4 Ways to Engage Customers at Virtual Conferences

Typically, at this time of year many education marketers are spending a lot of time on the road, traveling from one conference to another. However, face-to-face education conferences came to a halt in the middle of March 2020; many went virtual for the rest of the year with a few cancelling completely. This year, for the first quarter or so, plans for 2021opens PDF file education conferences remain virtual.

We know it’s a big change. But there are actually some real advantages to virtual conferences. Aside from saving yourself long nights on a show floor ensuring that your booth gets set up properly, your company is likely saving a lot of budget on travel and expenses. Beyond that, virtual conferences present the opportunity for more educators to participate because geographic or budget limitations are not as big of a factor, which gives you more new potential customers to reach.

In 2020, you had to quickly pivot, reevaluate and change plans to participate in virtual conferences. Knowing in advance that they will be online in 2021 offers you the opportunity to plan your strategy and take full advantage of the new opportunities. While many of the same marketing best practices apply to virtual conferences, there are some things to consider in different ways:

  1. Develop a virtual booth strategy. As you may have discovered last year, just because you won’t be face to face doesn’t mean you can’t have a stellar booth. Your online booth can feature videos, online demos, chats with company executives, and webinars. You could also include virtual chat rooms staffed by your sales reps so that educators can connect with them. Also, think about ways to attract attendees to your virtual booth with online coupons or activities, like contests, giveaways and special guest speakers. The added bonus: most virtual conference programs track those who browse, click, or view even if they don’t fill out a form. Wondering about swag to draw people in? You could obtain a conference registration list and mail swag directly to educators at home encouraging them to visit and participate. 
  1. Submit a speaking proposal. This is a marketing conference best practice — whether live or virtual — but with the switch to virtual there may be more opportunities and flexibility. When you develop your proposal, consider featuring customers rather than just your company leadership (this is another best practice no matter how the conference is hosted). An added value when presenting at a virtual conference is that you may actually reach more participants than at a live event, since many organizations record presentations for future on-demand viewing. Also, attendance at your session is documented when someone joins online.
  1. Rethink your sponsorships. If there is a conference where your company has had a high level of involvement in the past, it is important to think creatively about ways to support it virtually. While groups may have sponsorship and other support packages already developed, they are also, in most instances, creating this from the ground up so take your ideas to them and see if there are ways to work together. Unlike in-person events, virtual conferences often go live earlier and stay up after the main conference dates, opening the door to reach early registrants in the weeks or months prior to the conference and allowing attendees to view content later. Attendees no longer have to sacrifice one session over another or need to be in a particular space at a particular time to view your presentation.  Moving through a virtual conference can happen on-demand.
  1. Happy hour lives virtually. You likely have participated in a few online socials over the past year or brought your own coffee to a morning meeting. If you’ve always hosted a happy hour, dinner, or morning coffee, virtual shouldn’t stand in your way. There are plenty of companies that are willing to help you send your attendees food and drink that they can consume during your event. Host in your booth, perhaps with a main speaker, and offer the chance for participants to socialize and talk with one other and company reps in breakout rooms. Dinner is similar — just like you if you were in a conference city, you can identify a virtual restaurant you like, invite educators to attend and have the food or a gift card sent to their location so that they receive it just in time to enjoy dinner with your sales representatives and/or company leadership using your preferred online meeting app or in your virtual booth.

A study released by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in January 2021 reveals that only 22 percent of B2B conference organizers plan to abandon virtual conferences when the pandemic is over. While some education organizations may go back to face-to-face events, there are also likely to be others that have realized real value of virtual events and you should too!

It may feel like a lot to consider, but conferences have always required a lot of planning. It’s exciting to be pursuing new ways of connecting with educators. Start with MDR’s Education Conference Guideopens PDF file to track when and where conferences and trade shows are taking place. Just like face-to-face conferences, you will leave virtual conferences with many leads, some with personal information and others with work information. Often times you may just be left with a name and email. Remember that MDR can help you round out your attendee profiles with our data, as well as follow up with your new leads to  unearth potential opportunities.