To Promote Your Physical Or Virtual Event, Think Outside The Inbox

November 21, 2009

Source: flickr (User: Mzelle Biscotte)

For many, email is a constant stream, an endless loop – we receive too much of it, both “important” emails addressed directly to us and marketing emails that are sent as a result of opting in (or not) to past content, webinars, white papers and marketing lists.  Outbound, push-based email promotions face the following challenges:

  1. Imperfect delivery rates (mail server outages, spam filters, etc.)
  2. Decreasing open rates
  3. Perception of spam – if recipients don’t remember opting in to your list (even though they did), they’ll ignore your email – or, opt out from your list
  4. List fatigue due to overuse of marketing lists
  5. Decreasing click-thru rates (CTR) – once you’ve made it past delivery and open, recipients are clicking less on your embedded offers

Adding to this mix is the fact that many users now interact with brands (and by extension, promotional offers from brands) via their social networks, instead of email.  A user is more inclined to respond to an @reply or direct message (on Twitter) compared to a conventional email blast from a marketer.

Given all this, it surprises me that email is still a primary vehicle for promoting physical and virtual events.  Event marketers have much to gain by thinking outside the inbox.

Social media and social sharing

Your first step outside the inbox should be in the direction of social networks.  Build a presence in social communities and you’ll find that you naturally generate interest and awareness to your event.  Previously, I wrote about leveraging Twitter to promote your virtual event.  As Ian McGonnigal (GPJ) astutely pointed out, those same tactics apply quite well to physical events as well.

In addition to Twitter, consider the following:

Create a LinkedIn Event entry for your event

  1. Create a LinkedIn Event for your event – a LinkedIn Event page allows you to post relevant information about your event on LinkedIn (e.g. date, event content, etc.) – LinkedIn members can then indicate whether they’ll be attending, not attending or “interested”.  This can be quite useful, as folks often attend events based on knowing whom else will be attending.  By creating a LinkedIn Event, you’ll receive the benefit of having LinkedIn auto-recommend your event to other members, assuming their profile is a “match” with the profile of your event.  Members may also utilize search and find your event.  More info can be found on the LinkedIn blog page announcing the Event feature.
  2. Post videos to YouTube – it’s the #2 search engine after all (behind parent Google), so having event videos posted on the site will generate traffic from the millions of folks who visit YouTube.com each day.  Record videos of your host, keynote speaker, group publisher, etc. talking about your upcoming event – if your keynote speaker has a prominent name, your videos will attract interest from users who search on that name.  When you have a critical mass of videos, create a YouTube channel.  About.com has a neat guide on how to do just that.
  3. Create a Facebook Fan page for your event – with a fan page, you’ll generate interest for your upcoming event – and, you’ll build an ongoing community that you’ll be able to continuously leverage!  The All Facebook blog has a nice guide on how to build a Facebook fan page.
  4. Leverage blogs – author a blog posting on your corporate blog – or, if you don’t have one, ask a relevant industry blog site whether you can author a guest posting.  Alternatively, leave a comment on postings from relevant industry blogs with a pointer (link) to your event.  The key here is not to over-promote your event – your first goal is to provide useful and relevant content/commentary with your event being a secondary (and subtle) mention.

SEO and in-bound links

If you pay attention to search engine optimization (SEO), your event page(s) will receive “organic” traffic – that is, traffic that finds you, rather than you finding the traffic (i.e. the “pull” from users searching, rather than the “push” from your email promotions).  Think about the search keywords that you’d want to associate with your event [e.g. when users are performing searches] and make sure the content on your event page is rich in those keywords.

To increase the page rank of your event page, increase the number of inbound links that point to your page.  A few simple ideas:

  1. For all of your social media efforts (listed above), make sure they provide links to your event page – shazam, you’ve just created a number of inbound links
  2. For event staff (especially those with large followings on Twitter), ask them to temporarily point the “web site” URL in their Twitter profile to the event page
  3. Ask partners, associates, even clients to post a URL from their web site(s) to your event page
  4. Add a “Share on Facebook” capability on your event page – this may result in page rank benefit as search engines begin to index Facebook wall posts – until then, what this really does is generate awareness and outreach of your event to users’ Facebook friends.  If a potential attendee visits your event page and shares the page with her 100 Facebook friends, then you’ve just received 100 free advertising impressions

Advertise

Some affordable options to consider:

  1. Facebook advertising – purchase targeted ads on Facebook.  For a physical event, you can target by geography (e.g. starting with users who are geographically close to your event site).  For a virtual event, geography is less important, so you may want to target based on attributes in the users’ Facebook profiles.  You can pay per view (of the ad) or per click (on the ad), so the terms are flexible.  eHow has a good overview on Facebook advertising.
  2. Content syndication – purchase web syndication with online publishers in your industry – get your event listed in their directories, content sites, etc.  They may charge you per click or per lead (completed registration).  Not only can this generate registrants for your event, but it also improves your page rank by generating more inbound links to your event page.

Hopefully I’ve covered a few “outside the inbox” options for you to consider – certainly continue to promote your event via email – however, use some of these options to lighten the load a bit on your email marketing lists.


How To Run A Virtual Event Command Center

September 19, 2009

Source: flickr (User: Verizon Business)

Source: flickr (User: Verizon Business)

Your extended team worked weeks and months to plan and strategize for your virtual event – now, it’s time to deliver.  While your attendees enjoy the convenience of joining the virtual event from anywhere, the functional leads on your team ought to convene in a single physical location while supporting the event.  As I wrote in a posting on Virtual Tradeshow Best Practices, it’s a good idea to set up a virtual event war room – or, what I prefer to call a Command Center.

The notion is ironic – attendees gather virtually, but the support team gathers in person?  Well, there’s tremendous value to face-to-face when supporting a large scale event.  The benefits include:

  1. Instant communication – If I discover an important issue, I can yell out my discovery and have the entire room hear me.  Those responsible for addressing the issue can jump right onto it.  I suppose you could set up an audio conference bridge to accomplish this sort of coordination, but sitting around the table (in the same room) makes it all the more convenient.
  2. Better facilitates instant collaboration and problem solving – if there’s an issue that requires triage, I can lean over and look over the shoulder at my colleague’s monitor.  We can troubleshoot the issue together and call over other functional leads as necessary.
  3. Quick turnaround on requests –  in any virtual event, there’s a series of requests that one functional team requires another to implement.  Rather than handle the request communications via email or IM, it can be easier to walk to the other side of the room, communicate what’s needed and receive instant confirmation that the request is being addressed.
  4. Builds camraderie – whether it’s the large cheer in the room when the two thousandth attendee enters or the laughing and joking at a team member’s expense, being in the same physical location builds a sense of team closeness and camraderie that’s hard to achieve over a conference bridge.

I fully expect that technologies will emerge to make a virtual command center an intriguing possibility – for now, however, I’m a firm believer in gathering the support team face-to-face.  Here are some best practices in configuring and running the command center:

  1. Carefully select the command center staff – you don’t want too many people in the room – however, you do want a lead from each functional area (e.g. Operations, Engineering, Marketing, Strategy, Communications, Support, etc.).  Make sure the right staffers are present – and communicate to the rest of the extended team via IM, email and virtual meetings.
  2. Arrange the command center seating strategically – similar to how a business might arrange employees’ cubicle assignments, determine the common collaboration paths – and seat applicable combinations of people close to one another.  This way, Operations doesn’t need to walk across the room to huddle with Engineering – instead, they can tap one another on the shoulder.
  3. Configure large-screen displays with dashboards – use the displays to show the virtual event in action – also create dashboards of key metrics that allow the team to spot trends or issues.  For instance, a real-time graph of simultaneous users can flag a system issue if the upward trend line suddenly drops.  Additionally, use displays to monitor attendee feedback, such as chat room activity and Twitter comments.
  4. Schedule regular checkpoint meetings – make sure the team has a chance to stop what they’re doing and take a step back to collectively review where things stand.  You want to provide a summary of recent happenings (or metrics), highlight issues that need addressing and identify any key trends for the team to be aware of.  Take a moment to review your key metrics and ask all functional leads to provide an update.  With everyone moving at a fast pace, it’s important to pause and get a handle on the bigger picture.

And finally, what’s one last benefit of the command center?  At the successful conclusion of your big event, you all get to go out together for the celebratory dinner.


The Advantages Of Virtual Meetings

September 5, 2009

Source: Forbes Insights

Source: Forbes Insights

Forbes Insights published a study titled “Business Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face“, in which the key finding was this: “the majority of executives polled believe face-to-face meetings are still crucial for building stronger, more meaningful and profitable business relationships.”  Excellent points were made in the blogosphere this week regarding this study:

  1. Forbes in a Funk over Virtual Meetings and Events (Virtual Edge)
  2. Virtual Augments Face-to-Face – Reply to Forbes and HSMAI Surveys (Virtual Insights | InXpo)

I don’t wish to question the conclusion of the Forbes Insights study – nor do I wish to have a debate on “face-to-face vs. virtual”.  Despite the fact that I’m passionate about virtual, I’m a true believer in the value of face-to-face.  What I would like to highlight is that face-to-face and virtual have unique capabilities.  Meeting planners must consider these capabilities and apply them appropriately.

With virtual, an often-touted benefit is that they’re green and carbon-friendly.  And while that’s certainly a nice side-effect, I think it’s important to focus on unique in-meeting capabilities of virtual – here are a few that come to mind:

  1. Participatory training with seamless presenter transitions – while it’s true that a face-to-face meeting is hard to beat with regard to audience participation – in a virtual meeting, there’s still plenty of room for audience participation.  In fact, with a shared whiteboard, participants can annotate a technical diagram simultaneously, which is trickier to do with more than 2 people (annotating) in a physical space.  In addition, participants can be “handed the ball” and take turns serving as the presenter – without having to stand up, walk to the front of the room and plug their laptop into the projector.  In an instant, a new presenter can start sharing her desktop applications for the rest of the meeting participants to see.  In a 3D virtual meeting (e.g. Second Life, Lotus Sametime 3D), participation becomes even richer, allowing medical students, fighter pilots (in training), computer technicians, etc. to learn by interacting with 3D objects.
  2. Meetings On Demand – what if your technical meeting needed to split up into a set of smaller focus groups?  In a physical meeting, you’d need to gather up each sub-group and go seek out new conference rooms (or, migrate into corners of the same room, which could be distracting for everyone).  Or, take another scenario whereby a senior executive wants to faciliate an ad-hoc face-to-face meeting during the coming weekend – all required participants would then need to make the necessary travel (and lodging) arrangements to get to the meeting venue.  With virtual, meetings are truly on demand – you create the meeting with the click of a mouse and the participants arrive with the click of a mouse.
  3. Putting the cards on the table – while this is difficult to quantify or prove, I believe that participants are more “at ease” in a virtual meeting and more likely to reveal thoughts that they’d otherwise be hesitant to do in person.  A virtual tradeshow is a good example.  Exhibitors have found that visitors to their booth are more transparent and revealing about budget, timeframe, decision making process, etc.  – when interacting via text chat.  The same person in a physical booth may be hesitant to reveal those details.  So for meetings that can stand to benefit from more transparency and openness (and not all of them do!), virtual can be a boon.
  4. More efficient person-to-person interactions – if you’re the chief executive of a company with 500 or more employees, I’m sure it’s hard for you to achieve the same quality time (with employees) as when you had 50 employees.  If you assemble the company at a physical meeting, it’s a challenge to mingle with the crowd and achieve any true quality – you’ll be more akin to a president or dignitary, who walks down a receiving line shaking hands and patting folks on the shoulder.  If you invite the same 500 employees to a virtual meeting or virtual event, you’ll find an easier ability to have meaningful interactions (via text chat) – including the potential to carry on multiple chats at the same time.  Employees will also find that they receive more access to the chief (and other execs) than they would in a (crowded) physical space.

So those are some advantages that come to mind for me.  What advantages have I missed?


Coming To A Physical Event Web Site Near You: Video, Blogs, Social Networks

July 23, 2009

Source: BtoB Media Business

Source: BtoB Media Business

In the current issue of BtoB Media Business, Charlotte Woodward published a cleverly named article, “Face to Facebook“, that highlights the incorporation (by physical event organizers) of digital technologies into the once-static event web site.  The inclusion of these technologies is helping show hosts extend the life of their events and support a 365 day/year experience – with a (hopefully) engaged online community to go along with it.

The article references the latest CEIR / GPJ research report:

Digital sponsorships contribute only about 7% of an event’s marketing budget, according to a recent report from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research and George P. Johnson. The study, “Digital+Exhibiting Marketing Insights 2009,” conducted online in April and May, surveyed 287 event managers and corporate brand exhibitors about the use of digital media.

As a result of the trends noted in the article, my belief is that in next year’s report, the percent of event marketing budget allocated  to digital will climb to 15-20%.  Why?  Because online/virtual will become a standard component of physical events.  The “new” event web sites of today – that include video, blogs, social networking, trackability, additional “impressions” for exhibitors, additional revenue for event organizers, etc. – could stand to benefit by leveraging a virtual event platform.  So rather than building your own event web site from scratch, you leverage virtual event/tradeshow technology to power the next generation “site”.

For the event organizer, the business model seems rather straightforward:

  1. Bundle sponsorship of the online community with the physical event sponsorship – upsell those low/mid-level sponsorship packages into a premium package, which includes a presence in the virtual component (e.g. full-blown virtual booth, signage within the environment, etc.).  You can create a “presence” for all of your physical event sponsors, but only those who have signed on for the full bundle will have real content behind the virtual booth storefront.  Those who opt not to purchase the bundle will have only their logo in the environment – a great way to incent the non-believers to enter the fray.
  2. Create value to attract online attendees – the online venue cannot solely be an area to appease exhibitors/sponsors.  In the same way you attract attendees to your physical event, you need to make it valuable for online attendees to visit your virtual community.  For me, this means a combination of compelling content (e.g. videos, articles, external links, etc.) and effective social/sharing tools (e.g. blogs, message boards, chat, etc.).

The incorporation (blending) of physical and virtual events creates very exciting possibilities.  Let’s consider what b-to-b publisher Hanley Wood is doing:

Additional improvements also integrate all the customer data Hanley Wood has collected, demonstrating to exhibitors and attendees who register that Hanley Wood remembers them and allowing the company to make recommendations based on a customer’s profile and history of participation at its events.

“We can put together some cross-show marketing, as well as up-sell the events that these people participate in,” Buraglio said.

The aggregation of attendee data from physical + virtual creates value:

  1. Attendees – by better understanding all of the touch points by an attendee (across physical + virtual), event organizers can more effectively package and target content that’s uniquely tailored to that attendee.  Give attendees precisely what they want (or need) and you create a more satisfied user, who will be more likely to stay engaged and return to the site frequently.
  2. Exhibitors/Advertisers – by building a complete picture of physical + virtual engagement from attendees, you can more intelligently plan and execute your lead follow-up paths.  If a user had her badge scanned at your physical booth, then entered your virtual booth to download 3 separate documents, she’s probably an advanced lead / “A” lead.

Related links

  1. Blog posting: The ABC’s Of Lead Follow-Up For Virtual Events
  2. Blog posting: The Convergence Of Physical Events And Virtual Events

Case Study: How ExpoNZ Created A Virtual, Global Showcase

July 8, 2009

skinlight3

For many locations around the globe, the country of New Zealand is many miles (and oceans) away.  As such, businesses in New Zealand have the challenge of reaching and connecting with a global audience.  In 2008, Virtual Expos New Zealand Limited was faced with helping businesses  address this challenge.  The economic environment presented a number of obstacles – rising costs, shaky exchange rates and the need to drive new business as the economy was sputtering.

On the flip side, virtual event technologies had emerged, while New Zealand companies were under pressure to uphold a clean green brand and consider their carbon footprint.  The decision became clear for Virtual Expos New Zealand Limited – build a virtual event to “showcase and sell the best of New Zealand to a global audience and to enable people everywhere to get a taste of what New Zealand is all about.”

mc_networking

The virtual environment was named ExpoNZ and configured as a 365 dayper year online community – with live events scheduled throughout the year. Marie-Claire Andrews, ExpoNZ’s Vice President and Head of Sales notes, “Through our expo, New Zealand businesses no longer face the tyranny of distance – the costs and inconvenience of reaching markets a thousand miles away.  A year round schedule of live events, B2B opportunities, huge support from the dedicated team in New Zealand and round the world, plus a half million dollar marketing budget all make this a pretty compelling way for NZ to face down the global credit crunch and do more business.”

ExpoNZ neatly segemented the event content into halls – allowing visitors to select their desired activity: Trade, Learn, Visit, Live, Invest, Work:

ExpoNZ Plaza

This provides an intuitive entry area – it clearly highlights the available exhibition areas and encourages visitors to determine (on the spot) their objecctive.  If I want to visit or live in New Zealand, then I’ll visit those two halls – perhaps returning at a later date for investment opportunities.

The virtual event platform for ExpoNZ is powered by US-based Expos2 – via their partnership, ExpoNZ is an authorized reseller of the Expos2 platform in New Zealand.  According to Andrews, the sponsorship cost to exhibitors is “$12,000NZD per year or $2750NZD for seven weeks around a specific live event and we’re also signing up sponsors for the halls, the lectures and supporting infrastructure.”

Like many virtual event organizers, Andrews belives in the power and value of social media integration, but notes that “it’s all about consistency, relevancy and immediacy”.  Andrews has leveraged Twitter to uncover potential sponsors and clients – and for generating buzz around launch events.  She also reads a number of industry blogs and finds connecting via Linkedin Groups to be particularly valuable.

What were some of the technical and logistical challenges faced by ExpoNZ?  First and foremost, Andrews notes that “it has taken a while for internet bandwidth here to catch up with the rest of the world.”  As such, she had to “be creative” with media servers in the U.S. to support North American visitors.  Secondly, ExpoNZ faced a perception issue – business is done in a very personal fashion in New Zealand, so “there’s a belief that face- to- face is generally best.  We have to demonstrate that business can be done virtually – and with our integrated video conferencing you do get face to face – if only digital.”

Live Event – July 16, 2009

Registration is now open for a Live Event on the morning of July 16, 2009 (which is July 15th in the U.S.).  The start time for the event:

  1. 7AM NZT
  2. 12PM PDT (July 15)
  3. 2PM CDT (July 15)
  4. 3PM EDT (July 15)

According to ExpoNZ:

You can’t enter the Expo before the day, but visitors can pre-register at http://www.exponz.co.nz and we’ll send updates about the show.

All the information including presentations and job listings will still be available afterwards because ExpoNZ is ‘always on’ 365 days a year round the clock. So visitors can come back as often as they like after the event; to make appointments to talk to exhibitors in their booths, to re-view presentations at leisure.

We’ve a cohort of over 15 ICT companies and supporting organisations (eg Immigration) and eight speakers lined up so the live conference will run till around 11am NZT.  We expect to have several hundred job seekers from the UK, US, Canada and Australia primarily.

For New Zealand visitors, Andrews’ personal recommendations are as follows:

On the web, you can’t go past the virtual Encyclopedia of New Zealand (http://www.teara.govt.nz/) or our beautiful tourism site (http://www.newzealand.com/) where you can book your next trip.

Best places to visit:  A wine tour in Marlborough, diving in the Bay of Islands, ski-ing in Wanaka, hot pools in Rotorua and culture, coffee and creativity in my fantastic home town, Wellington of course!…..

Related Links

  1. ExpoNZ’s home page
  2. Follow ExpoNZ on Twitter
  3. Read the ExpoNZ blog

Bringing Virtual Benefits To Business Travel

March 14, 2009

Source: Virgin America

Source: Virgin America

Recently, I embarked an a now-uncommon routine (for me) of a business trip – flying round trip on Virgin America, one of my favorite airlines.  Since most of my business these days is conducted virtually, the logistics of checking in at the airport, waiting in the security line, boarding the plane, checking into the hotel, etc. – gave me plenty of time to reflect on the dynamics of business travel.  Here are some observations:

  1. By its nature, business travel means that you’re constantly in close proximity to other businesspeople – some of whom are in your industry – or, could benefit you as a business partner (or vice versa)
  2. Those who are less outgoing / personable may only meet 2% of the fellow businesspeople they travel with – and really get to know only 1% (or less!)
  3. On my return flight to SFO, I’d guess that 1 out of every 15 people was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  If you were a start-up entrepreneur and on that flight, I’d guess that 1 out of every 25 on that plane was a Silicon Valley venture capitalist – or, someone who had funds to invest in your company

And while we’ve all heard stories about the sales deal or business partnership that was sourced by the “person next to me on the plane”, how many other business connections fall by the wayside because two or more individuals never connected?  Lots, I’m sure.  Technology helps flatten the world – but it can also be a further flattener to enable strangers in physical proximity to connect.

We do know that business travelers are quite active on social networks.  There are plenty of business travel blogs out there.  And, users of Facebook and Twitter are quite active while traveling.  They’re constantly chiming in from airports, conferences, hotels and restaurants.  They’ll also tell you whom they’re about to go in to meet with – and how it went.  So we know that busniesspeople are active on social networks during travel – but, how often are they engaging socially in person?

And there’s the irony – social media allows you to connect and socialize globally – but while you’re tweeting from your BlackBerry in the hotel lobby, might you be missing out on an introduction to a potential business partner who’s about to grab a cab to the same place you’re going?  Here’s where localized social media –  targeted at the local business traveler – could be a big win.

Some ideas:

  1. Virtual Flight Lounge, powered by Virgin America RED – when booking your Virgin America reservation online, Virgin asks you to opt in to their Linkedin connector – by opting in and supplying your Linkedin credentials, Virgin is able to capture key data from your Linkedin profile – and, obtain a list of your Linkedin connections.  Once on board, you pull up RED (Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system) and it displays Linkedin connections of your’s who are on the flight.  Additionally, it recommends business partners (with their seat numbers) based on a comparison of your profile against other profiles of passengers who also opted in.  If you’re interested, you can engage in RED’s seat-to-seat chat with your new-found friend.
  2. Marriott Virtual Lobby – when making your Marriott reservation online, you’re prompted to opt in to the hotel’s business networking feature.  You’re asked to provide information to populate a profile, such as what business you’re conducting, what business opportunities are you interested in, what are your food preferences, what are you in the market to purchase, etc.  Once you arrive at the hotel (and connect to the hotel’s paid wireless service, of course), you’re invited into a virtual lobby (similar to a virtual event), where you’re able to see all other guests who have opted in to the service.  You’re able to perform search, view guest profiles and participate in private and group chat (either via text or webcam).

In each scenario, the idea is that two or more potential business partners could discover one another (via their published profiles) – connect virutally and then arrange for the old-fashioned cocktail at the hotel bar or a steak dinner downtown.  That’s right, virtual begets physical.

Why would Virgin or Marriott do this?  The costs are fairly low (and fixed) – and can earn a high and recurring return – that being customer satisfaction and retention, which sure has a high ROI in this economic environment.  And what’s the value to the business traveler in opting in and using such a service?  Well, what’s the value of a new business partner or a new client?  I’m sure it’s much higher than the hard cost (zero) and worth the time and effort.

The concept here is similar to the popular “Who’s Close To Me” service provided by TripIt – but the difference is that here, you’re sourcing brand new business contacts, as opposed to discovering if your existing contacts are nearby.  So if I don’t bump into you in the security check at SFO, perhaps I’ll connect with you virtually and then grab a coffee with you in person.


Interview With Nic Sauriol, Venture Lead on Nortel’s web.alive Platform

March 1, 2009

Nic Sauriol, Venture Lead of web.alive

Nic Sauriol, Venture Lead of web.alive

Related Links:

  1. Lenovo eLounge
  2. Project Chainsaw
  3. My review of Lenovo eLounge

Amidst great fanfare in January at CES 2009, Lenovo unveiled the Lenovo eLounge virtual environment. Powered by Nortel’s web.alive platform, eLounge allowed users to enter a 3D virtual world to learn about Lenovo Thinkpad notebook computers (with an option to purchase), interact with other visitors and “meet” with representatives from Lenovo and Nortel.

Nic Sauriol is the Venture Lead for web.alive (also referred to as Project Chainsaw).  Nic co-founded the project a few years ago with Arn Hyndman, the chief architect.  I sat down (virtually) with Nic to get his thoughts on web.alive, eLounge, enterprise virtual worlds and more.  Here’s the interview.

If you met someone on the street, how would you describe (or explain) the web.alive platform to him/her?

Nic: web.alive is a collaboration platform designed to integrate into an existing website much like flash. When a web site has web.alive and people visit that site, they can experience a rich and immersive environment and interact with other users – including the website’s employees/staff who are also on that site . They can interact in an immersive and fluid way thanks to real world positional audio. Fundamentally, web.alive is about bringing live, immersive and interactive communications to connect people in real-time via the web.

It’s designed to be a very engaging and entertaining experience – great for social networking efforts. A social experience of the web where a group of friends could meet up on Facebook or LinkedIn and then go visit a few stores like the Lenovo eLounge, watch some shows in Hulu and then comment on the news at Yahoo is what web.alive is about in this context.

web.alive also offers tremendous potential as a tool to facilitate collaborative learning.  Gone are the days of an instructor broadcasting content in one direction – today’s learning requirements call for more collaborative work between instructors and students.  web.alive provides engaging and collaborative environments to make this mode of learning a reality.

In the enterprise, web.alive offers a new world of opportunities to change in a positive way how people communicate. Moving away from calendar based meetings and formal phone calls, to a much more dynamic means of interaction. A place where employees from all over the world can go, bump into each other, exchange ideas, grab a meeting room to discuss and collaborate etc. Simply embedding the web.alive client into existing intranet web sites, integrating into a UC [unified communications] solution (visit Nortel if you don’t already have one) and suddenly your employees are collaborating as though they were collocated.

Nortel and Lenovo received quite a bit of buzz regarding Lenovo’s eLounge and its use of Nortel’s web.alive platform – what do you view as the successes of the launch – and, what were some of the challenges that you had to address?

Nic: The beta launch at CES of the Lenovo eLounge was a tremendous success from our perspective. We saw a great opportunity to help Lenovo take their customer service to an entirely new level. Significantly more users than we had expected visited the beta launch (articles and blogs like yours were a significant factor) and most importantly we saw the kinds of metrics we could have only hoped for. I personally assisted a number of customers who toured the eLounge to browse Lenovo’s laptops. What is most important is that these  – for the most part  – were purchases that otherwise may not have happened, at least not on a traditional retail web site. In addition, we have seen excellent retention rates. Even when users don’t make purchases, they spend a lot of time surrounded by Lenovo’s brand – over time this will also help conversions.

Obviously there are customers that go to the Lenovo web site that intend to make a purchase, and various tools facilitate that. While we are excited to help in that regard, what we always hoped would happen was that users would visit the site that did not have a specific intention of making a purchase, and would otherwise have bought from a retail store (likely helping a competitor to Lenovo) and instead they make the purchase from the eLounge as a result of an unplanned/informal conversation with a sales person or some other person like myself who just happens to be there.

In terms of challenges, there have been many. While the majority of users have had a smooth experience, some users encountered a variety of different bugs which we are fixing as they arrive (users send us e-mails at support@projectchainsaw.com with their bugs). Most users were able to get in and navigate without any specific help, but here have been some that required assistance, so we are working to make interaction even more intuitive and fluid. One really notable challenge was that Lenovo sales staff had to adjust their mode of operation. Call centers wait for a customer to call to initiate a dialogue, unlike the real world where we can reach out to shoppers.

We had to spend time honing that skill to get the right balance of support (i.e. not jump in someone’s face when they first arrive, but make certain that they know you are there and available to assist if you need help). The biggest challenge of all is that people want more, a lot more.

Have there been any new developments with eLounge since the time of the CES 2009 launch?

Nic: Yes, there have been a number of new developments, some deployed others coming soon. Most importantly, Lenovo has seen the positive metrics we had hoped for and have committed to coming out of beta and doing a full supported launch (coming soon!). Changes that have been deployed include a large number of bug fixes, a few new features in the client (like notification when new users arrive via a desktop balloon) with many more coming. While there have been a few minor content updates, there will be many more coming when the site launches out of beta.

Tell us about other enterprise use of web.alive?

Nic: There has been a tremendous interest in web.alive from an enterprise perspective. Whether it be as a global water cooler (e.g. as an enterprise, place web.alive on your global internal home page to enable informal/accidental collaboration and discussion between your employees) or as an alternative for internal meetings (in particular those that would require travel). We have been particularly happy with the tremendous support and pull from within Nortel and have slowly been rolling out web.alive for internal use. We have also been building a number of features to better support internal collaboration beyond just positional voice and slides etc.

Our ultimate goal is to find ways that we can make web.alive collaboration more effective than face to face. The seams ambitious, but there are a number of challenges with face to face communication, let alone current telecommunication technologies that we believe we can address. The simplest example is knowing who you are speaking to or who is talking – this is often a challenge even face to face. More exciting examples include detecting and displaying emotion – there are people who don’t communicate very effectively because they are not skilled at detecting emotion (in the extreme, people with forms of autism) – we believe that over time we can augment and provide that kind of information.

Has there been any existing or planned consumer use of web.alive?

Nic: We are actively working on models to support low-end deployments of web.alive. I have always stated as a goal that my mother in-law should be able to embed web.alive in her personal web site. While technically we support a simple embed tag (in theory she could embed the eLounge on her page), we have yet to deploy a single environment built for this purpose. Most challenging of course if establishing the right business model for this, which is something we are actively working on. We will have something this year that will support small businesses.

What are customers telling you they’d like to see in web.alive?

Nic: This is a really difficult question to answer because we have talked to so many people, whether they be casual users in the eLounge or companies that we have talked with. Common themes would include a higher degree of interaction (e.g. shaking hands, more fluid and realistic animation, taking apart laptops etc.); more audio controls like the ‘cone of silence’ for private discussions; means to invite friends and better ways of staying connected.

What’s on the feature roadmap for web.alive?

Nic: We will be working to further optimize the new user experience (from client optimizations in size and speed to usability etc.), enable small businesses, enhance collaboration and make the whole experience much more immersive and interactive. We are also looking to start rolling out our community (user and developer) in 2009 to enable more contribution and an eco-system of value co-creation.

What does the future hold for enterprise focused virtual environments?

Nic: There is no question in my mind that immersive positional audio will fundamentally transform how we communicate. I believe we will start to see the kind of connectionless (from a user perspective) communications that happen in web.alive that enable “accidental collaboration” to permeate how enterprise users interact with each other, their suppliers and their customers. Eventually, calendar based meetings will become significantly less frequent as issues are resolved on the fly. Ultimately, I am convinced that virtual environments will facilitate this way of communicating by enabling rich immersive and dynamic collaboration. Just consider how an enterprise could use web.alive to improve their brand awareness by letting their customers hold virtual events or get-togethers with their network of friends, family and associates.

The best part if that we have a number of surprises (well, if you’re a techie like me they are surprises 🙂 – features that have not been rolled out but that we have built and are playing with. I won’t expand on what they are just yet, but we will roll some of them out over the coming weeks and months, and I assure you they are exciting. These features will really help incentivize enterprises into taking the leap and jumping into this kind of technology by doing things that can only be done with the kind of architecture.


Virtual Events For Online Dating

February 21, 2009

Source: Match.com

Source: Match.com

The Internet Dating industry has a conference called iDate.  This year, iDate 2009 is scheduled for Los Angeles, London and Miami.  The event is billed as “the largest conference that covers the business management for the Internet Dating and Social Networking Industries.”  iDate has launched a virtual conference to complement their physical events [see press release].

Perhaps at the iDate 2009 events, industry players can collaborate on leveraging virtual event platforms to faciliate online matchmaking.  What are some of the challenges of online matchmaking today?

  1. Interaction is via asynchronous messaging (either via email – or, via messaging within the service’s web site)
  2. You never get to learn much about potential mates besides what they’ve chosen to provide in their online profile
  3. You’re never sure if that uploaded picture is “true” – for singles of a more advanced age, perhaps the picture is one from 10 years ago
  4. You don’t truly get a feel for your potential mate prior to a phone call or in-person meet-up

So for the likes of eHarmony, Match.com, Yahoo Personals, etc. – why not organize virtual events for online matchmaking!  There would be numerous benefits:

  1. The game changer: webcams – require all participants to utilize a webcam.  Without one, you truly won’t know who’s on the other end of a chat window.  With one, you’ll be able to discover whether the picture (that attracted your attention) matches up with the individual who uploaded it.  And, you’re able to interact via spoken word to other attendees – and see their facial expressions.
  2. Global access, from home – the event would have elements of a physical meet-up, but attendees could participate from anywhere.  That being said, regionalized virtual events may be necessary, to facilitate match making of individuals within close geographic proximity.
  3. Profile matchmaking – some virtual event platforms already have this feature – for online dating, this is the secret sauce that differentiates one service over another.  For an eHarmony, perhaps they integrate their sophisticated algorithms into the event platform, so that attendees can be paired up in the virtual event like they are on eHarmony.com.
  4. Speed dating via webcam – facilitate five minute private webcam sessions between two attendees – after which, they’re rotated to brand new webcam partners.
  5. Post-event data portal – after the event, participants can login to a personalized web-based portal, where they can review all the interactions they had with other attendees.  If you met over 20 people online, you might need such a feature to remember whom you really liked!
  6. Find mates by observing – topical chat rooms could be organized (e.g. Music, Sports, Food, Travel), where attendees could congregate to chat about their hobbies and interests.  The chat need not be restricted to text – some platforms support multi-webcam rooms, where participants can speak and see the other participants.  By observing, one might find someone interesting/attractive – and later on, you can connect with that person privately (e.g. in a 1-on-1 chat).

For the online matchmaking service providers, virtual events provide a nice up-sell opportunity to complement subscription-based revenue.  To avoid canibalization of the subscription business, perhaps you only allow access to the virtual event for existing subscribers.

The virtual events could also serve to generate new subscriptions – imagine tying the event into Facebook’s ~175MM active users via Facebook Connect.  Attendees could see which of their Facebook friends are in the event – and, post updates back to their Wall, driving new users into the event (and hence, new subscriptions to your service).

So, time to get moving – millions of singles across the globe await!


Real World Meetings In A Virtual Office

February 11, 2009

Amanda Van Nuys, Linden Labs’ Director of Enterprise Marketing (and known in-world as Amanda Linden) has an interesting blog posting titled “Working in the Virtual World“.  Amanda describes her use of Second Life for work-related meetings and collaboration.  A neat physical/virtual tie-in was done with a conference room:

The physical conference room—Isabel—has a virtual counterpart that is an exact replica—Virtual Isabel. A camera in Isabel captures what’s happening in the room and displays it in the virtual space. Simultaneously, the participants in Virtual Isabel are projected on the wall of physical Isabel. The result is a seamless experience—two conference spaces, one real and one virtual, merge into one.

As for Amanda’s use of Second Life for meetings, she describes it as such:

These days, I’m spending at least 2-3 hours a day in Second Life, meeting with my colleagues distributed all over the world—collaborating, brainstorming, learning, and decorating my new office space in LindenWorld.

For companies with a highly distributed workforce, virtual worlds and their associated virtual meeting places can be a win-win scenario. I once met an employee of a Fortune 500 company who noted that he’d never met his manager, nor had he met any member of his entire team — except that he’ “met” them online, in web meetings, conference calls, Skype sessions, etc.

I’m a remote worker – I’m in the Bay Area, while the majority of my company is in the Chicago area.  Fortunately for me, my company provides an internal virtual office platform that serves as an interactive intranet plus meeting and collaboration space.  The virtual office is simply an application that rides on top of same platform that services virtual tradeshows, virtual career fairs and virtual sales meetings.

To be set up for a virtual meeting on our platform, here’s what I do:

  1. Login to the virtual office platform (via the web) – my co-workers and I do this as our first task once the computer boots up
  2. Activate my webcam
  3. Put on earbuds (so that the folks you’re speaking with don’t hear their voices reflect back into their sessions)
  4. Request a meeting with a co-worker within the platform

It’s as simple as that.  I tend to have a few meetings per week in the virtual office, mixed with the more conventional meeting via telephony conference call.  Here are the efficiencies I’ve seen with virtual office meetings:

  1. Lower overhead to start a meeting – since the virtual office provides presence indication, I know when a colleague is logged in.  I can initiate a webcam session with a colleague in the same manner that I’d start up an Instant Messaging session.  Compare this to the typical meeting “set-up”, where emails and Outlook invitations are sent and the meeting organizer awaits replies.
  2. Facilitates ad hoc, spur of the moment collaboration – similar to the gathering at the water cooler – or, the spontaneous brainstorming session around the whiteboard.  But in the virtual office, the spontaneity occurs while you’re still at your desk.  Additionally, requesting a virtual meeting session is very convenient – compare it to walking over to a colleague and tapping her on the shoulder.  Here, your colleague accepts/declines the session with the click of a mouse.  If she’s busy, she goes right back to what she was doing.  It’s like IM’ing a colleague rather than calling her on the phone.
  3. Material related to the meeting is at your fingertips (or a mouse-click away) – my virtual office session is simply a tab in my Firefox browser.  Information I need for a meeting is likely in another browser tab – or, in an application like Excel or Word.  It’s highly convenient to toggle between these apps and have the information I need at my fingertips.
  4. Immediacy – ever attend a face-to-face meeting and  take on an action item to send out a URL to all the meeting participants (when you get back to your desk)? In a virtual meeting, you can find that URL and copy/paste it into your messaging session. Now, your colleague(s) can review the URL in real-time and you can resolve issues (or obtain the necessary feedback) sooner.
  5. True facial expressions – in an avatar-based virtual space, I can emote via gestures or text comments. In a webcam-based virtual meeting, however, my colleagues can read my true facial expression.  The virtual office platform that I use supports multi-user webcam chats (of up to 9 participants), so we can all see one another, as if we all piled into the same conference room.

I haven’t even mentioned the savings in carbon emissions and cost (i.e. the use of IP technologies and the bypass of the telephony network).  I’ll always want to connect with colleagues in person – but, today’s technologies help remote workers get the job done – while increasing efficiency and productivity.  A long day in the (virtual) office never felt so good!


2009: The Year We Go Virtual

December 12, 2008

Year of the Ox

Year of the Ox

The Chinese will celebrate 2009 as the Year of the Ox.  For B-to-B marketers, I’m convinced that 2009 is the Year of the Virtual Event.  While virtual events have already taken shape – in the IT space, 2007 was a growth year and 2008 was even stronger – I believe we’re facing a watershed moment when a “perfect storm” of factors will lead to a phenomenal surge in virtual events.

I believe that companies who provide products and services around virtual events will experience 50%, 100%, 200% and higher annual revenue growth in 2009.  On the flip side, companies whose primary business is around supporting B-to-B face-to-face events will experience diminishing demand and all but the top 5-10% will struggle to survive.

Here are the factors I see contributing to this watershed moment:

  1. Attendee demand – let’s consider the IT Pro.   Those who survived a layoff are facing significant internal cost controls.  It’s likely that all travel has been cut, which means that Joe IT Pro will not be attending a face-to-face event, even if it’s in the nearest major city.  This is one factor driving B-to-B event marketers to scale back their 2009 event plans.
  2. Exhibitors’ requirement for cost efficiency – if you’re lucky enough to have marketing budget for 2009, you don’t want to spend it on a high-end hotel (with their elevated food and beverage costs), along with the travel and lodging costs for your colleagues.  Instead, you could pay less for an online event.  Today, more than 50% of a virtual event’s cost is associated with the headcount required by the platform provider to configure the event.  The virtual event platforms, however, are moving to a full-blown  SaaS model, where the exhibitor becomes a mere tenant on the multi-tenant platform – and configures the event 100% on her own.  This means that the costs will trend downward over time (imagine that).
  3. The Green Movement – who hasn’t been encouraged lately to think and act Green?  A virtual event is virtually carbon-free.  Exhibitors stay at home (or in the office); attendees stay at home (or in the office).
  4. Measurability – with a virtual event, exhibitors can track and analyze all of the discrete actions taken by an attendee.  In addition, with tools like text chat (the equivalent of instant messaging), exhibitors can interact with attendees and have all the chat transcripts available for later review.  Other tools, like search, allow exhibitors to identify (and connect with) target attendees who are online in the event right now.  What this means is that exhibitors can measure and calculate their Return on Investment with higher precision and accuracy.
  5. The human touch – event marketers will tell you that nothing beats a face-to-face, in-person meeting.  2009 is a year where virtual events will merge with telepresence – with early adoption most likely in closed/private event spaces.  There are cost factors with telepresence – but, imagine virtual events combined with high fidelity video and it’s  like you’re in the same room as the person half way around the world.  With telepresence costs bound to come down over the long term, I see virtual events + telepresence being a killer combination.

All in all, I look forward to 2009 with great excitement.  For folks in the virtual events space, the Year of the Ox may be better labeled the Year of the Racehorse – as it’s off to the races we go.


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