Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Now don't get all virtual on me!

What we have heard from our Fortune 100 customers and users of virtual fairs including a global University doing virtual job fairs, seems to be getting further validated by the broader market. Reuters are shutting down their bureau in Second Life, and Google Lively is being discontinued.

Here is what we hear from our customers...
- They want uncluttered environments.
- They want a swift retrieval of relevant and up-to-date information,
- neatly and logically arranged
- in a manner that makes sense to their internal users and audiences.
- At the same time it has to be arranged in an engaging manner.
- They do not want to deal with a huge learning curve.
- Their network administrators do not want to deal with software downloads.
- Do not ask our speakers to prepare for a webinar, they say.
- Make sure it works even from our corporate laptops, they say.
- Give us crisp and factual activity reports, they say.
- Remove that moving and gliding stuff, they say.
- Make sure the event is search-capable, they say.
- Can you marry it with our internal systems?, they sometimes ask
- Do not complicate the navigation, they say.
- Use our time wisely, they say.
- Keep it simple, they tell us.

There are some situations where virtual reality environments are loved. An event organizer I was talking to recently, who creates consumer shows with upto 15,000 users would have loved to see Google Lively continue, if only they did not have a limit of 20 users. Her audiences love SecondLife but she wishes it were more cost-effective during a scale-up.

One can not deny the beauty of being able to fly into a convention center and drop into the front row of a live webinar session. However, they come bundled with several challenges from a user's perspective. For now, what we hear the market say is not to get too caught up in the meaning of the word 'virtual'. That takes us back to a previous post where I have argued for a new label for what we do instead of virtual fairs.

What do you think?

Friday, November 21, 2008

SlideShare and Audio SlideShows

I just realized that one of our presentations, uploaded on SlideShare can be embedded in a blog, so here it is for your viewing pleasure.

I wonder if there is a way to add a voice to the slides and make them like those slick audio-slideshows that show up often on New York Times. We have such a feature built into our virtual booth. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from SlideShare in how easily it can be shared.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Making Your Trade Show Booth Go Places

How can you get maximum visibility for your trade show booth? By taking it around. Virtually.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting for dinner the president of a large industrial manufacturing company with an international presence. Great conversation, great food, and I must add that it is always very refreshing to talk to someone who does not keep checking a blackberry in mid-conversation.

Part of our conversation veered towards trade shows (of course). He said that his company is preparing to exhibit at a trade show coming up soon, where they put up an exhibit, meet industry professionals face to face, gather a lot of business cards which get swiped into a CRM system and then.... once the trade show is over, his sales force goes back to the office, analyzes the leads and sends them literature and brochures via snail-mail, along with a thank-you note. He said it was very expensive. He also thought that it is possible that it may be considered to be not a very environmentally friendly way of follow-up. He thought that the 'green' angle was a legitimate one to consider when following up after the trade show.

An alternative that I brought up which he liked, was to

  • set up a stand-alone virtual booth
  • we can customize it to look just like the real trade show booth your visitors see at the convention center, to help them remember you by association with the real-world experience
  • with a few point-click actions, load that virtual booth with relevant rich-media content, literature, slide-shows, videos, and even add ways to provide direct and instant contact with relevant product managers
  • in the thank-you emails after the trade shows, include a link to the virtual booth
  • iTradeFair.com has the capability to make your virtual booth 'to-go'.

Here are the advantages as he saw in them:

  • It is highly cost-effective
  • They can send a lot of relevant content neatly organized, along with the thank-you note, without bulky attachments that normally get trapped by firewalls
  • It is 'green'

Here is the other advantage that I mentioned to him:

  • Your virtual booth can be forwarded to people within the visitor's organization, who could not make it to the trade show in person. Your message and your virtual booth, if engaging enough, assumes a viral quality about it.

If you are a company that needs a virtual vehicle for very targeted information that can be changed on the fly without the need for an IT expert, then the technology is available for your use. If you do not do trade shows but just need an info-vehicle, use it like Perry Lawson & Associates have done - as a virtual office and embedded on any chosen web page (see the embedded virtual booth with live clickable icons, in the first paragraph of this blog post).

Your virtual booth can literally go places!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Think Out of the Crate! Now's the Time for Hybrid Trade Shows!

Even as the air waves are being dominated by news on how the economy is being stress-tested, my phone keeps ringing as always with calls from marketers. My email inbox continues to receive emails from persevering sales folks. When budgets get squeezed, the marketers will continue doing what they do with less, by simply getting more resourceful about it.

The interest in virtual venues for marketing and other specialized purposes such as virtual job fairs, continues unabated. Medium-sized and small businesses are willing to use virtual trade show technology to find a way to differentiate themselves from competition.

We see large corporations that once resisted the move to virtual trade shows for reasons that range from political, to cultural or plain inertia, willing to talk to us and to call our customers for references.

We see new initiatives being launched using online venues. We are also seeing new uses being tested for subsets of our technology. All of these initiatives are designed to save money.

Should budgets get squeezed for marketers, the virtual venues are rightly positioned to help. 72% of show organizers polled last week by Expo Magazine say that the economy is affecting their booth sales. Even if that were not the case, given that there is widespread discontent among exhibitors about the way the trade show industry is (dis)organized it might be time for new forms of trade shows. It just might be time for some kind of new hybrid variety of trade shows to be born.

I am thinking out of the crate here, when I say that perhaps new event organizers will come up with a mechanism that uses virtual venues for pre-event research, planning and scheduling meetings. After that, the participants who pre-screen one another will travel to meet at some resort, carrying only relevant papers for conclusive face-to-face encounters, fun and socializing. No crates, no booths, just information, entertainment and connections. If there are any takers out there, we are willing to collaborate in such a social-business experiment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Invisible Exhibitor, The Invisible Attendee

It was delightful to see two research papers published by Maya (the videos are on auto-play so please be patient if they all start playing simultaneously) titled the 'Invisible Exhibitor' and the 'Invisible Attendee'. The papers are insightful. If you have ever been involved with an in-person trade show or conference, you will find yourself nodding in agreement as you go through the paper or watch the videos.

I had the pleasure of talking to one of the designers of the research Paul Gould at Maya this morning. Congratulations are also due to the Expo Group for supporting this research. It goes to show that the trade show industry is willing to recognize that change is needed.

In the papers and research you and the face-to-face trade show industry will hear the voice of the customer. I know the Convention Industry Council's APEX initiative was on a mission to streamline the processes. I do not know where that stands.

It seems to me that throwing an excess of processes, technology and bureaucracy is not making life any easier (see the RFID example in the paper). It seems that the trade show industry has de-humanized the experience.

The virtual trade show folks have lessons to learn from these papers. The most important one I think is to 'not take away the human element!'

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Life-Support for a Dying Trade Show?

When a trade show is canceled, or "postponed" as the PR might phrase it, what happens to the participants who have marked the event on their calendars to go meet industry peers and learn what is going on with competitors? Or was the event 'postponed' because the intended audiences never showed enough interest? Perhaps they get the knowledge and competitive information constantly via the web, and did not care enough about the block party?

One user-conference was canceled because its main sponsor pulled out, followed by a lot of finger-pointing and the threat of law-suits. I suspect that the cancellation of a trade show brings along a lot of heart-break for the creators, loss through refunds, write-offs, loss of goodwill and loss of jobs and contracts. If that is the case, does the brand have a chance for revival?

In mid-September 2001, when a major IT security conference in Europe was hurting because conference attendees were not eager to board planes, they turned to us for a virtual trade show as an interim measure for that year, and later bounced right back into their regular schedule.

Recently Digital Life Expo announced a cancellation of their fall event citing current economic climate. Does it mean that the brand will be shelved for some time or for ever?

Is it possible that when trade show brands change hands some of the original flavor and passion of the creators is lost? Comdex is no longer around in its original form, although the domain name comdex.com was owned by CMP Media when I checked. Today's news item that Supercomm is coming back, reborn out of NXTcomm shows that some brands might survive, and even come back with a bang.

I would hazard a guess that it is likely that we might see a Comdex again, unless a whole new generation of users are now in the market who have no clue what Comdex was! Bringing back a brand from the dead in that case could prove to be very expensive and not worth the time, money and effort - or as one might say, throwing good money after bad.

If that is the case, let us consider an alternative scenario. Would it be worthwhile to test the waters for a dormant trade show by first trying a virtual trade show under its brand name and check for any signs of life? Can virtual trade shows serve as the life-support mechanism for dying trade show brands? Why not!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Getting Surgical on Conventions and Definitions

Learning about the convention business sometimes comes from unexpected quarters. I recently picked up a fascinating book by Dr. Atul Gawande. It is titled 'Complications'. The book helps the reader get inside the head of an emergency room (ER) surgeon, and has lessons that are transferrable to any crisis management scenario. It is a collection of essays. Therefore it was amusing to turn a page and unexpectedly find an entire chapter devoted to a conference and trade show for surgeons. For those interested, you can actually read the chapter in its entirety online in a Google Books excerpt, and the chapter is titled Nine Thousand Surgeons .

Dr. Gawande quotes anthropologist Lawrence Cohen in his description of conventions and conferences, where he labels them carnivals with the following characteristics:

  • Colossal events
  • Professional politics
  • Ritual enactments of disciplinary boundaries
  • Sexual liminality
  • Tourism and trade
  • Personal and national rivalries
  • The care and feeding of professional kinship
  • Sheer enormity of discourse
  • Academic proceedings

If one takes an honest look at the virtual trade shows that are being held today, they meet probably just a couple of the criteria listed above. There is a strong case for virtual trade show makers to reposition their offerings or better yet, simply rename them.

The virtual fairs that we do, essentially serve as online venues to simultaneously gather information, information-providers and information-seekers. The venues specifically address a certain business need, or improve a process. We do have some features that are designed to make it fun and entertaining. Users do find them fun and interesting. However, they do not come close to a carnival in description. We have seen some virtual trade shows with the capability of listening to background noise that reminds us of a real convention, until it gets annoying. The closest and most practical event-related website that I have seen anyone try, which has a high level of sensory stimulus still relates to a live face-to-face event. They found mention on TechCruch recently and go by the name of Sonecast, perhaps derived from Social Network Broadcast.

How then, does one make a virtual fair, beyond being just a problem-solver, into something as exhilirating, fun and full of sensory stimuli as in a carnival. Here's a thought (I do not know if anyone has tried it, but it would be worth a serious try)...

If every participant in a virtual fair is an exhibitor in the virtual fair, and every click of the mouse is laden with rich-media content about the participants, so that every online footprint of every participant is so deep and well-rounded that it is richer than handing out a business card at a convention, the virtual fair can become extremely engaging. Let us not confuse the term 'engaging' with visually beautiful 3D-type experiences being offered by some virtual trade show technology providers. They make for awesome demos and a good first impression, but do not really create a lasting wow. The energy of the participants, the depth of information and the richness of information that they share or exchange, are things that can bring the virtual fair close to a carnival-like atmosphere. The online event should also be very short in duration. 4 hours. Or 2 days of 4 hours each. It should have a variety of interactive capabilities woven together. We have that technical capability. The only reason it has not been done as effectively, I believe, is a matter of semantics. When a virtual fair occurs with no in-person counterpart, there is a push for deeper, richer personal profiles to be included in the fair. It can come quite close to a carnival-like atmosphere. However, the descriptor of a virtual trade show raises expectations that can't be met. That seems to be its undoing.

My conviction for this thought I think is based on what I see happening with a recent initiative by marketing guru Seth Godin. It is an example of something extremely compelling in content and ideas without the glitz, or without trying to fake a simulated real-world environment, and without over-dependence on any fancy technology. I recently got (rather bought) the opportunity to be a part of Seth Godin's triiibes. The individuals in this tribe are unbelievably rich in thought, expression and action. There is constant activity. It has over 3,000 members from various countries. There is boundless energy. If online events were periodically held in conjunction with Seth Godin's Triiibes, I would hazard a guess that it would be as close to a carnival in atmosphere, as can get online. Even a casual visit to Triiibes makes it seem like a carnival. A virtual trade show is a misnomer. A new name is needed. Just like wiki or blog or tweet. A new definition is needed. A new set of expectations need to be set. Perhaps, we should not call it even a virtual show or a virtual fair. Instead, simply calling it the Faiiir might do the trick!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Successful Virtual Fair

One of the questions that we at iTradeFair.com ask our prospects and customers is "What would you consider to be a successful outcome for your virtual fair?"

This week we heard that one of our customers was waxing lyrical about the virtual trade fair we had done for them. I phoned them yesterday for details. An order worth over half-a-million dollars will be the direct outcome of two companies meeting in that particular virtual fair - obviously a huge success considering the relatively small amount of time, energy and resources that were invested in the virtual fair.

Success stories like these make our day. In work, as in life, we are judged by what we create. To be able to create value in this manner makes our success sweeter. The virtual trade fair would not only result in a purchase order, but would also mean gainful employment for several people, which in turn means more families fed, clothed, schooled and cared for.

The success of a virtual fair has been defined in several ways, some of which are listed below.
  1. Giving members better access to vendors: Some not-for-profit organizations use a virtual fair to showcase their vendors to their membership. In such instances the virtual trade fair might become an extension of any in-person conferences. This is not to be confused with a virtual vendor directory. Virtual fairs are fresh and shut down at their peak. Directories tend to lose momentum but stay on regardless.
  2. Giving advertisers more avenues for visibility: Publishers consider a virtual fair successful if it can be bundled into other offerings and adds another dimension of visibility to their advertisers who typically become sponsors or exhibitors in the virtual fairs.
  3. Bridging distances without travel: Corporate virtual trade shows typically consider their events a success if they are able to bring together more of their employees, distributors, partners, prospects and customers together online in structured forums, without travel.
  4. Making new connections: There are some virtual fairs whose success is entirely hinged on the number of new connections made or leads generated. These virtual fairs navigate uncharted waters. It takes a strong brand to be able to consistently bring in new groups of users into such fairs to make them successful. If I have met someone in a virtual booth in Year 2008, then seeing them again virtually in Year 2009 will not be as exciting for either party if the sole expectation of that virtual fair is lead-generation. Now if that exhibitor has a new product on display, that would sustain the interest and traffic of even the repeat-visitors.
  5. Placing purchase orders: We did a virtual trade show in which Eastman Kodak Company publicly announced that 25 of their purchase managers will be in attendance with purchase requisitions totaling several millions of dollars. When a virtual fair happens with such depth in commitment, the bar is set very high for what they would consider a successful outcome of the virtual trade show. The expectation is to be able to meet with companies that are worthy of the orders.
  6. Doing something novel: The success criteria in this approach to virtual fairs is determined by how pretty the virtual fair looks, and the buzz that they generate. The goal of such virtual fairs is to generate a large number of visitors, media attention and visibility for the organizer or products.
  7. Making it convenient: Some virtual fairs are held because that is the only way to get people and companies together when they have conflicting schedules and time-zones.
  8. Measuring activity: Many times, virtual fairs are considered successful if the activity in them can be measured. Knowing how many people visited a virtual booth and downloaded a particular piece of information is very valuable information to marketers of the information.
Like any successful commercial initiative, the true measure of success for virtual fairs from the perspective of the producers, organizers, users and providers would be if participants perceive enough value in the fairs to be willing and happy to pay for the service.

Only when virtual fairs become a budget line-item, only when they enter the lexicon of accountants, CPAs, CFOs, marketers and CEOs can we be certain that virtual fairs in general will be a huge success!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

No Goodie Bags? No Problem! Why Virtual Trade Shows are PhRMA-friendly

The article in Tradeshow Week Magazine titled "What’s Next for Health Care Show Exhibiting?" prompted this post.

The new code from PhRMA (The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) for marketing by the pharmaceutical industry is expected to result in readjustments to their trade show tactics. The goal of these changes and some more upcoming changes that are on the anvil is to ensure that the information reaching medical practitioners is from independent sources. While I would not be surprised if Google Health positions itself for a dominant role in this new scenario, one can be sure that virtual trade shows will be considered very seriously by health care marketing professionals.

On the one hand, virtual trade shows allow for compliance by the health care marketing professional (and for independent 3rd-party audit). On the other, they track activity and reports in such depth that establishing an ROI is just a click away.

There are some closed-corporate virtual trade shows that we at iTradeFair.com do in which the event organizer's policies mandate that exhibitors do not offer any giveaways or lucky draws. With a virtual trade show, not only is it easy to comply with these requirements, but also very easy for governance and reporting, while ensuring the effectiveness of the content placed in every virtual booth.

Goodie Bags and Lucky Draws are capabilities that are offered in virtual booths in many virtual trade shows. A virtual trade show producer ought to enjoy the ability to switch off select features to stay within the rules of the game for their particular industry. When a pharma company's virtual booth is in a general virtual trade show, such as one held by a Chamber of Commerce for a particular region, that specific booth must be capable of turning off its non-PhRMA-compliant features without impacting the other booths in the virtual trade show.

When we work with any event organizer these are capabilities that we like to highlight. Through simple procedures in our event engine we can entirely disable (show-wide) the Goodies feature or the Lucky Draw feature, or both. The reporting system enables the event organizer to assess the success of an event while staying within the customized parameters of the virtual fair. If for some reason the features are made available in a virtual fair, individual exhibitors have the power to decline using select features should they need to be in compliance with industry-specific laws.

That is why I believe that virtual fairs are PhRMA-friendly!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Are There Any Limits to the Size of a Virtual Fair?

We get this question often: "Are there any limits to how big we can make our virtual fair?". Let us look at this from a few angles.
  1. Like trees, they need trimming to stay healthy: If your virtual fair grows in a wild unstructured and lopsided manner, then the trunk will not be able to hold some of the branches together, resulting in some branches falling off. This is seen happening even in real-world trade shows. When a trade show grows too popular and too big, some of the bigger sponsors start creating little breakaway events, hospitality suites or simply just stop participating. Just like a tree, a virtual fair needs to be periodically trimmed to ensure the quality of the experience, depth of interaction and quality of users.
  2. Every part needs care and feed: A visitor to a virtual booth needs to be engaged instantly and answers offered instantly. Virtual attendees whose requests for live interaction go unanswered (and I have seen this happen in many of the virtual trade shows that are out there - unstaffed booths) tend to drift away. Given this reality, the effectiveness of a virtual booth is limited by the number of booth staffers that are available live online during the virtual fair, and by the number of simultaneous virtual attendees that each booth-staffer can engage one-on-one. In our experience that number is 3.
  3. They need to prepare for growing pains: In estimating the turnout at a virtual fair the organizers and providers have to make intelligent estimates, but the more popular a virtual fair gets, the chances are higher that the traffic estimates may not be very accurate. Outages have not been unheard of even in the who's who of websites, whether it is Amazon, Yahoo, Ebay, or - yes - Google. It goes to show that when a provider boasts of the most robust system there is, it just means that they have done everything humanly possible to ensure a smooth virtual fair, and that they have in place mechanisms to monitor and nip problems in the bud.
Virtual fairs can grow with no limits so long as they learn how to sustain nutrition to every corner of the virtual fair, whether the virtual event organizer plans to add a blog to it, or a career corner to it, or a social network to it. You will see this happen even with social networks that are huge. Beyond a certain point, the users tend to seek more depth in their interactions and start looking for groups to form clusters.

In a perfect world, if one assumes unlimited bandwidth, unlimited server capacity and software code written so well that the system scales and soars like poetry, the only limits on the growth of virtual fairs are driven by the limits of human behavior and needs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

If You Design Stilettos, You Must Wear Them!

This article is about the need for stepping into a user's shoes, and staying in them. We have been revisiting (read: obsessing over) the login process in our virtual fairs, trying to make it as seamless as possible for the novice as well as the repeat-user.

Over the years, as we evolved based on the needs of event producers and organizers, we have developed some timeless rules that we follow for entry into virtual trade shows or other virtual fairs. Our core product design philosophy has leaned towards minimalism, with a heavy emphasis on simplicity for the end-user. Staying within those timeless rules while continually striving for security and increased simplicity is a delicate trapeze act.

Our customers appreciate this approach because they often happen to be end-users of the virtual fairs themselves or close to the end-users. I believe, that makes a big difference in how the virtual fair evolves. If we design stilettos, we must wear them.

Even before the virtual fair is generated, we gather from the customers the general parameters for the virtual fair that they expect. We seek answers to questions that cover non-technical process-issues and business or organizational aspects. It gives our services a holistic approach. We don't like to throw technology and a bunch of features at our customers until they add value - functional or aesthetic or preferably, both. One size does not fit all in the business of virtual trade shows and niche virtual fairs. Armed with such rounded knowledge about the customer, we configure the platform to create a complete event site but we do not tighten all the nuts and bolts yet. Before the virtual fair is finalized for pre-registrations to commence, we have one or more web-conference sitting(s) with our customer to tailor the navigation to suit their specific needs. It is a highly collaborative process. We step into their shoes and into the shoes of their users to arrive at the simplest possible way for them to experience the virtual fair. It helps tremendously when the virtual event producer or organizer is close to the user of the virtual fair. It helps tremendously when the virtual event producer or organizer feels the pain of the end-users.

This approach reflects empathy in action in technology rollouts.

This process works really well. We stay flexible enough to adapt our hosted software around the needs of the specific user groups, so that their pain is eliminated. The pain may be a business process inefficiency, a resource constraint or simply logistical headaches. A virtual trade show, or for that matter, any kind of virtual fair needs to be a pain-killer. A seamless navigation without guesswork allows users to focus on the business at hand. With each virtual fair that we do, we learn how to avoid and eliminate the possibility of pain. That means starting with the login process. Obsessing over the login process therefore makes it worth every moment spent doing it.

All this talk of stepping into the users' shoes brings up an interesting analogy. It makes one wonder - if designers of stilettos were mandated to walk and, yes - even run in their own creations, would they be designed differently? You bet!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Doing a Red7 with Virtual Trade Shows

We are seeing traditional media companies cope with the Internet and readjust their business models (or as they call it "face-to-face" success strategies in the email that I received last week).

Recently we read a fascinating news item about a media company undertaking the management of an association. I believe that by leveraging existing relationships and their influence on their readership and advertisers, they are looking to provide value to a membership-based Not-for-Profit organization. Here is a link to the news item: Red 7 Media Takes Over Management of Exhibit Designers & Producers Association. I do not know if it has been done before (apparently not as the CEO of Red7 Media states in the news item), but it seems like a natural progression. The media company is leveraging its influence and its assets in a creative non-traditional fashion. What Red 7 Media can do differently to EDPA's events and membership I do not know, but from Red 7 Media's perspective they have stretched their expertise to a parallel market. For the sake of convenience, let us call this stretch to a new market as the Red7 move.

Something else is a natural progression, as traditional media companies learn to cope with the seismic shifts in the media industry - Virtual Trade Shows.

Media companies will soon have to learn how to do a Red7 move with Virtual Trade Shows - leverage on the one hand, existing virtual trade show technologies (not to be confused with webinars and webcasts), and on the other the media company's influence on their readership and advertisers, to be able to create, reach and serve new markets.

I foresee media companies learning to take Virtual Trade Show technologies, bundling them within their own areas of influence, and enabling new markets to launch their own private online trade fairs. This model has not been seen coming out of the media world so far to the best of my knowledge. Its time has come.

At least one media company is making a feeble attempt at it with webinars. They may call it virtual trade shows. They may inundate us with reminders about virtual trade shows. To the best of my knowledge those are webinars, live or on-demand, with accompanying downloadable marketing literature being offered in exchange for contact information. It is being sold as a lead-generation activity. That is the traditional face-to-face mindset in manifestation. As far as I can tell, the webinars being created by this media company gather a couple of sponsors in industry-verticals. They are quite literally an online rendition of small regional conferences held in a small conference center. They often reek of infomercials.

What they are not doing is leveraging the power of the virtual trade show technology the way it should be - to build a fan-following that tracks a company's progress consistently over a period of time. No - I am not referring to whipping up a social network (the jury is still out on whether social networks can make money).

To be able to create new products using Virtual Trade Show technology, traditional media companies have to depart from the 'face-to-face' mindset, and think of events and packages that never existed before.

The media companies that will achieve success with virtual trade show technologies will be the ones that know how to mine their data sufficiently well to be able to bring niche value to sellers and buyers of information. Gimmicks and value-propositions such as the first 3D virtual exhibit hall, going green, save on gas prices can take them only so far. A more lasting value proposition will be (a) how well the media company can segment the information overload on the web for select audiences, (b) how much content is user-generated making for a constantly renewable democratic environment, and (c) how well hitherto non-existent products and services are conceived globally yet delivered locally. First, the traditional media companies have to break away from their traditional mindsets.

The Virtual Trade Show is a powerful weapon. Media companies that add the Virtual Trade Show technology to their arsenal and deploy them will enjoy growth in new business models and new markets. Think if it as a Red7 move. It is only a matter of time before grassroots movements similar to Craigslist will cause the erosion of this advantage that traditional media companies can enjoy by being trendsetters. The cost of indecision can be high for the media world. Traditional media companies could imitate the Red7 move to open new markets with the Virtual Trade Show technology in their arsenal.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Psst... Want to Try a Whatchamacallit ... a "Virtual Trade Show"?

What's in a name after all, you might say. It could make a very big difference. Calling an offering a 'virtual trade show' has serious limitations, not only from a strategic perspective, but also tactically.

The names 'Virtual Trade Show', or 'Virtual Trade Fair', or even 'Virtual Show' or 'Virtual Fair' -- they are all limiting. They limit the market, they limit the vision and they limit the love. Let me expand on that.

These descriptors limit
(a) the market's perception of how they can use virtual event offering,
(b) your perception of the scope of the market that will value your offering, and
(c) your product's design, navigation, features and the capabilities that you can dream up.

You could also end up alienating the trade show industry. We were once told that we needed to bring in an expert from the trade show industry to be in the business of virtual trade shows. We did not because we could not find a single trade show executive who was willing to be associated with a new technology that had the potential to upset their colleagues, and in the process get themselves excommunicated. The term virtual fair or virtual show is easily misunderstood as something that intends to replace the real thing, evoking strong emotions, even making respectable trade show industry leaders say things like "I hate virtual trade shows".

What happens if we change the label?

If we look at what BDMetrics does, it really is a virtual trade show that runs in parallel with the trade show organizer's periodical events. However, BDMetrics labels its virtual trade show as an "attendee personalization technology" and its year-long virtual trade show as SmartPlatform or 365 - their website is not very clear on product names. However, I applaud their approach and the success that they have had with the trade show industry.

BDMetrics has a SmartBooth portal which really is the virtual booth as we have known it. I quote from an article in Expo magazine... "Perhaps the greatest ROI generator is the exhibitor portal, SmartBooth, which is sold as a booth upgrade. The Web-based data-mining tool helps exhibitors to generate more qualified leads by enabling them to define their target market demographics, see how many qualified buyers will be at the show, schedule appointments before the show, analyze their booth performance on site, and receive a post-show list of prospects they missed." (Huh? That is precisely what the virtual booth and the reporting system do.)

BDMetrics, by not calling their offering a virtual trade show, have not only steered clear of all the instintive defenses that trade show industry leaders put up to protect themselves from the phantom threat of their exhibitors rushing out the gate to go virtual, but also has steered clear of the challenges of mental associations that come from the use of the metaphor of a 'trade show'. BDMetrics, from what I can tell has been embraced by some of the leading traditional trade shows such as NAB and Packexpo, which is very impressive. The trade show industry has been so slow at adopting web based technologies, that I am glad someone figured out how to change the label on the virtual trade show and serve an industry that was long overdue for a dose of friendly technology.

The 'virtual trade show' does not really have to behave like a trade show. We have deployed virtual trade shows not only for traditional trade show organizers, but also in several niche applications that were never possible before, never thought of before, and never attempted before. We have deployed virtual fairs that are not trade shows or lead generating mechanisms. The itradefairs that we do often include specialized applications to generate efficiencies in processes through collaboration and content management. Small departments in large companies use the itradefair to showcase themselves to select audiences in remote parts of the globe. Small companies use it to showcase themselves to large companies. Academics have used it to showcase their research to the industry. There are uses that a traditional trade show industry would never have dreamed of because it was never done before on the scale that is made possible now given the available technologies.

In a future blog post we will explore possible ways in which virtual fairs can or ought to manifest with the known state of technologies - because I believe that the name "virtual trade show" is creating limitations on our collective imagination, especially in how it is being visually rendered.

Once you break free of the shackles of the name, you are then only limited by your imagination in the number of uses you can put it to, bridging distances in the nation and across the globe. Maybe we should come up with a new name for this. Or maybe we should simply refer to it the way many of our prospects and customers do... whatchamacallit... an itradefair.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

They Are At Your Virtual Booth! Now What? -- 7 Tips to Make Them Stay.

For a recent virtual trade show, an exhibitor tracked me down and during the conversation he requested me to personally review his company's virtual booth, not just from a technical angle, but also to make recommendations based on our experience with virtual events and the online behavior of virtual attendees. I was delighted to do it, because he cared enough about his company's virtual booth. This blog post is an expanded version of my recommendations to the virtual exhibitor.

Businesses who exhibit virtually often take virtual trade shows lightly. The reasons are mainly organizational. Either it did not create a big enough dent in their budget to get the upper management to take notice and give their blessings, or it was so new to them that they didn't have any one assigned with specific responsibility for the virtual booth. In other words, they did not feel a sense of pride or ownership in their virtual booth. I have seen some of our virtual trade shows attended by some of the biggest names in Corporate America where, unfortunately the virtual booth owners don't take the time to even upload a logo (we are talking of a 'point-click' action here). Of course, as part of our quality-check process, and in order to maintain the integrity and richness of our virtual fairs, we de-activate all incomplete virtual booths prior to showtime. Virtual exhibitors need to have sufficient skin in the game.

Assuming that you are a virtual exhibitor with sufficient skin in the game, listed below are 7 tips to make your virtual booth stand out in the crowd.

  1. Avoid cool tag-lines - they may turn cold: Start with the premise that no attendee has the time to figure out what your company does. Your company logo and tag-line may be really cool and cryptic, but remember that you have a few seconds or less to let them know what you can do for them. Spell it out. There is no time for guesswork. Virtual attendees often go from virtual booth to virtual booth - like channel surfing by a TV viewer, even if they use a search engine to narrow down their choices. Therefore being crisp is critical. It is a problem when a virtual booth sports an elevator pitch that says "Our unique solutions leverage our exclusive intellectual property and proprietary technologies to help our customers drive growth and attain operational efficiencies. We deliver and sustain guaranteed value while our entire suite of solutions exists to deliver results. We have delivered hundreds of successful strategy, planning, implementation and optimization projects with extraordinary results and outstanding client references".
  2. Name-dropping is fine: When online attendees see names of familiar companies among your customers, they enter a comfort-zone and tend to linger for a bit. On the face of the booth, consider listing the top customers who work with you.
  3. Don't be camera-shy: Use videos in your virtual booth. The technology to add videos easily to a virtual booth has been around for quite some time. Camcorders are getting easier to use. Carry it when you go to meet your customers, your engineers, and your company leadership. Record personal messages from them (not exceeding 2 minutes in duration). Let others sing your praises for you on your virtual booth.
  4. Leaving no nuts & bolts unturned: Keep the technical experts available on booth chats. An online visitor must be able to obtain not only the marketing messages but also get answers to deeply technical questions instantly. A virtual fair is all about instant gratification - even from technical experts behind your products or services.
  5. Give your nearest and earliest location: Your virtual booth needs to tell virtual attendees where they can meet you and your team face-to-face. Are you going to be at an upcoming industry conference? How about listing your upcoming event schedule. Steer your virtual attendees towards an action, a sales call or an in-person meeting.
  6. Shower them with unconditional love: Consider sending a gift to every virtual attendee who passes by your virtual booth. Imagine a virtual booth that screams "Thank you for stopping by. Lunch is on us!" and offer to send them a free gift card to 'some national restaurant chain'. Or some other gift to show your appreciation.
  7. Avoid gimmicks: We used to offer virtual exhibitors the ability to automatically pop-open a chat window every time a virtual attendee lingered at a virtual booth for more than 30 seconds -- until we heard complaints ranging from "annoying" to "unnerving" and "spooked me out". It was perceived as a gimmick, even though it was offered with the best of intentions to help our exhibitors be proactive. Treat your virtual attendees as you would at any real trade show attendees. Avoid gimmicks that could hurt your brand. Be courteous, stick to the theme of the overall trade fair (if it is a consumer electronics fair, there is no point in pushing your industrial products), and be mindful of how you use the time and fleeting attention that the online attendees are giving your virtual booth.

There are some more do's and dont's that come to mind, but the above 7 are generic enough in that they apply to virtual exhibitors everywhere no matter which technology platform they embrace.

The online behavioral patterns of website traffic do not usually apply to virtual event traffic. The reason being, attendees usually come into a virtual fair based on a theme, as against a brand of a particular exhibitor. Either they are trying to research a product line or an industry, or seeking to fulfill a specific need and want to check out several exhibitors with similar offerings by going through a structured navigation process. The online attendee is not necessarily there to look at a specific exhibitor. That makes it imperative that virtual exhibitors learn how to put their best virtual foot forward.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Universal Road Signs for Web Navigation

A talented boutique ad agency and design studio, EntirelyCreative run by our friends designer Jenette McEntire and photographer Paul McEntire came up with this tagline for iTradeFair.com. Every time I used to put this image ("Business As Usual Has Left the Building") up on the big screen at presentations, it would bring a smile to many members of the audience.

Many cultural nuances can't be translated globally. It takes an Elvis fan to enjoy such tag lines.

Language Translation for a Global Audience

Which brings me to the topic of translations for a global audience. Today, I watched a very crisp webinar (and I am no fan of webinars because usually they are a cure for insomnia) in which the slides presented by Bryant Shea of Molecular were not only beautiful, but also right on - he let the pictures imprint into our minds the story that he was telling. The topic was about creating global websites. He touched upon cultural differences, language differences and time-zones.

In our business, we encounter global audieces all the time. This blog gets visitors from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. A trade show that we did for a telecom giant had exhibitors from 17 states in the USA and attendees from 6 different countries outside of the U.S.

To borrow from Seth Godin's post, is it a toothache?

Sometimes we wonder if it is worth the investment in making every virtual trade show booth speak a different language. A virtual trade show is almost like a collection of many websites. One virtual tradeshow can have visitors from several countries with several native languages. When will the market bear the cost of such translation? Is it a toothache that needs to be fixed immediately? I am not so sure.

Lingua Webnaviga

We got an inquiry from China about a virtual trade show and in the 4th or 5th round of discussions they asked about a translated version - seemed almost like an after-thought. Alibaba, the famous site for global trade uses English, to the best of my knowledge, even though the English you would encounter rewrites all rules of grammar and pronunciation. It gets the message across and it gets the job done. Sometimes it even makes one smile, because some of the foreign usage of English seems so logical, one begins to wonder if English should start changing itself to adapt to global needs.

For the most part, since a majority of the content in a virtual trade show or other virtual fair is user-generated and user-uploaded, our system renders the content in the language of submission and in the format of submission. As far as our platform itself goes, it is so intuitive that the language may not matter.

Universal Road Signs

Isn't there a better way to handle this challenge? With web traffic leaning towards audio and video, could the web rely on a system of symbols and signs made to some standards that are universal. Almost like road-signs? Incidentally, I chanced upon this interesting collection of U.S. road-signs. Going through the signs, it makes so much more sense to come up with a library of universal symbols for web-navigation.

I am not fully convinced that translation of the web into local languages is mission-critical for our business of virtual fairs. English is quite common even if it comes in various accents and if it morphs from country to country. Don't hold me to that view though. A few months from now, we might be buried in a project that necessitates extreme personalization across the globe. That would almost certainly include language translation even if in a limited fashion - or we just might start creating a set of symbols and see how global audiences in our virtual fairs react.

Can Virtual Trade Shows and Virtual Job Fairs Save Newspaper Classifieds?

This topic seems relevant, going by the number of newspaper companies that have been contacting us for virtual job fairs. My understanding is that the newspaper industry is trying to find out ways in which the virtual trade show or the virtual job fair can be bundled into their existing offerings, and sold as a package to their advertisers, thereby lending support to their classifieds business.

It would be pertinent here to recount a failed experiment with a virtual job fair that was used by a publisher, leaving us with valuable lessons that I want to share. Our technology worked flawlessly (of course!) and minor customization was done to accommodate their needs. However, the virtual job fair was continuously up on their site, making it difficult for the publisher to explain to their advertisers how it was different from the traditional classifieds. I also believe it was an issue of not being able to articulate the cost-benefit of doing virtual job fairs versus or alongside classifieds for their particular industry. Here is the case study in an itemized style:
  • Publisher approached us for virtual job fair
  • Specifications included a permanent virtual job fair, with the ability to purchase time-slots of virtual booth display-duration in monthly increments
  • Real time reporting (it is a built-in feature that we offer, but we also customize it for long-term clients)
  • A built-in payment system (it was already there)
  • Consultation on best-practices in virtual fairs
  • Online support
  • A early set-up fee and ongoing revenue-share
  • The ability to walk away if it is not embraced by their market (we allow customers the ability to walk away with their data, regardless).

The things that the publisher did successfully included:

  • Packaging the service in convenient bite-sizes for advertisers
  • Giving advertisers special bundled offerings and term-discounts should they book virtual booth space for extended durations
  • Sold booth spaces at a fairly low price, but much higher than the traditional classifieds.

The things that the publisher failed to do included:

  • Failed to slice the duration into meaningful events
  • Failed to distinguish between classifieds and virtual job fair.
  • Failed to set the right expectations with advertisers, and therefore did not meet them
  • Failed to set pricing at the basic level equivalent to the competing classifieds
  • Failed to offer differentiated levels of the virtual job fair service
  • Failed to understand its international potential (months after we shut down their virtual job fair, our support lines still used to get inquiries from Europe and Australia by job seekers and potential advertisers)
  • Failed to either follow-through on the connections made, or track success stories, or promote them, or failed to do all three of the preceding.
Citing the reason that the concept of virtual job fair was too early for their particular industry, the publisher eventually pulled out of the virtual job fair once they found a significantly diluted web-based classifieds solution, which they offered to their advertisers to display classifieds. We make it easy for customers to exit with their registration data should they choose to, so it was a smooth transition. I admired the publisher for being a trendsetter, but they had not really broken away from the 'classifieds' mindset.

How can Virtual Fairs Save Newspaper Classifieds? Here are a few possible answers.

  1. Offer audiences a branded experience from your advertisers: A virtual job fair is a powerful branding tool, even if it is not embraced by every job classified advertiser. Those who choose Craigslist.org can not be stopped. That is just the way it is. However, if a hiring organization is serious about quality future hiring, then they would do what I have seen many companies do - use not only Craigslist.org, but also consider other ways of nurturing an audience of followers who will be future employees. To attract such an audience, they need the help, not only of the Internet and social networks, but also of traditional newspapers.
  2. Experiment fearlessly outside the comfort zone of the 'Classifieds' mind-set: It is up to the newspaper companies to listen and experiment fearlessly with these new tools. I use the word 'fearlessly' because presently all I see them do is put a few logos and link them to special pages for the logoed advertisers listing job openings. That is what I have seen a classifieds technology provider offer their newspaper industry clients. They call it a virtual career fair, though. That again stems from the fact that virtual job fairs have no standards, and no definition. Over a period of time, I expect the market to settle and agree upon definitions.
  3. Stay at the wheel and keep your eyes on the road: The other problem I see festering is that virtual job fair users think that 3D-type immersive experiences maketh a virtual fair. Agreed, it needs to be fun, but do not forget the human element. It does not matter how you dress up your virtual fair. If it does not have real humans steering the experience from their individual locations, you are headed down a path of disillusionment for your advertisers, your audiences, and your classifieds. No matter what kind of virtual fair you use, make sure that it has real people behind it available for its live-duration.
  4. Qualify the traffic: One size will not fit all. A virtual fair may not be the cure for all ailments that afflict newspaper classifieds, but in our experience virtual fairs have worked really well in controlled environments because they do what nothing else can do - they allow for instant communication in a structured manner. They allow exhibitors and hiring managers to see who has come by their virtual booth. From the attendees' perspective, they allow exhibitors or advertisers, or hiring managers to hand-hold their audiences. They give audience members undivided attention. Making audiences register is one of the smallest necessary hurdles that are required to qualify an audience. I can not over-emphasize the importance of qualifying the attendees for a virtual fair. Sweeping and gathering eyeballs off the web don't make for a quality virtual trade fair or a virtual job fair.
  5. Give it time, promote it and nurture it: Newspapers have to learn to co-exist with the Internet. Virtual job fairs might be one way. I would strongly suggest that newspaper companies try virtual job fairs (or virtual trade fairs -- say a Used Car Virtual Trade Show) for 4 consecutive quarters. For kicks, advertise your virtual job fair or trade fair on CraigsList and Google. Promote it like there is no tomorrow for the current classifieds.
The debate has just begun. Virtual fairs are among the better kept secrets in the world of business. Those who use it successfully do not talk about it enough. They could be the answer that newspaper companies are looking for in learning how to make their classifieds coexist with the Internet. It would be interesting to see the results of the contest by ReinventingClassifieds.com and to learn about other ideas from the college-goers - always a valuable resource.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

3 Reasons why Virtual Trade Shows Can't Afford to Lose the Personal Touch

Virtual trade shows can't afford to lose the personal touch. Here are 3 reasons for this statement:
  1. Save your show, grow your brand: With email filters and spam fighting tools getting more and more aggressive, email invitations, automated responses, email alerts and notifiers sometimes do not reach the intended recipient. I am told they simply get vaporized. In a corporate trade show for a very large Fortune 100 company, we sometimes offer to follow up on their initial emails with one or two people on the phones. All that our people do is call the intended recipient, and ask them if they have received the invitation email or alert email, and if they have had a chance to read through it. We do it mainly for those who have been invited to exhibit but failed to register. The response on the phone usually is one of gratitude for the follow-up, and often goes as follows: "I have so many emails, I know I have seen it but would you mind re-sending it to me right now while you have me on the phone so that I can go over it with you." or "I am sure I did not receive your email. Let me get your domain white-listed so that I receive future emails from you". In most of these closed-corporate virtual trade shows that we do for our producer-clients, the exhibitors would do anything to get the opportunity to exhibit and get in front of those corporations. The personal touch does wonders for the trade show and more importantly, for our brand.
  2. Our natural craving for human contact and reassurance in unfamiliar surroundings: In two recent virtual trade shows as I monitored the support lines and the communication process, we learned that when an online exhibitor or attendee is not very familiar with how standard Internet experiences work, then it is best to have a member of the support team pick up the phone and call them. We had a situation where the online support was very responsive over an exchange of 4 emails, but what could have been resolved in a 5 minute call, later took an hour because the online exhibitor was pining to hear a reassuring human voice on the phone.
  3. Leveraging crowd-surf: Something that I have seen work wonderfully well is to have one dedicated live chat room for Customer Support during live online events. Put a few support folks on it from your side to listen in and answer questions. Let it be the place where people can come and publicly post messages for help. There is always a small percentage of visitors who are either rushed or not familiar with online environments. When they post a question, often other online attendees answer them to help them out. From a support-perspective, it is akin to addressing a crowd in a room and letting the crowd's own dynamics form an informal safety net that carries the event forward successfully. It gives you the opportunity to have your ears on the ground and look for areas of navigation that are not intuitive, and guide the crowd collectively or through a private chat message. It gives you the ability to know if there are technical problems in environments that your testing process did not factor in.

In virtual trade shows and other forms of virtual fairs even though it is common for people to not be surprised if their requests are not answered swiftly, if you want to distinguish your event-brand, then give it your personality. Keep it real, and keep it as personal as possible. The Internet is just an efficient medium that connects real humans seeking to interact with one another. Do not take away the human element.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

IM sorry

Yesterday, we had a live trade show held entirely online for a large group of businesses. It was attended by visitors from as far away as the United Kingdom. A virtual trade show is a combination of several elements, many features and web-based tools. They all have to work in unison; they have to flawlessly, predictably and simultaneously. Among the more prominent features is the instant messenger (IM) at the virtual booth. Many of our clients simply call it the Booth Chat. This allows a live interaction between the booth hosts and the attendees, one of the crucial elements of any event.

The booth chat requires no downloads. Which can sometimes be a problem, because we do not take control of the online visitor's browser and their computing environment. That is a choice we made, and we are trying to stay true to that choice. It allows for easier participation by any attendee without requiring special permissions from the Corporate IT staff for download of a plug-in etc.

For 3 exhibitors the chat feature did not function well (even if it were 1, that's unacceptable). This started happening right when the event went live. On the rare occasion, one learns of system incompatibilities in live environments - this was one such occasion - they are difficult to predict and difficult to recreate swiftly, especially with the Internet being as dynamic as it is, and amid the ticking clock of a live online event. The event was in live mode for 3 hours. Trouble-shooting during a live event environment is like trying to figure out why your parachute is not opening in the midst of a free-fall.

While although exhibitors and attendees have a variety of other tools to exchange meaningful information and leads, the Booth Chat happens to be the most popular and visible feature for instant gratification. When the UK visitor chatted online with US based exhibitors they all were delighted. So there is something special about the bond-building capability of the online chat, even though this may seem primitive to the modern web users who routinely play with a lot more interactive and immersive technologies than good old text-chat.

When a booth chat feature in a virtual booth hiccups, it is like a smooth flight interrupted by severe turbulence. Even after a safe landing, one tends to remember the turbulence when one's life flashed before one's eyes.

All 3 affected exhibitors were very gracious and understanding of the quirks of the Internet and our tireless efforts to get to the bottom of the issue to see if it was something specific to the user's system. One exhibitor did not mince words when expressing their frustration. We deserved it -- this morning we have been revisiting our processes. They are time-tested, but obviously not infallible.

Live Booth Chat is just one of many features, so its stalling does not render the virtual booth useless, but a live trade show is not a good time to explain that, lest it be misunderstood as an excuse for the malfunction.

We suggested a simple workaround, while we went back to investigating the issue, and finally resolved it by the end of the day. We kept the exhibitors and the event producer updated on the issue. Our client was very gracious with the reaction that "the good thing is people will still get the contacts and follow up in real time at another occasion.They are part of the technological future. At least we did not lose anyone in “space”... think of how the astronauts feel who put their life on the line."

This perhaps unintentional use of the space-mission metaphor is right on. No one gets lost in cyberspace with our system because even if the chat had a hiccup, their footprint is tracked and available to the exhibitor.

We have offered yet another live-day for the event at no cost. We are revisiting our event-rollout process. We appreciate every programmer's work that has gone into the making of our software, running it and resolving any technical issues. Keeping up with the changes in internet environments is no mean task. We appreciate the patience of the handful of exhibitors who faced Booth Chat issues, and know that we will find a way to make it up to them in the near future. Virtual trade shows are breaking new grounds, so we appreciate your taking this journey with us. To all, we extend our apology, and take this as yet another lesson learned as we continue to grow.

Feedback Button on the Forehead

While humans have their feedback buttons in the form of ears on either side of their face, that does not work for websites.

We always try to find an unobtrusive way to place a feedback button right on the forehead of our virtual fairs.

Nothing fancy, no forms to fill. Just a Feedback Button.

One click on the feedback button, and it launches an email from the user's email client. When sent, the email comes straight to our assigned support line for that particular virtual fair. It is the most used mechanism for feedback.

What is interesting is that even though we have a password retriever which shoots back the password in an email to users, they sometimes still prefer to use the Feedback Button to ask for their passcode. From their perspective, it is painless and there is no guesswork -- no wondering about what the next screen will show. The Feedback Button launches an email on their own client, which probably gives them a feeling of greater control. They will now have a proof of sending the request right in their Sent Box.

Simplicity rules.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Face2Facers, Virtual Trade Shows and Semantics

I originally began this post with the title 'How Language Lends Legitimacy to Virtual Fairs' and one of the tags I included was semantics. On second thoughts it seemed like a boring caption. So I have added a few more thoughts, changed the title to make it a little quirky, and re-posted it.

When we began doing virtual fairs almost a decade ago, the sales process began with educating the prospects on the definition of virtual fairs. My cofounder Professor Sharda is to be fully credited with figuring out the best mix of technologies and user-experiences in manifesting the virtual trade show online. To this day, we get rave reviews for a product that is "elegant in its simplicity" (in the words of a customer who represents a global pharma giant) from the front-end, hides its complex backend nicely, and works like a charm.

When I walked into the office of a trade show veteran a few years ago, he welcomed me with the words "There is no such thing as a virtual trade show".

I was invited to a speak at American Business Media's Trade Show Summit just a couple of years ago. To my surprise, right before I was introduced at the podium the audience was told categorically that ABM believes only in face to face trade shows. I was merely there to help them figure out what value our customers are finding in virtual trade shows. My hosts, having thus set the tone for my presentation, put me on the uphill task of talking to a skeptical audience. As a rule, I never make a sales pitch in such appearances. Besides, many of our top customers don't like to talk about their success because we are part of their competitive strategy through either an improved process or an improved brand. I did my best to present a generic case-study to the audience that was already primed that face to face events were the only real deal. [Incidentally, I still love ABM - unlike many other organizations that I have been exposed to, ABM's leadership and membership is extremely gracious and welcoming of rookies like me - I was a new member for a short duration - they were always good to me. Someday soon I hope to be active once again in that group. Hopefully by then they will be willing to step out of their comfort zones and really embrace virtual trade shows and other specialty fairs to tap its true potential. ]

Today I signed up to attend TS2 the trade show for the trade show industry (In 2000 we had actually spent a decent sum of money to exhibit in TS2 - which is ironical - exhibiting in a face-to-face trade show to sell a virtual trade show. We haven't done it since. That experience warrants a separate post because it had valuable lessons despite being ahead of its time) . The 2008 TS2 event actually has a special mention of Face2Face.

My point is, every time real-world event marketers describe their event as 'face-to-face', it dawns upon me that virtual meetings and virtual trade shows, virtual job fairs or any other kind of virtual fairs have entered the psyche of the trade show industry. Virtual fairs have gained (dare I say?) a foothold on the minds of the marketer. If there were no such thing as virtual trade shows, then the trade show industry's use of the label face2face would be a redundancy, wouldn't it?

What Webex did to seminars, iTradeFair.com will do to trade shows. We already get calls asking us about the next itradefair. I would hazard a guess that there are more businesses that do not (or can not) exhibit in trade shows, than there are on face-to-face trade show floors. That absentee population - absentee for whatever valid reason it might be - is hungry for an affordable channel to promote their business or themselves. That is a huge untapped opportunity in a parallel universe of business and consumer events. Virtual trade fairs and other specialty virtual fairs will act as a catalyst in converting many of these absentees into face2facers. It may start with regional gatherings, but the craving for social interaction in-person will push many of the virtual trade show participants into seeking ways to meet face-to-face. That is what I see happening in the foreseeable future.

What I know will happen soon is that virtual trade shows will enter the language of everyday business, and then they will enter the lexicon of company accountants and budget analysts. That means companies and their marketing departments will have a budget line-item and a budget for virtual trade shows or other virtual fairs.

The next phase that I foresee is virtual trade shows becoming a part of conversation. Then they become part of business and life. Someday soon I will not be surprised if I overhear a conversation (or a tweet) on how "I met my boss at a virtual trade show" or how "I first found my West Coast sales rep at a virtual trade show".

Friday, July 18, 2008

Uneasy Lies the Virtual Trade Show that Carries a Sponsorship

Why do sponsors align themselves with virtual trade shows? Let us see what we can infer from sponsors' approach in real-world events, and then see how it translates when it comes to the virtual trade shows.

I was talking to the tradeshow leadership at one of the nation's top manufacturers of outboard motors for the marine industry. The purpose of their participation in their industry's leading tradeshows was "to show how big we are, and to display our products". Lead-capture was not on their wish-list. I have heard this repeatedly from many sponsors - they show up as sponsors because historically they have been sponsors. To not be a sponsor after successive appearances at industry tradeshows is to risk creating the perception in the mind of the market, that all is not well in that particular year. Cutbacks sometimes begin with the advertising and promotions budget line-items. Sponsors, in a way, support the trade association or advocacy group that organizes these gatherings of industry-professionals, in return for visibility. Such support does serve an important purpose for the growth of an industry. However, from the sponsor's perspective, there is no need for creativity, no need for aggressive tactics to steer foot-traffic towards their booths on the show floor, and no need for too much marketing effort. Their brand does the talking for them. When visitors show up at their booth, they are often ignored by the booth staffers unless it is someone they already know personally, and it is generally a relaxed setting for the staffers. Visitors may come by their booth, pick up corporate giveaways and leave.

How does such a sponsor's commitment translate in a virtual trade show environment, and how does that affect the quality of the virtual trade show?

When a sponsor's logo is proudly displayed on a virtual trade show, it is often used by the event organizer to sell more virtual booth space. It also invariably helps in drawing a qualified online attendance. The hope for the other exhibitors is that the online traffic thus drawn will also stop by their own virtual booths. The expectation of the virtual attendees is to be able to interact instantly with someone knowledgeable at any virtual booth that they visit online. When the online attendees stop by at a sponsor's virtual booth the expectation is to at least be able to instantly connect online with a representative who can point them in the right direction.

I attend quite a few virtual tradeshows because there is always something new to learn in them. At a technology-related virtual trade show, I visited a sponsor's booth and asked to chat with a representative regarding a product on display. The booth staffer appeared online after a long wait, in a chat session that froze up my screen often, and to top it off this booth staffer seemed not just disinterested, but also uninformed about the product.

If organizations want to be sponsors at a virtual trade show, but do not want to work their virtual booth, then
  • it is perfectly okay for them to decline to have live booth chat operators or booth staffers via their virtual booths, instead sticking with providing for relevant and current information made available to the online attendees, or
  • perhaps they should consider opting for means of visiblity other than the virtual booth. If all they want in return for a sponsorship is the visiblity and the branding, then they perhaps stand to gain more by announcing an award to every 1,000th attendee who logs in live during the virtual fair. Or they could simply do nothing - just have their branding prominently placed at vantage points on the virtual trade show.
Having a virtual booth means a tacit promise by the booth-owners that they will actively participate in the virtual trade show's success by being a part of the live interaction. Unfortunately, in a virtual trade show, if there isn't sufficient many-to-many interaction, it could lose its momentum. Virtual trade shows and other forms of virtual fairs survive and thrive solely on the quality and the frequency of live interaction.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Designing an Effective Online Mentoring Program

In every organization there is a wealth of knowledge that is never documented. Sometimes such knowledge could be very valuable from a competitive standpoint. The manager of a key account might know about nuances in her or his interaction with the client, that could be critical to the successful management of that account. All such knowledge stays and moves with the people who gain it.

What if the organization could harness the Internet to create a chain of mentors that can be pulled in to train a new recruit? Just as they say that it is smart not to burn bridges with a former employer, I believe it is also smart for an organization not to burn bridges with a former employee.

The way some of the top business schools in the nation maintain and sustain their alumni networks is noteworthy. They start with assigning an email account for each alumnus. It is a permission list they have created even before the students leave campus to enter the workforce. From that starting point the school actively nurtures the alumni networks for a variety of purposes, right from fund raising to career services.

I have not heard of business organizations do this as well, with the exception of a few such as McKinsey & Company. The Internet makes it easy to do. All it needs is a visionary management that understands that an ex-employee can be their ambassador. The ex-employee can be a mentor to their future employees. There are simple cost-effective ways to connect the ex-employees with the future-employees, no matter where they are located physically.

This was the topic of a paper that I had presented at the annual seminar of an international wing of SHRM in 2001. The paper, then seemed ahead of its time based on the audience-reaction. Now social networking has become a buzzword. Companies are looking into building the social networking capability into their Intranets. LinkedIn is coming up with this capability although it faces the challenge of being an outside vendor. Regardless, the sheer convenience of being able to connect with a former employee who is familiar with a particular business situation, will open the floodgates. It will tempt the current or potential employee to 'click' and make that connection, and get a quick update or guidance on how to handle the situation, or how it was handled way back when it occurred. These are interesting times indeed!

There are several unanswered questions, of course. Questions on worldly things such as privacy, liability, intellectual property, and competitive intelligence. Questions on non-worldly things such as unhindered sharing of knowledge, brotherhood, and helping one another out. (See some of the lessons learned in an experiment by McKinsey & Company)

If you wish to read the paper that I had presented, here it is - titled "Learning through Online Mentoring: Harnessing the Internet to Create and Retain Intangible Assets".

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The making of a successful virtual job fair

This article attempts to address some of the questions that have been coming up among those interested in virtual job fairs and virtual career fairs. iTradeFair.com has deployed several successful virtual fairs including job fairs since 1999, in academia and Corporate America. In this article the writer highlights factors that make these early adopters want to come back and do the virtual job fairs over and over again.

The relevance of a virtual job fair today

With the widespread use of the Internet for job searches, recruiters and hiring managers have a larger pool of accessible job candidates. The consequent information overload is inevitable. A typical search within a job board gives a recruiter thousands of choices and not enough time in the day to review all of them. A virtual job fair serves as a levee to arrest the information deluge, capture a relevant, interested and manageable part of the database, invite them to a job fair, and fish for the best candidates. From the candidates’ perspective, they enjoy the ability to fish for the best opportunities. By creating manageable capsules of time, (web) space, and information, a virtual job fair creates a sheltered environment without the noise and clutter of the Internet for a recruiter or hiring manager to directly connect with a potential job candidate.

The other reason that a virtual job fair has become relevant is that hiring companies are trying their best to make their brand stand out amongst their competitors to attract the best talent that is out there. Many organizations are able to receive résumés of interested job candidates at their own career websites. Some even have a .jobs domain name to go with their overall web presence. With such elements they are trying to create an exclusive corner for their hiring needs and thus build some branding. To create an element of brand-loyalty even before they have become an employee of the company, many organizations prefer to have their own online event to invite and engage candidates who have expressed interest in working for that specific organization. The virtual job fair is an ideal way to maintain a pipeline of future employees that care about an organization’s brand

Three ‘C’s for a successful virtual job fair

There are several factors that make for a successful virtual job fair, but in our experience the most critical ones are making them Convenient, Crisp and Current.

  1. Convenient: If a job fair can be wrapped around the needs of the job candidate, it has a better chance of success. We conducted a job fair where the recruiters ‘staffed’ their virtual booth on a Sunday morning (from the comfort of their home via the Internet) just to make it convenient to working professionals who may not have time during the work week for a serious job search. Candidates were able to attend online, connect instantly via chat with the recruiter, schedule an interview or even have an initial phone interview with the recruiter that Sunday morning. Since the internet does not have any boundaries of time, it stands a better chance of success if it creates spells of interactivity aligned with the convenience of the job candidates in mind. Convenience is also important to the hiring manager. Should a hiring manager wish to involve an engineer in the hiring process, it can be accomplished without the engineer leaving her or his desk, and still be able to address technical questions and concerns of a job candidate instantaneously. Making it convenient is the biggest hallmark of the success of a virtual job fair. Taking this a little further, it also means that the virtual job fair must be easy to participate from behind firewalls in case a working professional chooses to attend from the office. It goes without saying that the virtual job fair then must enjoy timely customer support during any hour that has been chosen by the fair organizers. It is all about making it convenient for the job candidate and the recruiter in terms of getting the required customer support for an easy and seamless experience. Respecting the time of all participants is paramount. To assume that the job candidate, hiring managers or recruiters have a lot of time to spend on the Internet is a fallacy. That leads us to the next C – Crisp.
  2. Crisp: Time is a scarce resource. Let us not forget that the hiring manager, recruiter and the job candidate, each have a specific need – to be able to find one another, to find the right fit, and to connect as quickly as possible armed with as much information as possible. Virtual job fairs work best when they are used to facilitate and swiftly arrange for a phone conversation or an email follow-up leading to a phone conversation. Throwing too much technology at the users is inconsiderate and counter-productive. The second most important hallmark of a successful virtual job fair is to keep it simple and crisp, serving as a tool to establish an instant connection between the job giver and the job seeker. Anything else that interferes with this ultimate objective is a waste of time and therefore money. Keeping all the content in the virtual job fair concise, keeping the navigation consistent and predictable is very important. Of course, all of the convenience and conciseness you offer in a virtual job fair is meaningless if the content is not current, taking us to the next C -Current.
  3. Current: Even if your virtual job fair is being created out of an existing database of job candidates or an existing job listing pool, and even if it is easy to simply pull all of that data into a virtual job fair venue, I would urge to resist the temptation to serve old wine in a new bottle. My recommendation would be to leave certain pieces of information out of any automated data transfers, and mandate that the job fair participants – both employers and job candidates demonstrate their commitment by making current their job listings and résumés respectively, as well as their contact information. Employers will tell you how frustrating it is to find interesting résumés that are outdated, emails that bounce back and phones numbers that never ring. In the same vein, job candidates will tell you how exasperating it is to go through job listings, fill out an application form, click on the ‘apply’ button only to find that the job posting has ‘expired’ or is ‘not available any longer’. Keep all content in the virtual job fair current, and you will have a winner.

    The first steps towards building a brand

    To keep all content in a virtual job fair current, it is also important that the job fair has a specific start and an end. A virtual job fair with a defined time-frame is successful for the following few reasons. It is not reasonable to expect hiring managers to be online ‘staffing’ virtual booths for more than a few hours. Hiring processes have a life-cycle, and matters have to move beyond the initial screening that the virtual job fair painlessly allows. When a virtual job fair is closed, it is best to open pre-registration and pre-announce the next virtual job fair. A pre-announced calendar of job fairs helps sustain the momentum of the first fair. It gives job candidates something to look forward to. It gives recruiters a breather. Most of all, it helps the job fair organizer build a brand for the job fair. Based on our experience, if you deliver virtual job fairs in brief spells of time, and also use it in conjunction with face-to-face job fairs, you will experience measurable success. One must remember that the Internet works best when used as a tool to enhance human interaction.

The author, Ramesh Sambasivan is the co-founder of iTradeFair.com, Inc. Thanks to Grant Hartman, a virtual event manager and social networking evangelist at iTradeFair.com for valuable edits to this article.

P.S.: This article is getting picked up by many blogs so I figured, why not by this one :-)

Monday, July 14, 2008

What is the ideal duration for a virtual fair?

Here is an interesting question that we get asked often. "What duration would you recommend for our virtual fair?". The easy answer, of course is "Never overstay your welcome". Our most successful virtual fair was a venture capital event that ran for just 4 hours live, and shut down in 2 days. Visitors came from as far away as the Netherlands and Australia, not to mention various states in the nation. Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners was on a live keynote chat. So was Elaine St. James of 'Simplify your Life' . After the virtual fair was over, users were still contacting us asking us when the next one was going to be. I suppose we left them wanting more.

Let us explore various durations and evaluate them.

4-hour Live Duration: The live portion of the virtual fair is the length of time when you are guaranteeing that visitors will congregate online at the same time from different locations. If the participants are going to attend from the Americas, then choose a 4-hour period that starts in the afternoon for East Coast. That covers enough daytime hours for a fruitful visit to a virtual fair during the workday, whether the attendee comes online from New York or San Francisco. It is also does not drag on taking away a big part of the work-day. Our favorite duration for live online events is 12 noon to 4 p.m. Eastern Time.

8-hour Live Duration: If you want 8 hours of live instant interaction, then we recommend 2 live sessions of of 4-hours each even if it is held over a 2-day period. Having a day-long live-interaction virtual event would be overkill. Break it up into small sessions if you are covering international time zones.

2 days + 2 weeks: Often virtual fairs are held to accomodate the needs of those who can not travel. However, even with a virtual fair scheduling conflicts arise. In such cases even if there is no expectation of live interaction, people like to visit the virtual fair when they get a breather, after-hours. An on-demand period after the live portion is ideal. My favorite is the 2-day live and 2-week on-demand structure. 4 hours each for the first 2 days, and then 2 weeks thereafter works well in our experience.

2-weeks flex-live: Here is another very successful model. It has been used consistently in a virtual job fair. Keep your virtual fair online for 2 weeks, and allow your exhibitors to set their own hours. Announce those hours dynamically in your promotions. This works beautifully. In this virtual job fair, our client, a world famous University, had highly reputed employers setting long hours of live interactions broken down into hourly slots assigned to various recruiters available online to instantly answer questions from prospective job candidates.

1 day live + 1 month on-demand: Here is why this structure works really well for a Fortune 100 client of ours. Large groups of their employees from every part of the globe can really set aside their time and attention to the virtual fair for 4 hours on a selected day. If they miss that, no big deal. They have another 30 days to go online after that. What about the live interaction? Well, they are so big and powerful that they can send an email to an exhibitor and make them live and interact on their own schedule. Billions of dollars in purchasing power walk through the virtual exhibit hall during the 4 hour-period. Exhibitors can not stop raving about that. The event is short and sweet.

24 x 7 x 365 Virtual Shows: I would not classify these as virtual fairs. That would be an online interactive directory, or a virtual showcase. There are exceptions, though. You can create little spurts in activity even if you have a permanent showcase. In my experience, such permanent virtual showcases need more care and feed to keep them interesting. They have to constantly figure out ways of reinventing themselves.

The Interrupted Virtual Fair: We have a virtual trade show coming up next week for a large non-profit organization. It will be held in 2 phases. It will first open online for live interaction on one day, followed by 15 days on-demand. This is a pre-screening fair. It will be used by participants to decide which are the exhibitors they want to meet in person and to schedule some time with them. Once the first phase is over, the participants will travel to San Francisco where the annual conference is being held, and will network in person (cocktails, et al). Immediately after that Phase 2 begins with the virtual fair going live online again for a day, plus 15 days of on-demand presence. This time the participants can go back to their offices and bring their colleagues along to view virtual booths that were of most interest to them when they were in San Francisco based on the friendships and trust-building that can better happen with eye-contact and handshakes.

There is no one-size-fits-all. Find the one that works best for you based on your time-zone, industry, and face-to-face meeting opportunities.