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!