attendees could ask questions of sponsors and download educational content.

They also created a unique feature of scientific conferences: “poster sessions.”

Poster sessions involve PhD students presenting new research to the scientific community in the form of graphic posters. The virtual session displayed all the posters included in the in-person event in a searchable format. Attendees also could download PDF versions of each poster.

Step #3. Promote virtual event through email

A prime concern of Clear’s team when planning the virtual congress was whether the free event would cannibalize attendance from the in-person event. But they decided they didn’t need to market the virtual event until after most delegates had registered and booked their travel arrangements.

The team began promoting the virtual congress two weeks before the live session with email invitations and an online registration form:

- They selected names from the in-house database of Elsevier customers and prospects, focusing on contacts from the vaccine field.

- The team de-duped names of contacts who had registered for the in-person event.

- The first HTML email message included:
o Introduction to the virtual congress concept
o Program of the online sessions
o Description of the interactive features
o Hotlink to an online registration page

- The second email invitation was sent one week before the event. In addition to the program information and link to the registration page, this message included graphics and videos that demonstrated the look and feel of the virtual environment.

- The last email invitation was sent two days before the event. It featured a final reminder that pre-registration was necessary, and a large call to action that brought prospects to the registration form.

Step #4. Send email reminders to convert registrants to attendees

As with any virtual event, the marketing plan included a campaign to convert registered users into attendees. The team used three messages to encourage attendees to log in on the day of the event:

- The first reminder went out three days before the event. It included a confirmation of the attendee’s registration and a basic reminder of the schedule and log-in procedure.

- The second reminder was sent the day before the event. Message copy emphasized that there was only one day until the virtual congress, and reminded attendees to run a system check to make sure their log-ins were working.

- The final reminder was sent four hours before the start of the event. It included the URL for logging in.

Step #5. Use support team to manage virtual congress and assist attendees

On the day of the virtual congress, members of Clear’s team managed the event by logging in to the system.

Team members at the in-person event monitored online activity through their laptops. Also, a dedicated virtual events team in Amsterdam stayed logged in during the entire event.

The virtual team acted as moderators and greeters for virtual attendees. Tasks included:
o Welcoming attendees
o Announcing session schedules
o Answering questions and receiving feedback
o Starting and moderating scheduled chat sessions

The virtual event nearly doubled the total attendance of 400 for the Boston conference:
o 309 virtual delegates attended the online event
o 1,300 prospects registered to attend the virtual congress

“We’re exceptionally happy with how it went,” says Clear. “If someone could give me another tool to double my attendance, I’d pay handsomely for it.”

Other session statistics:
o Attendees spent an average of 86 minutes in the virtual congress.

o Video webcasts had slightly higher attendance than audio-only portions, which could have been because of the topics or the popularity of the speakers.

Clear’s team, though, expects to offer the full video webcast format at future virtual events because it gives a better user experience.

o The virtual congress expanded lead-generation capabilities for Elsevier and their sponsors.

Because the archived version of the virtual congress is still active, the team is still tracking registration rate and leads generated through booth visits.

The next step is to email a link to the archived virtual congress to all in-person attendees. That email will invite attendees to revisit booths and watch or listen to presentations they may have missed or would like to see again.

“You have the live and interactive event, and beyond that, the extra permanence of on-demand content,” says Clear.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from Elsevier’s Vaccine Virtual Congress

On24 provided the virtual trade show platform:

Vaccine Global Congress website


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