The Value of Virtual Communities in a Face-to-Face Industry

Originally published in Trade Show Executive, Apr 2014 Issue

There is no doubt in the minds of any of us in this industry that coming together face-to-face to start new business relationships and affirm existing ones is truly the best way to succeed. And our exhibitions, no matter how massive or defined, exist to meet the needs of the buyers and sellers. Many of these events lately have been breaking attendance records. Further underlining what IAEE is hearing and airing from our show organizer members, the CEIR Index Report which was released early this month, is reporting continued, positive growth for the industry in 2014. Based on this annual projection, as well as 14 quarters of consecutive growth, it would seem that we have it made and could just focus on promotion of our events with tried-and-true traditional means, but this is not so.

One of the key areas IAEE’s Future Trends Task Force identified as especially important for exhibitions and events industry professionals to watch is the emergence of online communities and how social media plays a pivotal role in face-to-face events, even though there is no in-person interaction. Several years ago, the industry was buzzing about virtual events and how they will affect face-to-face events, especially given the storm of 9-11 and then the Great Recession. For some, virtual events had perfect timing to allow attendees and exhibitors to meet without leaving their home base. Webinars and education sessions were held. Expert keynote speakers were retained. Research was reported. And after listening and observing this new platform, we are finding that humans still want to see each other. We want to experience an exhibition to engage our senses and experience the satisfaction that comes from finding a new resource or product to grow a business.

Additionally, we found that as a result of the virtual communities and social media platforms, exhibitions not only gained ground since awareness increased, but also new niche markets were engaged and 365-day-per-year forums evolved. Face-to-face events grew as a result.

Last year, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) released the Digital Playbook. The collaborative effort with George P. Johnson, EXHIBITOR, the ASAE Foundation, IAEE and INEXPO proved to be a very worthwhile and needed study in how brand marketers, trade and consumer show producers and association and independent show organizers are using social media and digital marketing tactics to achieve greater ROI.

At the time of the study, it was reported that 40 percent of B2C show producers rank social media as one of the top three most effective digital tactics for generating revenue. Additionally, 32 percent of brand marketers and 27 percent of B2B organizers felt the same way. Within the group of respondents, 69 percent anticipated spending more on mobile, tied with social media for the highest anticipated future spend on digital tactics. Reinforcing the findings of this study, IAEE has experienced an increased concentration on our social networks – both on MemberLink, the members-only network as well as public networks like IAEE’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

For example, in the past two years, we have seen a 52 percent increase in the number of active participants on IAEE’s Expo! Expo! LinkedIn page, 30-40 percent increase on IAEE’s general LinkedIn and Facebook pages and a 50 percent increase in the number of Twitter followers. We have also seen a 100 percent increase in the number of YouTube subscribers to the IAEE channel.

Also gaining traction is the number of users of our show app. Two years ago, many attendees still relied solely on the printed show guide to get the information they wanted about the event. However, now in addition to a streamlined, tangible guide, hundreds of attendees are leaning toward the app – not only to find what, when and where, but also who and why. When we compare the past two years of participation and app downloads, we are finding a 13 percent increase, which is quite exciting knowing that both attendees, and even members who could not attend, are downloading the app to be part of this unique community.

With these sizable increases, there is no doubt that IAEE members and industry professionals trust the individuals who are online and the content that is being shared, and we anticipate those numbers increasing.

David DuBois, CMP, CAE, FASAE, CTA
President and CEO
IAEE

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