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 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!