I just spent the day today at the Future of Social Media Conference in London. It was an event put on by a leading trade show group here in the UK responsible for what most consider the largest Internet trade show in the UK, Internet World which is held annually. The conference was a packed session, with nearly 300 marketers in the room (easily doubling the organizers original estimates for attendance) and all the attendees where busy figuring out what role social media should and could take in their marketing strategy. One of the interesting questions asked during the day was whether virtual events may start to overtake real life events like this one due to financial pressures. My response was that I think they currently compliment each other and will continue to do so, yet it does raise the point of the current popularity of virtual events.

In fact, I am being featured as one among many video interviews at a very good social media focused virtual event for small businesses called SolutionStars Video Conference which is put on by Network Solutions and hosted by my friend Shashi Bellamkonda (affectionately known as "shashib" by his growing rank of Twitter followers). The event will have a great roster of speakers (see the end of this post for a full list) and I highly recommend you tune in for part of all of it tomorrow if you can. The bigger trend this event fits into, however, is the rise of virtual events as a viable method for learning. I believe there are six big factors driving this current popularity:

  1. Recession economy and budgets. Yes, I said the "R" word. If you were lucky enough to work for a company that actually had a conference budget, chances are you are seeing that budget reduced or disappear. This is the most obvious reason for the rise of virtual events … they are cheaper.
  2. Filling the void. I do not, however, believe that this budgetary pressure will lead people to not attend events. They will just get more selective about the ones that they do attend. So for arguments sake, let’s say there is a marketer who usually attends 3 conferences a year. Next year this same marketer may only be able to attend one, but can virtually attend another 3-4 throughout the year. More and more we will see virtual events filling the void and making training, learning and networking possible on more occasions than currently possible.
  3. Bring together a fantasy team. When done right, virtual events also allow you to bring together a group of speakers that would be very hard to bring together at the same time for a physical event. As a result, the caliber of speakers across the virtual event can often be higher because it is easier to get a commitment from experienced speakers with very busy travel schedules.
  4. Allow for multitasking. Sometimes the toughest thing about an in person conference or event is not getting the budget to go, but finding the time to be out of the office for an extended amount of time. With virtual events, you can go on mute on a conference call and multitask from your desk. Getting work done while attending a virtual event is a pretty powerful benefit.
  5. Small business friendly. At many large events that I attend, it sometimes seems that small businesses are the ones that are left out because it is only the bigger companies that can afford to send people to conferences. I strongly believe the smartest small business people are the ones who ARE investing to go to the right in person events, but virtual events can often work better for small businesses simply because of the tradeoff in time and budget commitment, as well as the fact that they can be less intimidating.
  6. Built in archive. As an entire event is hosted online, all the content and conversations the event generates are also online. When the time comes to create an online achive of the event, it is usually a very simple prospect because the bulk of the content and conversations are already online and it is simply a matter of aggregating it together.

List of participants in the Solution Stars Video Conference: