Thursday, July 17, 2008

Designing an Effective Online Mentoring Program

In every organization there is a wealth of knowledge that is never documented. Sometimes such knowledge could be very valuable from a competitive standpoint. The manager of a key account might know about nuances in her or his interaction with the client, that could be critical to the successful management of that account. All such knowledge stays and moves with the people who gain it.

What if the organization could harness the Internet to create a chain of mentors that can be pulled in to train a new recruit? Just as they say that it is smart not to burn bridges with a former employer, I believe it is also smart for an organization not to burn bridges with a former employee.

The way some of the top business schools in the nation maintain and sustain their alumni networks is noteworthy. They start with assigning an email account for each alumnus. It is a permission list they have created even before the students leave campus to enter the workforce. From that starting point the school actively nurtures the alumni networks for a variety of purposes, right from fund raising to career services.

I have not heard of business organizations do this as well, with the exception of a few such as McKinsey & Company. The Internet makes it easy to do. All it needs is a visionary management that understands that an ex-employee can be their ambassador. The ex-employee can be a mentor to their future employees. There are simple cost-effective ways to connect the ex-employees with the future-employees, no matter where they are located physically.

This was the topic of a paper that I had presented at the annual seminar of an international wing of SHRM in 2001. The paper, then seemed ahead of its time based on the audience-reaction. Now social networking has become a buzzword. Companies are looking into building the social networking capability into their Intranets. LinkedIn is coming up with this capability although it faces the challenge of being an outside vendor. Regardless, the sheer convenience of being able to connect with a former employee who is familiar with a particular business situation, will open the floodgates. It will tempt the current or potential employee to 'click' and make that connection, and get a quick update or guidance on how to handle the situation, or how it was handled way back when it occurred. These are interesting times indeed!

There are several unanswered questions, of course. Questions on worldly things such as privacy, liability, intellectual property, and competitive intelligence. Questions on non-worldly things such as unhindered sharing of knowledge, brotherhood, and helping one another out. (See some of the lessons learned in an experiment by McKinsey & Company)

If you wish to read the paper that I had presented, here it is - titled "Learning through Online Mentoring: Harnessing the Internet to Create and Retain Intangible Assets".

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The making of a successful virtual job fair

This article attempts to address some of the questions that have been coming up among those interested in virtual job fairs and virtual career fairs. has deployed several successful virtual fairs including job fairs since 1999, in academia and Corporate America. In this article the writer highlights factors that make these early adopters want to come back and do the virtual job fairs over and over again.

The relevance of a virtual job fair today

With the widespread use of the Internet for job searches, recruiters and hiring managers have a larger pool of accessible job candidates. The consequent information overload is inevitable. A typical search within a job board gives a recruiter thousands of choices and not enough time in the day to review all of them. A virtual job fair serves as a levee to arrest the information deluge, capture a relevant, interested and manageable part of the database, invite them to a job fair, and fish for the best candidates. From the candidates’ perspective, they enjoy the ability to fish for the best opportunities. By creating manageable capsules of time, (web) space, and information, a virtual job fair creates a sheltered environment without the noise and clutter of the Internet for a recruiter or hiring manager to directly connect with a potential job candidate.

The other reason that a virtual job fair has become relevant is that hiring companies are trying their best to make their brand stand out amongst their competitors to attract the best talent that is out there. Many organizations are able to receive résumés of interested job candidates at their own career websites. Some even have a .jobs domain name to go with their overall web presence. With such elements they are trying to create an exclusive corner for their hiring needs and thus build some branding. To create an element of brand-loyalty even before they have become an employee of the company, many organizations prefer to have their own online event to invite and engage candidates who have expressed interest in working for that specific organization. The virtual job fair is an ideal way to maintain a pipeline of future employees that care about an organization’s brand

Three ‘C’s for a successful virtual job fair

There are several factors that make for a successful virtual job fair, but in our experience the most critical ones are making them Convenient, Crisp and Current.

  1. Convenient: If a job fair can be wrapped around the needs of the job candidate, it has a better chance of success. We conducted a job fair where the recruiters ‘staffed’ their virtual booth on a Sunday morning (from the comfort of their home via the Internet) just to make it convenient to working professionals who may not have time during the work week for a serious job search. Candidates were able to attend online, connect instantly via chat with the recruiter, schedule an interview or even have an initial phone interview with the recruiter that Sunday morning. Since the internet does not have any boundaries of time, it stands a better chance of success if it creates spells of interactivity aligned with the convenience of the job candidates in mind. Convenience is also important to the hiring manager. Should a hiring manager wish to involve an engineer in the hiring process, it can be accomplished without the engineer leaving her or his desk, and still be able to address technical questions and concerns of a job candidate instantaneously. Making it convenient is the biggest hallmark of the success of a virtual job fair. Taking this a little further, it also means that the virtual job fair must be easy to participate from behind firewalls in case a working professional chooses to attend from the office. It goes without saying that the virtual job fair then must enjoy timely customer support during any hour that has been chosen by the fair organizers. It is all about making it convenient for the job candidate and the recruiter in terms of getting the required customer support for an easy and seamless experience. Respecting the time of all participants is paramount. To assume that the job candidate, hiring managers or recruiters have a lot of time to spend on the Internet is a fallacy. That leads us to the next C – Crisp.
  2. Crisp: Time is a scarce resource. Let us not forget that the hiring manager, recruiter and the job candidate, each have a specific need – to be able to find one another, to find the right fit, and to connect as quickly as possible armed with as much information as possible. Virtual job fairs work best when they are used to facilitate and swiftly arrange for a phone conversation or an email follow-up leading to a phone conversation. Throwing too much technology at the users is inconsiderate and counter-productive. The second most important hallmark of a successful virtual job fair is to keep it simple and crisp, serving as a tool to establish an instant connection between the job giver and the job seeker. Anything else that interferes with this ultimate objective is a waste of time and therefore money. Keeping all the content in the virtual job fair concise, keeping the navigation consistent and predictable is very important. Of course, all of the convenience and conciseness you offer in a virtual job fair is meaningless if the content is not current, taking us to the next C -Current.
  3. Current: Even if your virtual job fair is being created out of an existing database of job candidates or an existing job listing pool, and even if it is easy to simply pull all of that data into a virtual job fair venue, I would urge to resist the temptation to serve old wine in a new bottle. My recommendation would be to leave certain pieces of information out of any automated data transfers, and mandate that the job fair participants – both employers and job candidates demonstrate their commitment by making current their job listings and résumés respectively, as well as their contact information. Employers will tell you how frustrating it is to find interesting résumés that are outdated, emails that bounce back and phones numbers that never ring. In the same vein, job candidates will tell you how exasperating it is to go through job listings, fill out an application form, click on the ‘apply’ button only to find that the job posting has ‘expired’ or is ‘not available any longer’. Keep all content in the virtual job fair current, and you will have a winner.

    The first steps towards building a brand

    To keep all content in a virtual job fair current, it is also important that the job fair has a specific start and an end. A virtual job fair with a defined time-frame is successful for the following few reasons. It is not reasonable to expect hiring managers to be online ‘staffing’ virtual booths for more than a few hours. Hiring processes have a life-cycle, and matters have to move beyond the initial screening that the virtual job fair painlessly allows. When a virtual job fair is closed, it is best to open pre-registration and pre-announce the next virtual job fair. A pre-announced calendar of job fairs helps sustain the momentum of the first fair. It gives job candidates something to look forward to. It gives recruiters a breather. Most of all, it helps the job fair organizer build a brand for the job fair. Based on our experience, if you deliver virtual job fairs in brief spells of time, and also use it in conjunction with face-to-face job fairs, you will experience measurable success. One must remember that the Internet works best when used as a tool to enhance human interaction.

The author, Ramesh Sambasivan is the co-founder of, Inc. Thanks to Grant Hartman, a virtual event manager and social networking evangelist at for valuable edits to this article.

P.S.: This article is getting picked up by many blogs so I figured, why not by this one :-)

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.

Friday, July 11, 2008

With great love comes great responsibility

The day began in a pleasant way with a phone call from the CEO of a company that is going to exhibit in an upcoming virtual trade show. When a veteran marketer who spent several years in Corporate America and then started what is now a hugely successful marketing strategy and promotions firm comes out on her own and tells us how meaningful our product is, it makes our day. Without giving away details of the discussion, I am compelled to share her sentiments as she began describing our offering.

She said as she was watching it work, it "brought a smile to my face". She even labeled our product, among other things, "amazing", "easy" and "friendly". I believe she grasped the essence of our offerings, when she said that it helps one "segment" information.

The reason virtual trade shows will survive and thrive is because they bring a standardized experience for users. Plain and simple. All other arguments are weak -- whether we hear supposed value propositions such as no travel, no high gas prices no sore feet, better lead gathering, or the latest - low carbon footprint - none of them carry enough weight because humans are social beings and no number of virtual technologies will prevent them from wanting to meet other humans. However, because the Internet has become such a dominant source of business intelligence, a simple and engaging way to "segment" the information, and standardize the experience will go long way in making people smile.

When prospects and customers love a company or its products, the bar is suddenly raised. It is like being a teacher's favorite student. Now the student has a higher expectation to meet. The student will do everything in his or her power to not end up disappointing the teacher.

With such great love, comes great responsibility.

That literally keeps our team up at night. We want to make sure that we do everything in our power to keep surpassing our prospects' and customers' expectations. When we receive praises, the concern is that it may lull us into becoming complacent. The last thing we want to do when we hear positive comments is to relax and sit on our (might I call it) laurels. That is exactly the time to buckle up and work harder. The one thing that we have been blessed with is a passionate team.

Making life purposeful, making a living in a purposeful manner

This Monday, a dear friend and second cousin lost his father in India. For first-generation immigrants, decision-times regarding ageing parents prove to be very defining moments. The shift in roles that one assumes, of children being able to personally attend to and care for their ageing parents, can not be taken for granted by first-generation immigrants. Flying 8,000 miles for a family emergency is not always possible. The travel time itself could run into 24 or 36 gruelling hours. My friend happened to be there on a 3-week visit, and was able to be by his father's side, care for him through his hospitalization, and be by his bedside as he breathed his last. For a father, I suppose there must have been a sense of calm and peace to see all his children settled, and present in person. Any such experience of seeing someone breathe their last puts things back in perspective for those of us who are left behind. One tends to cherish life, good health, the laughter of loved ones, the change of seasons.

Until the phone rings, and then it is back to the business of chasing deadlines. When we keep busy, life and time pass by quickly. If we keep busy with a sense of purpose, it is more fulfilling. If that purpose touches many lives - or even one life - in a positive manner, then the reward at the very least, simply is the ability and the luxury to live that kind of a purposeful life.

I am hoping that through our work at, we are able to create prosperity for businesses by helping them make the right connections with buyers, or employers or any faraway customers or prospects. Or simply, that we are able to make someone smile (like the CEO of a marketing strategy firm who called me this morning to share her 'aha' moment when she saw our work. That story warrants a separate post.)

So here's to a purposeful existence. Here's to a purposeful way of life and purposeful way of making a living.

This is for my friend and his family - Heartfelt condolences! May your father's soul rest in everlasting peace.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The perfect virtual booth

Since the time we were born in early 1999, we have been in search of the perfect design for a virtual booth. There are two sides to this coin.

From the exhibitor's perspective, the booth should be flexible enough to accomodate their branding needs. Virtual booth designs are such a subjective matter that no answer is right and there are also no wrong answers. When we ask event organizers what they would like their virtual booth to be, the responses are replete with descriptions such as "photo-realistic", "business-like", "flexible in size", and "futuristic". We have had requests for booth designs that reflect various sizes of booths so that more or less of the screen space (real-estate) can be offered depending on the pricing packages.

The challenge always has been to tolerate the constraints experienced when taking a real-world space and squeezing it into a 1024 x 786 flat screen, without losing the flexibility and ease of navigation.

Case in point - the AMD virtual trade show which is a fascinating high-end visual rendering of a life-like convention center. From what I recall, it had a North view, a South view, an East view, and so on. Impressive for the student of multimedia digital art. Limited, however, in its utility. From AMD and its partners' perspective, it was perhaps a new kind of advertising opportunity. The online visits and downloads over a period of time were also impressive. I would safely bet that they could have accomplished the same thing with (a) a streamed video of the presentations, or a video of a real-life conference along with (b) a receptable to collect visitor information by making them fill out a form, and (c) a mechanism to gather or download brochures.

Let us look at it from the visitor's perspective. The visitors have limited time to browse the web for marketing literature or to watch a serious business presentation for an extended period of time. It is more fun to watch a viral video on YouTube. They are looking for information that they would otherwise not find on a corporate website. They are looking to make connections with key decision-makers. They are looking to be able to bump into professional peers and potential employers. They don't have time to guess what each icon on a booth means. Their network administrators usually throw a fit if they are asked to download any proprietary software for visiting at a virtual trade show booth. Visitors want to be able to switch from booth to booth and gather information swiftly - a standardized experience for efficient research and live interaction with decision makers is all that they care about. They do not want to get on spam lists, nor do they want to have to fill out lengthy forms. They want that giveaway. They want to be able to sign up for the lucky draw and win that free trip for 2 to Hawaii. They want to be entertained.

The perfect virtual booth strikes a perfect balance between the branding needs of the exhibitors and the utilitarian goals of the attendee. The perfect virtual booth strikes a perfect balance between the needs of an exhibitor to customize the booth and the needs of an attendee to enjoy a consistent, standardized and entertaining experience, with as short a learning curve as possible.

We have accomplished the near-perfect virtual exhibit hall to some extent. The perfect virtual booth has been elusive, but not for long. So stay tuned.


I chanced upon an interesting piece on mini-innovations. The reason this approach appeals to me is because of its simplicity. It does not need a massive dose of investment. It does not need re-training internally and externally. It just needs a lot of listening and some quiet time.

While on the topic of small changes that make a big positive impact, we are ramping up for a major virtual trade show now, and I just got off web conference that was basically a live version of a tutorial on how to register and set up a virtual booth. I like such sessions because they help us step in the shoes of the uninitiated. We see and do virtual events day in and day out, and we tend to get a false sense of security that we have perfected it. We assume that registration forms are simple to complete and intuitive.

It is only when we look at things from a fresher's perspective do we see how much difference a simple tweak in the navigation can make, how much more intuitive things can be with just changing a few words or dropping a few words, or moving things around a bit. It's like the joy of learning to tune a guitar.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Seven other (controllable) factors that impede the runaway success of virtual trade shows - Part 2 of my analysis

In a continuation of my analysis of why virtual trade shows have failed to realize their immense potential, here are seven controllable factors. On why I truly believe in the tremendous untapped potential of virtual events, I will save for another discussion. For now, I just want to address all the issues that are kind of stifling the promise of virtual trade shows.

  1. The process of launching a virtual trade show often gets disjointed. Virtual trade shows can certainly be delivered in a very turnkey fashion, with every step of the process flowing through seamlessly, with no strain or extra effort by the event sponsors. We have a process that moves like an automobile assembly line. The challenge is when that process is interrupted to accomodate the specific needs of event organizers or sponsors. Every organizer or brand worth its salt will choose to assume ownership of at least some parts of the experience. Take the simple example of contacting potential exhibitors. Organizers often like to have that extra touch-point with their customers and sponsors. I don't blame them. If you have spent years building a customer base, you need to be very sure before you allow a third-party vendor's call center to start dialing your customer list on your behalf. There are ways around it, which I will save for a later post.
  2. "Are you adding to my list of things-to-do?" is the first thought that crosses the minds of the operational team at the client's side. This is one of the biggest hurdles for virtual trade shows to go mainstream. The more automated the entire process becomes, the lesser the hassles.
  3. Divided attention. When run simultaneously with an in-person trade show, the virtual trade show initiative does not get sufficient care and feed. "Do I focus on my in-person trade show, or should I bother about this new untested thing that my management wants to put on my already full plate". Unless an event organizer is committed to its success, a virtual trade show will not really get off the ground. Without such a commitment, it is natural for a team to play it safe and focus on what has worked well before, rather than divide one's attention and have niether do well.
  4. Stuck at the initial wow. Social networks display a dynamic list of recent activities by members. It gives us a sense of how busy the network really is. When we do virtual trade shows, participants often ask us, "So what really goes on? Do I constantly see things happening on my screen? Do we get to see people approaching us? Do I get to 'fly like Superman' into a convention center and watch the speaker, raise my virtual hand, and ask a question? Almost, and subject to ideal conditions. What can be shown on a demo or a nicely edited promotional animated clip can be dramatically different from the actual experience at a virtual trade show. Which is why some kind of self-regulating mechanism is required among virtual trade show creators to not over-promise in a demo. The real experience is rarely like a video game virtual reality, and even if it could be, there are several variables beyond anybody's control right from the point a trade show is served via the Internet to the point where it is received and experienced, that the nascent industry is putting its virtual foot in its virtual mouth by overpromising in demos and under-delivering online.
  5. Absence of simplicity. The virtual events industry, if one may call it so, has failed consistently to simplify its messaging. I am myself guilty of needlessly spewing out jargon. In essense a virtual trade show is just a gathering of people and businesses that would be happy to get in touch with one another at the same time via the Internet, no matter where they are located. How this experience is best manifested does not matter. Its outcome could be several online connections made between real people, an in-person encounter or it could even be a flash mob. For a virtual trade show or a virtual event to become mainstream, it has to make its message simple and crisp. Business professionals that I talk to believe that it is a really 'cool' thing to have along with all other marketing initatives. It is only a matter of time before event organizers will heed these rumblings and catch the wave as it hits their industry.
  6. Absence of follow-through. In a real-world trade show, once the crates are shipped and people leave the convention center, nobody documents or traces the results of connections made on the show floor. Strangely, virtual trade shows are held so far apart from one another that virtual trade show organizers have not gone the extra mile to help users build some loyalty to their brand and make them want to come back and talk about how fruitful the connections really were. Even though it is easier to accomplish such follow-through in a virtual trade show as compared to the conventional kind.
  7. Not keeping it real. A virtual trade show is still a relatively unknown concept. Participants do not often know one another (that is the whole point of coming together). In such a situation, it is up to the virtual trade show producer to keep a constant line of communication with all parties concerned, so that there is a realization that real humans are running it, and that there is a team that cares about the outcome. When we expect users to spare time and money to be at a virtual trade show, the least we can do is be instantly accessible to answer any questions. Keeping it real is important to keep it virtual.

More to come in my next post.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A dozen reasons why virtual tradeshows fail to realize their potential

Hope you had a great holiday weekend! Quote from an almost-4-year-old, "I really like these holiday days, because they make me very happy!"

This will probably be a multi-part post because I want to spend some time analyzing why virtual trade shows, despite being such a powerful and compelling method of marketing, have failed to realize their true potential.

We do several virtual trade shows in closely monitored corporate environments, very successful, and very loved by participants, held entirely online - with no in-person counterpart. The definition of success of these virtual fairs however, is different from what the convention industry would consider to be the definition of a successful trade show. What I foresee happening is for every marketing department to be weaving in virtual trade shows as part of its marketing mix. This post may seem like introspection or a set of lessons learned. As is usually the case with any exercise in introspection, some good will come out of it. By understanding and confronting the reasons for the failure of virtual trade shows to realize their true potential - of being able to connect millions of businesses worldwide - I hope to facilitate some thinking about the right climate for virtual fairs to flourish.

It is just a matter of time before virtual fairs become as popular as social networks. Social networks are limited to people who know each other through a certain degree of separation. Virtual trade shows, on the other hand, make chance encounters possible. Therein lies their power and potential.

  1. Virtual tradeshows might connect businesses, but they fail to connect emotionally with business professionals. It is more interesting to hear of a real-life romance that grew out of an online dating site than to hear of a successful business deal through a lead found at a virtual trade show. Ever heard of two businesses falling in love with one another at an online matchmaker, and wanting to do business together? Even if we hear of them, there are perhaps very few scenarios in which they could become human-interest stories.
  2. Virtual tradeshow participants do not like to share their success stories. When we piloted a trade show for the promotional products industry way back in October 1999, I did some follow-up calls to find out if any real inquiries and orders were generated. An exhibitor actually had someone place an order directly after visiting his virtual booth. Here's the problem. For competitive reasons, he did not want me to publicize it. About a month ago I heard that a virtual exhibitor was talking about 2 contracts she won after online visits at her virtual booth from buyers of a large Fortune 100 corporation. Again, due to competitive reasons, she has avoided media attention. I heard that it took 15 years for sliced bread to become wildly popular. I believe virtual trade shows will have greater success once it is not such a well-kept secret.
  3. Virtual trade shows are too transparent. Every click of the mouse can be tracked in a virtual trade show. Trade show organizers are more easily held accountable for the return on tradeshow that they deliver to exhibitors. The return on investment in a virtual trade show is easy to identify and analyze in absolute terms. In a real-world trade show, there are several subjective aspects that factor into a participants' perception of whether they consider a trade show a success or not.
  4. Virtual trade show is an underdog with no cheerleaders. Without exception, whenever I have mentioned virtual trade shows to marketers and exhibitors they have always expressed tremendous enthusiasm for its value. However, when perceived as a replacement to in-person trade shows it has evoked strong mixed reactions. Often a trade show gig is an escape from the cubicle. It is the time when one can combine a trip to exotic locales along with the family and have a mini-vacation. Virtual trade shows are not merely fighting misconceptions about what they can do for a business, but they actually compete with a marketing executive's leisure time. Virtual trade shows shoot themselves in the foot when they try to position themselves as helping a business executive spend time with her or his family. Asking someone to give up in-person trade shows and do only virtual trade shows is like asking a connoisseur of chocolates to give up chocolate. Highly unlikely.
  5. "There is no such thing as a virtual trade show": This, quite literally was the welcoming remark of a veteran trade show industry executive whom I had gone to meet during our early years in business, as I was being ushered into his office. As he described the magic of bringing to life an in-person tradeshow, the magic of 'getting it right', the magic of bringing the right attendees in front of the right exhibitors year after year, the magic of seeing an empty convention center come alive over a 3-day period, the thrill of creating value and entertainment, I could see in his eyes the pride and joy of creation. He said it feels like a Hollywood movie maker. Virtual trade shows may very likely have to wait until they have learned to scale up in alternate untapped markets before they can earn the respect and the attention of veterans in the trade show and media industry. For now, it is like telling Formula One drivers that their races will be held in the video game arcade. In their present state, virtual trade shows can provide neither a comparable adrenalin-rush, nor the incremental financial incentive to get established trade show organizers excited about them.
  6. The tradeshow metaphor is being carried too far. When we began in the late 90's it made sense to borrow the trade show metaphor for these online events. Making a virtual booth look and feel like a real-world trade show booth helped users scale the learning curve rather well. However, the demographics of the workforce has changed significantly in the past decade. The new entrants to the workforce view the web as an extension of their universe. There is no need for a real-world metaphor to explain what one is trying to do with a virtual trade show. Why then should a virtual booth look like a real-world trade show booth. Why should one have virtual trade shows that have a panoramic 2-dimensional view of an exhibition hall with meaningless human-like figures gliding by aimlessly? Why are virtual trade shows not defining themselves to really provide an extra dimension to the entire marketing experience of a business. Why provide a metaphor when the virtual trade show can never replace the in-person trade show and is not designed to replace it?
  7. Absence of standards on what an ideal virtual trade show should do is a major obstacle. We get inquiries for different kinds of online environments. It is not possible to describe them accurately with the term virtual trade shows. They serve various purposes. They always have a business objective. They aim to solve one or more problems. They often have nothing to do with in-person trade shows. However, the absence of standards for virtual trade shows means that it is open to anybody's interpretation. When one looks at publicly accessible virtual trade shows, whether they be of HGTV or of the EPA, one never knows what to expect. The concept of same-time, different-place interaction as my co-founder aptly puts it, is missing most of the time. Making users go through meaningless convoluted pages of navigation only go to reveal that the virtual trade show suffered from lack of a clear direction, purpose or sense of ownership.
  8. Use of traditional media to pull audiences into a virtual trade show is known to fail. We have learned this from experience. If you send me a post card in the mail reminding me of a virtual trade show, or if you put an expensive ad in the nation's leading journal about a virtual career fair, I still can't click through to enter.
  9. Exhibitors and sponsors fail to take ownership of the virtual trade show experience being offered. Unfortunately, some of the virtual trade shows that I have experienced include cases where a media company goes through hoops to advertise the virtual trade show, pummels me with emails to stay on my radar screen, only to have no real human being available online during the live event, or have someone clueless and/or indifferent, who simply takes down an email address and phone number to pass on to the right person. Virtual trade shows fail when sponsors and exhibitors do not have sufficient skin in the game.
  10. The feeling that anything online ought to be free. There are two problems with giving access to a virtual trade show for free even when a sponsor is supporting it fully. One is that without sufficient skin in the game, the groups that are supposed to show up online to make the virtual trade show a success, will more than likely not show up. Secondly, when a virtual trade show is delivered for free, it can not be adequately supported. An improperly supported virtual trade show in turn is a disservice to the users and to the concept itself. Just like in-person trade shows, a virtual trade show distinguishes itself by the quality of the traffic and interaction it can produce.
  11. I danced even though I had sore feet. Trade shows usually are a lot of fun. Often they include a band and a dance floor. Virtual trade show producers then have a very poorly woven argument under which to take cover if they try to tell trade show participants that you can spare yourselves some sore feet at our virtual trade show. Sometimes, the 'no sore feet' argument sells, but it is not a sufficiently strong one to result in a sweeping acceptance of virtual trade shows.
  12. Neither the green movement nor soaring gas prices can help virtual fairs become mainstream. While getting on the green movement is great, I hesitate to anchor the value proposition for our virtual trade shows on that argument. It is the same about spiralling gas prices. The virtual fairs have been compelling in their value even when gas was selling at $0.95 a gallon. It should be no different even if gas hits $8 a gallon. Virtual fairs have been compelling in their value well before see-through screeners at airports force us to spend an extra 10 minutes at the gym. No free-gas coupons here. Riding the latest news headlines have never helped virtual trade shows.

In my next post, I will analyze some more aspects of virtual trade shows. Have a great week ahead!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Are we becoming (global) villagers?

[ This post is a slightly modified version of the original note that I posted upon joining American Business Media's social network, seeing how quickly it was being embraced by the leadership at some very traditional media companies. ]

I used to always be amazed at the concept of personal space in the tangible world. In a crowded subway one would not mind someone breathing down one's collar. We learn to tune out the noise of a crowd and be able to drown ourselves in a book or in personal music. In the suburbs however, a friendly neighbor can border on the nosy depending on the proximity and frequency of interaction.

I therefore ponder over the the concept of personal space on the web and what is considered an acceptable boundary of personal information. When individuals are open to having strangers online 'follow' them on twitter, I begin to wonder where one draws a line on dimming the lights on one's professional time and taking a break for some quiet time to be spent with one's family, with one's near and dear ones, and with oneself. Quiet time is essential for recharging the brain. It is essential for creative work. When everyone we know gets on LinkedIn or Facebook or other social media that can comb an addressbook and send an invitation to a whole group, it is hard to choose to be left behind, and it is hard not to rethink the concepts of personal space and privacy.

I have heard that keeping a journal, whether on a blog or in a book is considered therapeutic and beneficial to the writer's well-being. Perhaps social (and now business-social media) is helping the world become more accepting of friendly neighbors when they lower their guard collectively to share more and more personal information. Perhaps, as a society we are gently being steered into a place where we are not so hung up on privacy and learn to share thoughts and things to make the world a better place.

Some years ago, I took my parents on a visit to a village in southern India where my father had spent a part of his childhood. We stopped our car to ask for directions. A villager on a bicycle offered to help. I did something one would never do in a city. I swapped seats with him. I followed the car on his bicycle, and he sat in the car giving directions to the driver. Not only did he know the elderly aunt and cousins we were visiting in the village, but also shared a whole lot of details about every house in the village that would never have crossed our city-bred minds because it was none of our business. However, that is the essence of village life. Your life is everybody's business. They are always there to help the family in need. They clobber the store-owner who scalps a customer who often happens to be a neighbor or a friend of a neighbor. There are no pretences, no false images one can sustain, and the concept of privacy is very different from what we see in big cities.

Online social media, in my opinion is pushing us to make the world a smaller place, a cozier place, making it more like a village. Perhaps we are beginning to see a widespread manifestation of the term 'global village' only now. We are indeed becoming 'global villagers'.