Virtual events are the new normal, here’s why it’s good for business

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Mia Masson works for a company called Swapcard that was started in 2013 by three French men who were childhood friends, and Swapcard is slowly revolutionising the way that people hold events. Surprisingly, none of the founders had a background in technology or in events management, but one day, they decided to start a company together in that industry because they found that there’s a demand on the market for swapping business cards. They thought, “Who’s still going home from an event or a meeting with physical business cards and typing details into their computers?” They figured one could misspell an email address, lose the business card, it could get wet and then you lost your contact, so they decided to create an app where you could scan a business card and all that info would be directly saved in your device. 

After a few years and a few funding rounds, though their idea didn’t work out, they had the resilience and the stamina to keep going, so they decided to completely change their product. For them, the execution was more important than the idea anyway. After a while, they decided that the market was in need of an online event platform. Originally, they were handling physical events. They managed huge conference centers where it would sometimes be difficult to find the right booth, so they made an interactive map and had an online agenda. Early on, the value of artificial intelligence came to light. They wanted to use AI to connect people with each other and with the right sessions to watch according to their data, their profiles, their interests.

That was going great, and then COVID happened. Mia says they’ve come to realise that there is a need to evolve and adapt their product once again. This time, it needed to all go online and to cater to virtual events, as there wasn’t much of a choice. That’s their strategic vision, and they hope to have events changed for the better. These long-lasting changes they’re implementing are going to make all events hybrid models in the future. It is their belief that the value of technology in events, shows, conferences, and the like cannot be lost because it’s making people more data-driven. It’s helping them increase ROI, and it’s connecting people globally especially in a time of need like now when people can’t see each other. People are missing human contact from being in lockdown, and so being able to connect with a global audience and a global network of peers is very valuable.

There are two views to it: some people like the physical contact and really miss it, while others miss it but can find replacements online. Swapcard caters to that with features on their event platform that allows chatting with other attendees, taking part in live discussions during a session, polling, and content which can make the session more interactive. It’s a great way to network with people, make new contacts, and approach people through messaging online. Swapcard caters to clients big and small, including SMEs. They’ve worked with Clarion on their events, and they’re currently working on a deal with one of the largest and oldest world fairs, and that will place in 2021. They work with associations like IAEE for an event called Expo! Expo! They work with NAMM which has a Believe in Music event. They also cater to smaller events, and those are just as interesting for them to take part in.

How to create an event using Swapcard

Photo from Event Industry News

To create an event with Swapcard, first decide whether to turn a current event into a virtual one or to create a new virtual event, then think about what’s needed to make it happen. Key aspects of this would be a good platform, a place where everyone can come together and follow all the news, content, data and the people in the events. Once there’s an event platform that meets your needs, look at your content, because when going virtual, content is king. If you are at a physical show and you’re watching all these different sessions and speakers, if it’s not to your taste or you find it boring, you could simply leave or attend a different session. With virtual events, you could just exit that tab at any point if it’s boring, so content has got to be extremely valuable and engaging that it makes viewers or listeners want to stay and pay attention.

Once you have great content, great speakers, a great platform, and all the other tools like registration, then think about engagement and how your audience can meet, what you can offer to both attendees and exhibitors. With Swapcard, organisers get online support that’s available 24/7. They conduct trainings as well. After that, the next steps are just to ensure that the speakers are engaging and that the exhibitors are going out there and getting leads.

One of the challenges for speakers at virtual events Mia shared is that it’s not necessarily possible to see who’s currently watching, who’s exiting, who’s messaging whilst they’re supposed to be paying undivided attention to the event. Luckily, Swapcard tracks the activity and behaviour of everyone on the platform, and this is all GDPR-friendly. Everyone that enters and uses the platform agrees to this. At the end, it’s very helpful for organisers to become data-driven and know where to invest. Swapcard provides them with detailed data so they can analyse who watched which session and for how long, which systems were the best ranked, which speakers were ranked the best, how many messages were exchanged, how many calls were planned, etc. The speaker also has a unique view of seeing the live chats, the question and answer portion, and the polls. They can see people chatting in the live discussion and asking questions. They can see who’s interacting which would be similar to seeing faces in the audience.

Virtual events are here to stay, literally

Photo from Who’s Next

Community building is one most important aspects of an event, and at Swapcard, they believe it can happen online, but there must be opportunities for it. The platform needs to be open for longer than just two or three days in a year. At a physical event, it’s normally only two to three days. At the end, you say your goodbyes, and if you remember, you’ll connect with each other on LinkedIn and maybe chat. But with an online event platform, it can be open a month prior to the event. People can already start looking at the attendee lists, the exhibitor list, stock networking, making meetings, and it can be open weeks or months after the event has finished, so the content that’s in demand is free for people to rewatch, or if they missed it due to timezone issues. They can keep networking basically. 

Mia says that eventually, platforms or online communities will have to be open 365 days a year, as this builds a much greater sense of community than people travelling from show to show and losing touch with one another. The beauty of Swapcard is that you can connect any platform to it. In terms of registration, they sync with all major registration tools in the market today. That means you can upload or download all the attendees, exhibitors, and speakers with one click. In terms of content, you can do live streaming, or you can do pre-recorded, existing content. As long as the  video player and streaming tool has an iframe player built in, it can be embedded onto the platform. Native players like YouTube and Vimeo can be automatically put in easily. That creates a very efficient way of repurposing one’s content. 

Say you’re an attendee that wants to network and meet new people. Thanks to artificial intelligence, it will send you pop-up recommendations of people to meet, and you have the option to say yes or no, sort of like using a dating app. The more you say yes or no, the better the understanding of the AI becomes in terms of your tastes and interests, and then it will send more accurate contacts that can be downloaded at any time even once the event has finished. It’s possible to even rate contacts and add notes to contacts for contextualization, which is important for exhibitors. 

Lower cost, but greater return

Photo from Swapcard

In the past, with physical events, even with the biggest booth, it still didn’t guarantee leads. The cost of lead acquisition was high, but with not a lot of guarantees. Now with virtual events, the cost of lead acquisition is much lower. There are no travel expenses and no need to pay for a physical booth, so the overhead cost is much lower, but on average, you get three times more attendees than any physical event. On top of that, they’re global attendees and they can connect at any time zone. You can talk to more than one person at the same time, which you can’t do at a physical booth. So with virtual events, the cost of lead acquisition is lower, but the potential is much higher.

The chance encounters or randoms act of business that are often pivotal with going to a show are one of the most challenging aspects of going virtual, and that sometimes translates to serendipity happening right in the chat box. The industry is still figuring out ways to make it as valuable as in-person chance meetings, and online, there are tools for it. Coffee breaks, happy hours after events, online roundtables, or speed meeting features are great ways to make this happen.

Online event management does require a whole new skill set, which is why event organisers should invest in training their teams on that immediately, because even with event managers, that’s not going to be sustainable, according to Mia. They need to learn to do it on their own. If you choose not to have a dedicated project manager which is your go-to person for events and someone who is with you 24/7, there’s a very thorough training process and support all the way through from way before the events, as they do understand that the platform can be difficult to grasp. That’s why they have many tools available including webinars, demos, and calls to train clients.

When it comes to pricing, there’s no “one price fits all.” It depends on the number of attendees. The basic package starts with $2 per attendee. You could choose to have 100,000 attendees or a smaller, more intimate event with, say, 300 attendees. You then have many different options in terms of add-ons or in terms of charging exhibitors. It depends on the type of event. On their website, they’ve made it really easy to build an event and input all the details regarding it, and at the end will be the quotes. It’s all automated.

If you want to find out more about the fantastic features that Swapcard has to offer, you can check out their website. For anyone considering to create a virtual event to promote your business, Swapcard is a great platform for that. It can drive engagement between organisers, exhibitors, and attendees, and it will help you bring in those leads to get yourself noticed.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Swapcard

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