Cognos Inc.'s Financial Forum — a customer seminar series — traveled to only four North American cities this year compared to 11 in 2006. Yet the company's message reached more people and the cost per lead was way, way down, says Zeynep Marasli, global marketing programs manager for the Burlington, Mass.-based company.

They did it by replacing seven of the Financial Forum's face-to-face events with a one-day virtual conference in June that attracted 1,300 registrants and, in the end, 680 attendees.

“Last year we wanted to hold a virtual event, but we couldn't find the right technology, says Marasli, noting that they didn't want a “Web seminar environment.” This year, they worked with Unisfair Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., which creates Web-based online meeting spaces that have many of the conventions of a live event: an exhibit hall with booths, a general session hall for keynotes, meeting spaces for breakouts, opportunities to network, and a resource area. Each of the convention spaces is rendered online with links to downloads, webinar-like presentations that include slides and audio (videos can be included), and exhibitors ready to answer questions via online chat sessions.

The Cognos Financial Forum had a live keynote speaker and several other presentations in the morning; 10 exhibitors in the exhibition hall, including IBM, Deloitte, and LodeStar Advisors; and five concurrent education tracks in the afternoon, each with two sessions.

Marasli was particularly pleased with the system's reporting, which allowed Cognos to see what sessions visitors attended and what information they downloaded from booths, the resource center, and at presentations. “You can see how attendees were engaged,” she says. Registrants can revisit the content for 90 days after the live event, and as of late July, attendees had downloaded 2,550 documents.

“The ROI on the program was incredible,” says Marasli, who calls Unisfair “the next phase beyond Web seminars. … It's always very exciting to find new ways to reach out to our customer.” Cognos, she says, is looking at the potential for other virtual conferences, including replacing some of the 20-plus Financial Forums held in Europe, Asia, and Latin America that weren't included in this pilot project.

While the virtual event “absolutely” saved the company money compared to live events, “it's not less work,” Marasli says. “It still takes a lot of event management and project management.”