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, 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".