Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Successful Virtual Fair

One of the questions that we at 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 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.