Since the pandemic began, industry insiders have pinpointed trade shows as the event format least suited to virtual delivery. While the wider reach of virtual events might seem to provide automatic marketing value, trade show sponsors are telling a different story.
The problem is that higher virtual attendance numbers don’t necessarily translate to greater potential for lead generation. Engagement continues to be the biggest challenge for virtual event planners, and without brand engagement, it’s hard to drive conversions.
During the early days, predictions about virtual event ROI were mostly conjecture. Now we have real-world examples to draw from. Have we learned anything about what works and what doesn’t?
When it comes to identifying biggest challenges and best practices for maximizing ROI, there is perhaps no better place to seek out an honest assessment than from the sponsors and exhibitors themselves. The following is a list of pain points and solutions that aims to help trade show event planners gain a better understanding of what these stakeholders are looking for and foster more successful long-term partnerships.
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The Top 5 Roadblocks to ROI at Virtual Trade Shows
Khang and Esposito are able to offer particularly valuable insight because they both have experience not only with sponsoring third-party virtual trade shows, but also with hosting their own in-house virtual alternatives. Taking stock of what they learned in both contexts, they shared their perspective on where virtual trade shows are going wrong.
Virtual Participants Are Less Inclined to Explore
Both Khang and Esposito found that virtual participants were much less likely to ‘wander’ through the online event platform in the same way that they would through a physical trade show floor. While some event organizers have gone to the trouble of replicating the appearance of a physical venue using 3D graphics, this simulation of the live experience ends up being more cumbersome than enticing.
As Khang explained, “At an in-person trade show, you can catch people’s attention as they’re walking by. You can’t do that on a virtual platform. You have to drive traffic to your site.”
Esposito added that virtual exhibitors not only have to compete for attention within the online space, but also with the attendee’s physical environment and day-to-day demands: “People are doing work in the background. They’re not fully immersed in the experience, and there’s no reason for them to go above and beyond for extra content.”
The reality is that virtual attendees are unlikely to seek out virtual booths that are not already on their radar. Virtual trade show organizers need to design their brand engagement opportunities along the principles that govern online advertising, not along the physical floor plans that work in person.
“When I looked at what trade show organizers were offering for virtual events,” Khang said, “it looked like building a webpage.”
Trade show organizers need to think carefully about how they can add value beyond what sponsors and exhibitors can already achieve independently on their own websites.
Virtual Trade Shows Often Fail to Deliver New Traffic
Both Khang and Esposito made direct comparisons between their experience with sponsoring virtual events versus hosting their own. From their perspective, the one advantage that virtual trade shows could theoretically offer is a wider customer base, but the platforms do not deliver on this promise.
For example, when Khang asked an event organizer how they planned to drive traffic to her company’s virtual booth, they responded, “You’ll promote it to your partners and your customers and have them come to the platform.” From the perspective of a sponsor or exhibitor, it makes more sense to drive their existing customers to their own website rather than to a platform crowded with potential competitors.
Esposito echoed this sentiment: “If we were to host a virtual event internally, it’s just our brand.”
Even though her company’s internal events rely heavily on marketing to a distribution list of existing clients, their reach ends up extending organically into their clients’ wider network. Esposito added, “In this way, we’re able to reach out to people who truly care about the same issues.”
Virtual trade show organizers will need to think less about pure attendance numbers, and more about strategically directing clients to the sponsor booths of greatest relevance to their business interests.
Virtual Trade Show Pricing Doesn't Reflect the Difference in Virtual Value
Both Khang and Esposito remarked that virtual trade show booths and sponsorship packages are often only slightly reduced in price relative to the original in-person events. In practical terms, this means that it will often cost the same — or even less — to host their own virtual events as to participate as a sponsor or exhibitor in a third-party online trade show.
From their perspective, virtual trade show organizers need to be conscious of the fact that they are no longer providing significant access to a new customer base, and in turn need to offer steeper discounts.
Virtual Trade Shows Limit Marketing Features
Both Esposito and Khang cited lack of flexibility as another major issue with the virtual trade shows that they sponsored.
As Esposito explained, “You have to play by their rules.” At the close of one event, her company was offered a lead generation list — but there were strict limitations on how it could be used. Similarly, Khang mentioned that one virtual event allowed only three products to be showcased for the highest sponsorship tier. Another allowed sponsors to participate in panel discussions, but the event ran out of speaker slots quickly.
If virtual trade shows are going to treat their high attendance numbers as a selling point, they need to design their events in ways that maximize — not minimize — the sponsors’ and exhibitors’ ability to reach those potential clients.
Chat Features Alone Are Not Enough to Generate Leads
Both Khang and Esposito sponsored events that incorporated chat features into their virtual platforms, but the tool proved less than optimal at driving leads.
For one, the chat feature is only useful if attendees are inclined to use it. Otherwise, it could be yet another wasted opportunity for sponsors and exhibitors. “We made the mistake of overstaffing the chat feature at one event,” Khang said.
Esposito described a similar experience. At one virtual trade show, her team resorted to a tactic of identifying the most high-traffic event activities, and then scouting for potential clients by striking up conversations within the built-in chat panels. “We’ve had to hit on multiple touchpoints,” Esposito explained. Even with this proactive strategy, their analytics showed much weaker results than they normally achieve at in-person events.
“If we look at the marketing funnel, it was more of a top-of-the-funnel experience. To draw customers from that brand awareness to the engagement stage requires a lot more work at virtual events, and it doesn’t always pay immediate dividends.”
- Christina Esposito, Marketing and Communications Lead, Tundra Technical
The Top 2 Strategies for Boosting ROI at Virtual Events
Fortunately, both Khang and Esposito have had many successes in addition to the disappointments outlined above. Speaking from their firsthand experience as both event sponsors and event planners, they shared some of their top best practices.
Add Value to Content With Thought Leadership and a Sense of Personal Connection
It has been said before, but it bears repeating: Content is king at virtual events. Many event organizers have mistakenly tried to reproduce the in-person experience when they should instead be modelling their platforms on the most successful streaming services and YouTube channels. Virtual trade shows should function as a platform for sponsor content, and that content needs to deliver value to the end user.
For one of their internal events, Khang’s team developed content designed to address their clients’ specific business needs in the wake of the pandemic. She added, “We brought in our top opinion leaders to offer attendees valuable educational content, which is what they really wanted.” The model was so successful that they plan to incorporate virtual elements into all future events, even after in-person gatherings can begin again.
Esposito added that webinars at sponsored events can also help to increase brand awareness and create the impression of a more personal connection: “When you’re looking to engage the audience, the best thing to do is to put a face on the screen and share what makes your brand special.”
Drive Connections with Gamification, Matchmaking, and Mentorship
Khang and Esposito also offered tips on how to foster more meaningful connections in online spaces.
Based on her own experience as an attendee, Khang recommended using gamification to create incentives for sponsor interactions. “Assign points for setting up meetings with a sponsor.”
She also believes that AI-powered smart matchmaking could be a gamechanger. “The virtual attendee does not want to navigate aimlessly around the platform. They need to know who they should meet with ahead of time.”
According to Khang, this kind of tool would be especially useful for setting up video chats. While totally random matchmaking was trialled at an event that she attended, it often made for awkward conversations with little productive value.
Taking a slightly different approach, Esposito’s company used a mentorship model for its Women in STEM event. Each of the event’s speakers performed the role of a mentor to a group of attendees. Following each speaker session, mentors spoke with their assigned mentees via group video chats.
And once again, common interests were an essential part of the formula. As Esposito explained, “We based the event around a topic that resonated with our audience, and that accounts for a big part of its success.”
Virtual trade shows will never be able to replicate the in-person experience. Most importantly, they need to be aware that their attendees are no longer a captive audience. If they want to continue attracting sponsors and exhibitors, they will need to find innovative ways to drive more traffic to exhibitor booths. What can virtual trade shows offer that sponsors are unable to do on their own? Are they actually limiting promotional opportunities rather than amplifying them?
According to our interview sources, educational content, gamification, smart matchmaking, and innovative mentorship programs could go a long way to improving the ROI at virtual events. Until they meet all of these new expectations, virtual trade shows may have to reassess their value proposition in the most concrete of ways — by offering sponsors and exhibitors a significant discount on their standard rates.