How to Benefit from a Virtual Conference

Many professional conferences and conventions have opted for virtual delivery for 2021 perhaps because the progress with vaccinations and lowered covid-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates could not be predicted at the time these events were planned. So, I tasked myself with providing some pointers on how to get the most from a virtual conference. Part of this assignment is self-serving. I’m speaking at two conferences and attending a third as a paid registrant this summer. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. In both instances (whether you’re a buyer or a seller), the benefits of attending are greatly reduced by being remote.

When attending in person, I generally have 3 objectives for an event when I’m a speaker and 5 when I’m a consumer. However, for virtual, I’m just going to zero in on three objectives for each category and how to maximize the value of attendance in this medium.

As an attendee, my top three goals normally are: 

  1. networking (I usually like to connect with other female business owners with whom I can commiserate throughout the year. We serve as de facto business advisors to each other. It can save us thousands of dollars in business consulting or coaching fees); 
  2. education (I gather information about what’s new in the marketplace such as new technology, new thinking or best practices + I try to get my continuing legal education credits); and 
  3. having fun (I tack a few days onto the trip to enjoy the city and take in the culture, and if I am single, as is the case now, I try to attract a decent man to date). 

As witty and charming as I like to think I am, number three is pretty much off the table for me at a virtual event. Thus, I’m going to focus on numbers one and two. The educational benefits are pretty good at a virtual event. Certain information is provided orally and there’s usually additional information provided in writing. There’s a chat function to ask questions, and you can research new products after the event is over. The downsides are you can’t approach the speaker afterward and begin to develop a relationship, and some speakers (myself included) feed off a live crowd and don’t perform as well remotely as they do in-person. A bit of the educational content may get lost in that. 

And the networking is really tough. If you were hoping to find a mentor, a job opportunity, or a new friend, it’s going to be very difficult to get into the same room or to have a connection made in the break-out room hold up in the real world. Still, do the best you can. Maybe reach out to the organizer with a brief email explaining whom you’d like to meet. They may be able to tell you where you might find that person or people like the person you’d like to meet. Then, connect on LinkedIn and begin to chat via email on a topic that might have been the basis for the deepening of an in-person relationship. For example, if you’re both working mothers, make the unique issues surrounding work-life balance the topic of your initial email conversations and see where it grows from there.

As a speaker (or salesperson), my top 3 goals normally are: 

  1. setting sales appointments with prospects I meet at the event,
  2. increasing the name recognition/ brand awareness of my company, and 
  3. connecting with potential influencers, affiliates, and partners so that we can make money together in the future. 

Those three goals are almost impossible to achieve in a virtual setting because virtual events and live events are markedly different lead generation tools. A live event is a sales tool. It is designed to lead to conversions within the prospects current purchasing cycle because you have an opportunity to engage at events and ask the questions necessary to learn whether a person is in your client profile and what that purchasing cycle looks like. Plus, you can get contact information so that you can follow up. 

A virtual appearance, on the other hand, is a marketing tool. It is designed to create inbound inquires. You don’t really get to gather information about individual attendees. Rather, they get to gather information about you. Therefore, you have to use the event to educate your prospects about who you are and what you do so that they can seek you out afterward. So, this tool is passive and hopeful. You need your prospect to: (i) recognize that they need what you’re selling, (ii) have the budget and authority to buy your offering, and (iii) then reach out to you to begin a conversation. That is not my normal sales method. Therefore, I have no idea how it’s going to pan out. If it works the way normal marketing tools work, the result will be that an impression is made upon the prospect, but that impression will need to be reinforced through additional interactions and impressions over months, if not years, before a selling opportunity emerges with the prospect. 

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