Why virtual conferences suck, and what to do instead

In pre-pandemic times, some startups we worked with had tremendous success with conferences as a demand generation channel. Good conferences could be an effective way to attract new leads, build relationships with clients and prospects, and make an impression on a large, relevant audience. Yes, they were expensive. But if you chose them wisely, invested time in preparation, and gave it your all during the actual event, the results—and ROI—were there. And then, March 2020 happened, and everything went virtual.

You’ve probably guessed what we think of virtual conferences by looking at the title of this post, but let me reiterate: virtual conferences suck. They’re bad in the broad way that so many pandemic substitutions are bad—i.e. they don’t fulfill our innate need for face-to-face interaction—but they’re also bad in more specific ways that relate to ROI and your marketing and sales pipeline. In this post, we’ll go through why virtual conferences are not a good use of your marketing budget, and what you can do instead, as we wait for the return of in-person events.

Common problems with virtual conferences

This year, our team has attended or sponsored about 15 virtual conferences in different verticals: fintech, SaaS technology, cybersecurity, People & Talent, and more. Across these different types of conferences, the same downsides (and deal breakers) continuously come up:

  • The ROI isn’t there: Don’t get us wrong, sponsoring a virtual conference is cheaper than sponsoring an in-person one …but given the huge limitations of most virtual events, which we get into below, even the reduced cost is not worth it. (More thoughts on cost and ROI in the mini-case study that follows.)
  • Distracted audiences: Most people aren’t taking a day off of work to attend virtual conferences. They’re toggling back and forth between the conference and their other browser windows. They’re listening to speakers while writing emails, and going on work Zooms while perusing the conference interface. If you want your audience’s full attention, you are typically not going to find it at a virtual conference.
  • Glitchy tech and a bad UX for sponsors: There has been a proliferation of sleek virtual conference platforms in recent years, but we haven’t seen one that blows our socks off yet. Even conferences with the fanciest virtual set-ups tend to have some major gaps in UX, like a lack of real-time attendance tracking for virtual booths, or overcrowded chat features that don’t lend themselves to productive conversations. The lack of these features can inhibit your team’s ability to both authentically connect with leads and prospects and to track your progress throughout the conference. (More of an annoyance than a dealbreaker, but there’s also usually at least one panel speaker with an unstable internet connection or a total lack of video conference mastery. If we never have to say “Sorry, you’re on mute” again, it will be too soon.)
  • Ineffective networking: Networking thrives in relaxed, casual settings where it’s possible to engage as three-dimensional people, not just as vendors and potential clients. There is, unfortunately, nothing relaxed or casual about a virtual conference set-up — and certainly nothing three-dimensional. Some conferences try to approximate networking with small-group Zooms or “virtual matchmaking” events where vendors are paired with potential customers. But unfortunately, these events usually don’t lead to lasting relationships. At a virtual networking event, we were once paired with another member of our team, and at another, we were paired with a direct competitor. These are small mistakes, but large missed opportunities, when you consider the high cost of attending most virtual conferences.

So, what does it look like when all of these downsides are in action? Let’s look at the (anonymized) story of one of our clients and a recent conference they attended.

An (anonymized) cautionary case study about a well-known virtual conference

One Blue Seedling client spent around $10K sponsoring a high-profile conference in late 2020. Their sponsorship package included a “virtual booth,” a prime speaking slot for the CEO, and 200 guaranteed leads (in addition to any leads garnered from booth traffic and sales conversations). In the weeks leading up to the conference, the team planned meticulously, produced an engaging video and digital product brochures for the booth, and made sure the Sales team was prepared to pound the virtual pavement in search of leads. Given the high-quality attendee list of over 2000 relevant industry professionals, we had high hopes for what this conference could bring.

Unfortunately, no aspect of the conference lived up to what we imagined. The “virtual booth” was just a landing page with a chat box, and there was no way to talk to booth visitors unless they initiated a conversation. To find our booth, attendees had to scroll through dozens of logos. Despite our targeted outreach to attendees and a raffle used to incentivize booth traffic, we ended up with less than 15 (!) total booth visitors. The CEO did a great job on his panel, but that panel gave us no additional booth visitors or leads. We never received a list of people who watched the panel either.

At the end of the conference, we got our list of 200 guaranteed leads. Plus the meager booth traffic, we ended the conference with 215 leads total, which led to a total of three Sales Opportunities and no deals. Ultimately, we had nothing to show for our $10K investment and weeks of preparation. Like we said above: the ROI just wasn’t there.

Is this startup planning on doing this type of virtual event again? Absolutely not. The conference was basically a glorified list-buying activity. In retrospect, we wish we would have just spent the $10K on a list of quality leads, and not wasted weeks preparing for an unproductive event. In the time it took to prep for that conference, we could have very well planned our own.

What to do with your conference budget instead

There are much more efficient and fruitful ways to spend the money you would put towards a virtual conference. Here are two of our favorite virtual conference alternatives:

  • Plan your own webinar. We love webinars. Using a platform like Zoom, they are low to no cost (other than staff time) and can bring in hundreds of engaged leads. And you don’t need more than a month to fully plan and execute one. While you’re waiting for in-person conferences to come back, we highly recommend investing in webinars. Just make sure you are telling a good story and providing real value to your audience.
  • Invest in building your database. As we mentioned above, virtual conferences can feel like glorified list-buying, so why not just use that time and money and buy or build a really killer list, and then up your prospecting or newsletter game? Check out our guide to building your database, and then dig into our 2021 Marketing Toolkit for more ideas on how to engage with your newfound audience.

The bottom line

The return of safe, in-person conferences is not too far away — and it’s worth waiting for. Skip the virtual conference circuit in 2021, and instead, invest that time and money into producing high-impact webinars, building your database, and making plans to have the best time ever at IRL conferences in the post-COVID world.

Lauren is Blue Seedling's Managing Director. She is obsessed with all things content: from blog posts and podcasts to 15-second dance videos.

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