What Virtual Events Can Learn From Groupon, Quora and FarmVille

December 18, 2010


Successful web sites provide a great opportunity: the chance to study what makes them successful and apply those learnings to your own websites or applications.  In 2010, three of the “most talked about” web sites were Groupon, Quora and FarmVille (though FarmVille is more a discrete app, rather than a web site).  Let’s consider how some of their concepts can be applied to virtual event experiences.


Groupon is said to be in the local advertising space, but they’re really much more than that.  They’ve hit the mark with a group buying phenomenon (using bulk purchasing to drive down prices) combined with creative and entertaining email copy that keeps subscribers eager to receive the next day’s email.

Groupon, which serves local businesses, segments their offering by geography.  So I might subscribe via San Jose, CA and receive offers from merchants who are near me.  But the Groupon model could certainly apply to national or even global brands.

Group Viewing at Virtual Trade Shows

Now, let’s consider a common dynamic at virtual trade shows.  Exhibitors (sponsors) would like to get their message across to attendees, while attendees are resistant to hearing unsolicited product pitches.

How can you “arbitrate” this situation?  Consider Groupon, where the “daily deal” only registers when a certain number of users agree to purchase the item(s).  Here’s how it might work with sponsor presentations (webinars) at a virtual trade show:

  1. Five sponsors list their webinar title in the trade show Auditorium
  2. Each sponsor is “on alert”, ready to begin broadcasting their live presentation
  3. No presentation begins until it receives 50 (or more) viewers
  4. The presentation continues, only if it can continually sustain 35 simultaneous viewers – if it drops below 35 viewers for more than 5 minutes, the presentation closes


  1. Puts portions of the presentation agenda in the hands of attendees
  2. Forces sponsors to present on relevant topics
  3. Forces sponsors to “deliver what they sold” with regard to the presentation
  4. Ups the overall quality of sponsor presentations, as sponsors need to both “sell” the topic and sustain the audience


Quora is “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”  Question and Answer (Q&A) services have been around for some time. Quora has picked up steam in 2010 due to the quality of the members participating (e.g. some of the leading thinkers on the web – and in Silicon Valley).

In virtual events, experts and leading thinkers in a particular industry have gathered online.  They can listen to featured experts (e.g. the presenters), but the event doesn’t fully extract and share the collective knowledge of those assembled. If done right, a Q&A service layered on top of a virtual event can be quite useful.

In fact, let’s consider a related Q&A service, Aardvark, which is now part of Google.  With Aardvark, “you email or instant-message your question to Aardvark, it figures out around half a dozen people you know who might have a good answer, then emails or IMs them for a response and sends what they say back to you.” (source: VentureBeat article).

A virtual event platform could implement a “Quora meets Aardvark” model, whereby questions are distributed to online attendees – and answers are fed back in semi-real-time.  Questions (and their answers) could be shared not only with the requester – but, all attendees, based on their selection of particular topics.


On the surface, FarmVille is about planting your virtual crops and tending to your virtual farm.  But below the surface, its “power” is in the psychological reward of achieving success in something you take pride in.  It’s the same dynamic that fuels entrepreneurs (who take pride in their businesses) and Twitter power users (who take pride in their following).

As virtual events shift from “point in time” live events to “365 day communities”, the challenge becomes how to sustain an ongoing and active community – who will visit the environment on days where absolutely nothing is scheduled.  It’s the same challenge Zynga had – how do you incent farmers to tend to their virtual farm each day?

Virtual Farm Meets Virtual Community

For virtual communities, there needs to be a parallel to that virtual farm – an abstraction that allows members to feel psychological reward when they’ve done something meaningful.  Ideas include:

  1. Elevated  member profiles. Turn the “vanilla” user profile of today into the parallel of the virtual farm
  2. “Pimp my space”. Exhibitors get to build booths – now, allow attendees the freedom to create their own spaces and receive ratings on them
  3. Leverage “status badges” on the profiles – but ensure that demand consistently outstrips supply
  4. “Rate the ratings” – allow members to rate the worthiness of a rating (a la Amazon.com, and “Was this review helpful to you?”) – top rated members receive elevated status in the community
  5. Prominent Leaderboards related to particular activities, games, etc. – these can be a tremendous draw, as users continually return to check on their position on the board


Groupon, Quora and FarmVille have taught us some valuable lessons.  The rising demand for virtual events tells us something as well.  Aardvark may have hit upon the right model – in which they combined social collaboration with a real-time (or semi-real-time) component.  Perhaps Grouopon and the like have something to “learn” from virtual as well.

Hear From A Panel Of Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs

September 30, 2010

On September 24th, FountainBlue held its annual virtual worlds conference.  This year’s event was hosted on Cisco’s campus in Milpitas, CA.  In the afternoon, a panel of virtual worlds entrepreneurs spoke about new developments in the industry.  The panel was titled “Entrepreneur Panel: The Tools, The Goods, The Immersion Experience”:

  1. Facilitator Nina Gerwin, The NRG Group
  2. Michael Gold, CEO, Electrotank: virtual world & virtual games development platform
  3. Steve Hoffman, CEO, Rocketon: virtual world for tweeners
  4. Albert Kim, CEO, Zenitum: Augmented reality with 3D displays
  5. Jim Parker, President, Digitell: SaaS 3D immersive virtual events and virtual training

I covered some of these entrepreneurs’ businesses in a separate posting about virtual worlds technologies to watch.

Adapting your business

Each panelist was asked to describe the genesis behind their business.  As is customary with web startups today, no one is working against their original business model or vision.

For Digitell’s Jim Parker, business began by assembling content for online libraries.  Then, he was struck by the notion of allowing consumers of the library content to meet and collaborate in real-time.

Zenitum’s Albert Kim experiments with a number of different technologies.  When one set of technologies differs enough from the core set, he looks to spin that out into an independent company.

Online gaming

Online and social gaming may be the hottest trend on the web today.  So of course the topic arose with Electrotank’s Michael Gold and RocketOn’s Steve Hoffman.  Gold and Hoffman highlighted technologies available to game makers today:

  1. Flash
  2. HTML5
  3. Objective C
  4. Unity

Note: Unity’s David Helgason spoke on the Trends Panel at this event.

According to Gold, HTML5 has its benefits, but you can’t yet develop a game using it.

Note: Michael Gold posted the following clarification:

“I just want to make a quick correction on a statement about HTML5 that was attributed to me in this blog post. What I said on the panel was that HTML5 is not yet practical for developing *virtual worlds* but has great potential in a few years.

Virtual worlds and MMOs present unique technical challenges that are distinctly different than those presented by the majority of social and casual online and mobile *games* Thus in my opinion it is completely possible to develop *games* using HTML5 at the present time. There are several developers focusing on these games right now. In fact, Zynga recently purchased one – Dextrose, a German development studio. I actually believe you’ll see a significant number of HTML5 games on the market a year from now. Just not so many virtual worlds or MMOs.”

Virtual worlds and engagement

An audience member asked how virtual worlds can track engagement – so that in a corporate setting, the meeting host can measure whether the content is hitting the mark.  Digitell’s Parker notes his clients often use his system for accreditation.  The system uses an idle timer – it renders a “click to continue” message and if the user does not click within 10 seconds, “you don’t get accreditation.”

Studies have shown that viewers of webinars often lose attention and multitask.  A virtual world forces users to remain engaged.  Parker notes that for some sessions, the instructor leads the “students” on a guided walk.  “If Jim doesn’t follow the rest of the group, then you know he’s not paying attention.”


Believe it or not, it’s not a bad time to be a virtual worlds entrepreneur.  As the panel demonstrated, the key is to be nimble and adapt to a changing marketplace.  Next year, it will be interesting to see how these entrepreneurs evolved – and, to see what new entrepreneurs appear on the scene.

FountainBlue High Tech Entrepreneur Forum: From Free-mium to Premium

February 12, 2010

Based in Silicon Valley, FountainBlue “supports collaborative innovation, one conversation, one leader, one organization at a time through our monthly events, our dynamic communities, our ongoing discussions on entrepreneurial issues, our invitation-only CEO forums, and through our consulting services.”

FountainBlue Entrepreur Forums launched in 2006 – on average, they attract 50-150 entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and investors.  I attended an Entrepreneur Forum in 2009 entitled, “Virtual Worlds: The Hype, The Reality, The In-Between” and found the presentations engaging and the post-event networking enjoyable.

The next Entrepreneur Forum takes place on March 8th, “From Free-mium to Premium“:


Experienced entrepreneurs still standing after the recent tsunami know that you have to prove you can be resourceful and build product and sign on customers despite the economic conditions!

A popular way to bring in customers, gather feedback and build momentum is to adopt a ‘free-mium to premium’ model, letting most users try basic versions of a solution for free and incentivizing some to upgrade to full-featured functionality, paying for the service.

But rare is the company able to successful do this. This panel will feature entrepreneurial companies who have done this and are willing to share their secrets.

The Panel

  1. Facilitator Sergio Monslave, Principal, Norwest Venture Partners
  2. Panelist Will Cheung, Founder, DuffelUp (@WillCheung)
  3. Panelist Daniel Cheng, Graystripe
  4. Panelist Donna Novitsky, CEO, BigTent (@bigtentdonna)
  5. Panelist Entrepreneur – MMO/Virtual World Entrepreneur

Courtesy of Google Maps

Date & Time: Monday, March 8 from 5:30 until 8:00 p.m.
Location: Cooley Godward Kronish, LLP, 3175 Hanover Street in Palo Alto
Audience: Early-Stage, Funding-Bound Clean Energy, High Tech and Life Science Entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs


FoutainBlue will plant a tree for everyone who pre-registers by noon on 3/5 using the PayPal link at http://www.sventrepreneurs.com.

Note: Readers of this blog are eligible to receive the “High Tech Partner” rate of US $32 for this event – select the $32 option (above) when processing your payment.

I’ll be attending this event – if you plan to attend as well, send me a message on Twitter (@dshiao) – additionally, feel free to follow FountainBlue (@foutainblue).  Hope to meet / see you there.

Register for the event:


Call for Virtual World Executive Summaries

March 23, 2009

FountainBlue produces “monthly events for clean energy, high tech, and life science entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley (US / California)”. Earlier this month, FountainBlue held its first Virtual Worlds event, ” Virtual Worlds: The Hype, The Reality, The In-Between”. I attended the event and provided a summary of the virtual worlds panelists’ discussions. FountainBlue now plans to produce an annual virtual worlds event, with the first one on September 25, 2009.  According to FountainBlue:

This annual conference will showcase where we’ve been and where we’re going in virtual worlds, featuring key stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and investors in this space. There will be two morning panels: one on Virtual Worlds – What is it, Where Has it Been? And the second one is on: Where Will Virtual Worlds Take Us. As part of this event, we will also feature Corporate Exhibits on Virtual World and profile Six Virtual World Entrepreneurs, the winners of this business plan competition.

Here’s a draft agenda of the September event:

8:00    Networking and Registration
8:30    Welcomes and Thank Yous, Audience Input On What They Would Like Covered
8:40    Presentation on Virtual Worlds – What is it, Where Has it Been?
9:00    Questions from the Audience
9:10    Panel Discussion: Where Will Virtual Worlds Take Us?
9:40    Questions from the Audience
9:50    Morning Break, Corporate Virtual World Tables on Display
10:20  Six Virtual World Fast Pitches, 15 minute rounds each
11:45  Awards, Closure and Networking
12:00  Adjourn

FountainBlue notes the following criteria for submitting an executive summary:

Early stage, funding-bound entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are invited to submit their executive summaries by visiting http://www.acteva.com/booking.cfm?bevaid=180447, completing the questions on the registration page (following the format available at http://fountainblue.biz/images/Executive_Summary_Submission_Form.pdf) and paying the $20-$30 registration fee by noon on August 14.

Process for Submitting Plans

March 20    First Call for Exec Summaries
August 1    Last Call for Exec Summaries
August 14  Deadline for Exec Summaries Submissions (@ noon)
Sept 15      Announcing Six Finalists (by noon)
9/15-22      Informal Meetings with Finalists
Sept 25      Annual Virtual Worlds Event, with Presentation by Finalists

Process for Pitching During the Annual Event
The Six Virtual World Entrepreneurs will be conducting fast pitches, 15 minute rounds each, broken down as follows:

  1. 3-minute pitches
  2. 3-minutes Q&A with judging panel
  3. 2-minute feedback from judges
  4. 1-minute additional feedback from the audience

For more information on this event, contact: info@svvirtualworlds.com

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