Live and virtual trade shows are similar in many respects. The essential concept of the show is the same: They bring together attendees, exhibitors, and typically one or more sponsors. But around this common core, there are many differences between a trade show in person and one online. Content that works at live trade shows isn’t necessarily the right approach for a virtual version. In order to host a successful virtual trade show, it’s vital to understand just what makes it different than its in-person counterpart.
How Does a Virtual Trade Show Work?
At live trade shows, exhibitors and sponsors have booths at which they can display products and provide information. Attendees can visit any trade show exhibits that pique their interest and schedule meetings with booth staff if they want to learn more. Many shows provide additional content in the form of speakers, education sessions, and even entertainment.
Virtual trade shows offer much the same types of features and activities, but they all happen online. At a physical event, attendees head to a venue—often a convention center or hotel—to participate. At a virtual event, attendees log into an event website or online platform. The virtual space is often designed to mimic a convention center, hotel, or other venue. This helps bridge the gap between the familiar and the unknown, so attendees instinctively understand what they can do at the event.
A typical online venue includes a central lobby, which serves as a hub that provides access to the rest of the event. From the lobby, attendees can visit different parts of the virtual space to check out the trade show booths. Both exhibitors and sponsors can brand their virtual corner of the event. And they can create content such as pre-recorded video, image galleries, live streams, and live chat. Just as at a live trade show, attendees can visit virtual exhibits, view the content, and schedule meetings if they’re interested in deeper interaction.
What’s Different About Virtual Trade Shows?
While there are core similarities, some of the specifics of virtual trade shows differ from physical events. It costs less to organize a virtual event, and there are plenty of benefits. For instance, there’s a wider potential audience base and a greatly enhanced ability to track activity and engagement. On the other hand, it’s harder to engage an online audience, partly due to the need to compete with both offline and online distractions.
Virtual events are generally much less expensive to hold than live ones. There’s no venue or vendors to hire, and no labor costs. The biggest expense for a virtual trade show is typically the virtual event platform. There are no other major budget-busting costs unless you want to add high-value celebrities or entertainment. This means you can organize a virtual trade show for a fraction of the cost of a live event.
Another obvious difference is that for a virtual event, your target audience isn’t necessarily limited by geography. People can attend an online event from almost anywhere in the world, which means that event can attract a global audience. A small in-person trade show could easily become a much larger event if it happens online.
For many people, one of the best parts of attending a live trade show is the chance to catch up with old friends and contacts and make new ones. In-person events lend themselves well to organic, spontaneous networking, and it’s part of the fun for many attendees.
This is something that can be hard to replicate at a virtual trade show. Online replacements such as chat rooms and Zoom conferences don’t provide the same level of interest and don’t feel as spontaneous as live meetings. However, this is a problem that will likely improve as people get used to interacting at online events. As it starts to feel more familiar, it will also feel more natural and satisfying.
One of the biggest challenges virtual trade show organizers face is that of attendee engagement. When people attend live events, everything at the venue is event-related. They’re busy walking the trade show floor, visiting booths, watching demos and presentations, and networking. Their attention is fully engaged in event-related activities.
For a virtual trade show, however, most people will attend either from home or from work. At either location, there are distractions that might pull their attention away from their computers—not to mention the most enticing distraction of all, in the form of the entire rest of the internet.
This is an issue not just for event organizers but for exhibitors and sponsors too. They’re tasked with creating booth content that is informative and engaging to online visitors. However, the types of content that work at a live show don’t always translate to virtual success. Online content typically needs to deliver its payload more quickly in order to get the message across before losing the audience to one of those competing distractions. Gamification is another element that’s quickly becoming essential at online events, including trade shows, as a way of keeping attendee engagement high.
Tracking what attendees do at a trade show can help you determine which elements of the show work and which ones need fine-tuning. You can also get plenty of useful demographic data that can inform how you market future shows.
At virtual events, where every attendee interaction happens online, you can get so much more. If every registered attendee has a unique identifier—such as their login handle—then it’s simple to track what they view and do at a virtual event. You can directly track not only their movements around the trade show content, but also their level of engagement, by tracking how they interact with the content and for how long. Virtual trade shows have huge potential to provide high-quality data on a level that in-person trade shows can’t match.
If you’re used to live trade shows, it might be difficult to see how to effectively monetize a virtual trade show. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy. There are many locations where advertising messages and content can be displayed.
Some ways to monetize an online trade show include:
- Banner and splash screen ads on an event website
- Preferred ad placement on the event website and event platform
- Advertising messages in email blasts, on registration screens, and other locations
- Sponsor advertising and booth portal in the lobby of the virtual venue
- Sponsored networking and breakout spaces
- Sponsored giveaways, prizes, and other gamified content
- Sponsored speakers and presenters
Another major benefit to sponsors is the ability to track the effectiveness of each form of advertising. It’s impossible to know how many people look at an advertising message at a live trade show. Online, you can track not just how many people are served a particular ad but also how many interact with it, and the outcomes of those interactions.
Virtual Trade Shows Can Be Just as Valuable as Live Events
Live trade shows have been a mainstay of many industries for decades, but making the shift to virtual has plenty of potential benefits. Virtual events can be more affordable to host and easier to attend for the audience, as well as for exhibitors. The key to holding a valuable virtual trade show is to understand what makes them different from live events. Then build a show that capitalizes on those differences.