Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Kindle tailored for Newspapers and Magazines?

Can't wait for summer, hence the references to surf and sand. It pains me to constantly hear of newspapers and magazines shutting down. It seems to me that they are too busy trying to recoup sunk costs (or milk them further) until the entire business gets buried under the surf, rather than ride it. It seems to me that they are unwilling to let go of their comfort zones and try something new.

Marc Andreesen in his interview on the Charlie Rose show called for dramatic changes in the way traditional print media distributes content. What is the print media industry doing to leverage the value of its various time-tested brands? Here are a few uninformed pointers and unanswered questions that might help the media industry think out of the sand.

  1. Mindle - A Kindle for Traditional Media, News Papers and Magazines? Are advocacy groups in the media and publishing industry pooling resources to create their own version of the Kindle2 -- then give it away for free? We have read the much cited blog post on how 'Printing The NYT Costs Twice As Much As Sending Every Subscriber A Free Kindle'. Can this device, let's call it Mindle for convenience, be shared by all the media companies?

  2. Scrollbar? Just the scroll please, not the bar. Would it help to have a standardized format for e-paper sizes? Have you tried any of the electronic versions of newspapers and magazines that are expecting the print versions to be miniaturized and sent via email, and for readers to enjoy the content using a variety of techniques not excluding, scrolling, enlarging, panning, and squinting. Extremely cumbersome to use. I would imagine that the same will happen if you try to squeeze all the content of a magazine or a newspaper into the Kindle2.

  3. Print-On-Demand Newspapers and Magazines. Would it make sense for the traditional media to encourage the growth of localized network of printers who might be willing to print magazines and newspapers on demand to spawn local entrepreneurship in places where they like to sit with the morning paper and sip coffee?

  4. No Accessories. In my electronic version of newspaper and magazine, I do not want to have to plug things in. I do not want to walk around with a mouse. I do not want to worry about accessories. I do not want to panic if I left it behind in a taxi. How can the industry satisfy such demands of a consumer?

  5. News on my Coffee Table.

  1. Why not tie up with Microsoft and create furniture in the industry's standard dimension for electronic news surfaces, so that news is delivered on the coffee table, or on the mirror by the dresser for your reader to check the weather and traffic report as s/he gets ready for the morning commute?

Obviously, a lot more thinking needs to go into this. A good start would be for the readers to exhort to leaders in the media world that there is still value in knowing that news and reporting coming from various brands of media companies bear that essential journalistic integrity and authenticity that play an important role in society. If the traditional media business fails to respond, we will see a variety of independent news sources throughout the web or under the umbrella of Amazon or Google, with the need for some 3rd-party mechanism to certify sources for their journalistic integrity. Hard to execute, but should that not happen then the market will find ways to drown out ad-influenced noise over time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Press 3 for a Diamond Expert."

This is a fork, where my work-related blog for iTradeFair.com and my personal blog start to diverge, allowing me to explore other interests. All previous posts have been replicated in both places, and future posts may be replicated where pertinent.

It was very interesting to read an interview of Mark Stolzman, CFO of Blue Nile, Inc. the online diamond retailer.

Besides the financial aspects of the story (low or no inventory carrying costs, etc.), here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting, especially finding it in the CFO magazine:

"Right now we have about a 4 percent share of the engagement[-ring] business in the United States, and we think we can double or triple that in the next five years. We want to expand our market share both domestically and internationally. We want to do that by offering education, quality, and selection. And we'll continue to expand our service to the customer both in terms of [technology] tools and in terms of access, whether it's by online chat, E-mail, or telephone."

"Despite the fact that most of the purchase process is done online, our customer-service group gets involved in a vast majority of our purchases, because customers still think, "OK, I'm making a significant purchase, and I want to make sure I've made the right decision." So they get comfort in accessing our diamond experts and knowing the purchase they're about to make is solid."

Mark Stolzman's words capture the power and the challenge of new media in building trust among remote users. Being able to sell a diamond ring without actually meeting the seller in person calls for a high level of trust to be established early on during the shopping experience. The convenience of using the telephone, besides email and chat online, seems to indicate that the trust-building requires some extra support through old technology.

Take a look at this unrelated news item titled "More Consumers Going Online to Shop". According to Nachi Lolla, research director, commerce at Nielsen Online, the majority of consumer concerns about online shopping have been lifted.

Even if retailers may not have mastered all the methods of trust-building over the web, many of the earlier hurdles seem to have been crossed or outweighed by the sheer convenience of getting things or getting things done over the web. The average user now submits shipping and payment information on the web without hesitation. Companies have started building brands on the web where the customer knows that effective means of redresssal are available with a simple email expressing dis-satisfaction about a purchase.

Even if all the tools are available for an online user to independently research and verify the authenticity of an online business, you will be surprised at how often a user says "Is there a phone number I can call?"

As the customer-service function strains to be prompt in its responsiveness, as it strains to overcome the absence of face-to-face or tactile experiences in online shopping through other communication tools, there is a need not only for using whichever instrument of communication works best within the customer's comfort zone, but also a need to have knowledgeable people at level-one customer support.

Just like the diamond experts that Mark Stolzman talks about. That comes at a price - I suppose at a price lower than inventory-carrying costs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Now don't get all virtual on me!

What we have heard from our Fortune 100 customers and users of virtual fairs including a global University doing virtual job fairs, seems to be getting further validated by the broader market. Reuters are shutting down their bureau in Second Life, and Google Lively is being discontinued.

Here is what we hear from our customers...
- They want uncluttered environments.
- They want a swift retrieval of relevant and up-to-date information,
- neatly and logically arranged
- in a manner that makes sense to their internal users and audiences.
- At the same time it has to be arranged in an engaging manner.
- They do not want to deal with a huge learning curve.
- Their network administrators do not want to deal with software downloads.
- Do not ask our speakers to prepare for a webinar, they say.
- Make sure it works even from our corporate laptops, they say.
- Give us crisp and factual activity reports, they say.
- Remove that moving and gliding stuff, they say.
- Make sure the event is search-capable, they say.
- Can you marry it with our internal systems?, they sometimes ask
- Do not complicate the navigation, they say.
- Use our time wisely, they say.
- Keep it simple, they tell us.

There are some situations where virtual reality environments are loved. An event organizer I was talking to recently, who creates consumer shows with upto 15,000 users would have loved to see Google Lively continue, if only they did not have a limit of 20 users. Her audiences love SecondLife but she wishes it were more cost-effective during a scale-up.

One can not deny the beauty of being able to fly into a convention center and drop into the front row of a live webinar session. However, they come bundled with several challenges from a user's perspective. For now, what we hear the market say is not to get too caught up in the meaning of the word 'virtual'. That takes us back to a previous post where I have argued for a new label for what we do instead of virtual fairs.

What do you think?

Friday, November 21, 2008

SlideShare and Audio SlideShows

I just realized that one of our presentations, uploaded on SlideShare can be embedded in a blog, so here it is for your viewing pleasure.

I wonder if there is a way to add a voice to the slides and make them like those slick audio-slideshows that show up often on New York Times. We have such a feature built into our virtual booth. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from SlideShare in how easily it can be shared.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Making Your Trade Show Booth Go Places

How can you get maximum visibility for your trade show booth? By taking it around. Virtually.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting for dinner the president of a large industrial manufacturing company with an international presence. Great conversation, great food, and I must add that it is always very refreshing to talk to someone who does not keep checking a blackberry in mid-conversation.

Part of our conversation veered towards trade shows (of course). He said that his company is preparing to exhibit at a trade show coming up soon, where they put up an exhibit, meet industry professionals face to face, gather a lot of business cards which get swiped into a CRM system and then.... once the trade show is over, his sales force goes back to the office, analyzes the leads and sends them literature and brochures via snail-mail, along with a thank-you note. He said it was very expensive. He also thought that it is possible that it may be considered to be not a very environmentally friendly way of follow-up. He thought that the 'green' angle was a legitimate one to consider when following up after the trade show.

An alternative that I brought up which he liked, was to

  • set up a stand-alone virtual booth
  • we can customize it to look just like the real trade show booth your visitors see at the convention center, to help them remember you by association with the real-world experience
  • with a few point-click actions, load that virtual booth with relevant rich-media content, literature, slide-shows, videos, and even add ways to provide direct and instant contact with relevant product managers
  • in the thank-you emails after the trade shows, include a link to the virtual booth
  • iTradeFair.com has the capability to make your virtual booth 'to-go'.

Here are the advantages as he saw in them:

  • It is highly cost-effective
  • They can send a lot of relevant content neatly organized, along with the thank-you note, without bulky attachments that normally get trapped by firewalls
  • It is 'green'

Here is the other advantage that I mentioned to him:

  • Your virtual booth can be forwarded to people within the visitor's organization, who could not make it to the trade show in person. Your message and your virtual booth, if engaging enough, assumes a viral quality about it.

If you are a company that needs a virtual vehicle for very targeted information that can be changed on the fly without the need for an IT expert, then the technology is available for your use. If you do not do trade shows but just need an info-vehicle, use it like Perry Lawson & Associates have done - as a virtual office and embedded on any chosen web page (see the embedded virtual booth with live clickable icons, in the first paragraph of this blog post).

Your virtual booth can literally go places!

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 comdex.com 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!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Successful Virtual Fair

One of the questions that we at iTradeFair.com 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!