Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Colleen Scollans. Colleen is a Marketing & Digital Transformation Consultant. She loves to coach, consult, and advise on the strategic and operational aspects of Marketing. She is passionate about driving business transformation through a technology enabled, data-driven and customer focused modern marketing design. Colleen was the former Chief Marketing Officer of Oxford University Press’s Academic Division.

2020 is the year of the pivot. Prior to COVID-19, when I thought of “pivot,” I pictured the Friends episode where Ross unsuccessfully directed his friends as they attempted to carry a large couch up a narrow stairway – all the while yelling “pivot”. While this might seem the most “unscholarly” publishing reference of all time, a mathematician published the solution to the Friends’ couch dilemma, proving all pivots, even the ones we need to make expeditiously, need some level of planning.

On September 30th, I participated in a panel at SSP’s Virtual Seminar: New Directions in Scholarly Publishing: Community, Collaboration, and Crisis. Our session, “Cancelled, Postponed, Reimagined: New Directions in Participating in Academic Conferences,” focused on the challenges and limitations that an online format brings, as well as some of the ways in which the pivot to virtual may change academic conferences for the better. The panel was organized by Vanessa Fairhurst (CrossRef) and moderated by Violaine Iglesias (Cadmore Media). I was joined on the panel by Nisha Doshi of Cambridge University Press and Charley Thompson of Bioscientifica.

Videoconference Meeting

For those unable to attend the workshop, the session is available in SSP’s on-demand library. Most of the session focused on conferences as seen through the prism of the event organizer. Charley and Nisha shared their experiences and lessons learned from impressively and agilely pivoting their conferences online (Bioscientifica’s events and the 2020 University Press Redux conference, respectively). I chimed in with some marketing advice, pulling inspiration from event organizers inside and outside of scholarly publishing.

The last question Violaine posed to the panel was the impact of virtual events on publishers reimagining their sponsorship and exhibit packages in a virtual world. Considering The Scholarly Kitchen’s audience, I thought it would be useful to elaborate on this question a bit more in a blog post.

Academic and library conferences are an important part of a publisher’s marketing mix. They present a high-impact opportunity to build brand, showcase new products, engage with customers, and discover new authors. Greg Britton (John Hopkins University Press) adeptly summarized the benefits of “book exhibits” in a 2015 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Despite the numerous advantages of physical exhibits, they are costly both in financial and environmental terms. While many publishers acknowledge these costs, by and large, prior to 2020 little had changed in how publishers approached their exhibit strategy. COVID-19 has, needless to say, dramatically changed the event landscape. While I do not think the virtual-only paradigm is here to stay, the way in which event organizers and exhibitors think about digital conferences will be permanently altered. As marketers rethink exhibits, there are some strategies to consider.

See This as an Opportunity

Over the last few years, many marketers have been advocating for a more progressive digital event strategy. The reason is two-fold:

  • It can be highly effective for advancing your event goals. I have seen examples of robust digital marketing campaigns generating better results than marketing efforts during, and at the physical show.
  • As marketers, we are trained to scrutinize the ROI (return on investment) of all marketing activity. Physical events, with their high fixed costs (space, shipping, equipment, Wi-Fi, gratis, event staffing, travel, etc.), often top the list of worst performers.

This current virtual-only environment offers a sandbox for marketers to test new digital marketing approaches. Since it is likely that different disciplines, event types, and customer groups will yield different results, it is important to test and measure results across different customer segments.

Even when physical events return, it is likely that many event organizers will have augmented digital exhibitor packages, and some will move to hybrid delivery. The data from sandbox experiments will inform the case for future event strategies. While this might mean fewer physical exhibits or scaling back tactics (smaller booths, sending less materials, booth alternatives, etc.), it most certainly elevates the importance of digital marketing at all events, regardless of the event format.

Make Your Virtual Booth Enticing

Designing a virtual booth requires different skills than designing a physical booth. Marketers need to focus on perfecting their virtual booth experience.

  • Reimagine physical signage as banner ads, product videos, content marketing document libraries, social media feeds, and more.
  • Do not forget incentives to attract visitors. While you cannot give away mugs and cookies, you can offer raffles, free content, digital stickers, and other creative ways to encourage attendee engagement.
  • Your virtual booth is just a gateway. Marketers should think of clever ways to encourage visitors to link through to their online platforms, full product catalog, blogs, or communities. Value-added content and offers with compelling CTAs (call-to-actions) can optimize conversions.

Push for a Digital Event Package

As we discussed at the panel, event organizers are thinking creatively about their exhibit and sponsorship packages. The dialogue should ideally be two-way with exhibitors asking pointed questions, such as:

  • How is the virtual booth promoted to attendees? Are there dedicated “trade show” times and how is excitement created for the exhibit hall? Is there an “auction style” event that brings together all vendor raffles?
  • How do you help me draw attendees? Do you offer exhibitor videos or other engagement vehicles? ACVO’s (American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists) exhibitor live chat and OLC’s (Online Learning Consortium) exhibitor scavenger hunt are good examples of innovative engagement strategies.
  • How can I disseminate high-quality content to attendees? Does the event have sponsored sessions (topics, workshops, focus group, demos, etc.)? Can I create sponsored content for your communications vehicles (e.g. a blog article or podcast episode)? Is there a content marketing library for high-value non-session content?
  • What are the promotional opportunities outside of my booth? Are there pre-roll video ads? Do I have access to attendee email addresses? What promotional opportunities are in the conference app and in the on-demand library? Can I sponsor breakouts or branded waiting rooms? How is the conference provider using social media? Cisco uses their advocacy marketing platform, to reward attendees with high social media engagement. This, coupled with a social media strategy that emphasizes exhibitor content, is a winning combination.
  • What data do I get? For example, will my attendee email list be appended with topical interests? Will I receive a report showing how my booth performed compared to other exhibitors? In a virtual environment, the conference provider has robust behavioral data that demonstrates the micro-interest of attendees based on sessions attended, chat activity, pulse surveys, virtual booth engagement, etc.
  • What opportunities are there for intimate events and networking? Many conference providers offer networking platforms to facilitate serendipitous networking (e.g., INTA’s speed networking) or purposeful networking (e.g., ASCO Connection). While the primary purpose is for attendee networking, these platforms can be extended to include attendee to exhibitor networking opportunities.

Create High Value and Creative Content

Create high-value content creation in conjunction with the event. Springer’s virtual hub, created in conjunction with the Frankfurt Bookfair, is a great example of a content-centric approach to a virtual exhibit.

As the CEO and founder of Cadmore Media, Violaine Iglesias has seen great examples of content creativity and innovation.

Video is obviously one of the most engaging forms of online content, and event organizers now have the opportunity to try out bolder approaches. Yes, recorded PowerPoint presentations play an important role for research and they certainly aren’t going anywhere, but the standards for what qualifies as acceptable in a “professional” environment are relaxing. Unstructured chats, virtual tours of original event locations, fun sponsored pre-roll videos are popping up at academic events. I am still waiting for the first conference that will dare organize a TikTok dance meme contest, though!

While marketing will create a lot of content, it is helpful to think broadly about content sources. Authors, for example, might be tapped to shoot smartphone teaser videos for their new book or article. Marketing can also leverage existing content. They can curate topical content collections, share digital sample chapters, or highlight interesting and statistically driven content trends (i.e., top cited articles).

Promote, Promote, Promote

Focus on creating promotional momentum, building up to and around the event, using event channels, your own channels, and paid channels. Do not rely on the event organizer to drive all the traffic to your booth.

Virtual conferences operate on an extended timeline thanks to the on-demand library. Think carefully about strategies to engage audiences before and after the event. Pre-event workshops, countdown to author showcases, and early access to the virtual booth are useful pre-event strategies. Post-event roundups and re-use of event content marketing assets offer increased promotional opportunity after the event.

Remember the audience is broader than just attendees that visit your booth. Promote broadly to the community using the event as your “campaign hook.” Often there are event themes, awards, and hashtags to help marketing ride the wave of the event excitement. Interested researchers can consume your content and take advantage of your offers without attending the conference.

Where possible, ensure your email marketing is highly segmented based on what you know about your customers. Many exhibitors have limited impressions (i.e. a fixed number of emails to an audience over a defined period) and a lot to promote. This requires a robust segmentation strategy as part of the overall marketing plan. For larger publishers, a move to a more robust digital marketing event package often involves an investment in segmentation and conversion optimization tools and strategies.

Last (but Not Least), Do Not Forget Editorial

It is important to remember that events are about more than the marketing team selling products, collecting names, and launching new products. Conferences are also about commissioning editors networking. As Nisha wisely reminded us in our panel, commissioning editors list events as one of the top ways to discover new authors. As marketing shifts their strategy, it is important to not forget the editorial dimensions of events. It may be that editorial networking becomes the primary reason for physical event attendance, changing what “physical space” is required, and how that space is designed. When events are virtual only, marketing and editorial teams should partner to find ways to facilitate digital networking. Leveraging event networking platforms, meet editor sessions, and developing author workshops are but a few ideas.

My wish (beyond seeing people again!) is that scholarly publishers emerge from this virtual-only world having strengthened their digital marketing muscle and moved towards a point of equilibrium where publishers can reduce their total exhibit costs without sacrificing results and conference producers maintain (and even grow) revenues through enhanced digital offerings. That is a pivot that hopefully we can all get behind.

Colleen Scollans

Colleen Scollans is a Marketing & Digital Transformation Consultant. She loves to advise on the strategic and operational aspects of Marketing. She is passionate about driving business transformation through a data-driven and customer focused modern marketing strategy and operating model. 


3 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Making the Most Out of Virtual Events: The Publisher as Vendor"

I agree Colleen. I look forward to seeing people in person again but know we are looking at a hybrid future for events. The hybrid future, as you described in good detail will require thinking about digital, about the physical, and above all about the audience’s experience in both. Thanks for the Primer!

Thanks Colleen, for this inspiring article.

In our own experience of creating content for content marketing purposes for the scholarly publishing industry, we consider virtual events as not being strictly limited to the dates of the event.

Indeed virtual events provide many opportunities to share your messages before, during and after each event. Thus, any event corresponds to a 6 month period during which to communicate key messages effectively via content marketing approaches.

Specifically, in the run up to the event, there are many opportunities to entice prospective attendees via teaser Q&A, podcast or video interviews of speakers. There are also opportunities to create highlights of key posters, in advance, among others.

In addition, virtual events (see an example of this concept applied to virtual medical events, here: https://www.sciencepod.net/lifesciences) also give us an opportunity for real-time creation of event text, podcast and video highlights during the event as well as creating sessions highlights and overviews in text, podcast, infographic and video format, that are to be distributed after the event has concluded.

This approach of content sharing before, during and after each event offers a long window during which scholarly publishers have an opportunity to deliver a consistent message by delivering various digital stories in multiple formats through multiple channels over time.

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