• April 2014

Do Virtual Conferences Make Cents?

From “PR Rules: The Playbook—The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Supersizing Your Small Business.” Available in April 2014

By Hope Katz Gibbs, with Kathleen McCarthy
PR Rules: The Playbook

Defining Social Media

Have you ever been to a virtual conference? if not, odds are good you’ll be attending one in the near future.

According to Market Research Media, the virtual conference marketplace is expected grow to $18.6 billion by 2015. One of the big players in the field, ON24, said its survey of 10,000 executives showed 87 percent were ready to go virtual.

The reason is simple: Virtual conferences can save a company a bundle.

“From hotel rooms and airfares to conference room rentals and food, companies can spend a fraction of the cost when they take their conferences online,” says Google+ Hangout expert Ronnie Bincer, who offers 8 insights.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

Be Inkandescent: Are virtual conferences the new thing?

Ronnie Bincer: I see the rise of the virtual conference as a natural progression to existing online activity. More and more of our connections are being made online, so adding a conference to this type of activity is a logical next step.

Be Inkandescent: The biggest benefit for many conference hosts and corporations is that virtual conferences are cheaper than the real-world 3D version. What are some of the other benefits?

Ronnie Bincer: Not only are VCs beneficial because of cost savings, they increase the likelihood of getting “exclusive” speakers to appear. If the hosting organization can offer a better fee to the speaker because of lower overhead elsewhere, or a shorter time commitment, then the organization has a better chance of getting that awesome speaker from anywhere in the world to participate in the conference.

Be Inkandescent: One of the biggest downsides to virtual conferences is the inability to network spontaneously. Is there a workaround?

Ronnie Bincer: The ability to meet face to face and shake a hand is certainly what we’re used to. But I’ve seen networking take place among those who are comfortable enough using the tools to say that the future is moving quickly in this direction. And those who get comfortable with the tools will quickly have an advantage. In fact, the ability to network after the event remains—and many find it easier to come back “later” and spend quality time at their own convenience after picking through the discussions. This way, we identify the proper contacts more efficiently.

Be Inkandescent: What do virtual conference planners need to know?

Ronnie Bincer: Make sure communication is clear and repeated often. Just like at a “real event,” people can get lost and become unsure of where they want to go or need to go next. Offering virtual assistance to those with a question is essential. Have a chat room open (or multiple chat rooms) so that anyone at any time can ask a question and be guided via links or other info to the answer. Coordinators should also create “virtual lobby space” for those who want to meet and debrief about the session they just attended.

Be Inkandescent: What should virtual-conference planners avoid?

Ronnie Bincer: Do not assume attendees know what to do. I would also suggest that they try to avoid being a tech support department for any and all computer-related issues.

Be Inkandescent: What should attendees of virtual conferences be aware of?

Ronnie Bincer: Attendees will need to feel comfortable using the tools:

  • Take the simple tutorials that tell you how to “attend” and interact with the chosen conference tools.
  • Try to move away from normal working environments so you are not distracted by day-to-day phone calls or interruptions, which you would miss if you were attending a conference away from your office.
  • Have tools ready to take notes on the information that is important to you. Just because you are attending via a virtual connection does not mean you have “become one” with the information—you will still need to find ways to remind yourself later of what you felt was important when you were hearing the conference presentations.

Be Inkandescent: Do you honestly think real-life conferences will go away in the coming years?

Ronnie Bincer: I do not think that real-life conferences will totally go away, but I do feel that they will take place less often. There will still be valid reasons to physically be at a conference, but the number of those reasons will be fewer and fewer moving forward. I do see the rise of hybrid real-life conferences—those that have a panel of experts, with some physically there and others appearing on-screen. Eventually, I expect future conferences to feature a holograph of a speaker, but for now, most people will settle for expert panel members from all over the world gathering together with physical counterparts on a physical stage.

Be Inkandescent: What are some of your favorite virtual conferences?

Ronnie Bincer: I have been part of speaker panels in virtual conferences, and I have participated in many live interviews and discussions that might be considered mini-virtual conferences. But only a few to date were billed as such. Those involved with the Cooking/Food industry seem to be taking the lead on the virtual conferences that I’ve been involved with to date.

Learn more at TheHangoutHelper.com.

Here’s a Great Example: Mom Knows Best When It Comes to Virtual Conferences

One of our favorite virtual conferences was created in 2013 by Kristine Carlson, co-founder of the “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” series—and one of our speakers bureau stars on InkandescentSpeakers.com.
To celebrate Mother’s Day 2013, and commemorate her newest book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Moms,” she hosted a Mom’s Virtual Conference. More than 50 best-selling mom-focused authors and speakers came together online to talk about the keys to stressing less and enjoying their families more.

Why did Carlson decide to go virtual?

“In the past two years, I have been looking for ways to increase our brand presence on the Internet, and I knew a virtual conference would help identify my market, and be a great list-building tool,” she explains.

“Plus, moms are busy. So it is very convenient and cost-effective for them, since they don’t have to physically go somewhere to attend. And, it was a perfect venue to promote my book for Mother’s Day.”

Obviously, planning a virtual conference is much easier than planning a traditional “in-person” conference, because there are fewer components to manage, but Carlson found she still had to tackle a mountain of scheduling and email correspondence to book the speakers and plan the interviews.

“To make that easier, I partnered with a strong team of mommy bloggers and enlisted a savvy technical support team,” she says.

The biggest downside to offering a virtual conference, she says, was that there is no real profit in them, unless you have a monster list.

“The back-end marketing eats up most of the profit,” she admits. “Although the conference exceeded my expectations in terms of how well it was received and attended online, I don’t think you can replace the value of the one-on-one interaction that transpires live.”

Still, she believe that she’ll do another virtual conference. “But it’s going to be a new topic,” she says. “I like to change things up, and keep them lively.”

Learn more about Kristine Carlson here.