Project Planning For Your Virtual Event

September 18, 2010

Planning and executing a virtual event can be a juggling act – moving parts include people, deliverables, technology, content, people, support, sponsorships, exhibitors, presenters, executive sponsors and more.  More than an “event” or a “project”, virtual events are a journey.  When crossing the finish line of a virtual event, some feel like they’ve just completed a marathon.

This leads to an interesting question – what tools do virtual event planners use to manage this journey?  My belief is that most teams use the basic ones.  The most prevalent is probably Microsoft Excel, in which a date and owner-based task list is used.  For a more robust project plan, some teams may use Microsoft Project, which (among other things) allows you to better build in dependencies and critical path items.

In addition to the project planning tools, virtual event teams need to collaborate and coordinate, both within the team and outside their organization (e.g. experts, speakers, technology providers, exhibitors, booth representatives, etc.).  The team may have the benefit of SharePoint or Lotus within their company, but that doesn’t solve the challenge of coordinating with outside parties.

I came across a few articles this week that highlight interesting project management tools.

At Forbes.com, Gene Marks wrote an article titled “Project Management Software That Brings Order To Chaos.”  Tools mentioned by Gene were:

Desktop Software

  1. Microsoft Project 2010
  2. Primavera P6 Project Management (Oracle)
  3. OpenProj (Serena Software)

Hosted Software

  1. Basecamp  (37 Signals)
  2. Zoho Projects
  3. Central Desktop

Basecamp sounds particularly neat – as Gene writes, “Basecamp’s functions include milestone management, collaborative file sharing, time tracking, messaging and integration with the company’s Campfire group-chatting software.”

Group chatting could be useful and efficient compared to numerous phone calls and conference calls.  I’ve surely used a lot of AIM and Skype when coordinating my events – and having a system that all team members can standardize on (for chat) could be a win.

At Entrepreneur.com, Jonathan Blum wrote an article, “The Web-Based Scheduling Tool That’s One Step Ahead of You.”  The article highlights a project planning tool called TheDeadline – a hosted application that integrates with Google Apps.  The neat thing about this tool is that it attempts to predict which tasks you need to work on next.

However, it sounds better suited to an unsequenced task list – so, the current version may not be the best fit for planning a virtual event, where there’s an ordered list of deliverables and tasks that have a pre-deteremined sequence.  I do think it’s something to keep an eye on – imagine entering some tasks into a system and having the tool tell you that speakers’ presentations are due today!

Leave us a comment below – what tools are you using to plan and execute your virtual event?


Stanford Media X Event: IMVU’s Online Community

August 23, 2010

Brett Durrett (@bdurrett), VP Engineering at IMVU, gave an interesting presentation at a Stanford Media X virtual worlds event.  IMVU achieves a $40MM annual run rate, primarily from the sale of virtual goods.  Several virtual worlds entrepreneurs were in attendance at the event, which meant that Durrett’s talk received a lot of attention and interest.

IMVU is NOT a Virtual World

Durrett began the presentation by stating that IMVU is not a virtual world.  Instead, they are an online community “where members use 3D avatars to meet new people, chat, create and have fun with their friends.”  Many members of the early management team came from There.com (including Durrett) and their experience told them that an expansive “world” may not be the best solution.

Instead, the team considered connecting (with one another) the core function of the experience, so they built rooms and spaces where members can meet, connect and chat.  IMVU has achieved large scale usage.  At any time of the day, there’s usually 100,000 (or more) users logged into the system.  And while there’s no single “world” connecting them all, a user can find and connect with any other user who’s online.

User Generated Content as Key Enabler

How has IMVU achieved their current run rate?  User generated content.  IMVU generates very little of the virtual goods for sale in their marketplace.  Instead, it’s the community that creates the virtual goods for sale.  Durrett noted that IMVU could have hired a staff of developers to create the 100,000+ pairs of womens’ shoes available in IMVU.  But at the end of the day, they wouldn’t know if users liked those shoes.

And, that would have covered just shoes.  The way to scale to the wide assortment of goods now available is to open up the creation to the users.  With so many goods available, how do users find the items they want to purchase?  Durrett noted that like any online retailer with a large inventory, intelligent tools need to be built, a la Amazon’s recommendation service.  IMVU can recommend new items to you based on your past purchase patterns.

Competition Drives Engagement

Durrett described how IMVU creates daily contests based on pre-determined themes.  Users dress up their avatars in the particular theme and then submit a snapshot (image) of their avatar.  The community votes and the top avatars are displayed on a leader board.

To appear on the leader board, the reward is “virtual” (i.e. recognition, rather than cash, virtual credits, etc.).  And yet, the contest creates an intense amount of interest and competition from the community – a great thing from IMVU. If members happened to admire a particular user’s outfit, they could purchase all the items in that outfit with a single click.

Expanding the Inventory

Expansion of virtual goods inventory will be a key driver to IMVU’s continued growth.  They already make user generated music available (in MP3 form) and they recently launched games.  For games in particular, it will be interesting to see if IMVU creates inventory items around game status and advancement, as is common in many of today’s social games (e.g. FarmVille).

While IMVU does not support user generated games today, that could  be an interesting avenue of growth.  They’d probably want to review and certify submitted games, to prevent malicious activity from occurring.  In this manner, they could create a sort of iTunes App Store for games.

Related Links

  1. Interesting and related presentations from Brett Durrett (SlideShare)
  2. TechCrunch: IMVU’s Virtual Cash Cow: Doubling Revenues, Focused On Gaming (Video)
  3. Virtual Worlds News: IMVU Hiring, Anticipates $60M Run Rate

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Top 3 Ways To Improve Virtual Event Experiences

July 30, 2010

We need to create better and more engaging virtual event experiences.  We need to better approximate the valuable face-to-face encounters and experiences that physical events create.

1: Create a stronger feeling of “there”

There’s nothing like walking into an over-crowded trade show floor and hearing the buzz of attendees and exhibitors.  It’s similar to walking into a popular restaurant or bar.  The buzz permeates the environment.  If I were to login to the world’s most popular virtual event, there’s hardly an indicator to tell me so.

The closest thing we have today is a list of avatars (also known as profile images) in a given event area.  If I see a long list of other attendees listed, then I know the area is quite popular and there must be something going on (e.g. perhaps there’s a live chat session occurring).  Beyond that, it’s hard to tell that “there’s a ‘there’ there”.

To address this, event platforms and event planners should consider augmenting the experience with sensory stimulation.  The two relevant senses are sight and sound.  With sight, one could imagine  “heat maps” that signal to attendees where the action lies.  Or, animation to direct users to a popular area – or, that something is important is happening in a given location.

Incorporating sound can be a challenge in a B2B environment, since many users mute their computer speakers while at work.  So perhaps one uses visuals to encourage attendees to enable their sound.  Then, platforms could “inject” show floor chatter into the environment, adjusting the level of intensity based on the amount of activity or people present.

Better yet, platforms could allow attendees to speak into a common audio channel.  If I’m in the Networking Lounge, I’m then able to converse with others (via audio) in addition to text chat.  Perhaps the system allows for comment moderation, so that one person is enabled to speak at any one time (a challenge that takes care of itself when folks assemble in person).

2: Create stronger person-to-person interactions

Text chat is great, but virtual events need to go beyond text to create richer and more engaging person-to-person interactions.  That means audio (as outlined above) as well as video.  Bandwidth availability varies depending on where you’re located – but if you have sufficient bandwidth, virtual events should allow you to network and connect with others the “old fashioned way” – with a smile, a greeting and a hello.  Not with a “LOL” or a smiley.

In addition, virtual event experiences need to better enable a community to form.  This is done with effective tools to connect like-minded individuals – and, applications to encourage and foster person-to-person interactions (e.g. blogging, status updates, etc.).

3: Use imagery to strike a deeper emotional connection

In any event experience (whether physical or virtual), imagery can be used to strike a deep, emotional connection with attendees.  In a virtual event, we all too often create this effect:

That is, the imagery that may create that emotional connection is covered by functional elements overlaid on top.  What you’re left with is edges of the “pretty picture” – that is, the small segments that are not covered by the functional elements.  A few options to address this:

Combine imagery and function

Build the functional elements into the imagery.  For Flash-based platforms, the images and the functional areas occupy the same SWF.  There are cost and “repeatability” considerations in going this route, so other options can be considered.

Determine function element placement up front

Before the creative team designs an image, determine what functional elements are included in the event area.  Size these elements (by pixel counts) and then have the creative team design around that.  For instance, if you’re designing at a width of 1024 pixels and you embed a chat window 512 pixels wide, then you have 256 pixels on each side of the chat area.

Have your designers make the most of each 256-pixel segment, rather than designing an elaborate image that has its most compelling 512 pixels covered and never seen.

Conclusion

I’ve listed 3 ways that virtual event experiences can be improved.  Drop a comment below to let us know how you’d improve virtual events.

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How Vendors Should Evolve Their Virtual Event Platforms

July 10, 2010

The following is a collaborative posting by Miguel Arias, Steve Gogolak and Dennis Shiao.

Content creation and collaboration was facilitated by a PBworks wiki – the wiki page can be found here: http://allvirtual.pbworks.com/How-Vendors-Should-Evolve-Their-Virtual-Event-Platforms

To evolve their platforms for enhanced experiences and broader adoption, virtual event platforms should consider the following:

Make it easier to experience

Most virtual event platforms are easy to use – on a first-time visit, users tend to grasp the overall user experience and can figure out where to go (and how).  That being said, for wide scale adoption, virtual events needs to be as easy as Facebook.  That is, our grandmothers need to be able to access the site and figure things out.  On Facebook, grandmothers can update their profile, read their “friends” posts and write updates to their Walls.  Can a grandmother login to a virtual event, update her profile and participate in a group chat?  We’re not so sure.  Similarly, navigation and interactions need to be easier.  Most virtual events are intuitive to navigate (e.g. Lobby, Auditorium,  Lounge, etc.) – but may not be so intuitive with regard to message boards, chat, blogging, rating, etc.

Along with a simplification of interfaces and the use of usability and navigation conventions, many customers and users seem to be demanding more immersive environments. While presenting a brand and hosting an interactive experience in a convention centre, it seems an interesting field to add some real-time rendered environments using engines like papervision3D or Unity3D. This said, it is unlikely that avatar-based real time rendered environments will make it to a mainstream audience. Key considerations (or obstacles) are plugins or applets downloads, system performance and learning curve barriers.

Make it easier to find

The typical “location” of a virtual event is quickly becoming outdated – microsite with registration page, with no ability to experience the event prior to completing all mandatory registration fields. The registration page serves as a “wall” not only to potential attendees, but to search engines as well.  Virtual event platforms need to move “outside the wall” and expose their technology on Facebook, on blogs and on publisher web sites.  Platforms should widen their distribution via widgets, embed code and application programming interfaces (API’s).  Facebook is not limited to Facebook.com – it has Facebook Connect, Facebook Open Graph and much more.  Virtual events platforms, on the other hand, seem to be restricted to “VirtualEventPlatform.com”

Make it easier to access

The most relevant virtual event platforms will introduce, or already have, Facebook Connect and Twitter API, and they will need to move to even wider standards like OpenID.  For public events, ease of registration is a must.  Using open methods for registering and/or connecting social networks have three-fold benefits:

  1. Registration is faster because basic information can be provided by services like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.  Shorter registration forms increase completion, period.
  2. Intelligence gathered by the platform about the user’s existing social graph can enhance the experience within the event by automatically creating connections with other attendees based on that user’s connection outside the platform.  This will lead to more networking and awareness of actual people within the environment.
  3. Users opting into connections at the point of registration allows platforms to create publishable actions that can be spit out to twitter and facebook news feeds that can increase viral awareness of the event.  Marketing automation at its best.

On the other hand, desktop or mobile widgets to control your stand usage, statistics and reporting will be a must. Lastly, the platforms will have extensive APIs to manage their integration with various social networks, corporate databases, physical event managing software, etc.

Make the experience available on more devices

Most virtual event platforms support Windows, Mac and Linux.  They need to support more platforms, especially mobile.  On the mobile front, it’s important to consider iPhone/iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows 7 Phone and WebOS (listed in our order of importance).  To start, we don’t believe the entire virrual event experience needs to be “ported” to mobile devices -rather, vendors should determine the most critical features for attendees and exhibitors – and prioritize based on importance.  For instance, chat is an important element of virtual events, so why not make a mobile app that allows exhibitors to staff their booth via their smartphone.

The entire 3D environment does not need to be supported on a mobile device, but the networking tools (visit card managing, real time conversation, etc) and the reporting tools certainly do. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see what happens with Flash and Apple, and see which vendors will try to develop their platforms using HTML5.

One of the key areas where mobile can play a huge role is the “reminder” needs that come from tons of scheduled activities within virtual events.  If attendees have the ability to build out a personalized agenda before the event and opt-in to either SMS reminders or download some kind of app that will push notifications at them throughout the day, it would be much easier to create a flexible agenda.  Currently we’re cramming so much into the shortest amount of time because we’re afraid of losing people.  If only we had better planning and reminding tools, driven by devices that never leave our pocket!

Make the platform more adaptable and flexible

Related to our point about mobile support, platform vendors have important decisions to make regarding the development platforms.  Virtual event platforms today are based on Flash, Flex, Silverlight, Java and JavaFX.  Are those the “right” platform technologies for the future – or, should platforms move in the direction of HTML5?  Does a combination off HTML5, Javascript and Ajax create a more adaptable and flexible platform?  What do we “lose” by shifting away from Flash, Silverlight, etc.?  And what are the mobile implications with the chosen direction?  All good questions for the platform vendors to consider.

Make the platform more adaptable for different customer needs and different usage

There are so many different kind of virtual events: trade shows, conferences, job fairs, corporate events, webinars, congresses… that vendors should decide in which market niche they are going to play. We will see generic platforms and other vendors delivering a tailored solution for one or many of the previous choices. It will become more and more complex to provide physical event managers with the features they need to handle their hybrid events at the same time as the platform is able to cope with the extensive data handling of the virtual job fair, or the networking tools of a professional tradeshow.

Take a hint from Apple and FaceTime

Video chat will, without a doubt, increase the effectiveness of networking.  It is the one key element that can be introduced that will get critics to come around to the idea that networking in an online environment can be as effective as the cocktail hour of a physical event.

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From Virtual Events To Virtual Business Communities

May 31, 2010

Increasingly, virtual event planners are keeping their virtual events “open” year-round.  The model is evolving from a focus on the annual live event to a focus on the overall business environment, which has live events scheduled throughout the year.

Hence the progression – first, the virtual environment is kept open year-round (“Come in, we’re open”).  From there, virtual event planners become virtual community managers to evolve the environment into an active and engaged community.

Your virtual business community is quite similar to a social network (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  Thus, look to those social networks for effective community building and networking tactics.

Content

“Traditional” content forms the foundation of your business community: on-demand webcasts, videos, documents, articles, etc.  That being said “non-traditional” content is what makes a community shine and prosper – it includes other members and their associated user-generated content (e.g. 1:1 and group chat, message boards, blogs and old-fashioned community discussion).

Users may be drawn into your community for the professionally produced content – what makes them stay, however, are the connections with other members and the business conversations that unfold.

Draw them in – with Email

Some community sites (e.g. Facebook) are fortunate enough to have members login as their first stop on the web each day – today, it’s not likely that a virtual business community can achieve the same loyalty.  The key, then, is to provide community members with reasons to return, login and participate.

Email may be considered old fashioned by some, but it still works.  Want proof?   Look no further than Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which all use email effectively to notify members of activity and bring members back into the community.  Examples:

  1. Facebook – I receive email when a Facebook friend has commented on my Wall posting – additionally, when I submit a comment on a friend’s posting, I receive email when subsequent comments are posted.
  2. Twitter – I receive email when new users follow me on Twitter; in addition, when a user sends me a “direct message” (DM), I receive an email with the text of the DM.
  3. LinkedIn – When I comment on a LinkedIn Discussion thread (in a LinkedIn Group), I can opt in to receive email notifications on subsequent comments posted.  This way, I’m instantly notified as other group members comment on my comment, with the email containing the text of the submitted comment.

For your virtual business community, utilize similar email notifications to alert members of new activity and draw them back in to the environment.

Once they’re in, keep them Engaged

Now that you’ve successfully drawn members into the community, keep them active and engaged.  Build tools like the Facebook Status Bar:

The Notification component of the status bar is an area that I check each time I login to Facebook – I want to know who’s “liked” my comment, picture, video or link – and what they wrote about it.

Notifications keeps you engaged once you’re in – and can even serve to draw you there (in the first place).  I occasionally login to Facebook solely to check for new Notifications!

Mobile Integration – Draw them in, from their device

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. provide a variety of mobile apps, developed by the companies themselves and by third party developers.  With mobile apps and mobile clients, members can stay constantly connected to their social networks and communities – they can always stay “in touch”, literally and figuratively.

With a virtual business community, mobile integration does not need to be about 3D spaces, multimedia or immersiveness – things we often associate with virtual events and virtual worlds.  Some day, we may be able to experience full immersiveness on a mobile device.  But in a business community, it’s more about user-to-user connections at a more basic level – e.g. the likes of Twitter @replies and Facebook wall discussions.

Conclusion

Our industry still centers around the occasion-based virtual event – as event planners begin to morph into event-based community managers, they’ll need to map out tools and technologies to keep their communities active, engaged and coming back.  Should be a fun ride.

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Virtual Events 101: Tips For Building Your Virtual Booth

April 13, 2010

Your company is exhibiting at a virtual event and you’ve been assigned the responsibility of building your company’s virtual booth.  You’ve had plenty of experience assembling a physical booth, but never before have you built one virtually.  What’s your first step?  To immediately resist the urge to start the virtual build.

Set/Confirm Objectives & Goals

The objectives and goals for your virtual booth should align with the goals for your company’s participation in the virtual event. If you do not set the direction yourself, be sure to round up the necessary decision makers and have a documented set of goals – publish them internally and be sure that all stakeholders have a copy.  Sample goals include:

  1. Obtain contact information from “X” number of prospects
  2. Generate “Y” number of meaningful prospect engagements in-booth
  3. Yield “Z” number of qualified sales opportunities
  4. Generate “X%” of brand uplift, as measured by “Y”

It’s absolutely critical that goal definition be your first step, as it drives the decisions you make regarding the build-out of your virtual booth.

Content is King

The main elements of a virtual booth are (1) content [e.g. images, signage, videos, documents, links, etc.] and (2) virtual booth staffers.  Your first job is “content curator” – review all content available and be selective about which content you’ll place in your booth.  It all goes back to the defined goals – the content you select should align with the goals.

So if your goal is demand generation, find the same White Papers that your marketing team is using to generate sales leads across the web.  If your goal is driving awareness around a product launch, grab that 2 minute video of your product manager and have it auto-play when visitors enter your booth.  Besides documents in your marketing library, be sure to cobble together useful links on your web site, along with third party articles, blog postings and product reviews that reinforce your objectives.

Booth Labels Are Like Headlines

Content in a booth is typically housed behind a set of “booth labels”.  Your next job is one of headline writer – you’ll want to craft captivating “headlines” for the booth label, along with attention-grabbing titles (and descriptions) for the underlying content items.  You’re like the home page editor for your favorite content site – you need to figure out how to write headlines (titles) that will grab your visitors’ attention.

While you certainly want to avoid the “bait and switch” (e.g. writing a label/title that intentionally deceives), your labels need not literally reflect the underlying content. For example, if you assemble a set of blog postings from your company’s blog, you need not label these “Blog Postings”. Instead, organize the blog postings into themes – a set of postings on best practices could simply be labeled “Best Practices” in your booth.

While I suggest you do not change booth labels while the event is live (that would significantly confuse your booth’s repeat visitors), you’ll want to review the activity reports from your booth to learn from the labeling decisions that you made.  You’ll begin to figure out what worked and what didn’t – and can use those learnings for your next event to more effectively use labels/headlines to achieve your goals.

Use A Call To Action – Not A Declaration

For signage within the virtual booth, I prefer to use a call to action (e.g. “Ask Us Why 2010 is The Year of The Hybrid” above) over a declaration. So instead of declaring, “The world’s leading producer of plastic widgets”, try a call to action, “Ask us why plastic widgets are the new metal widgets”.  The call to action initiates a conversation with your visitors, rather than telling them what they should know.  If visitors enter your booth’s group chat and proactively ask the question stated in your call to action, then give yourself a pat on the back.

Stand Out From The Crowd

You’ll likely have competitors exhibiting in their own virtual booths, which means that a key part of your job is to figure out how to separate your booth (and company) from the crowd.  Greenscreen video (aka an embedded video greeter) has been used at enough virtual booths that it won’t make your booth any different.

Instead, try an offbeat video that’s not yet made its way to YouTube.  Or, how about an avatar of your CEO whose mouth movements are synchronized to the words s/he is speaking.  Perhaps an animated avatar is the new greenscreen.  Thinking further outside the box, how about bringing one of your products to life – personalizing that product to the point where it speaks and delivers a message to visitors.  A good example (in general – not in a virtual event) is the DCX Man character created by Brocade:

Source: Brocade (dcxman.com)

Further information can be found here: http://www.dcxman.com/whois_dcxman.html

Optimize Your Content For Search

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is not the sole domain of your web site or blog – it applies to virtual events as well.  How can this be?  Well, most virtual event platforms provide basic and advance search capabilities – they index all content in the event (e.g. documents, links, Webcasts, etc.) and some platforms even index the contents of uploaded documents.

As a result, keep SEO in mind for selecting documents to include in your booth, along with the labels, titles and abstracts that you use to catalog your booth content.  Taking a step back, be sure to write an SEO-optimized description for your company and booth – if attendees search for a key term and your booth is at the top of the search results, then all is good in the world.

Subject Matter Experts as Booth Staffers

While you’ll certainly want sales reps and sales engineers as booth staffers, it’s critical to work subject matter experts into the staffing schedule.  A visitor who asks specific product or service questions is a hot prospect – and telling that prospect “let me get back to you with an answer to your question” becomes a lost opportunity.  Even worse, that opportunity could fall into the lap of your competitor, whose booth is only one click away.

If you’re a technology vendor, try to have your product manager, chief engineer or event your CTO available within the booth.  While some technology folks may not be comfortable face-to-face with a customer, most feel quite at home in a text chat session.

Optimizing For: Demand Generation

If you’re looking to generate sales leads, cobble up all your best lead gen content – the latest White Papers, Case Studies, product sheets, videos, podcasts, customer testimonials, etc.  Be liberal and selective at the same time – that is, ensure there is a good mix of content choices, but be religious in making sure the content you select aligns with your goals – and relates to the theme of the virtual event.  The beauty of a virtual event is that registration occurs once – but all activity with your content is tracked.  So you’ll have rich activity profiles at your disposal to help you separate the cream of the crop leads from the visitors who came simply to enter your prize drawing.

Optimizing For: Thought Leadership

Are some of your co-workers experts or luminaries within your industry?  If yes, then have them be staffers within your booth!  Visitors will have a natural inclination to engage with them – and they’ll be able to funnel the ripest opportunities to sales reps within your booth.  If your employees have not achieved rock star status within your industry, leverage some of the luminaries to produce content on your behalf.

Perhaps it’s a research report authored by an industry expert – or, a video interview (hosted by the expert) with your CEO.  Better yet, a Webcast within the virtual event that features the expert(s) who provide a presentation prior to your own speakers.  If the experts are available to attend the virtual event, invite them to provide Q&A within your booth, as they’ll serve to draw interest and engagement from visitors.

Conclusion

While much of the logistics occur “online”, building a virtual booth will take longer than you think (if done right).  Be sure to clearly define your goals first – then, make sure your booth achieves those goals.  Take planned breaks from the virtual build to assess whether your booth aligns with the stated goals.  Finally, be sure to study activity data from the live event so you can make improvements for your next event!

Related Links

  1. Browse the Virtual Events 101 Index Page
  2. Download the eBook, “Virtual Events: Ready, Set, Go

Note: I invite you to connect with me on .


Bringing The Physical Event Experience To Virtual Events

March 30, 2010

Source: flickr (User: cafebiz08)

Virtual trade shows got their start by creating 2D graphical replicas of physical trade shows: exhibit halls, booths, auditoriums, lounges, etc.  Most users are “wowed” in their first experience attending a virtual trade show – they enjoy the quality of the user interface and often comment that they felt like “they were  there” at a physical event.

Exhibitors, too, find the virtual trade show experience to be quite enjoyable – at the same time, they often highlight important differences between exhibiting virtually vs. physically.  In a physical event, for instance, you have some amount of guaranteed foot traffic on the show floor – a portion of which will naturally wander into your booth.  The “efficiency” of a virtual event means that users only enter your booth by explicitly clicking into it.  In a physical event, exhibitors can greet prospects with a friendly handshake – in a virtual event, the exhibitor may never see the prospect’s face.

How can virtual event platforms incorporate aspects of the physical event experience?   Let’s consider a few ideas.

Source: flickr (User: ExhibitPeople)

How To: Gain Virtual Foot Traffic to Booths

On a crowded show floor at a physical event, an exhibitor knows that some percentage of attendees will visit their booth – additionally, exhibitors can increase their investment and receive strategic placement on the floor (e.g. near the entrance, near areas where food and drink are served, etc.).  In a physical event, as attendees walk towards (or past) your booth, there are tactics to catch their attention (e.g. making eye contact, telling them about a special sales offer, showing T-shirts that you’re giving away, complementing them on their laptop bag, etc.).  In a virtual event, you never see someone “passing by” your booth – they click directly to where they want to go.

The Guided Random Walk

Virtual event platforms could re-create the leisurely stroll down the show floor aisles.  Clicking on a “take me on a guided booth tour” button could allow the platform to become the auto-pilot and guide the attendee to the “store front” of randomly selected  booths.  At each  “stop”, the attendee is presented with an overview of the exhibitor, the products/services they provide and a list of staffers with whom they can engage.  The attendee can click to enter the booth – or, continue on with the “walk”.

Once they enter a booth, attendees would see a “resume walk” button to return to the guided tour.  Additionally, the virtual event platform could collect “interests” on the registration form (or on the attendee’s profile) to more efficiently recommend exhibitors (on the tour) to attendees.  Since most virtual attendees prefer to visit only those areas that interest them, this service would be completely optional.

Strategic Offer Placement

Virtual event platforms provide many avenues and areas for exhibitor branding and promotion (e.g. banner ads, jumbotron, etc.) – similar to a physical booth located near the food and drink, virtual event show hosts could map out the event hot spots (e.g. lobby, auditorium, etc.) and provide sponsorship opportunities for exhibitors.  For instance, the Auditorium could display banner ads that drive traffic to premium sponsors’ booths.  Since the virtual attendee is bound to navigate through key areas  (e.g. the Auditorium), promotions in those areas creates the equivalent of “passerby traffic” in a physical event.

Webcast Exit Actions

Imagine taking all attendees of a physical conference session and teleporting them to a specific sponsor’s booth at the conclusion of the session.  Well, a virtual event makes such teleporting possible.  If an exhibitor is presenting in one of the event’s Webcasts, have the virtual event platform provide an “exit action” to drive Webcast viewers to the exhibitor’s booth when it concludes.   Be sure to instruct the Webcast presenter(s) to inform viewers that additional questions can be addressed within the booth at the conclusion of the Webcast.  And, be sure those presenters also “exit” into their booth to provide the answers!

Source: flickr (User: SESConferenceSeries)

How To: Gauge Visitor Interest

When an attendee visits your physical booth, you can quickly judge their interest level based on facial expression and body language.  While these signals are not available from virtual booth visitors, you certainly can decipher interest based on the visitors’ mouse clicks.  Eloqua developed the concept of digital body language – and it applies directly to virtual booth visitors – “Digital body language can arm sales people with deep insights into the areas and levels of interest of every prospect.” (source: Eloqua)

The virtual event platform could provide real-time profiling of booth visitors, based on the actions they’re taking within the booths.  Inactive visitors can probably be left alone, whereas highly active users (lots of document views, document downloads, web site views, chat requests, etc.) may literally be raising their hand to engage in a conversation.

The virtual event platform could first characterize the nature of the prospect’s interest (e.g. map the requested documents to high level “interest categories” defined by the show host) and then place a subtle offer in front of the visitor (e.g. “An online representative is available to answer questions about telepresence – click here to engage in a 1:1 chat”).

Since this feature could be deemed too “Big Brother” by attendees, it would have to be tested (to gather feedback) and/or have an explicit opt-in setting that allows attendees to enable or disable the feature.

How To: Connect with Interested Attendees

During periods of high activity in a physical booth, visitors often walk up, see that all staffers are speaking with other attendees and decide to move on to the next booth.  Perhaps  later in the day, the same visitor returns to see if any staffers are available.  The observant exhibitor may recognize the visitor (from her prior visit) – and if so, provide special attention to her (since she made the effort to visit the booth and return a second time).

In a virtual event, all activity is tracked, which means that observant exhibitors need only turn to the services of the platform to let them know about repeat visitors.  Virtual event platforms ought to explicitly track repeat visitors and alert booth staff accordingly – perhaps the platform plays one audio alert for the first time visit  – and separate audio alert for the repeat visitor.

Additionally, the platform could allow exhibitors to build in rules and offers based on the amount of repeat visits.  For instance, on the fifth visit to the booth (within the same day), the visitor could be offered to download a free copy of the exhibitor’s software.  Exhibitors  could then leverage the resulting action to qualify the worthiness of the prospect (e.g. visited my booth 5 times + downloaded a copy of my software = have a sales rep follow up tomorrow).

Source: flickr (User: bilateral)

How To: Create Better Attendee Networking

One of the key attractions to an event is the ability for attendees to network with like-minded professionals – exchanging ideas, thoughts and business cards.  In a physical event, there are many “transitory phases”, where attendees migrate from one locale to another.  These phases create opportunities to meet or “bump into” random strangers.

That being said, meeting at a physical event is largely inefficient, based on the random nature of the meet-up.  Who knows if you’ll meet someone aligned with your interests or an uninteresting individual who’s there only for the free cocktails?  A virtual event can leverage the information available in user profiles to make meet-ups a bit less random – and far better “matched”.

In virtual, we can skip past the not-so-subtle glance at another attendee’s badge label – instead, we can auto-recommend like-minded individuals.  In my mind, the single most effective feature of LinkedIn is the “People You May Know” listing in the upper right of your LinkedIn home page.  Virtual events ought to create recommendations (of other attendees) with the same effectiveness.

The recommendation engine could be combined with an interface similar to ChatRoulette – whereby attendees enable their webcam and rotate through and chat with other attendees in roulette-type fashion.  It may not be quite the same as the physical experience, but the use of webcam can add a whole lot more than just text chat.

Conclusion

While it’s still true that virtual events can never replace the handshake – there are benefits of physical events that if modeled and implemented properly, can be a boon for virtual events.


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