In a previous corporate life, Sue Lawrence-Longo “failed miserably” in attempting to put together a virtual meeting. But that was then, and this is now.

Her current employer, Stratus Technologies, Maynard, Mass., had always held in-person user conferences. But Lawrence-Longo, vice president, global marketing, was looking for a way to reach new prospects. “Given the 2.0 technology, and the fact that we had participated as a sponsor in some virtual events,” she says, “I thought it was probably a good time to try again.”

She targeted a user conference that had been held in Las Vegas in 2006 and Orlando in 2007. Each event had attracted about 200 customers and partners, and few, if any, prospects.

Choose the Right Vendor

Having made the decision to go virtual, the next step was to select a vendor from the growing number of virtual meetings technology companies that have popped up over the last several years.

“You need to pick carefully because, chances are, you get what you pay for,” she says. “You could have a huge credibility problem if you have any kind of server issue. If you're expecting people to hang around while the vendor gets a glitch corrected, think again. They'll hang up, go away, and you'll never get them back.”

She needed a vendor that could easily provide multi-language capabilities so that users from places like Korea, for example, could have an interface in their own language. She also needed a vendor that was expert in delivering attendee data.

“Not all vendors are equal when it comes to recording attendance,” she says. “We wanted the bread crumbs. Who signed on? What time? How long did they listen? Did they visit the expo area? What booth did they go to? Did they chat with anyone”

She chose Unisfair of Menlo Park, Calif., in the fall of 2007, about six months before the event. The service allows attendees to visit an online event environment to watch webcasts, participate in Q&A sessions, download collateral materials, browse an exhibition floor, and more. Brett Arslaner, Unisfair's director of marketing, says the six-month lead time was plenty. “We recommend about 12 weeks, although it could be shorter from a technology standpoint. Much of the time is needed to properly promote the event.”

The major challenge was the program. “A virtual event may be less expensive than a live event, but it's more work,” says Lawrence-Longo. “It's all about the topic and your speakers. No one wants to hear about Stratus only from Stratus people. They want to hear from customers and thought leaders — the who's who in the market.”

Not only did she have to recruit the appropriate speakers, they had to be educated about presenting in a virtual world. “Presenters are accustomed to being on a stage, wandering around, seeing the audience, and getting a sense of whether or not their messages are resonating, so that they adjust what they are saying on the fly. With a virtual event, imagine talking on a phone for 20 minutes while your audience is on mute. You have no idea whether the audience is engaged.”

The process was also complicated by the fact that the speakers had to record their presentations three weeks before the event so they could be put on the Unisfair server. (Although the presentations were pre-recorded, speakers were available for Q&A sessions.) “Can you imagine asking executives to think about this more than three weeks in advance, then come up with a presentation and record it?” says Lawrence-Longo. “That takes planning.”

The prerecorded presentations were limited to 20 minutes, followed by 10-minute Q&A sessions. That gave attendees plenty of time to visit the virtual trade show, which had nine booths, including vendors Microsoft, VMware, and Sightline.

The result? An event that drew just 200 attendees when it was held in Las Vegas and Orlando attracted more than 700 registrants — 400 of whom attended — when it went virtual. More important, 52 percent of the attendees came from outside the United States, which meant that Stratus reached many new prospects. And the virtual event cost about $100,000, a tremendous savings compared to the $1 million-plus price tag for the live events.

Still, Lawrence-Longo is spending the first half of this year evaluating attendance at physical conferences before deciding if the company should do a virtual event in late 2009. Despite the apparent success, there were trade-offs to the virtual meeting. Attendees were surveyed before and after the event, and many said they missed the live interactions. “When you have an event, you have those hallway conversations where you pull someone off to the side for five minutes,” she says. “I don't believe virtual events will completely take the place of real-life events. They'll supplement them, particularly when companies are on a tight budget.”

The Story

Stratus took its user conference online in the hope of reaching new prospects. In the end, 52 percent of the attendees came from outside the United States, many of whom would never have traveled to a live event.