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Blasts from The Past: Posts on Virtual Events, Airlines, Facebook and More

August 24, 2012

Introduction

While recent posts have focused on social media, I used to crank out a few dozen posts (every few months) on virtual events. After all, just look at the name of this blog. So I thought I’d round up some former blog postings and bring them back to life.

What Virtual Events Can Learn from The Airline Industry

From frequent flyer programs to first class and business class, I shared ideas on how virtual events could apply concepts from the airline industry. If you’ve seen examples of virtual events that have applied these sorts of concepts, please share details in the comments section.

Read the full post (from 2009): What Virtual Events Can Learn From The Airline Industry

Breaking News: Facebook’s Not a Social Network, it’s a Virtual Event

Facebook has hundreds of millions of active users. And guess what? They’re online, right this moment. If you’re a Facebook user, you probably know the drill. You post a photo from your daughter’s soccer game and as the page refreshes with your update, you’ve already received 5+ Likes from friends. Yes, Facebook is a virtual event – and it’s the world’s largest.

Read the full post: Why Facebook Is The World’s Largest Virtual Event

Give Me a Virtual Farm for my Virtual Event

I looked at group buying (Groupon), Q&A sites (Quora) and virtual farms (FarmVille) for ideas that could be applied to virtual events. Not sure how well these would work in a real-life virtual event, but I’d love to see someone try.

Read the full post: What Virtual Events Can Learn From Groupon, Quora and FarmVille

Dear Flight Attendant, I’m Online

That’s right, back to the airline industry again – and the old fashioned flight attendant call button. Virtual events should add one of these, as a form of “presence indicator” for technical support, interaction with other attendees and interaction with exhibitors. The engagement model is flipped on its head: instead of venturing “out” to find interactions, people find you instead.

Read the full post: A Flight Attendant Call Button for Virtual Events

Are You Ready For Some Football?

With the NFL 2012-2013 season right around the corner, I bring you this earlier post about the NFL. Look to the NFL to learn how you can turn your “once a year” event into a year-round experience. So after your “Super Bowl,” hold an “NFL Draft” to determine your speaker line-up for next year’s championship event.

Read the full post: What The NFL Can Teach You About Virtual Events

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What Virtual Event Platforms Can Learn

March 12, 2012

Introduction

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then virtual event platforms may be well served by sending some flattery to social networks. This post is a compilation of past posts and looks at areas from which virtual event platforms can learn.

Social Networks

What virtual event platforms can learn from Pinterest.

What virtual event platforms can learn from Twitter

What virtual event platforms can learn from Facebook.

What virtual event platforms can learn from Quora, Groupon and FarmVille.

Miscellaneous

What virtual event platforms can learn from physical events.

What virtual event platforms can learn from the airline industry.

Virtual Exhibits

Photo credit: The Pug Father on flickr.

What virtual exhibits can learn from the Apple Store.

What virtual exhibits can learn from farmers markets.

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What Virtual Events Can Learn From Groupon, Quora and FarmVille

December 18, 2010

Introduction

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


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

Benefits

  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

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.

FarmVille

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

Conclusion

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.


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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The Name Of The “Game” Is Engagement

August 9, 2010

Future brand loyalist or virtual goods buyer?

Introduction

Social gaming start-ups are a hot commodity these days.  In the past 12 months, Playfish was acquired by Electronic Arts and Playdom (more recently) was acquired by Disney.  Zynga, which remains independent, has a valuation that’s reported to be as high as $5B.  I expect that CrowdStar, another independent gaming start-up, will be acquired before 2010 closes.

These gaming companies provide “free to play” games on the web and on smartphones.  They then sell virtual goods (within the games) so users can achieve an elevation in status (e.g. a sharper sword, more crop for the farm, designer sunglasses to replace your generic pair, etc.).

Sustainable Growth Can Be Challenging

These gaming start-ups have attractive attributes:

  1. Ability to generate hundreds of millions in revenue (in some cases, more)
  2. High growth rates in users, revenue
  3. High profit margins, since the “cost of goods” (for virtual goods) is virtually zero

While it’s hard to argue with the results that these start-ups are turning in, I wonder if we might be in a mini-gaming-bubble, in terms of current valuations and the potential of sustainable, long term growth.

Social games can be similar to the recording and film industries.  Success depends on the blockbuster hit.  Over time, it becomes more and more challenging to consistently produce the blockbusters, especially in the face of growing competition.  Today, Facebook serves as a great “record label” for the gaming companies.  It provides a marketing vehicle that you can’t find anywhere else – “distribution” to its 500+ MM “listeners” (users).

The gaming companies know, however, that they can’t put all their eggs in the Facebook basket – hence, the plans from Zynga to launch their own Zynga Live platform (as one example).  The gaming companies need their blockbuster hits to turn into self-standing brands (e.g. FarmVille), which then relies on a variety of distribution vehicles.

We know that consumers can be fickle, however.  Recall the progression of “hot social network”, from Friendster to MySpace to Twitter/Facebook.  Games will have a related challenge.  FarmVille is not going to be the #1 game forever, which means that Zynga is already figuring out the “next FarmVille”.

I believe there will be a short list of winners in a market that will be increasingly fierce.  In addition, I wonder if over the long term, the rate of virtual goods purchasing is sustainable – or whether it will continue to grow over the long term.

A New Game in Town?

One of the challenges of the virtual goods model is the funding source. Revenue growth is dependent on fickle consumers, who could love your game one day and move on to another game the next day.  And yes, I realize that part of good game design is to build in the hooks to create user loyalty.

That being said, what about services whose funding source comes from brands that want to reach consumers?  The bills in their “wallet” are of higher denominations than the $1’s and $5’s that consumers use to purchase virtual goods.  In addition, “brands are already brands”, which mean that they have a pre-existing following from consumers.

Foursquare

Consider Foursquare.  Some consider it a “location based service”.  I view Foursquare as an engagement platform that’s built on top of a location based system.  In fact, Foursquare has a loyalty program that generated successful outcomes for Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods and many others.

The Foursquare business model is both powerful and scalable: powerful in its use of technology (e.g. location based check-ins) and scalable in leveraging existing brands (e.g. Starbucks) for the consumer following and activity.

Location based technology is great, but the long term success of Foursquare is more about the engagement and loyalty programs it facilitates for brands, based on the applicable and available technology of the day.

Nitro Participation Engine from Bunchball

Keep your eye on the Nitro Participation Engine from Bunchball – a Silicon Valley start-up who counts NBC, Warner Brothers and Victoria’s Secret as clients.  The Nitro engine “drives participation using Gamification”, which means that any brand can easily add gaming elements to their web site(s) – and then leverage the Nitro engine to track user actions, points, status and leaderboard. In addition, brands can use Nitro to deploy and sell virtual goods.

What This Could Mean

I think we could be witnessing a transformation of the advertising industry.  If the 90’s and the 00’s were about banner ads and paid search, this coming decade could be about engagement and loyalty platforms.

Foursquare, Bunchball and others have much to gain – if they can tap into a small percentage of the $100+B spent on advertising annually, they’ll make their investors very happy.

These engagement platforms can move from brand impressions (90’s) to brand engagements – where the engagements are longer lasting and more valuable than a click on a paid search ad.  They’re more participatory and can result in immediate purchases (e.g. the latte that someone just purchased at Starbucks).  In addition and perhaps more importantly, they enhance loyalty between consumers and brands, which is great for the long term.

Of course, sustainable growth is a challenge with any technology. Engagement platforms will face their own challenges as they see adoption grow.  Consumers will only be able to participate in so many engagement or loyalty programs.  That being said, consumers are taking batting practice right now – the first inning has yet to start.  Enjoy the ballgame!

I’ve now managed to speak enough.  Leave a comment below to share your thoughts on this topic.

Related Links

  1. ClickZ article (by Christopher Heine) on brand engagement featuring Booyah, Loopt, Brightkite, Gowalla and Stickybits
  2. Foursquare’s Future Slowly Takes Shape“, by Om Malik of GigaOM
  3. Social-media games: Badges or badgering?“, by Caroline McCarthy of CNET

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