Virtual Events Do Not Drive Exhibitor ROI, But Can They?

Virtual Events Do Not Drive Exhibitor ROI, But Can They?

I recently saw a question posed on a forum asking if virtual events work for providing exhibitor ROI and satisfaction. There were many virtual vendors who responded with a resounding YES! As I reviewed their answers, they all seemed to tout a similar solution; one that I’ve seen and worked with firsthand during my days as an association strategist before starting CampfireSocial. Many of these virtual event companies offer sophisticated technologies, ease of scheduling, or embed an algorithmic underpinning and I have my favorites. They do a phenomenal job at delivering scheduled content to an audience and tracking who attends each session. However, they all fall short in providing vendors a virtual experience that rivals their on-site experiences. The amazing part is that they all fall short on this metric consistently and formulaically.

So, reverting to the question at hand, I’ll play the contrarian. The answer to whether virtual events work for providing exhibitor ROI and satisfaction is a resounding NO! Unfortunately, this is not a popular response because so many associations, for-profit organizers and even corporate entities rely on virtual events to engage with their audience and need exhibitor participation to help pay for the experience. If it doesn’t work then what’s an organization to do?

There is a solution, but before I address that let’s assess my conclusion.  Many organizations are marketing their virtual events as content & networking plays.  For example, many push messaging of virtual keynote speakers, industry trends that you can only hear about during the event, and networking opportunities.  This type of messaging is quite successful to encourage attendance, but what it tells your audience is that they should plan to sign on when convenient for them, listen to the content, maybe engage if they are bold enough to ask a question or make a new connection, and sign off.   Given the virtual format, people do not have to participate for multiple hours at a time. No one is keeping track and couple that with work & family distractions it is a recipe for multitasking and prioritization of what’s most important at the time.  Content might win…briefly, but then reality hits and attention shifts. The critical part to remember is that nowhere in this description do I state that people are in buying mode. Aha! That is the missing key to exhibitor satisfaction. The stage was set from the invitation to show up in learning mode, but buying mode was never triggered.

The reason why people do not visit virtual exhibit halls is because in the digital environment one needs to be in buying mode to peruse a virtual listing.  Think about how you shop.  Do you go to or to browse?  Likely not unless it is Amazon (and Amazon sure is fun to peruse).  You go to to purchase toilet paper and for dog food. The same mentality exists during a virtual event when attendees are in education mode and not in buying mode and this turns off exhibitors. Exhibitors are counting on the host organization to find a way to either bring them buying-ready attendees or convert attendees from education mode to buying mode. Unfortunately, most organizations are failing hard at this task.  The exhibitors have realized that they can do a better job at conducting a virtual event by inviting their CRM and setting the stage for commerce with commercially driven content. This is very bad for associations and for-profits. Without exhibitors, where will revenue come from? If relevance isn’t there and exhibiting vendors create their own events pulling show attendees, then what happens to association membership or a show’s attendee base? I’d argue that a poorly executed virtual event can have long-term negative consequences and organizations need to start planning and thinking strategically now.

Despite my view on digital events, I do believe that it is possible to create a virtual event that 1) offers up content, 2) provides networking opportunities, and 3) encourages commercial behavior.  However, organizations must think about their virtual event(s) differently.  For example, let’s think about how it works on the tradeshow floor?  People meet and learn together often alongside exhibiting brands. The interactions lead to organic exploration of the exhibitor’s booth.  Now, organizations need to find a way to digitize this behavior.  

CampfireSocial consults on this exact piece, and we'd be happy to host a conversation or a workshop where we provide suggestions to help you try something new and assess your existing virtual plans.  We also have our own platform that embeds the comprehensive exhibitor-driven philosophy.  Our platform and consulting philosophy have been tested with exhibitors and members/attendees. Both love it!  Let's continue the conversation. Contact to learn more.

Erica Bishaf

Founder & CEO