Friday, June 27, 2008

Helping the Help Lines

A support line for a live online event is an interesting animal. An event is live for short spells of time, and a related support issue is not only live but also ticking. A 'live online event' simply means that a large number of people show up online by logging into the system simultaneously through the event website and use a variety of instant interaction and instant information tools for a short duration. Live events often end in 24 or 36 hours. Customer support delivered a little late could be too late. We are only as good as the last support request that we have resolved - how we resolved it, and how quickly we resolved it.

Our users come to us with a sense of urgency, because time lost on a live event could be opportunity lost for making the right connections with online visitors and exhibitors. Further, since the virtual events that we create happen over the Internet, we have to rely on a set of online tools to sense a problem, or be notified of a problem, and a swift and efficient mechanism to acknowledge requests, to escalate issues as needed, respond, resolve and also take measures to prevent other users facing a similar issue in the remaining hours of the live event.

A typical online support process in my experience starts with an emailed auto-response, and then an email follow-up in a couple of days. If we take that as the norm of online support, it does not help in the area of live online events. During live events, we sometimes even have to turn off auto-responders on support channels because they could cause needless aggravation to users who are already pressed for time. When the clock on an event is ticking, the last thing that an end-user needs is an impersonal auto-response. The best response in such cases is one that carries a resolution with it, a quick explanation and an apology (not necessarily in that order). The responses are delivered either through a quick phone call, an email or a broadcast message if it affects all users. It is important for the online attendees to know that real humans are monitoring the live online event. For high-traffic online events we have also very successfully staffed a dedicated text-chat room for live support and addressed users in private or collectively.

We learned the hard way that it is most efficient to steer all support requests to text-based channels so that little or nothing would be lost in transmission or translation. Users love the flexibility that they have in being able to screen-capture errors and send it to our support lines, or copy and paste anything they see that they do not understand, and our support system can act on them and respond to them with precision. An IVR (integrated voice response) system that places live online help-seekers in a queue is a bad idea when the count-down has begun for the launch of an online event, or when the clock on a live online event is ticking away.

These dynamic factors amid a ticking clock are what make the world of online events so different. I admire the nerves of our technical team, because they have consistently delivered with only one thought to guide them - how to make the online event participant's life easy. I almost see their work to be in the realm of air traffic controllers. The only difference between an air traffic controller's work and our technical crew's work I suppose is that instead of real lives being involved, there are real livelihoods involved - real marketing folks take part in our online events. They are very stressful. [ A shout-out to our technical and support team would be most appropriate here! ] However, the real help to the help-line begins at the design stage. While it is inconceivable to visualize every potential problem, impossible to predict every instance of users getting confused with the user-interface even though we could have vouched that the event is made to be highly intuitive, the more time spent in thinking and planning the user-experience and navigation before-hand, the lesser the strain on the support lines.

As we ramp up to the live online event, and even in the heat of a live online event, we have to stay nimble about our approaches to a resolution, sometimes being willing to modify user-interfaces to contain the spread of a support problem even as the first complaints are being invetigated. Every problem anticipated and avoided amounts to precious time saved for an end-user. Every potential issue nipped in the bud means a friend made in the online visitor. It is about making life easier for the customers. Consequently, it also makes life easier for the support line.

The first infographic that we got designed for explaining our company's offering depicts our role in a control tower. When it was designed in 1999, little did I know that the metaphor is true and timeless. Check it out below.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The pursuit of pain

We began our startup inspired by first-hand experience of the pain felt in international business when an export company in Mumbai (then Bombay) tried to market its products to overseas buyers. The quest, ever since, has been to find the best way to find and help others who have been feeling the pain of reaching faraway markets in an affordable manner.

Among the first things that an advisor to our startup told me was to find the pain that an end-user is feeling and then address that pain. Or like someone I know said, you are better off being a pain-killer, than a vitamin.

Ever since, we have been in pursuit of the pain felt and mentioned by our customers and prospective customers. I suppose, we also chance upon new markets based on accidental discoveries by markets feeling the pain and finding out that our product can indeed alleviate their pain.

Often, the ones feeling the pain may not necessarily have the influence or the voice to demand our offerings even if they are aware of its benefits. Perhaps the 'drugstore' or the distribution channel is unwilling to carry our offering because they don't see a justifiable margin to carry it in their inventory. The problem is similar to the one that Dr. Victoria Hale of OneWorld Health is trying to address. There are diseases in the world that giant pharma companies will not address because the markets for them are so specific and scattered that it is does not make economic sense to their shareholders. Incidentally I have had the privilege of being introduced to Dr. Hale during her startup days, so it is a great success story to reference here as an analogy to our startup. OneWorld Health now has the backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

I believe that our quest is to find the pain being endured by exhibitors and attendees no matter what kind of business fairs or consumers fairs they prefer. Our quest is to find the best way to reach fellow sufferers. We are in pursuit of that pain. Our quest is to deliver the best product-mix to address that pain.

Along the way we are making possible new channels where none existed before; new ancillary service providers where none existed before (this is already happening on its own), digital producers of content serving a market that did not exist before. We believe we have the means to alleviate the pain of those who have not had the resources to take part in business fairs or consumer fairs. Every time a marketing budget line item is questioned by the accountant, every time a business or any organization tries to grow and get the word out, they feel the pain. Our mission is to track, target and eliminate that pain. However, we will have a flourishing business model only when we pursue, locate and influence large pools of such pain. With the growing reach of the Internet internationally, that goal is now within reach.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A cure for Webinarrhea

Also perhaps spelled Webinarrhoea, depending on which side of the pond you are located, this topic came to mind because my last post was about webinars. Given my varied personal interests, over a period of time I seem to have gotten onto the subscription lists of a variety of publications. Almost every single publication, it seems is on the webinar bandwagon.

I suspect that publishers are bundling webinars into the media vehicles that they take to their advertisers. I get inundated with invitations to webinars on a variety of topics. Typically, they are hour-long webinars. They come with a single-click mechanism to add them to my Outlook calendar so that I remember to stop multi-tasking (now that qualifies as a topic for a separate post by itself), and focus on an hour-long webinar. With so many webinars turning out to be advertisement vehicles, the task of building credibility for a webinar is becoming increasingly difficult. I can foresee webinars getting commoditized. They are at risk of turning into cyber-debris.

Webinars have another inherent flaw. They require a fairly well-sized audience to synch up their clocks, drop everything that they are doing and show up online at the appointed hour with undivided attention. Webinars do not give their potential audiences the flexibility of even a range of time to attend. Shouldn't one be able to, in a manner of speaking, 'Tivo' [TM] a webinar, and still be able to ask questions to the speaker and receive instant responses? That is precisely what a virtual tradeshow can do for you. It helps your online visitors 'Tivo' [TM] your presentations in your virtual booth. Possibly to overcome this issue, On24, a webcast technology provider is now offering Insight24, a permanent site of webcasts.

A virtual tradeshow, I believe, is that and much more. If one could take home a piece of every trade show one liked, then the virtual tradeshow would be the way to do it.

We delivered a trans-Atlantic virtual tradeshow for a very large company in the healthcare space. We first tried it with live webinars followed by the opening of a virtual exhibit hall. Exhibitors had recorded their presentations, but were also available for instant responses to questions. The technology used was a simple combination of MS PowerPoint [TM] and a combination of voice-over-IP and Instant Messaging. Exhibitors were from countries such as Belgium, Israel, Australia and the U.K. Attendees were divisional heads from various parts of the United States. The results were outstanding. In fact, there was greater participation from the distributed worldwide audience in the virtual tradeshow booths than when the same content was presented in live webinars launched at an unearthly morning hour to accomodate various time zones. Eventually the customer dropped the webinars and stayed with the virtual tradeshow format.

Want a cure for Webinarrhea? Try a virtual booth at a virtual tradeshow - where exhibitors will accomodate your schedule - not the other way round.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Webside manners

Having hosted, moderated, or spoken at several webinars, let me try to come up with some rules of etiquette for webinars. I myself may be guilty of having broken some of these rules on occasion, but mistakes are a part of the learning process.

  1. Be considerate to your users and test the webinar tool for every aspect of the user's experience. Do the invitation templates make the recipients scroll up and down on a 1024 x 768 resolution before they can see the sign-up form and the 'submit' button? Are the reminder settings reasonable in their frequency or will they become a turn-off for the person subscribing to your webinar? Have the dial-in numbers been tested? Did you conduct a test webinar with a few of your friends to know in advance how the webinar tool behaves? I was once listening in on a webinar where the nation's largest advocacy group for a certain category of businesses was launching a new online member database system. The lack of preparation was obvious when they stumbled through the various features of the webinar tool that they were using rather than focus on the subject of their webinar. Further, every time a caller joined, the audio conferencing system announced the arrival, and every time a caller quit or dropped the call, the same system announced the name of the person who left the call. I have never experienced a more chaotic online experience. If you are using an outside service to manage your webinar, request to sit in on any of their other webinar productions to make sure that your audience will enjoy the experience that the provider offers.
  2. Be considerate and keep the webinar crisp in content and style. Keep things informal as much as possible so that the speaker or panelists are at ease. Have a moderator to steer the conversation. Conduct a dry run for the panelists. De-emphasize power-point slideshows. Encourage the speakers to talk without the crutch of a slideshow. There is no point in showing slides that are full of text. If the speakers have a lot of content, then offer them as a download before and during the webinar. Use the live-time for engaging the audience. Keep the talk going for no more than 20 minutes. It helps keep the entire session very focused. See a sample video (I must caution you that the opening music on this video is needlessly loud) of a presentation by marketing visionary Seth Godin from the TED conference, or a TED conference presentation by Julie Taymor, who translated the movie 'The Lion King' to Broadway. TED conference presentations, I believe have an 18-minute restriction on each talk. The short duration of the presentation however, seems to be working quite well. Leave 10 to 15 minutes for questions. Have some blank slides available, and have someone available to type in any special information that the panelists are sharing on the fly, so that the audience can view it on their screen, e.g. an email address, a phone number or a website address that the speaker(s) may want to highlight.
  3. Be considerate and have webside manners: A moderator is there to steer the discussion. The moderator is not there to talk or add his or her own view to the thoughts of a speaker. The audience must be on mute. While some may be doing it because it is a job requirement, most of the audience members on a webinar have spared precious time to listen to the speaker and learn something new. I have been on webinars where the audio is un-muted, subjecting listeners to a variety of sounds such as interference from a blackberry, dogs barking, and even the flushing of a toilet. Mute them. Letting the panelists know beforehand that they will not be interrupted or heckled by a remote audience will help tremendously. Test the audio a few minutes prior to showtime, and monitor it continuously signed in as a member of the audience. On a recent webinar, even though the opening audio was supposed to be live for only the moderator and the panelists, they were all on air much before showtime. If there is a glitch with the technology, which is not very uncommon, manage it gracefully with a short apology and keep the show going on. Have more than one person prepare a deck of slides to display so that you can switch computers if needed. For the Question/Answer portion tell the audience members that all questions will be handled anonymously. This will encourage people to be willing to ask questions without the fear of publicly making themselves appear uninformed. This will also prevent self-promoters from stealing the thunder of the speakers. Moderate all questions because that way you control the tone of the entire session. If the questions are being submitted online, then have someone engage the audience promptly with all requests and side-bar questions. Encourage follow-on questions by taking them out of turn to help the audience member get the complete answer to a previously addressed question. That helps complete conversations between the panelist and the questioner. If you have to be running polls to keep the audience awake then it is possible that your content is not compelling enough. Post-event, keep your survey as short as 1 open-ended question. My personal preference is a single question with an open text-field for answers where the audience can type in any feedback they like.

In our webinars, we ask the panelists, who typically are subject-matter experts in their industry, a question - "where can our audience members meet you in person in the near future?". If your web conference does not lead to the hope for future human interaction, then you are limiting its true potential of making the world a smaller and friendlier place.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Defining what (and how) we do.

It is hard for me not to think about or not to talk about virtual tradeshows. I actually spent some time this afternoon to see how Oprah Winfrey did her virtual classroom with a combination of compelling content (by Ekhart Tolle), existing technologies and a global audience that cared to stay up even late in the night to video-skype into the live event. It is really a nice feeling to know that the phrase 'virtual event' has now become so mainstream and is touching so many lives. So here are some Sunday thoughts on's virtual tradeshows.

At we have worked hard at defining an effective virtual tradeshow. In 1999, we made sales calls which soon turned into educational sessions because not many had heard of virtual tradeshows. We had to define what we meant by virtual tradeshows. We ran demos after demos, explained benefits, answered questions, and found several early adopters. My founding partner, Professor Ramesh Sharda is a visionary. Anticipating the need to shorten the learning curve, he incorporated into the design the metaphor of a real-world trade show. We published some white papers that have been downloaded by thousands of marketing and trade show professionals. We even had an article published in the Marketing News, which I later learned is considered a noteworthy publication among marketers and academicians.

Our early challenges in messaging came not just from the fact that often the word 'virtual' creates images of 'virtual reality' in the minds of listeners, but also from a trade show organizer's web-master creating a listing of exhibitors and calling it a virtual tradeshow. No definition was wrong. Lately even web-conferences, or webinars are labeled as virtual tradeshows if they offer some downloadable content from sponsors. I have even heard of one that had a virtual break-room complete with virtual toilets on which you could click to hear them flushing (could that be the sound of money going down the drain, or is it a sign that my sense of humor is overdue for a tune-up?)

We have come a long way in terms of creating awareness about what virtual tradeshows can do. The market has changed as well. Inquiries that keep coming our way lately come with preconceived notions of what their virtual tradeshow should look like. They sometimes want a panoramic view of the exhibit hall, even if it is not the best for navigation, even if it imposes upon them the limits of a 2-D environment, even if it is not the best for large trade shows. They sometimes want the noise of a real-world trade show floor even though online attendees sitting in offices don't like to disturb their neighboring cubicles.

However, I don't believe we have found the precise term for defining what's virtual tradeshows do for its customers. There seems to be no phrase for the sheer simplicity and utility of what we offer as a virtual trade show or virtual event. Virtual tradeshows now come with simulated 3-D visuals, which I think undermine the intelligence of users, because at the end of the day they simply provide a combination of instant communication capabilities camouflaged in a wrap. They mean nothing to the user of a virtual trade show beyond the initial sense of awe. In my experience, if a virtual tradeshow does not pave the way for meaningful human interaction among properly qualified people then it is a waste of precious time, and often of money. If you get a call from a telemarketer for a cheaper long-distance telephone service at 8 p.m., would it make a difference that you took the call on your grandfather's telephone or your grandson's iPhone? It is wasted time trying to pay attention to an irrelevant message regardless of the medium through which the message was delivered. In the world of business virtual fairs - be it for procurement, marketing or recruitment, for the business professionals, for the students and for other job seekers who take the time and the effort to show up online the decision-making power of the online participant or the virtual exhibitor is all that matters. Finding them online at the promised hour with the click of the mouse is the only thing that matters.

That brings us back to the unanswered question - what do we call our brand of virtual tradeshows and fairs? Lately when we have been receiving calls from businesses, they often ask us, "when is your next itradefair?". We also hear positive feedback from business users who refer to certain clients' (name withheld due to the inevitable corporate non-disclosures that bind us) virtual tradeshows as, the XYZ itradefair. Perhaps therein lies the answer. Maybe we should just call it an itradefair. Would that dilute our brand over time? I do not know. If it helps separate us from the crowd and identifies us as a sensible company that delivers effective yet simple and sensible online trade fairs or other specialty fairs such as job fairs etc., then it may not be so bad after all.

Then again figuratively and philosophically speaking, rather than try to define our service or product, perhaps we should let what (and how) we do define us.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Without positive cash flow, there is no leadership. And vice versa.

I used to run a couple of student bodies when in grad school. The energy-levels were very high. The groups were very inspired. We used to whip up exciting projects to give ourselves a sense of purpose. However, everything boiled down to having or not having funds. When one schoolmate asked me for a quote on leadership that she wanted to incorporate into some presentation to her department, I came up with "leadership is positive cash-flow".

As I think about it now, that fact is timeless in its application. A business leader is all talk and no action without positive cash-flow. One can hire and retain the best of resources with postive cash flow. One can fuel a team on passion and purpose only for a short duration. To run the race for the long haul, one needs stamina of all kinds - physical, mental and financial. Sen. Barack Obama's case with the way he funded the primaries is a recent example. Flush with funds, he could keep his team focused on the larger goals of his campaign.

Having said the above, I must add that only when the positive cash-flow is consistent, and when it is sustained through operations, does it make a leader a clear winner.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Right hat at the right time

The (original) name of the blog (fimarkepreneur) does seem corny but in a way it describes the twists and turns in my life starting as a financial accountant, a cost accountant, a marketer, and an entrepreneur.

Each of these callings are representative of a certain mindset. When the various functions blend within a single role, it is an amalgam of mindsets and behaviors, a multi-faceted attitude and an interesting management style. One learns to appreciate the importance of attention to detail, the joy of seeing perfectly balanced books, the adrenalin rush of releasing a new product or service out into the market and the perpetual curiosity that makes one see opportunities in every problem. The hard part is to know the right time to switch to the right hat - to think like an accountant and count beans, soar like a marketer and spread one's wings, or dream like an entrepreneur and figure out how to make that castle stay up in the air until one is able to make it a reality. Any confusion in the choice of hats could prove counterproductive.