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.