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by Michael Rogers | May 11, 2015

 Will virtual conferences and events ever supplant their real-world predecessors? The short answer is, of course, no. To illustrate this, I like to think that the first big data point on that question was the five-year college reunions of the class of 2006.  

That was the first group of graduates to connect on Facebook -- and alumni organizers started to worry right away. These people were talking to each other regularly on social networks. Would they still want to meet in person? Then 2011 rolled around, and the answer was yes: Five-year reunions were well-attended. Hugs and beers, in short, are still not effectively shared online.

However, virtual events will become a far larger part of the conference industry in the late 2010s and 2020s. The shift will be driven by much better (and cheaper) video displays and ubiquitous high-bandwidth connectivity, as well as a new generation of virtually adept attendees and the increasing cost, both economic and environmental, of physical travel. And, crucially, conference sponsors likely will start to move more of their marketing budgets into the virtual world. Thus the conference industry needs to think today about how to make money on virtual events from both attendees and sponsors.

Conference professionals shouldn’t make the same mistake that newspaper publishers did 15 years ago. Back then, the print business was still where the big revenue was, so online didn’t get the intense focus it deserved. Or rather: On the editorial side, there was lots of great innovation, almost all offered free to readers. On the business side, there was comparatively little focus on how to make money on those virtual customers.

Ironically, today many traditional newspaper and magazines publishers have turned to real-world events to bolster their bottom lines. Conference organizers need to do this in reverse: Think of events as content, figure out how to profitably "publish" them to larger audiences and, even in these early days, charge fees for virtual events. It’s crucial to establish value with a price tag -- even if you initially offer all kinds of discounts to spur adoption.    

One other problem virtual conferences face: a variety of different platforms and digital standards. That's not how it is in the physical world, where every conference venue is fundamentally familiar. Whether in Hong Kong or New Orleans, attendees immediately recognize registration booths, hallways, meeting rooms, the convention floor. And the exhibitors' trucks deliver standardized booths that are set up, in a standard way, on the show floor.  

Virtual conferences, on the other hand, vary substantially in look, navigation and function, confusing to attendees and frustrating for exhibitors who don’t want to build a different digital “booth” for every show that comes along.  

Again, it reminds me of the early days of Internet publishing. At first, we didn’t have consistent digital standards for advertising -- size and placement -- and it was a detriment to attracting advertisers. Not only were they investing in an untested medium, but they had to make an extra effort to do it.

Publishers, ad agencies and industry associations all cooperated to create digital advertising standards. It was no easy task, but today online advertising is a $20 billion business. One wonders what online conferences might earn in 2025?

Michael Rogers, the Practical Futurist, is an author, journalist and futurist, who speaks about the future to industries ranging from financial and healthcare to law, media, retail and more. As a speaker with the Goodman Speakers Bureau, Rogers spoke recently at M&C's Destination Northeast on the future of conferences and events.