How to Use Virtual Environments and Virtual Events to Drive Attendance to Your Physical Events

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Chris Price learned how the digital world can help him and his company in the physical world but he didn’t go to school or hire a consultant. He learned from the best teacher of all—experience.

Now he’s using that experience to drive attendees to Graph Expo and Print, the print world’s two largest physical events. Price is a marketing executive with The Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC), the firm that runs these shows.

According to Price, The Graphic Arts Show Company was formed in 1982 by three leading industry associations, the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL), The Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing, and Converting Technologies (NPES), and Printing Industries of America.

“GASC’s mission is to provide an effective forum through shows and conferences to meet the marketing requirements of the graphic communications and converting industries,” Price said. “GASC brings the industry’s buyers and sellers together in the most cost-effective way possible.”

The biggest print market in the world is in America’s Midwest, which is the natural place to hold the physical events. But, Price says, the shows have undergone a transition from a focus on offset printing to digital printing which is much more prominent and wide spread.

“Three years ago when I came on board my first job was to create a digital brand for a show that was not known for one,” Price said. “At first it wasn’t easy. We went to the major digital print manufacturers HP, Kodak, Xerox, Canon and Ricoh and told them we produce this trade show and we want to bring more folks in to the show and to their booths, can they help us? Some said we’re uncomfortable inviting our customers because all our competitors are at the show.”

However, once Price learned how to incorporate a virtual show to drive attendees to the physical events and combined that with a overall targeted marketing campaign, the major players took notice. How did he do it?

“We took six industry segments and we broke them apart to six different marketing campaigns,” Price noted. “We focused on attendee mapping, everything about that industry’s segment that was unique. By creating these versionings we did a bang up job and we had an increase in those six segments in terms of attendees.”

Simply, Price’s job is to bring more people to the physical shows. Using mapping, robust information for each campaign, direct mail, electronic marketing and GASC’s website, and the virtual envoronment.

Price said one of the reasons GASC went into the virtual world was due to a study done by the Center for Exhibition and Industry Research. The Center conducted research at the 2008 shows and the results spoke volumes.

“The results of the Center’s study told us that we needed to do more things online because we weren’t reaching the 35 and under folks,” Price said. “This helped tee us up to do more online and create the virtual show preview we just launched.”

Along with doing plenty of research, Price and team chose to adapt to change by going virtual. They produced a preview, a virtual show, to drive the physical shows. “In our virtual show we’ve got good video and flash presentations, not just downloadable documents, which for me make for a flat booth and isn’t engaging. This turns people off. You’ve got to make your virtual world engaging.”

Spearheaded by the desire to try something new, Price hoped for a thousand registrants and got 1,100. He helped his exhibitors build virtual booths, fix different sessions in GASC’s virtual theatre, stimulate conversations, ask questions, get chats moving and handle keynote speakers, all with the goal of driving them to the physical event to find out more.

For his keynote speaker Price got an old friend of his, Jeff Haslin. The author of the bestselling book “Mirror Test”, Haslin owned his own public relations agency and then became CMO of Kodak. He was also on The Apprentice television show.

“I told Jeff I need you to drive people to the show,” Price said. “Right from the green screen of Welcome he talked about the sample of 21 companies in over 450 booths you’ll see in Chicago at the physical event. We got people engaged so they would create for themselves an itinerary plan.”

Price knew his litmus test–How do we make sure that content drives the physical; How do we make people realize that our show is much more than buying equipment, that they’ll see new applications, get best practices, find industry trends. Simply, the value-proposition for exhibitors and attendees was indeed different.

To achieve results Price wasn’t afraid to be innovative. He tried split screen keynotes, used marquees that ran across virtual environments, hosted chats. He wasn’t afraid to learn as he went along. One major result was it gave him more time to reach people. “I got six weeks in advance archived through the show and now five weeks after in an archive for another month. This gives me a hell of a lot more than four days to reach folks,” Price said.

Price’s learning curve got interesting, he says, as he began to realize what he knew and what he didn’t know about the virtual world. His “wild ride” as he calls it included social networking with Twitter and LinkedIn groups where he landed 150 interested people.

Some key takeaways for Price were: 1) getting lots of information from booth visits; 2) the importance of good videos as opposed to using just documents; 3) numbers and reports generated from the virtual world bring many leads; 4) some people visit, look around, but feel uncomfortable chatting; 5) there are techniques to get them to feel comfortable, stay, and chat, especially an interesting, engaging video that pops up; 6) use a “chandelier” which gets visitors down to the booths.

Price says not to be your own worst enemy. He initially grappled with the idea that virtual was interesting but that he shouldn’t spend money on it unless he could figure out how to make money with it. Then he decided he would give virtual a try no matter what. Now, having done a virtual event, he believes he’s on to something.

“One of the things you learn quickly, if you’re a physical event producer and you do your first virtual event, is that data that you get back is very enlightening and eye opening,” Price said. First of all, you have to determine what you want to do. Do you want to make money with it? Do you want to be this edgy marketer for people? Do you want to drive the physical show? Do you want to create an adjunct show so you have stuff throughout the year? Jumping in the pool truly helped me a lot. So do it. Do it before somebody else does. “

Doing it with a critical eye can also make the difference. What engages you and what doesn’t engage you–focus on that, Price advises, because you can’t just come up with this and put a dollar amount on it.

“What you do is you consider either subsidizing or breaking even the first time because you’ve got to make sure the exhibitors have good booths,” Price noted. “What I hear from others involved in the virtual world is that we need to work on the exhibiting side of this. But you’ve got to address the right audience. Some companies who prefer the flesh to flesh handshake as opposed to the online marketing are at first resistant to virtual. They don’t understand this. We’ve got to make them understand that they’re missing the boat.”

Another tip Price offers is that a lot of folks tend to put sales people in their virtual booths. He’s against this. Why? “It’s just my theory, mind you, but sales people seem to have strengths in human interaction, those skills associated with relationship developing in the face to face environment. They are at a disadvantage when they’re at their computers. Try a different type of person for your booth, a person used to dealing more in the customer service or social networking environment. Putting a salesperson in the booth may not be the best strategy.”

Finally, Price knows one thing for certain–you learn a lot just by going through the process. See the post show wrap up virtual event on November 10th.

Learn the results of Chris’ virtual event audience acquisition program as he shares his experience first-hand at the Virtual Edge Summit January 12 -13 at the Las Vegas Convention Center and online. Price will be joining some 60 subject matter experts from associations, corporation and media companies that will be sharing their lessons learned, best practices and case studies. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn how you can benefit from virtual environments across your entire business.

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