How To Use Twitter For Virtual Event User Support

March 8, 2010

End user support for virtual events has traditionally been provided via a small number of channels: email and telephone support (which is especially useful for users having issues entering the virtual event) and “in-show support”, which is typically provided in a “help booth” within the virtual event.  With growing use of social media, however, attendees are leveraging their social network tools to request (and receive) user support.

From my observations, Twitter is the most widely used social network for virtual event support requests (today) – however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see increased “calls for help” via Facebook and LinkedIn.  This posting provides tips and best practices on providing virtual event end user support via Twitter.

Create/Establish a Twitter Account

Users can’t find you on Twitter if you’re not there, which means that if you don’t already have a presence on Twitter, you’ll need to create one.  I recommend a Twitter ID that incorporates your company name – or, the product, platform or service that you provide (if that’s different from your company name).  In addition, be transparent about the contributors (employees) who tweet on behalf of your company and brand.

Create A Real-Time Dashboard (of  tweets)

Configure your Twitter client (e.g. TweetDeck, Seesmic, etc.) with the relevant search terms and hash tags related to your virtual event.  At minimum, you’ll want to monitor the following:

  1. @Replies sent to your Twitter account (in TweetDeck, the column is labeled “Mentions”)
  2. A search on the hash tag for your virtual event
  3. A search on your company name – or, the name of your platform, product or service
  4. A search on the virtual event’s name or title

If it helps you stay more focused, delete columns that are unrelated to the virtual event – the result will be a single app that consolidates all “chatter” related to your event.  I recommend that you monitor for new tweets every 15 minutes while the event is live.

Allocate Proper Staffing & Get Started Early

In the same manner that you allocate support staff to booths, email inboxes and telephones, be sure to allocate staff to “Twitter support”.  You want to get up and running early – I recommend monitoring Twitter at least one full hour before the official opening of your virtual event.  Virtual event producers typically allow exhibitors into the environment prior to attendees – so during the “early period”, be on the look-out for tweets from exhibitors who may need assistance finding their way into their virtual booths.

Have at least one person who is “primary” for Twitter support throughout the event day.  And, know that Twitter users expect quick turnaround to their tweets.  Trend setters such as @comcastcares have provided highly responsive and immediate customer care on Twitter, which has raised the bar for everyone else.  Users on Twitter have come to expect similar care and responsiveness.

If you do not respond within 15-20 minutes of users’ original tweet, they may issue a subsequent tweet, letting the “world” (e.g. their followers + users who are following the event’s hash tag) know that they’ve received no response from the event provider.  So be sure to provide prompt service – if your customer care is prompt and effective, you’ll be rewarded.  Users are just as quick to say “thanks” (on Twitter) and acknowledge the great service you provide.

Following Up With A User

I prefer to handle support issues via 1-on-1 care.  Before you contact the user, review their Twitter profile – as background to your upcoming dialog, it’s good to know the user’s company, title and number of Twitter followers.  I like to know if the user has an audience of 100 on Twitter – or, an audience of 100,000.  In addition, read the user’s last 10-15 tweets, to get to know his/her interests, hot buttons, etc.

Now you’re ready to make contact.  I prefer to connect directly – a direct message on Twitter (if the user is following you), a direct email (if you have his/her email address) or a private chat within the virtual event (if the user is logged in at the time).  If none of these channels are available to you, send the user a public message on Twitter and provide your direct contact info (e.g. your email address).

It’s important to personalize your brand, letting users know that there are “real people” behind your corporate Twitter account – and, providing them with a direct means for getting in touch.

1-on-1 Triage

To prepare you for a “triage session” with your end user, I like the have the following information available via URLs that I can provide to the user:

  1. Technical requirements for accessing/attending the virtual event
  2. Automated system check that allows a user to test their system
  3. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) related to the virtual event
  4. A “contact us” page related to end user support (e.g. providing an email address, phone number, etc.)

In addition, be sure to have higher level “support experts” available in case you need to delegate a sophisticated system issue.  The experts should be available within the virtual event – or, be available “on call” to jump in as needed.

Post-Resolution

Once you’ve resolved a user’s issue, follow them on Twitter – this allows them to send you direct messages.  And, it allows you to be quickly apprised of any subsequent issues they may come across.  Later on in the day, check if the user is logged in to the virtual event – if so, send a private chat request and politely ask how the event is going.  It’s always good for users to know that you’re actively supporting the event and genuinely interested in their satisfaction.

On Twitter, respond to each and every end user “tweet” – mention that the issue is resolved and invite the user to contact you back as needed.  Be careful, however, not to include the event’s hash tag on all of these follow-up tweets.  As the virtual event platform, you do not want to have a significant presence in the hash tag’s tweetstream.  Rather, only include the hash tag if your tweet relates to system-wide updates (applicable to all or most users).

The occasional update (with the hash tag) shows users that you’re listening – and replying to every single tweet shows your followers that you are responsive to each issue that arises.

The Entire Team Contributes

If your virtual event support staff is comprised of active Twitter users, encourage them to tweet about the event – have them highlight interesting sessions, pass along comments from enthusiastic attendees or simply state that they’re having a great time.  This helps promote the event itself – and, highlights the depth of the team behind the event support.  Take it a step further and create a Twitter List of your staff – allowing interested users to follow your employees tweets via a list.

Conclusion

The world is going social, which means that user support and customer service need to be “socially listening” (and responding).  Get ahead of the curve – be sure to support your next virtual event on Twitter.

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COMDEX Re-Launches As A Virtual Trade Show

March 4, 2010

The virtual events industry had a lot of exciting moments over the past two years.  I believe we’ll look back upon today, however, as an one of the most important and historic moments for our industry.  Everything Channel (a UBM company) announced that they’re re-launching COMDEX as a 100% virtual trade show.

Press Release: Introducing the New COMDEX, the Next Generation in Virtual Events

During its heyday, COMDEX was the “go to” trade show in the computer and technology industry, “where all levels of manufacturers and developers of computers, peripherals, software, components and accessories came in direct contact with retailers, consultants and their competitors” (source: Wikipedia)

COMDEX was discontinued in 2004.  In 2006, UBM acquired the event assets of COMDEX via their purchase of MediaLive International Inc.  COMDEX Virtual will fit nicely in UBM’s Everything Channel business, whose objective is “accelerating technology sales” and whose publications include Channelweb and CRN.  This is very exciting news – I gave some thought to what this means to our industry.

Game Changer and Turning Point

Today’s news is nothing short of a game changer and turning point for our industry.  Virtual events have enjoyed growing adoption – initially from B2B publishers and recently from corporations.  Adoption rates have been particularly strong from the same technology vendors who used to exhibit at COMDEX.  Now, however, one of the most widely known event brands has made the move to embrace virtual.

COMDEX Virtual will be watched (and attended) closely by related event brands – its success will incent many more well-known event brands to come on board virtually.  Staying within the technology space, CES and Macworld may be encouraged to consider a hybrid model for their events, adding a virtual component to complement their in-person event.  Discontinued event brands may similarly move to re-launch as a virtual-only experience.

Confirmed: Options and Flexibility with Going Virtual

Virtual event technology afforded Everything Channel with a flexible way to bring back the COMDEX brand.  First, the costs are lower.  Second, the financial commitment around a physical event venue was avoided.  Third, a virtual event affords exhibitors with a convenient and cost-effective means to return to COMDEX.

Re-sellers and systems integrators tend to be small-to-medium sized businesses (SMB) – they operate “lean and mean” without an abundance of marketing budget.  In the past, their entire year’s marketing spend may have been put towards COMDEX.  Now, the same exhibitors can exhibit virtually and avoid the travel costs and “out of office” costs of sending their company representatives to Las Vegas – affording them remaining marketing dollars to use elsewhere.

With the flexibility afforded, COMDEX Virtual allows Everything Channel a convenient and efficient way to bring COMDEX back to life.  If the virtual event exceeds expectations, more options become available, such as a physical component to complement the virtual – creating a hybrid event after first testing the waters virtually.

Virtual Extensions

Industry observers have noted that more focused events (e.g. CES in consumer electronics and Interop in computer networking) began to steal interest away from COMDEX – many believed that it had become too broad.  Subsequent to its November 2010 launch, COMDEX Virtual may want to consider a series of smaller and more focused virtual events – around industry sectors or by specific geographies.

Additionally, virtual affords COMDEX the option of extending its presence globally – both via participation from a global audience, as well as regionalized virtual events that cater to specific regions (e.g. EMEA, Asia Pacific, etc.).  With the localization capabilities provided by virtual event platforms, attendees can choose the language in which they experience the event.

Unique, Branded Experiences

COMDEX had a unique brand – with COMDEX Virtual, there seems to be a clear desire to create a unique experience that carries unique and distinctive branding.  Put another way, COMDEX Virtual should not look like any other virtual event – it needs to stand apart.  As such, UBM Studios, a “creative and strategic marketing agency” will create original and highly engaging event areas for COMDEX Virtual, including the Grand Hall of Masters, Hospitality Suites and the CRN Test Center.

This is part of a continuing trend in our industry – the desire (and capability) of show hosts to create highly engaging and unique experiences that adhere to their branding guidelines – or, create new brand experiences.  As such, clients with the budget (or capabilities) will “in-source” the creative development and look to the virtual event platforms to “carry the payload” – providing the foundation on which the event rides, along with essential platform features and services.

Taking the game to the next level

To support the size and scale of COMDEX (virtually), event platforms will need to bring their “A game”.  If the event will house hundreds of exhibitors interacting with tens of thousands of attendees, the virtual event platform will need to deliver on performance, reliability and scalability.  In addition, useful platform features need to enable exhibitors to demonstrate their products and services.

Match-making tools should enable exhibitors to find the “right” attendees and for attendees to find and make useful business contacts.  Lastly, the platforms need to enable pervasive use of video – both on-demand video and live-streamed video.  After all, a key element of past COMDEX events was the ability to see, hear and engage (visually) with others.

Conclusion

The “countdown to COMDEX” is on – between now and November, I’m sure there’s plenty of work and planning to get done.  In the meantime, with today’s announcement alone, a bit of history has already been made.

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Evolving The Virtual Event Group Chat

February 26, 2010

Excerpt of LinkedIn Discussion ("Virtual Events Forum")

For me, the best content in LinkedIn is found in Discussion threads in LinkedIn Groups to which I belong.  Why is the content so good?

  1. It has a precise focus that’s aligned with the charter or focus area of the group
  2. It’s based around timely topics (i.e. what group members are currently interested in discussing)
  3. It’s interactive with a loopback mechanism – there’s a dialog that unfolds – someone making a wild claim will be called on it and will need to return to the discussion to justify the claim (or, lose credibility by remaining silent)
  4. It’s the best form of “user generated content” – from subject matter experts and hands-on practitioners

As such, some content in LinkedIn Discussions can prove to be more useful and valuable than comparable content in related industry publications and web sites.  The LinkedIn Discussion thread is a great example of the “wisdom of the crowds” surpassing the knowledge of a handful of individuals.

Virtual Event Group Chat

While allowing for the fact that a portion of virtual event group chat is logistics-related (e.g. “I don’t hear the audio on the Live Webcast”), chat content related to the event’s theme (topic) comprises some of the most useful and compelling content in the entire event.  Why is that?  It’s for all the same reasons I list (above) for the LinkedIn discussion.

The challenge in leveraging an event’s group chat, however, is this:

If I’m not actively monitoring the group chat, how do I participate?

In my mind, the virtual event group chat needs to evolve to better serve attendees.

Group Chat Threading

Attendees may visit a group chat area (e.g. Networking Lounge), with an interest to discuss numerous topics (see example with LinkedIn Discussion topics, above).  In an unstructured group chat, the introductory chat message (to start the discussion) is likely to be “interrupted” with other, unrelated messages.  The result is some “scattering” of the chat content, with the possibility that a meaningful discussion (on the original topic) never happens.

Today’s “Wild, Wild West” of group chat needs to become threaded – the group chat’s user interface needs to allow participants to denote which message(s) they are commenting on – with the resulting “chat window” nesting (or otherwise grouping) messages within the same thread.  Additionally, the chat system should auto-populate information on which user one is responding to.  This way, participants no longer need to preface their comment with the name of the person they’re responding to.

A wealth of additional features become possible once this sort of threading feature is enabled.

Embraces and extends chat topics

I submit a chat message, asking if folks are interested in “Topic X”.  If no one answers me back within the next 10 minutes, that chat topic is dead.  Threaded chat, however, allows attendees to bring topics back from the dead.  If a visitor enters three hours later and decides to reply to my original message, that section of “threaded chat” can be moved to the “current timeline” in the group chat area – much in the same way a comment on a friend’s Facebook posting moves the original posting “up” in your News Feed.

Real-Time Search!

If I’m not able to dedicate the time to visit and monitor a group chat area, the next best thing would be a virtual event search function that provides real-time (or near-real-time) indexing of the group chat content.  Imagine the following capabilities:

  1. Exhibitor: perform searches on my company name – allows me to determine whether I need to enter the group chat to repsond
  2. Attendee: perform searches on topics that interest me – and be able to see the entire discussion thread on that topic
  3. Attendee: search on other attendees in my Buddy List – show me chat comments posted by my buddies
  4. Attendee: search discussion threads for comments posted subsequent to my own comments

Content Re-Use

For a B2B publisher – and, for some corporations – the content of selected discussion threads could be re-used and posted on the web as original (or, semi-original) content.  B2B sites often publish “how to guides” and best practices articles – discussion thread content (with the “right” mix of contributors) can be re-published on the web – or, used as the basis for a more in-depth article.

Conclusion

With group chat being one of the most valuable components of a virtual event, its features should evolve to better leverage the “wisdom of the crowds”.

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2010 Trend Watch: Virtual Events

February 25, 2010

Source: flickr (User: b.frahm)

For the virtual events industry, the premier face-to-face event of the year is Virtual Edge Summit, the “summit on virtual events, marketing & communities”.  Virtual Edge 2010 concluded earlier this week – the face-to-face event floored in Santa Clara, CA, while several vendors provided virtual components, allowing remote (virtual) attendees to participate in the experience.  The event saw record crowds from attendees, exhibitors and presenters.

From my observations at this year’s event, the following are a set of emerging trends in the industry.

Beyond Novelty Phase

Judging by the turn-out alone, the virtual event industry has officially “graduated” beyond the novelty phase.  Awareness of virtual events has broadened – now, when I meet someone at a social gathering and describe what I do for a living, the blank stare of years past has become a “oh yes, I’ve attended one of those”.

The increase of awareness (and, perceived importance) could be seen in the amount of coverage that Virtual Edge 2010 received – an increase in the number of publications (on-site), bloggers (both on-site and virtually) and analysts (both on-site and virtually).  Lastly, the volume of tweets (via hash tag: #ve10) was 5-10 times greater than last year – with more tweets per person and many more people tweeting.

With that being said, there are enormous untapped and unexplored markets, which will provide the industry much of its growth in 2010 and beyond.

More Players Emerge

I noticed a near doubling in the number of exhibitors this year, which means that new/emerging vendors significantly developed (or expanded) their virtual event capabilities – or, from a marketing standpoint, they determined it was the right time to get their products and services in front of this audience.

Last year, the exhibitors were fairly homogeneous – they provide apples-to-apples solutions and directly compete with one another.  This year, the breadth of solutions offerings (from the exhibitors) has expanded – some exhibitors do not necessarily compete directly with one another.

In some cases, a client may use one vendor for a particular type of virtual event and a different vendor in another type of event.  The result?  More “burden” on the attendees (buyers) to understand the solutions offered and determine which solution best fits their needs.  This affords some  industry players (agencies, consultants) a great opportunity to help clients and prospects navigate the waters.

Early Adopters Become Industry Thought Leaders

Practitioners (especially some of the early adopters in our industry) are quickly becoming the thought leaders and “go to source” for ideas, expertise and wisdom.  Many of these thought-leading practitioners were on stage this week – they were very generous with their sharing of experiences.  And, more than ever, they know precisely what they want from their vendors (which is a great thing for those in the vendor space).

In the early days, the practitioner would ask the vendor, “show me what you have” or “show me what you can do’.  Today, the tables have been turned.  Practitioners (clients) are now telling the vendors, “let me tell you what I need” or “make this experiential vision come to life for me”. This is an important aspect of the industry’s evolution – vendors crafting innovation via direct input from practitioners (as opposed to creating “innovation in a vacuum”).

3D Immersiveness

Interest in 3D immersiveness is picking up.  In fact, at Virtual Edge this year, roughly 20% of the session content involved 3D / immersiveness and a formal “Business 3Di” track was created.  The 3Di track featured practitioners, along with vendors such as Linden Lab, Teleplace, Altadyn, Digitell and web.alive (Avaya).  Like last year, Digitell provided a simulcast of the event proceedings into their 3D immersive platform (VirtualU).

Those are the “pure play” immersive environments.  In addition, virtual event platforms are coming on board as well.  In my 2010 predictions on virtual events, I wrote, “(virtual event) platforms take first step towards immersiveness”.  This prediction has come true.

It’s interesting, however – some vendors have a clear vision of what immersiveness enables for exhibitors and attendees of virtual events, while others appear to be adding immersiveness for the sake of adding it (i.e. lacking a clear and compelling use case).  It’s in the best interest of virtual event vendors to explore and enable immersiveness via specific client use cases – this way, the capabilities are added to meet a client need – and, serve as a reference (to the rest of the industry) on the true value delivered via immersiveness.

Social Media Integration

2009 was a monumental year in the evolution of both social media and virtual events.  In 2010, there continues to be a lot of talk about both topics – including discussion around how they integrate with one another.  Social media (and related social networks) were central to the discussion in many workshops and breakout sessions.

And of course, social networking was flourishing in and around the event, with a high volume of tweets, a fair number of Facebook status updates and (I’m sure) lots of LinkedIn connections made.  While I am not aware of any groundbreaking announcements from Virtual Edge on social media integration, I’d expect that platforms enable more and more social networking as 2010 unfolds.  I expect to see the platforms themselves becomes more social (natively) and increase the depth of their integration with third party social networks.  Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are commonly mentioned – but expect to see industry-specific, niche networks and communities integrated as well.

Industry Ecosystem Begins to Take Shape

Virtual event platform vendors have established a number of strategic partnerships to extend account/client reach and grow/scale business opportunities.  Most of those partners were present at Virtual Edge – and a number of partners had prominent speaking roles in the sessions.  By this time next year, even more partners will enter the space and appear at the event.

Additionally, smaller businesses (and individuals as well) are seeking to leverage opportunities within virtual events to bring in new business – or sign on for consulting roles.  The list includes video production companies, design agencies, digital signage providers, freelance producers/writers/story-tellers, streaming providers and emerging social network / community sites.  As these “players” look to get a small piece of the industry pie, they serve to grow the overall ecosystem of this industry.

Finally, hands-on practitioners are finding a fluid and welcoming job market, despite the less inviting macro job environment.  Virtual events are still new enough that production staff, developers and strategic consultants have highly specialized knowledge and skills – as such, they’re able to quickly transition from their existing (or past) role to a new vendor, service provider or practitioner (client side).  Most of the vendors in the space are aggressively hiring, which means that savvy job seekers leveraged the conference to generate meaningful employment leads.

Conclusion

It’s an exciting time in our industry – I’m looking forward to seeing how things shape up for Virtual Edge 2011.

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What Every Exhibitor Should Know About Virtual Events

February 17, 2010

The following is a guest post from Susan Friedmann.

In a recent webinar I conducted for TSEA (Trade Show Exhibitors Association), “What Every Exhibitor Should Know About Virtual Events,” I highlighted that virtual events can supplement, complement, or replace your physical event. However, I caution exhibitors not to replace their event without totally understanding what you are giving up. Realize that nothing can replace the face-to-face contact that you have at a physical event.

Nielsen Business Media (who organize many virtual tradeshows) have found that the virtual event experience might graphically mimic a tradeshow, but virtual events are currently primarily a social networking environment, especially for the under 50s (sorry to be an ageist).

Virtual events are gaining in popularity, which means as savvy marketers you just can’t ignore them, and hope that if you do, they’ll just go away. It’s just not going to happen.

While they may not replace physical events, the virtual counterparts are becoming more widely used to supplement face-to-face trade shows and conferences, as well as provide ongoing content and follow-up opportunities.

Finally, my all time favorite subject. Don’t have any of your team go on the live or virtual show floor without tradeshow training. It may seem simple to work a virtual show, but winging it will get you winging it results.

The key ingredient to engineer a successful event lies in the simple process of planning and preparation. Easy enough, yet very few exhibitors really take time to truly understand what this means.

Participating in virtual events means not only knowing, and understanding the technology platform, it also means honing the necessary skills for successful results.

Susan A. Friedmann (@TradeshowCoach), CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), is an internationally recognized expert and “how to” coach who has traveled the world helping companies achieve profitable results at tradeshows and events. She offers exhibitor training programs to increase results and focus on building better relationships with customers, prospects and advocates in the marketplace.


Virtual Edge Summit 2010

Susan and I will be presenting at the Virtual Edge Summit on February 23, 2010.

Register for the conference: http://virtualedgesummit.com/

Register for InXpoLive@VirtualEdge: http://bit.ly/InXpoLive_Blog

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InXpo: Visit Us In-Person Or Virtually at InXpoLive@VirtualEdge

February 10, 2010

Source: flickr (User: santaclaraflickr)

That’s right, even the virtual events industry has a need for an in-person event.  On February 22nd and 23rd, InXpo will be attending Virtual Edge Summit 2010 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.  There’s an All-Star Roster of Virtual Event strategists, practitioners and visionaries on tap, for an impressive 2-day schedule of keynotes, presentations and break-out sessions.

If you’re unable to join us in Santa Clara, InXpo is holding a hybrid event – we’ll have a virtual event running concurrently with the in-person event.  We’ll provide virtual attendees with a means to view the live video broadcasts of the keynotes, presentations, etc. – and, we’ll be utilizing webcams to bridge the in-person event into the virtual event.

You can pre-register for the virtual event (InXpoLive@VirtualEdge) here:

InXpoLive@VirtualEdge pre-registration

How To Find Me

I’d love to meet up and place faces to names – most of the time, I’ll be stationed in the InXpo booth, so feel free to drop on by.  In addition, InXpo is sponsoring lunch on both days, so perhaps we can grab a sandwich together.

Lastly, I’ll be presenting in a Day 2 session titled “Prevent Virtual Event Nightmares: How Producers Prepare Speakers, Exhibitors and Attendees” – it starts nice and early, at 8AM PT.  I’ll be joined in the presentation by Susan Friedmann, The Tradeshow Coach (@Tradeshowcoach).

Hope to see you there, whether it’s in-person or virtually!

Prevent Virtual Event Nightmares How Producers Prepare Speakers, Exhibitors and Attendees

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The Future Of Virtual Events

February 1, 2010

There’s no time like the present … to think about the future.  I previously wrote about predictions for the virtual event industry in 2010 – those predictions were based around a short-term outlook and have a reasonable chance of coming true.  Now, I’d like to weigh in on 2011 (and beyond) and discuss where the industry (and the technology behind it) may be heading.

Virtual Event technology moves “closer” to the end user

To spur increased adoption, the virtual event experience will move closer to the end user.  To move closer, the browser-based experience of today will be complemented by numerous apps that live outside of the browser.  A relevant analogy is Twitter, which could not have achieved its place in the world on twitter.com alone – its power is broadened with desktop clients such as TweetDeck and Seesmic.  Possibilities include:

  1. Browser toolbars that encapsulate a subset of virtual event functionality (OK, we’re still within a browser here – so consider this an initial step only).
  2. Desktop applications – initially, these apps may provide a real-time dashboard for attendees, exhibitor or show hosts.  You’ll get to keep tabs on activity within a virtual event without having to be logged into the event (from your browser).  Subsequently, the apps will become more sophisticated and take on more of the virtual event platform’s features.
  3. Asynchronous alerting services – attendees, exhibitors and show hosts will be able to configure alerts that inform them of important activities.  The alerts will have numerous transport mechanisms – email, SMS text message or social media notification (e.g. a direct message on Twitter).

Virtual Events Go Mobile

Related to “getting closer” to the end user, mobile is the “elephant in the room” for virtual events.  The mobile apps will start off quite simple – think again of the dashboard app, which provides a real-time view of what’s going on within the event.

Building onto the dashboard will be basic interactivity (e.g. text chat) – allowing attendees and exhibitors the ability to chat with others.  An exhibitor, for instance, can now staff her booth “on the go” from her iPhone.

As we look to 2011 and beyond, I see a clear shift in the computing landscape, whereby more and more “computing” moves from the desktop and laptop and on to mobile devices.  In this decade, the smartphone becomes the PC of the past decade.

The challenge for virtual event platform providers is to determine where to place their bets (investments) across iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm.

Tighter Integration Inside The Firewall

Virtual events see major adoption from multinational corporations, who leverage the events for internal-facing communication and collaboration (e.g. sales kick-off meetings, human resources programs, learning programs, executive briefings, team/departmental meetings, etc.).  Corporations will begin to request the following:

  1. Integration with other enterprise applications (which often sit inside the firewall)
  2. Tighter security measures

This drive from corporations will cause virtual event technology to morph a bit, shifting from a 100% software as a service (SaaS) model to a hybrid model that combines SaaS with on-premise software.

At first, integration points to a company’s enterprise apps may reside “on premise” on corporate servers – subsequently, corporations may require the underlying virtual event platform be hosted inside the firewall – a model that mirrors Linden Lab and their Second Life Enterprise.

Augmented Virtuality

Virtual events and in-person events meet augmented reality – resulting in “augmented virtuality”.  I previously wrote that 2010 is The Year of The Hybrid Event.  There will come a day when every in-person event has a virtual component.  With existing smartphone technology and the emergence of augmented reality – we’ll soon hit a sweet spot whereby in-person event attendees will wield enormous power in the palm of their hands.

Physical event attendees will begin to experience an event through the lens of their smartphone – holding up the smartphone at any location and seeing overlays of relevant information.

Augmented virtuality will blend augmented reality with the virtual event platform – elements of the virtual event appear as overlays on the smartphone (e.g. the virtual booth is layered on top of the smartphone’s view of the physical booth – and virtual staffers are displayed as being available [via the smarthphone] if the in-person staffers are busy).

Bye Bye, “Virtual Events”

Based on the trends I’ve outlined, by 2011 (if not sooner), we’ll no longer refer to “virtual events”.  Instead, they’ll have “grown up” and migrated into a broader category of business or collaboration application.  Virtual event technology becomes a toolset in a larger ecosystem – or, they’re integrated into a broader suite of tools (rather than being a standalone solution).

Conclusions

In a few years, these will no longer be your mother’s virtual events!  The industry and technology will change, morph and adapt to suit the needs of the market.  Let’s all be thankful that we’re along for the ride.

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InXpo: The Power of The Platform

January 30, 2010

Over at the InXpo blog, I wrote a posting about “The Power of The Platform” – our belief (at InXpo) that the platform serves as the foundation on which our value is delivered.  We deployed Release 8.3.1 of our Virtual Events Platform, complete with lots of exciting features:

  1. Powerful navigation options – pull-down and push-up sub-menus in the event “toolbar”
  2. On-the-fly translation for group chat and one-to-one chat
  3. Multi-language support for the InXpo Webcasting platform (XpoCast) – on both the presenter and viewer interfaces
  4. Full-text document search
  5. Content recommendation engine

And now comes the exciting part – working with clients to apply these features in their upcoming events.

Here’s the full link to the blog posting: Feature Overview: InXpo Virtual Events Platform (Release 8.3.1)

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How Virtual Events Can Adopt Location Based Services

January 28, 2010

These days, it seems the social web is like real estate – it’s all about location, location, location.  Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt are gaining popularity as location based, mobile social services.  Yelp has rolled out Yelp Check-ins, which mirror a popular activity on the aforementioned services.  Twitter added location awareness to its API in 2009.  Facebook, some speculate, may enter the fray with their own location based services.

So how would it be possible to enable Location Based Services in a virtual event?  Well, consider that location tracking is inherent to the virtual event platform – in other words, it has a built-in GPS for all users!  I wrote previously about gaming in virtual events – that gaming can generate  retention, engagement, enjoyment and loyalty.  Location Based Services, in the form of competition and gaming, can achieve all of these benefits.  Let’s take a look at how.

Source: flickr (User: dvxfilmerdoug)

It Starts With The Buddy List

Users first need to build their social graph.  This can be accomplished with a virtual event platform’s “buddy list” feature – all users in your buddy list would receive status notifications from the location system.  The notifications would be sent to users within the virtual event (if you’re logged in).  Once you log out, you can opt to receive status notifications via email.  This way, even if you’re no longer in the event, you can receive updates (via email) on what your buddies are up to.

Build A Reward System

Next, a reward system serves as an incentive for users to participate.  The concept is similar to the becoming “mayor” of a location on Foursquare.  In a virtual event, perhaps you allow privileged users (who have achieved a certain status) to obtain a badge – whereby the badge can superimposed on their avatar image – or, listed on their profile page.  In addition to the badge system, a master leaderboard (and perhaps segmented leaderboards) should be utilized, allowing users to track their performance relative to other users.

The Virtual Trade Show

First, the notion of a social graph in a virtual trade show may be an upfront challenge.  At most trade shows, you may know a handful of colleagues or associates who are also attending – but for the most part, everyone else is a stranger (to start).  Thus, a system may need to be in place first to encourage users to add other users to their buddy list.

Assuming you can achieve decent-sized buddy lists, then the “check-in” becomes quite relevant in a virtual trade show.  Each visit that I make to an event area can be tracked (by the platform) as a check-in – allowing my buddies to know what areas I visited – and, where I am right now.  Secondly, I might leave a review or comment about a particular area – perhaps I enjoyed the content in an exhibitor’s booth – or, I didn’t find a Webcast to be all that useful.  When my buddies enter those same areas, they can then view the comments I left them from my prior check-ins.  Thus, when a buddy enters the same exhibitor booth, she knows that I visited earlier and enjoyed the content there.

Exhibitors could then sponsor areas of the event (besides their own booth) – the Lounge, Auditorium, Resource Center, etc.  Then, attendees can vie to become the “mayor” of a given area.  At the end of the live event, perhaps the mayor of the Lounge receives a prize that’s awarded by the Lounge’s sponsor – and to receive the prize, agrees to have a short conversation with that sponsor.  Already, you can begin to see how this location “app” can generate additional activity and engagement.

Source: flickr (User: Live Solutions)

The Virtual Sales Conference

In a virtual sales conference (and related corporate events), attendees naturally have a large list of potential buddies – the trick is to incent the attendees to populate that list within the virtual event.  Alternatively, management may choose to pre-select the buddy lists by organizing the sales force into teams – whereby your buddy list is pre-seeded with your fellow team members.  The location app is all about checking in (with each other) and sharing information towards gaining points for your team.  In this manner, the location app helps encourage learning and collaboration, making the virtual sales conference more effective.

Social Networks

For certain types of events (e.g. virtual trade shows), integrating the location system with users’ social networks can be powerful.  For instance, a check-in to the keynote presentation can auto-generate a tweet out to the attendee’s Twitter followers – providing a registration link to the event.  Similarly, a check-in at an exhibitor’s booth may prompt the user whether she wants to post an update to her Facebook wall.  In summary, the location service should facilitate sharing not just within the virtual event, but to external social networks as well.

Prevent Gaming (of the System)

The virtual events platform will need to carefully build the measurement and scoring methodologies to ensure that the “game is not gamed”.  In the real world, there is overhead involved in becoming the mayor of a watering hole – in the virtual world, clicking 50 times to enter an exhibitor’s booth is quite easy.  The scoring system ought to consider rate limits, as well as threshold values around selected activities.  Additionally, becoming “mayor” should factor in actions that are not as “game-able” as mouse clicks or visits.

Conclusion

There’s  probably a lot of work to enable the underlying platform to accomplish this – however, such a system can go a long way to achieving retention, engagement, enjoyment and loyalty.

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The Virtual Unconference

January 25, 2010

Source: flickr (User: Jill)

According to the web site Unconference.net, an unconference is “a facilitated participant-driven face-to-face conference around a theme or purpose”.  The basic concept of an unconference is to throw out all notions of your conventional conference – instead of a central planning figure, a pre-planned agenda and a set of presenters/speakers, the unconference has no meeting planner and no set agenda – and the content of the conference is driven solely by the attendees.

In fact, one of the key moments of the unconference is the setting of the session topics.  Attendees with ideas for session content grab markers and write their ideas on sheets of paper.  The papers are then taped against a large grid, which denotes the location and time of the given session.  For further details, Unconference.net has a great article titled “Facilitating unconference agenda creation Step-by-Step“.

With virtual events increasingly complementing face-to-face events, it’s only natural to ask whether an unconference can occur virtually.  My short answer – virtual event platforms need some tailoring and customization to effectively support the virtual unconference.  Let’s consider the pros and cons of virtual event platforms.

Source: flickr (User: scottamus)

Pro: Self Service Capabilities

Naturally, a virtual unconference requires a virtual event platform with self service capabilities.  The self service tools need to be placed in the hands of the attendees, so that they can set up meeting rooms and presentations.  A self-service webcasting/broadcasting tool is a must, so that an attendee who wants to jump right into a presentation or talk can do so with little to no set-up overhead.

The virtual event platform will need to provide the right tool for the job, however – it should support the broadcast of audio (and video, if desired) and allow two-way participation from the audience – they should be able to ask questions and have the ability to annotate a shared virtual whiteboard.  Since attendees do not arrive at the unconference with prepared PowerPoint presentations, the tool should also support desktop sharing (of the presenter’s desktop), with seamless passing of control to other attendees (and back).

Pro: Efficiency of (Virtual) Collaboration

Previously, I wrote about the advantages of virtual meetings – whereby certain types of collaboration are more efficient online vs. in-person.  For instance, annotating a shared document or diagram is easy to do with 1-2 active participants (in person), but gets trickier with a higher number of participants.  In a virtual whiteboard, many contributors can be collaborating on the space at once, as long as they’re not overwriting each other or stepping on (virtual) toes.

In addition, I’ve found the dynamics of text-based group chat to be interesting, especially during a high volume of chatter, with multiple voices contributing at once.  Imagine the heated conference call where everyone has something to say – if done in a text-based group chat, you often find less chaos and more efficiency.  Text-based group chat could be a nice complement to the session and an important component of the virtual unconference.

Pro: Navigation

Unconferences are all about free movement from one session to another.  If the session you selected is not right for you, get up and leave during the first 5 minutes – neither the attendees nor the speaker mind.  In a virtual unconference, finding the right session becomes even easier, since one can navigate to the next session without walking down the hall.  In this manner, you’re nearly guaranteed to find a session that’s right for you – simply click around until there’s a good fit.

Con: Virtual Agenda Creation

With today’s virtual event platforms, it’s challenging to re-create the agenda creation process, with its scrawling of proposed session topics and placement on the shared grid (wall).  I suppose the agenda creation could be handled via group chat, but that may take a while and is not efficient as the master grid.  Another possibility is the use of Google Wave, although the output of the wave will need to be imported back into the virtual events platform.

In the end, I think that an app would need to be created that specializes in the unique agenda creation process – the sheets of paper would take shape online and be placed onto a virtual grid.  Attendees could then click and drag to move sheets around on the grid or delete sheets altogether.  When final, the grid could then auto-populate the event’s Auditorium listing and allow attendees to conveniently navigate to their sessions of choice.

Con: Spontaneity (structured vs. unstructured)

Today’s virtual event platforms utilize a structured model behind the events they create – unconferences, on the other hand throw structure out the window and breed spontaneity.  For instance, if one particular group decided they wanted to move their session to the local Starbucks, that would be completely fine.  In a virtual event, the same sort of spontaneous decision is harder to fulfill.

Virtual event platforms can reach a similar level of spontaneity via self service tools – however, a balance needs to be reached so that the attendee creating the virtual coffee shop doesn’t take down the entire virtual event.  The virtual unconference may need to grant administrator rights to a small subset of attendees who have responsibility for overall virtual event production.

Conclusion

The notion of a virtual unconference makes a lot of sense to me – virtual event platform providers may have some work to do first.  And, similar to the in-person unconference, a business model will need to be established to subsidize the virtual event platform costs.

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