Nowadays, having an online presence is considered a necessity, with consumers expecting the information they need to be available at the click of a button. But, according to the experts, not enough organisers are making the most of the internet to engage with audiences and market their events.
"Some of the websites I have come across are very poor," says Arran Coole, chief executive of ASP Events, which produces sites and online marketing solutions for exhibitions and trade shows. The company's content management system, Showoff, has been used to build more than 15,000 websites for clients including Reed Exhibitions, Clarion Events, Emap Connect and CMPi.
"A website should be like the event marketer's Swiss army tool - it should act as an online brochure and resource for the show it represents," Coole says. "A good web presence will provide an immediate return on investment, be cost-effective and not only market the event but provide visitors with the option of finishing the transaction there and then."
One agency already using the web to its advantage is roadshow specialist Event Marketing Solutions (EMS). "Online marketing is now an essential part of every roadshow campaign we do," says account director Justin Isles. "It can significantly extend the life of an event or experiential campaign, adding value both before and after the live event itself."
Many of EMS's clients now create microsites - temporary websites - before an event so customers can book their place and find out about what will be on offer. One recent client, audio equipment brand AudioTechnica, gained a high level of pre-registrations for its UK roadshow through a comprehensive microsite. "It not only included details of the roadshow schedule but also information about free workshops and seminars on key industry issues," says Isles.
Nick Pearce, director of visual communications company JP Creative, points out further advantages of a microsite. "It can be used for pre-qualification to make sure you're attracting the right visitors, and will raise awareness of your event," he says. "And if you're having a bad exhibition, for example, it enables you to do something about it by sending out an email offer or promotion."
For Admirable Crichton's Party Under Construction at Number One Piccadilly last year, Pearce and his team created a variety of e-flyers and a post-party website showcasing the evening. "With a post-event website you have the potential to get in touch with guests after the event and gauge their response. The feedback can then influence and improve your next event," he explains.
Experiential agency Closer adopts a similar strategy. "Before the buzz of the event has worn off we re-engage visitors by enticing them back to the website to view content from the event, or actively engage them with themes from it or relevant offers to start driving sales and getting some payback," says director Liz Richardson. "The best example of where we have done this is our recent Pot Noodle campaign. Consumers were given the chance to take on a Pot Noodle stunt dwarf in a Gladiators-style duel, while balancing on giant Pot Noodles. Those who took part were emailed video footage of their food fight immediately afterwards to share with friends and family."
Like EMS, Closer has embraced online marketing to bolster its events and deliver greater consumer engagement with brands. "Events have always held the high ground in terms of consumer engagement, but can be restrictive in terms of the number of people they engage," says Richardson.
For this reason, Closer and its sister agency BC Digital have worked together to develop an approach to events called E3 - Enhance, Expose, Extend.
"E3 goes beyond the event to deliver a holistic consumer experience and better return on event investment," Richardson explains. "Applied primarily through digital channels, it enhances awareness and excitement before the event, increases exposure of the event beyond the actual attendees, and extends the engagement of guests after the event itself."
The approach means that even those guests who aren't able to attend can still get involved. "The opportunity for live feeds, exclusive online content and the ability to allow non-attendees to influence the event itself in real time - such as affecting playlists, controlling cameras or even people - means the event is available to a wider audience," Richardson adds.
According to Coole, video content will become more important to internet marketing, and, along with other new technology, will help enhance the visitor experience. "We are currently working on vertical searches, which means that visitors can go to an exhibition's home page and search an individual exhibitor's websites for information, rather than using Google," he says.
Just as the internet can add value to face-to-face events, events can be used to bring to life online marketing campaigns. "Our UK roadshow for online gaming company Betfair is a good example of the interplay between online and live marketing," says Isles.
"The challenge was to bring an online brand to life through face-to-face marketing, creating a distinctive personality and engaging consumers with the Betfair gaming concept. The roadshow delivers a high-profile presence at UK sporting events, so customers can learn about how the site works in a relaxed, hands-on environment."
Last month, global superbrand Coca-Cola hosted a similar event at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, bringing its online Design the World a Coke campaign to life by building large models of the winning designs and inviting the designers to the Games.
"Five years ago, face-to-face marketing was all about giving consumers information - highlighting a product's features and benefits and how it compared to competitors," says Isles. "The internet means consumers are better informed, so face-to-face marketing is now all about bringing a brand to life, giving it personality and a sense of energy and fun."
Despite the advantages of online marketing, its advocates say it can never live up to the impact of a live event. "You can't beat face-to-face communication," says Pearce. Coole agrees. "Live marketing has a lot of value that online marketing does not," he says.
The solution, then, seems to be to adopt an integrated approach. "People need to see the event and the online presence as the same product," Coole concludes. "Online marketing can complement and extend the reach of a live event, but it can never replace it."