trade show virtual

How to create a successful virtual trade show

According to the Harvard Business Review, 52% of B2B leaders say that trade shows drive more business value than any other marketing channel. So, how can companies preserve the value of obtaining new leads and new business connections now that COVID-19 has largely shut down in-person shows for the coming months (or perhaps much longer)? The answer: get real about virtual trade shows.

Virtual trade shows are more than just another online meeting

To “get real” means to get past the easy answers, whether you are a virtual trade show sponsor, exhibitor or even attendee. In this age of endless virtual meetings, it may seem like enough for hosts to use web conferencing features to simply string together a series of presentations.

It’s important, however, to first understand the dynamics of interaction via video – especially for a business world that now sits all day in front of a screen. The phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” – that is, the negative impact of too many video meetings attended too often – not only makes it hard for attendees to maintain focus and attention, it even impacts their qualitative impression of presenters. The BBC reported recently on a German study which discovered that the inevitable delays and silences in a video chat or presentation – whether caused by bandwidth issues or other technical or user problems – create a negative impression of the presenter as unfriendly or unfocused.2

It’s just not the same as face-to-face – so a virtual trade show can’t be just the same as your day-to-day virtual meeting. There are three phases to consider in your planning, each with its own challenges and opportunities: pre-show, at the event, and post-event.

Phase 1: Before your virtual trade show or event

Your first step is to decide what kind of a virtual event you want to host – live, pre-recorded, or a hybrid. Live streaming adds a sense of immediacy, along with the opportunity for interaction, but also comes with greater complexity and technological risk. Pre-recorded events may seem less spontaneous, but they also may offer greater quality control and technical predictability. A hybrid event, combining live interaction with pre-recorded presentations, can “split the difference” in terms of immediacy and complexity.

The next step is to decide on a platform. Self-producing from a variety of easy-to-acquire apps may seem appealing from a cost standpoint, but dedicated, all-in-one trade show platforms and providers can deliver a more seamless process, integrating preparation, promotion, the creation of event-specific websites, and an easily accessed menu of features, from virtual break-out rooms to real-time surveys.

In addition, you need to formulate a pre-event plan, to encourage sign up and also to begin the process of attendee engagement (for instance, by soliciting attendees to submit videos with questions that virtual speakers will answer at the event). Traditional direct marketing – such as postcards – can help you break through the digital in-box clutter to get attention ahead of the show.

Phase 2:  Make your virtual event more engaging

Regardless of your event topic or structure, the primary challenge is attendee engagement – what will keep attendees “at the show” rather than answering emails (or watching YouTube videos on their extra monitor). 

According to digital marketing leader Hubspot,3 there are at least six essential considerations for making your virtual event as engaging and valuable as possible:

  1. Create engagement opportunities within sessions – these can be live or pre-recorded, as with the suggestion above to solicit questions for speakers ahead of time (also consider incenting submissions by offering prizes for questions actually used; “surplus” questions can be incorporated, and acknowledged, in the follow-up phase).
  2. Use quizzes, polls and games to interact with the audience. These features can be employed on an “on-demand” basis or embedded in specific presentations.
  3. Offer live Q&A sessions.Use these at the end of presentations, or as topical stand-alone features. 
  4. trade show Live Q&A session
  5. Provide breakout rooms and networking opportunities. Most event and video conferencing platforms offer “face-to-face” video conferencing options that can include attendees and facilitate individual connections.
  6. Develop – and maintain – a “gathering space” that attendees may use for networking before, during and after the event.
  7. Ensure that your timing for live sessions or features is “time zone-friendly,’ that is, conveniently accessible to the bulk of your attendees based on their location/time zone.

Phase 3: Extend the impact of your investment after your virtual event 

One of the major benefits of virtual trade shows is a longer life span – they can be replayed and repurposed in whole or part long after the show is over. 

Beyond the ability to let people attend at their convenience over a specific period of time by rebroadcasting it multiple times, you should consider show elements as assets to be used in your overall content marketing plan. What sessions can be turned into a blog post, podcast or YouTube material? As indicated above, you can also extend the networking benefit of your show by creating a valuable chat room, or even a post-show, networking-oriented microsite, to allow relationships started at the event to continue and grow (supported by the regular provision of valuable content from the show and beyond). 

Maximizing virtual events: real-life example 

The Tork brand has always valued the person-to-person benefits of trade shows like BOMA (a leader association for building owners and managers), and ISSA (the leading organization for the commercial cleaning industry). Even as these organizations have shifted to virtual events, we’ve continued to invest in their success – and ours. For BOMA, that included a sponsorship with an exhibitor page, which, like the show itself, stayed available online far beyond the scheduled “end” of the initial event. For ISSA, we took on the role of exclusive digital presenter, exhibited, sponsored thought leadership sessions, and also participated in their innovation awards competition. Through sponsorship and interactive participation, we are able to acquire and cultivate leads that drive our business forward.

Whether for networking or general learning and inspiration, the business-to-business sector still needs trade shows. It’s time to consider the possibilities and get invested in the virtual trade show movement.

The ISSA Show North America will be hosting its first fully virtual event November 16-19, 2020. Register to attend the virtual experience and visit Tork’s exhibitor page to learn more about the latest research and innovations from Tork.

1 Harvard Business Review: The Event Marketing Evolution
2 BBC: Why Zoom video chats are so exhausting  
3 Hubspot/Vimeo: The Guide to Planning and Hosting Virtual Events