Stephen Wynkoop, ConferenceOnline.com swynk@bitsonthewire.com

Face-to-face events – meetings, conferences and  trade shows – are key to reaching, engaging and  motivating members.

So how can  an association reach and  engage its members when they are sitting in their offices or homes?

Virtually. Think of a virtual “face-to-face” event.

While in-person meetings remain  the standard, many associations are turning to virtual events to reduce costs, attract more geographically diverse groups of participants – or just inject a real change of pace.

New tools for these events include the virtual pieces of online communications and  presentations: webcasts and  webinars as well as online trade shows and  virtual conferences all offer great leverage and  can  provide huge returns on investment. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome is fear of the unknown:  just what does it take to hold one of these virtual events?

Virtual Event Basics…

At a high level, the steps to put together a virtual event are similar to those for an in-person event.   The foundation is content: your presentations and  speakers and  the materials they’ll be presenting in the sessions. Other steps include:

  • Marketing  your event  to your membership (“save  the date,” registration information,  etc.)
  • Finding sponsors and  partners
  • Setting  up session schedules

While you won’t be managing a physical location,  the virtual event  environment offers a variety of branding and networking opportunities.

Webcasts and  webinars are pretty straightforward. These are a single  presentation, usually about an hour, presented online using  a broadcast tool.  You allow people to register, then  they attend the session and watch  it in “real time” or after the fact, on-demand. These are great tools for presenting quick  updates, single  topics, or even  an ongoing web-based series of presentations.

Now with virtual events in the mainstream, options are plentiful for producing online events that support current in-person work or that offer entirely new means of outreach. These virtual conferences include as many sessions as you’d like and  often include virtual trade show booths. If you consider the elements of an in- person event,  typically held at hotel or conference venue, those same aspects can  be achieved online.

This gives  your audience – those in your organization and  those that you collectively  support — options for interacting with you.  Many times,  associations are using these virtual events to provide session materials, interaction with associated vendors and  resources and interaction with other members, to those who cannot travel, or don’t have  the time for an in-person conference event.

… and Benefits

The result  can  be increased membership, due  to working with and  helping a more broadly available base.  Another benefit  can  be more member involvement, through the use of chat  technologies, online discussions, materials provided with sessions and  more.   This interaction creates friendships, business relationships and  even  can fuel new opportunities for online participants.

For you, the show organizer, it’s an opportunity to extend your vision and  reach, and  to provide services to people that may not otherwise be able  to attend an event,  or that want a refresher for your in-person events.  There are many  ways to weave the online and  offline worlds together to provide a comprehensive set  of resources. Examples include simultaneous broadcast of sessions from a live event,  “best  of” shows that recap the in- person event  and  even  on-demand events that show the sessions captured at the in-person event.  At the same time, the online events can  be economical and  even provide a new source of revenue for your organization.

You can  offer access to your events for a fee to attendees, and  you can  provide certification  and  ongoing access to sessions as online courses, available for a fee to members as follow-up revenues.

Integrating Virtual Basics

Some  ideas to consider for successful virtual conferences:

  • During the main part of the day,  run educational sessions that help your members in the topics that interest them and  that your organization supports.
  • In the evening, run “informational” events on the same platform, where  members can  invite others to participate to learn more about your organization. You could  have “viewing parties” for prospective members and  ask for donations to the association in support of the evening event(s).
  • Offer a certification  for session attendance — this helps with continuing education requirements by some employers or industries and, even  if you don’t have  a formal continuing education curriculum, your members get the benefit  of a certificate, which demonstrates that they’re keeping their skills up-to-date.
  • Online events are great tools to get the word out not only about a specific topic,  but an association’s benefits and  services. Use the interaction time to help convey your association’s benefits and  goals and  how attendees can  get involved. Case studies or “success stories”  are a good way to communicate benefits.
  • Promote your presenters; they’ll promote your association. When presenters agree to speak, make  sure everyone knows who they are,  what they do, where  their blog or book or website is, etc.   Make sure  the attendees know how to get involved with the presenters.
  • How do you “sell” a virtual event  to a new/reluctant audience? Many audiences are unfamiliar with the tools and environment of a virtual event.   It can  be helpful tostart with a webcast or two, then move forward into a more comprehensive event.    You can  also offer a preview  of the event  through the use  of a simple  video that shows your audience what to expect.

There are many ways to integrate virtual events into your association’s activities  – it can  be a great tool for educating, getting involved with, and  adding growth to your membership and  association constituents. It’s not nearly as daunting as it may seem, and  with the right partners, you can  focus  on the events, outreach and benefits to your base, rather  than the mechanics of the event.

For more information about vConferenceOnline.com and holding  your own virtual events, please see vConferen- ceOnline.com – full event  support, help with setup and options and  a series of options are available to you for hosting your virtual events.