Back in December, Unified Workspace Community sponsored the VMUG December Virtual Event, and I’ll be the first to admit I was sceptical about how valuable it would be. In fact, I was initially confused – I’d never even heard of virtual events prior to this, and I expected them to be only a step up from a webinar.

Luckily, I work with an excellent agency that also manages VMUG events and had confidence that this would be a great sponsorship opportunity. Indeed it was! This ended up being the perfect time to sponsor a virtual event; the current global crisis we’re all experiencing has caused people to limit their travel, so there was an influx of people signing up to attend. Following our success with this event, we sponsored consecutive VMUG virtual events in March and April and I was able to experience it for myself as a virtual exhibitor.

Prior to the event, I was given a username and password, and once logged in, I was greeted with the view of the virtual lobby – here attendees have the option of navigating towards the auditorium, exhibit hall, info desk, hands on labs, or lounge.

The sessions are held in the auditorium at scheduled times, and these can either be pre-recorded or live. (In this case they were live.) However, as a sponsor and somebody who was on “booth duty” for the day, I headed to the exhibit hall, where the virtual booths were located.

The virtual booths are manned by organization representatives like me from behind our computer screens, in a familiar chat-room setup. Here attendees can ask questions, just like at a physical event. However, there were loads of things I enjoyed about this event approach that I wouldn’t have gained from an in-person experience.

People can be shy to interact at events, and this removes that barrier.
As someone who has attended many events and has also spent long days on booth duty, I find it takes some courage to approach a booth representative or be approached by an attendee. At a virtual event, attendees can either ask questions in the more public room or initiate a private chat with any of the booth reps. Multiple conversations can be happening simultaneously, so there’s no queuing when attendees want to speak to the expert for whom they have a question.

Reference documents can be kept on-hand.

I found it helpful to have documents and articles on-hand in case I needed to refer to them. This is really helpful if you’re talking about products and need to refer to spec-sheets or want to quote facts or statistics. In one conversation, I was able to immediately answer a question and then follow it up with some further reading that the attendee could digest at their leisure.

Engage your audience, no travel required.

This one is obvious, but travel, accommodation and the associated costs are not barriers for being able to attend or exhibit at a virtual event. Similarly, these events eliminate the need to request time away from the office or make arrangements for time spent away from home. Since the global pandemic we’re facing began to escalate and keep everyone at home, virtual conferences have become the new default for events and is likely to continue as an alternative to physical events for the indefinite future.

Data rules everything.

As a sponsor, the data insights we get from these events is great. It can be difficult to track engagement and success from physical events, but the virtual environment enables us to see how many attendees visited the booth, which content they engaged with, and how much time they spent interacting with our content among other metrics. Our primary goal at these events is to encourage people to join our community; as such, people could easily complete this action from the comfort of their own desk.

There were also some familiar features of this particular virtual experience. The overall structure of the day was actually very similar, with the schedule and content exactly as you’d expect. Attendees could also collect points based on the number of actions they took on the day (speaking with sponsors, attending sessions, interacting with content etc) and the highest-ranking attendees could use those points to win prizes.

Of course, there are also drawbacks; it’s hard to replace genuine face-to-face interaction and some of the benefits of having an unedited, candid dialogue with an expert or a peer. In these tough times, however, I am thankful we have the technology to replace physical events with something very similar.

Overall, a virtual event is worth experiencing at least once, whether as a sponsor or an attendee. It’s a very low-commitment way of learning from a lot of experts in once place without having the hassle of leaving your home. Life may not return to “normal” for some time now, but community engagement is one thing that we don’t have to lose while staying at home.

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