Virtual Conferences - Lessons Learned

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many medical conferences had to transition to a virtual setting.

We have attended in a variety of capacities, both as medical specialists participating in the full conference experience and as agency members helping launch and run our clients’ virtual booths.

Overall Takeaways


  • Although many physicians miss the in-person networking aspect, they say they enjoy the flexibility and convenience of virtual conferences
  • From a commercial perspective, virtual conferences prove a challenge, with low rates of booth attendance and high cost
  • Since virtual and hybrid conferences are likely here to stay, marketers must put in additional effort and creativity to reach their targets in cost-effective ways



The Limitations of Virtual Booths


  • Physicians are unable to be drawn in by tangible offerings such as snacks or chatting with colleagues
  • Complex virtual booths are an expensive addition to what companies have already spent for Tier 1 status, but a less robust booth may hold less appeal
  • Professional societies, in trying to maintain levels of revenue from previous years when face-to-face conferences were typical, have in some cases resorted to choosing cheaper platforms to offset the price reductions charged to exhibitors. This makes for a less optimal user experience in what is already a less optimal situation to begin with. This in turn leads to lower engagement
  • It’s been hard to capture leads as easily as with badge scans at in-person conferences
  • It’s a challenge to walk the line between gatekeeping high-impact information within the virtual booth (e.g., completing tasks to get to an interactive quiz) vs. making information immediately accessible


What Makes a Virtual Booth Engaging?

  • Several brands have noticed that video content has seen the most traffic
  • Interactive patient profiles have also been popular
  • The most engaging virtual booths will not be 1-to-1 replicas of the in-person booth, but rather will be built to fit the online medium. Features could include: 

               - Memorable and interactive aspects like gaming 
               - Live chat with MSLs and reps 
               - Real-time video streaming to capture theexcitement
                  of live sessions


How To Promote Virtual Booths


  • Without the possibility of HCPs “stumbling across” booths in person, drivers become even more important 
  • Approaches like door drops are also not possible if no one is staying at the same hotel
  • Some conferences offer display ads
  • Can we approach professional societies and propose year-round engagement as opposed to conference only engagement? 
  • An ecosystem of multichannel marketing outside of the conference itself can help drive supplemental traffic 



Thinking Outside The Virtual Booth


  • It may be worthwhile to consider other aspects of promotion beyond the virtual booth 
  • Real-time KOL and Q&A sessions hosted on platforms like Zoom may see a wider variety of interaction
  • A Zoom panel at ASCO on NSCLC was co-sponsored by multiple pharma companies and saw great engagement
  • Is it possible to ditch the booth entirely? It could be an effective PR initiative to donate a portion of the funds that would have been used to create the in-person booth to simply reach out to HCPs through other channels





  • Each virtual conference is being hosted on different platforms and uses its own custom template
  • Platforms are not being made available until very close to the show start dates, which compresses standard PRC review and approval timelines
  • Professional societies have not yet come to fully understand pharma timelines and overall requirements from a med legal and compliance perspective both internally and with the FDA 
  • Some platforms are being retrofitted to be appropriate for pharma. This has created pain points in terms of compliance - not enough space to include full ISI on a page  or unable to program a black box into HTML when required for certain products
  • As a solution, consider providing brand microsite templates that can be linked to from the society website to help avoid constant approvals/reapprovals for each individual congress

Looking to the Future


  • Virtual is likely here to stay – while the eventual decline or eradication of COVID-19 may make in-person conferences more accessible, we may see virtual and hybrid conferences in the future
  • Don’t just check the conference box – we need to continue to evaluate the risk/reward of allocating budgets to virtual conferences that may be better used elsewhere
  • Become a Trailblazer – be the pharma company that brings about a new way of engaging with societies that proves as beneficial to all as an in-person conference. Become the gold standard for virtual conference
  • It’s still early – clients, agencies, and the conferences themselves are all learning this new dance together. So while there may be some bumps along the way, it’s important to keep learning and adapting to capitalize on new opportunities 


Please contact your account leads or if you have any questions or would like to discuss any of the above.