Virtual Conferences and Trade Shows Step Into the Digital Spotlight

This year, more companies will make the cyber-leap as an online marketing strategy

Quality Digest

February 15, 2021

Eight years ago Quality Digest published the article, “Suit Up, Show Up, Give Up: Are e-marketing techniques killing trade shows?” The premise was that electronic marketing was slowly diminishing the need for in-person events. However, until recently inertia has kept these sprawling shows alive as a familiar means of interacting with people, products, and services. But then came March 2020 and Covid-19. Trade shows, conferences, and user events dropped like dominoes, and all of us had to innovate.

In the same way that many of us have turned to online collaboration tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams for communication at work—55 percent of businesses globally now offer some capacity for remote work, and 99 percent of remote workers want to continue it in the future—we’re likely looking at technology replacing or at least augmenting the unique charisma of trade shows and conferences. 

In recent years the technology available to replicate (loosely speaking) the in-person trade-show experience has been easier to access, thanks to startups like 6Connex and Communiqué, which provide basic platforms on which to build your show. Or, if money is no object, you can have a fully custom solution built from the ground up. Perhaps the most important consideration is that companies should match the available platform to the intended function. This is critical: If you don’t have a clear vision of exactly what it is you are trying to achieve, you will end up spending a lot of money on features that don’t further that vision.

Connected by quality: A case study

Before you spend time and money on a virtual trade show, you need to have a solid grasp of what you want to accomplish and a means to measure it. A good example was the Virtual Masters Summit 2020. Dubbed “Connected by Quality,” held Oct. 20–22, 2020, the event was presented by MasterControl, a QMS and document control software provider, and hosted on Pathable. Although the company acknowledges their virtual summit wasn’t perfect—there were plenty of lessons learned—they went in with a very clear goal, budget, and expected outcome.

For their event, MasterControl had to accomplish several goals around user experience, technical requirements, and budget. From the kickoff gala, to the ability to network and ask questions, and even the ability to attend different tracks, the event had to give attendees the same opportunities they’ve gotten in past in-person summits. So the hosting platform’s capabilities were critical.

“There are so many components,” says Eliana Valcarel, marketing events manager at MasterControl. “We developed a long list of functionality that we wanted based on what we usually accomplish in an in-person environment. When we sent the RFPs [requests for proposal] for a virtual platform, we selected companies that had been doing this awhile and had deep expertise in virtual events—not just a company that developed a platform because of Covid.” 

Based on our user experience attending the summit as well as what MasterControl related to us, a successful event needs to:
• Generate excitement about your product and new features with the aim of attracting new customers and simplifying existing customers’ experience with the product
• Keep users engaged by means of skillful event and content design
• Use KPIs to measure if the show achieved its goals
• Make sure the platform can collect and report out on key metrics
• Decide if the event should pay for itself through attendance fees or be a marketing expense that will pay back over time

User experience

Consciously or not, during any event attendees will assess it in terms of bang for their buck, and MasterControl took this seriously. 

“We feel it’s a responsibility of ours to show the value of the education delivered during the event through admission fees,” says Sara Bresee, the company’s executive vice president of marketing. “We want our audience to know that the content is valuable. We do that with insightful presentations, engaging roundtable sessions and in-depth training, plus a little comic relief.” 

A nice gesture is first-year customers are always invited free to their first summit.

Networking is the most difficult thing to achieve successfully during an online event, and arguably the most valuable. MasterControl handled it with a mix of one-on-one virtual meetings with MasterControl experts; daily live roundtables, each limited to a dozen participants; and customer-created forums on topics of their choosing. These were all enabled by the platform.

One of the summit’s virtual labs through which attendees could navigate

“With virtual, we see attendees less willing to ask questions,” says Valcarel. So making that easy and offering multiple ways to interact was important. Q&A opportunities were offered in three venues: at the live demo theater, as a chat feature at prerecorded breakouts, and during the roundtable discussions.

We Quality Digest attendees all had slightly different takes on how the conference went as far as the user experience, but overall we felt the platform succeeded in doing what it needed to connect attendees to multiple tracks of live or prerecorded content. That of course meant the website navigation had to be clear. This was usually true, but at times the logic escaped us.

A very smart move was to keep presentations, called “10Talks,” short and to the point, usually about 10 minutes. The goal wasn’t to do a deep dive into each topic, but to hit the key points of MasterControl’s expertise or knowledge about it.

“10Talks” offered short prerecorded segments where listeners could also submit questions.

A useful tool was the ability to create your own conference agenda—the electronic version of circling all the tracks on your paper conference guide you receive at in-person events.

Keep them engaged

Especially for longer events, you can’t just keep piling on technical content. Even your most ardent customers will get tired. So you need to pull them along. Here were three things MasterControl did.

Throughout the show, comedian Jason Alexander (Seinfeld costar) appeared in prerecorded comic segments written specifically for MasterControl and the quality industry. The insider humor was funny and effective; in one skit he managed to incorporate almost every conceivable quality acronym. MasterControl encouraged Alexander to poke fun at MC executives, especially CEO John Beckstrand. It was refreshing to see that kind of confidence in the C-suite.

Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander provided quality-related comic segments during the summit.

Alexander doesn’t come cheap, but Bresee says the expense was worth it for them. “It pays to invest in good talent—engaging talent,” she says. “We are talking about the comedic monologues that we ran between segments featuring Jason Alexander. Sprinkle that talent throughout the program, so people have a little something to look forward to.”

Another example was the Hackathon, where customers submit and vote on product ideas. The product team then selects the top-ranking ideas and puts them together for a live vote on day one of the summit. “The audience votes, and as soon as the winning ideas are announced, our team of hackers go to work to ensure the enhancement is completed in the software by the end of the event,” says Valcarel. “The Hackathon is always a big highlight for our customers because it gives them the opportunity to change the product in real time.” 

But perhaps the most popular event was the film festival, called Quality Shorts. Participants recorded several minutes of raw footage and submitted it along with a basic idea of the mood and genre they were trying to capture. To encourage participation by those with limited video-production skills and to create a more professional-looking product, MasterControl took care of editing, music, special effects, cuts, fade outs, etc. 

“We already had the video team on board for our conference needs, so it was not that much added effort to weave this into the scope,” says Valcarel. “The festival was such a creative way for customers to express how quality software impacts their day-to-day work—and we were impressed with the wide range of creativity.”

All of these nontraditional interactions not only involve the participants, but also give them something to look forward to and maintain their engagement throughout the event.  

Technical considerations

An obvious challenge: The vexing array of technical issues are beyond your control. You don’t know what kind of computer, mobile device, operating system, or network the attendee will be using to access the conference.

“We can’t control everyone’s technical environment,” says Valcarel. “In the future we need to communicate the software requirements—perhaps a pre-event doc that we send to attendees to help them have the best virtual experience. We’ve also seen companies use video tutorials and chat help, but the guiding principle must be simplicity.”

Keeping the event in one online space, accessible with one login, is vital. “I think this also applies to quality people as they’re thinking about how to keep or get their company trained and compliant going into 2021,” says Valcarel. “That idea of a single platform and keeping it simple—it will help the business and increase engagement.”

MasterControl did run into some issues with the reporting capabilities of the platform they chose, says Valcarel. They had wanted to be able to report out the users’ experiences, follow up with them accordingly, and further personalize their post-event outreach. However, when Master Control built custom pages, they lost some of the reporting capability. Sourcing a platform with post-event data in mind was an important lesson learned and is already incorporated into next year’s planning.


Obviously, a one-size event budget will not fit all companies, and deciding how much to spend to produce an online show depends on several factors:
• Who are your intended users, and what do they expect?
• Is this a one-time event or something you plan on doing every year?
• Is your goal to make money on the event itself? Break even? Or are you willing to spend more than you will make in attendance fees for the sake of long-term sales, customer recognition, and retention? 

It’s noteworthy that companies are now considering semiannual virtual events—a main conference possibly coupled with a post-Covid, in-person event, and a smaller virtual event six months later.

In MasterControl’s case, their goal was long term. Nevertheless, a revenue goal was set to help offset production costs. It was far from breaking even, but setting a budget target helped the company achieve two things, says Valcarel. The first was additional budget. “If we have a revenue goal, we’re able to request more budget, which is ultimately what allows us to have the added entertainment, education, and features that attendees enjoy.”

The second was value perceived. “Our education team delivers hands-on workshops that normally are significantly more expensive, so customers are willing to save money by getting their MasterControl education at a virtual summit,” says Valcarel. “We also have a robust discount strategy and email campaigns to support that, so most of our customers are offered registration packages at much lower rates.”

The show must go on

Any company that has put on a live conference knows that it’s expensive. Even a small two-day, 100-person conference held at a hotel can easily cost $150,000. With travel, lodging, and food, it’s also expensive for attendees. When considered from that perspective, there’s a lot to be said for virtual conferences where a physical presence—e.g., for hands-on experience with hardware—isn’t really needed. 

However, in our opinion, planning a virtual event is more intense because much of the experience relies so much more on technology. You must take into account everything considered here, with user experience being the most important. And for user experience, we believe the order of importance is:
• Ease of signing up for the event
• Ease of logging in, and being able to stay on one site for different aspects of the event
• Navigation. The more complex the event, the  more attention must be paid to user experience navigating to different tracks, chat rooms, etc.
• Communication. The more means to communicate in real time with presenters and other staff, the better.
• Engagement. Be vigilant about potential boredom with all aspects of your virtual event. Unlike a physical show, where attendees are stuck at the venue, online attendees can simply close their browser and walk away. Modify the format, schedule, and topics if your audience is disengaged. Provide interesting, fun events to break up the day. 

Finally, everything will hinge on the platform. Prioritize what you need the platform to do in terms of delivering the user experience and reporting back on KPIs. Be very detailed in what you need. Will there be papers that need to be downloaded, will there be live video or recorded video, will you have one-on-one chat or group chat?

We expect that as more companies embrace virtual user conferences and even trade conferences, the technology will get more refined, more available, and less expensive. But don’t expect it to go away when the pandemic stops. Virtual conferences are here to stay.

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Quality Digest

For 40 years Quality Digest has been the go-to source for all things quality. Our newsletter, Quality Digest, shares expert commentary and relevant industry resources to assist our readers in their quest for continuous improvement. Our website includes every column and article from the newsletter since May 2009 as well as back issues of Quality Digest magazine to August 1995. We are committed to promoting a view wherein quality is not a niche, but an integral part of every phase of manufacturing and services.


Virtual conferences

Trade shows and conferences by individual companies lend itself well to being put on virtually.  However, one of the advantages of a true trade show is being able to see competitor products all in the same room.  I'm not sure how that can be handled with a virtual meeting.

User conferences vs. industry conferences / trade shows

Excellent point. Of course, users conferences are by nature a single company event, and there are many more of them than industry conferences. And user conferences have the tremendous advantage of much more control over everything from the theme to the choreography to assist in keeping people engaged. I think it's fair to say that user conferences can even take more "risks" that might make some associations or professional societies squirm with discomfort! Jeff