The virtual events industry got its start in replications of a physical trade show or conference – the very first virtual events were virtual tradeshows, whereby platform providers re-created the look and feel of a physical trade show within a web-based environment. These sorts of virtual events continue to gain traction and I expect to see continued growth as additional corporations (and entire industries) enter the mix this year and into 2010.
Due to the flexible nature of virtual event platforms, however, we’re seeing parallel growth occurring via many other virtual applications that ride atop the same shared infrastructure and platform. As I wrote in a blog posting titled “Virtual Events: Available In Many Flavors“, we’re seeing virtual job fairs, virtual sales kickoffs and virtual partner summits running on vendors’ virtual event platforms.
Another application/venue that’s gained traction in 2009 is the virtual business community. Rather than a discrete and fixed event that occurs over a live date (or a series of live dates), the virtual business community is a 365 day/year service that users leverage for explicit business benefits. In my opinion, the Intranet of 2001-2008 will be moving towards virtual business communities, powered by the same platforms that service virtual tradeshows.
For me, the concept of intranet does not inspire much excitement or enthusiasm. I’ve used intranets to find information (specifications, pricing, a phone number, etc.), but have never yearned to log into the intranet while bringing up my morning email. “It’s just there” was the mentality I used to have. I believe that virtual event platforms can create a vibrant and virtual business community, significantly moving the intranet concept up the value chain. In fact, the business community becomes a virtual office, tearing down physical walls (and cubicles) to turn a globally distributed workforce into a close-knit and collaborative team.
Here are key tactics in building a vibrant business community:
Get users to keep coming back
You want your user base to login to the business community each morning before they even fire up their email client. In fact, a truly successful business community may support email-like communications within the platform, making users less dependent on email. To get your users to return over and over, you need:
- Content – it needs to be timely, relevant and useful. Business-critical content should be housed here – the type of information that users need to get their job done – pricing sheets, internal contact information, customer contact information, product documentation, competitive analysis, etc. Don’t lose sight of the timely angle – have your executives post company updates/news and make them available via videocasts or video webcam.
- Network effect – a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here – but, you need to get a critical mass of engaged and sought-after employees interacting in the business community. Once you have that critical mass, you’ll see the community grow, as the “draw” will be access to and interactions with key colleagues. This is the same network effect that AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook and Twitter enjoyed – users sign up because their friends, family or colleagues were already there.
- Enable social and interactive tools – today’s intranet needs to be empowered with the capabilities of AIM, Skype, Twitter and Facebook. This way, I not only find documents to download, but I interact with key people who have the answers I need. If I’m a product manager and need an answer from a lead software developer, he might not answer my phone call or return my email right away, but if I connect with him via text or video chat, perhaps he will. After all, I’m finding him in an (online) environment that he’s most comfortable operating in.
Enterprise-enable your Business Community
Today’s most successful social networking sites/services are used in a consumer setting (i.e. friends and family) – ask yourself what makes them successful and determine how those features can be adopted in a 100% (internal) business social network. I could see parallels of the following services made available internally within the business community platform:
- Yahoo Answers
The key, I believe, is not just to enable social tools for the sake of being social – it’s to enable social tools while simultaneously connecting those tools to your business applications and business processes. Possible ideas:
- Integration with your HR / Human Capital Database – if you have a rich profile on each employee (birth date, interests, job function, etc.), expose shareable information within your social tools and auto-fill that information to make it convenient for all users. So if I’m sending out an internal tweet, my user ID is hyperlinked to a rich profile that describes all shareable information about me and my job role.
- Integration with CRM Database – are users posting links to industry news and analysis? How about doing a keyword search by company and matching those up to sales opportunities in your CRM database? If an article was posted about Acme Corporation’s latest product launch, let Acme’s sales rep know, so that she can contact them about applicable services that you offer.
- Integration with ERP systems – perhaps a crazy idea, but what if you could tweet about your latest business trip and have the expense management system parse your (internal) tweet and auto-generate a row in your online expense report?
All told, the possibilities are endless and quite exciting. I foresee the virtual business community (powered by a virtual event platform) to be a significant trend in the coming year. I believe this to be the future of the intranet for 2010 and beyond.