Virtually a better way of marketing?

Special effects add to the impact of an event which no longer has to be confined to the conference hall, writes Clare Gascoigne

When push comes to shove, a business meeting stands or falls on the strength of its content.

Yet given the astonishing array of techno wizardry becoming standard at big-ticket events – holograms, augmented reality, 3D technology – there is little reason why content, which once would have been experienced by 600 people in a room, should not be shared with six million or more around the world.

So says Kevin Jackson, vice president of sales and marketing at the George P. Johnson marketing agency.

The rise and rise of the hybrid event – where a conference or meeting can be experienced not only at a physical location, but also online – is key to the changing business events market.

More than 70 per cent of respondents believe it will be an important part of meetings in the future, according to a survey published last September by Sonic Foundry, a video and webcasting company, in conjunction with the Meeting Professionals International Foundation; 50 per cent of respondents say they record their conference content for on-demand access, a strong indication that organisations recognise the value of sharing content with those unable to attend in person.

We achieved more positive direct interaction with our clients in one month than most companies achieve in a year

Yet 25 per cent of those respondents had never attended a hybrid event and 50 per cent had never planned one.

Meeting planners still have much to learn, according to Samuel J. Smith, researcher for the Sonic Foundry survey; for example, most hybrids are simply a lecture-style presentation, but making the most of the hybrid format means more than streaming a video of a keynote speaker. Speaking in the webcast of the research findings, he says: “Different attendee types have different needs, they are in different physical spaces, they have different distractions, and you need to understand those needs and those experiences, and plan accordingly.”

So, for example, content needs to be of even higher quality since an attendee watching at home has more distractions and can more easily walk away from a screen than leave a conference hall; and presentations should be much shorter – no more than 20 minutes – to keep the interest of delegates fresh.

“Building your event around a breakthrough piece of kit will never be as smart as focusing on creating a great event and only then deciding whether you really need that hologram truly to make it work.”

Mr Jackson agrees that, far from masking inadequate content, technology can only highlight it. “The two basic questions remain the same as they ever were: ‘What is your message?’ and ‘Who do you want to talk to?” he says. “Building your event around a breakthrough piece of kit will never be as smart as focusing on creating a great event and only then deciding whether you really need that hologram truly to make it work.”

Holograms are a magical, if not always cheap, way of bringing an event to life, and have been around long enough for the technology to be fully tried and tested – CMT Events, a laser and video event specialist, created a video hologram of Richard Branson in 2009, allowing him to launch Virgin Digital at the Virgin Megastore in London without actually being there.

At the London 2012 Olympics, companies such as Cisco and Acer used technology to engage and wow their visitors. Cisco’s base included a virtual shopper experience, where viewers could try on clothes virtually and augmented reality screens of the River Thames that, depending on how attendees used their handheld device, displayed different Cisco case studies to viewers.

Visitors to the Acer pavilion were issued with a QR-coded smartcard which, when swiped at various displays, created a personal interaction for each attendee. It also created a personal avatar with which the attendee could interact while at the pavilion; your avatar, for example, popped up to play the Fast, Faster, Fastest challenge, a race track game.

Acer also used an inflatable globe, instead of a traditional flat screen, to engage visitors; the globe, flashing with digital displays and 360-degree video, was surrounded by interactive tablets that visitors could use.

Alternatively, you could use augmented reality to bring events to life. Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling was barely a decade ahead of technology when in 1997 she dreamt up photos whose subjects waved at you; such fantasies are now reality with technology that allows moving images to be embedded in printed matter and brought to life with an app.

“Augmented reality is the new medium for bringing the physical world to digital life,” says Annie Weinberger, general manager at Aurasma, an augmented reality platform.

Virtual events technology, such as giving delegates the ability to “walk round” a show, is another means of bringing an event to life. ON24, a virtual events organiser, helped software company CA Technologies devise May Mainframe Madness, an online event that featured, among other digital wizardry, a virtual exhibition centre and a virtual networking lounge. Thousands of attendees from 49 countries joined the virtual environment.

“We achieved more positive direct interaction with our clients in one month than most companies achieve in a year,” says Steven Menges, CA Technologies’ vice president, mainframe marketing. “The feedback from attendees and partners was overwhelmingly positive.”

Some of the bells and whistles that excite software developers don’t come cheap, but organisers may find that the greater reach of multi-platform hybrid events more than compensates.

There may be other areas of cost savings, such as dispensing with the need to fly in and host an expensive keynote speaker. According to ON24, a virtual meeting can reduce event costs by up to 90 per cent by eliminating venue, travel and speaker expenses.

Additional reporting by Virginia Matthews.