Virtual Tradeshow Technologies

December 17, 2008

Virtual Worlds group

LinkedIn: Virtual Worlds group

I participate in a virtual worlds group over at LinkedIn.   A few members there asked me about a Virtual Tradeshow’s (VTS) underlying technologies.  I don’t pretend to know the full set of technologies that power a VTS, but I will list my Top 3 (in order of importance).

  1. The SaaS Engine Virtual Tradeshow platform providers often call this the “self service utility”.  What it boils down to is a 100% web-based interface that allows event organizers to build a VTS environment from scratch.  Every last detail of the event (down to the number of pixels to use on a particular image on the show floor) can be configured or selected via this web app.  While some clients will always want the extra attention of a “full service model” (where the VTS provider’s staff uses the same web app to build the entire show), consider the power of “self service” – VTS platform providers can scale their businesses by selling leases on their SaaS platform, where their clients do all the heavy lifting.  This means that the better you build this web app, your clients will create more events and they’ll create them more quickly.  This means more revenue and (possibly) earlier revenue recognition.
  2. The Chat system – Today, the power of a VTS lies largely in the text chat sessions that attendees engage in with exhibitors (or, attendee<->attendee sessions).  Platforms used to employ basic HTML to support chat, but the trend is towards client/server technologies, such as Flash Media Server (FMS).  The platform needs to account for corporate firewalls, as many firewalls are configured to block chat-like protocols – if your users cannot chat within a VTS, they lose out on a significant show feature.  If you employ a workaround – such as HTTP tunneling – beware, as some corporate firewalls can utilize deep packet inspection, to figure out that you’re trying to tunnel FMS within HTTP.  And, they then block those packets from reaching their destination, which means that chat fails.  Finally, as webcams and Skype-like video chat emerge in virtual tradeshows, keep in mind that moving from text chat to video chat means that you lose the ability to save a transcript of the chat.  This may be an opportunity for platform providers to support such a feature (e.g. auto-transcribe the audio from a video chat).
  3. Event Reporting – For event organizers, an open-ended web reporting system is useful.  Give them the ability to generate custom reports, kind of like a rudimentary business intelligence app.  For exhibitors, the creation of easy-to-understand canned reports is important.  For both organizers and exhibitors, the reporting system is critical.  Once the live event is over, the reports (and the data contained in them) are the “living record” of the show’s success and both constituencies will lean on the reports to derive their ROI on the event.

What technologies do you feel are important in a VTS?

Online Marketers: How to Sell Virtual Tradeshows to the Boss

December 15, 2008

Has Bruce Springsteen (The Boss) ever participated in a Virtual Tradeshow (VTS)?  I’m not sure, but if I were an online marketer, here’s how I’d convince my Boss on them.  The first thing I’d do is look for B-to-B publishers who are “flooring” industry virtual events that align with my product marketing initiatives.  Go find out (from the publishers) who’s already committed to sponsor the VTS.  If you’re picking the right events, you’ll notice that your competitors are already on the list.  If they’re not there, then perhaps you need to seek out alternative events.  But wait – you could also be “first in” with the right event – so just be sure the event’s theme aligns with your marketing plans.

So the first point to make to your boss is that your competitors are already on board.  So, NOT participating in the same event is a lost opportunity to have a place at the table alongside your competitors.  I do see attendees at virtual events ask, “Why isn’t <COMPANY> here?”.  If it’s a prominent industry VTS, your absence can speak volumes.  Next, develop an explicit goal for your boss  that clearly demonstrates the ROI.  For instance, how about a goal of 5 late-stage sales engagements – where you’d have to come up with a clear definition (for your boss) of “late-stage”.

Now that you have your boss’ ear, go with the lower tier sponsorship available.  These sponsorships are priced less because rather than receiving all leads (including no-shows), you only generate leads from attendees who directly interact with you (e.g. visit your sponsor booth or download your content).

This puts the onus on you, because you become directly responsible for the success of the campaign – the more visitors you can drive to your booth, the more leads you generate.  The upside, though, is that you can influence the cost per lead (CPL) that you achieve.  And there’s a possible win-win scenario: low CPL’s and a better qualified lead.  Your boss might like to hear about the low CPL, but make sure to emphasize the qualified leads – they’ve had direct interaction with you and their actions with your people or your content tells a lot about them.

Now, to get you to those 5 late-stage sales engagements, you have more work to do.  Remember that these are shared leads, not exclusive leads.  If a VTS had 10 exhibitors, a given attendee might have visited 7 of the 10 booths.  This means that they become leads for 6 other companies, some of whom are your direct competitors.  You’ll need to convert these leads more effectively than your competition.  And often times, this comes down to the simple determinant of, “who acts first”.  Don’t let those hot VTS leads sit in limbo in a spreadsheet or CRM system queue.  Get those leads over to telesales (or direct sales) and call them tomorrow.  If you don’t, you can be sure that your competition is.  And that hot lead suddenly becomes your competitor’s customer.  A shame!

So in summary, here’s an approach that leverages VTS to fuel the sales pipeline at a reasonable cost (making you and The Boss look good):

  1. Convince the boss
  2. Go with the lower tier VTS sponsorship (costs less – but places onus on you)
  3. Be an All-Star performer at the VTS (see related article)
  4. Close the loop by having Sales follow up with the hottest leads
  5. Reap the benefits
  6. Lather, rinse and repeat!

If you’ve never exhibited at a VTS before, enjoy the ride.  I think you’ll find it to be fun.

Breakdown: Exhibitors of Virtual Tradeshows

December 13, 2008

I’ve had the privilege of working with dozens of Virtual Tradeshow (VTS) exhibitors, ranging from scrappy start-up technology vendors to Fortune 100 giants.  I’ve found that each exhibitor, independent of the type of company represented, approaches VTS differently, with a wide range of knowledge, experience and plain old know-how.  Here is my breakdown of VTS exhibitors:

  1. The savvy elite (1%) – they know how to best leverage the VTS experience – they understand that a Live VTS embodies characteristics of social media, conventional online lead generation and face-to-face events.  They’re active and proactive.  They utilize tactics to drive interest to their brand and traffic to their booth.  They leverage tricks of the trade from physical events and translate them well to the online world.  Some gain this status from experience at past virtual events – others “get it” during their very first VTS.  The savvy elite excel not only on the front end, but also on the back end – in their ability to extract the valuable engagements they’ve generated and place that data in their CRM system.  By perfecting the back-end, the savvy elite hand their salesforce focused and prequalified leads.  Here, the VTS accomplishes the two-step process of lead generation and lead qualification.  The savvy elite can re-use their telesales staff on other programs, where more rigorous qualification is necessary.
  2. The group with good intentions (15%).  This group understands the potential of a virtual event.  For the most part, they do an effective job at interacting with attendees/prospects.  Some could use a little fine-tuning in their approach.  Where this group ultimately falls short is on the back-end.   They are sending Sales a mix of hot and cold leads, leaving Sales to pursue nine or ten  (or more) leads before they find one that’s worthy.
  3. Needs significant assistance (79%).  Here’s your bulk of VTS exhibitors today.  They need help on the front end and the back end.  On the front end, they tend to sit back and wait for attendees to contact them.  Imagine doing that at a physical tradeshow – you’d end up speaking to very few people.  This group requires a little more handholding on what works and what doesn’t – things that the savvy elite know instinctually.  On the back end, this group tends to throw all generated leads “over the wall” to telesales.  And the result is phone calls or emails to leads with no explicit association with the virtual event (quite a shame).  So here’s the opportunity to B-toB publishers and VTS platform providers: provide the necessary tools, utilities and reports (to this oversized constituency) to highlight the “best” leads to the exhibitors, based on automated analysis of the attendee engagement data.  If I had 57 private chat sessions with prospects, tell me which ones I should care about.  By doing this, all parties will derive more ROI from these events – you take a pre-existing set of leads – and instantly make them better.
  4. List buyers (5%).  They sponsor VTS’s in order to buy themselves a list of sales prospects.  They tend not to staff their booth.  They place little to no content in their booth.  They send the entire list of leads over to telesales and hope for the best.  On the back-end, this group sees significantly lower sales conversions compared to the savvy elite.

With 2009 being the year of virtual events, I’m hoping that the savvy elite grow from 1% to 10% share.  That growth won’t happen magically – the publishers and the platform providers will need to do their part.  If they do, it only serves to make virtual event marketing all the more compelling.

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