What Virtual Events Can Learn From The Airline Industry

November 14, 2009

Source: flickr (User: Globalist360)

It’s an industry much-maligned, the airlines – flyer satisfaction has suffered over the years, due to flight delays, lost luggage, unsatisfactory in-flight service – and most recently, extra charges for in-flight meals and checking in baggage.  The virtual event industry, in fact, has been a beneficiary of decreased air travel, as more and more attendees (and meeting planners) opt for virtual events.

That being said, the virtual events industry could stand to benefit in adopting programs pioneered by the airline industry.  Let’s consider a few.

aadvantage_img

Source: American Airlines

Frequent Flyer Programs

According to Wikipedia, “As of January 2005, a total of 14 trillion frequent-flyer miles had been accumulated by people worldwide, which corresponds to a total value of 700 billion US dollars”.  What are frequent flyer programs all about?  Creating active and loyal customers.  You’re naturally incented to build up your miles on a single airline, in order to qualify for a free flight, free upgrade to first class – or, credits that can be used to purchase goods and services.

Virtual events, on the other hand, are all too often “one and done”.  Yes, you may attend a great virtual event, but a week or a month later, you’ve moved on to the “next thing”.  You may return for the same virtual event later in the year (or, next year).  But you probably don’t re-engage with that event until it comes around again.

And, guess what?  When you do come back to next year’s event, you’re asked to enter a blank registration page (from scratch) all over again!  Virtual event platforms – and, virtual event show hosts, need to consider affinity programs for virtual events.  Such programs make a lot of sense for:

  1. Ongoing virtual events that repeat once (or more) per year
  2. Ongoing virtual communities that are open 365 days/year

If a virtual event is truly “one and done”, an affinity program makes no sense.  However, for the ongoing events and communities, affinity programs generate:

  1. Activity and engagement
  2. Loyalty – an attendee enrolled in a virtual event affinity program is more likely to attend the next event [compared to another attendee who did not enroll]

So how might you award “miles” in a virtual event?  Map event activities to “points” and allow attendees to view their real-time point score – activities that might generate points:

  1. Visit a booth
  2. Attend a session
  3. Chat with a booth rep
  4. Submit an in-show blog posting
  5. Submit an online event survey
  6. Rate a booth

Importantly, when you register members to your affinity program, re-use the same profile data for the subsequent events.  This not only provides a convenience to your members (e.g. seamless access into all subsequent virtual events without having to re-register), it generates loyalty and continued attendance (since it’s so convenient to attend each event).

UPDATE: additionally, encourage members of the affinity program to invite their colleagues and friends to join.  Reward them with additional points (or privileges) for each referral that turns into a new member.

For the ongoing community, the points structure serves to reward the more active community members – incenting them to keep logging in and participating.  The key here will be an incentive program that provides real value to those members who have achieved high point scores.  More on that in the next section.

Source: flickr (User: golden_toque)

Tiering of Services

First class, business class, coach.  Which one you travel in depends on how much you’re willing to pay and how loyal a customer you are (i.e. how many frequent flyer miles you’ve banked).  Either way, you know that the airlines create clear differentiation between these tiers of service.  First class travelers can board the plane first, sit in much wider and more comfortable seats and be treated to premium food and beverage (that’s included in their ticket).

In virtual events today, premium services tend to be exclusive content that’s available on a “pay per view” (individual content item) basis – or, by way of a premium attendee package, which costs more than the standard package (which may be free).  Virtual event platforms – and, virtual event show hosts, ought to consider additional tiers of service within an event.  The key will be to create features for which attendees will pay extra – or, for which they’ll perform additional actions to achieve premium status.

As such, virtual event show hosts will need to create the airlines’ first class service tier – e.g. something attendees will actually yearn for.  These premium services would allow the show host to generate additional revenue.  In addition, the premium tier could be bundled into affinity programs, incenting more activity and engagement (from attendees) in order to reach premium status.

So let’s say I’m a frequent contributor to a technical forum – or, I frequently visit the Lounge and help other attendees troubleshoot technical issues.  I’m basically generating a lot of “value” for other community members, on behalf of the show host.  As such, if I’m in the virtual event affinity program, I should be awarded points (for my actions) that build me up to premium status.

At the premium level, I might receive:

  1. Free access to exclusive content (which otherwise would have an associated charge)
  2. Access to an exclusive lounge area with audio/video chat access to experts, executives, thought leaders
  3. The ability to host my own chat room with a video stream of myself (increases my visibility within the community)
  4. A special avatar for premium members only

Reward your loyal and most engaged attendees and you end up encouraging others to join the fray.

skymall_img

Source: SkyMall

Convert a captive audience

The industry (and, retailers like SkyMall) realized that they had a captive audience for the duration of a 2-hour (or 20-hour) flight.  Sure, there’s reading material, TV, movies (and increasingly, WiFi access), but there’s also a product catalog that’s neatly tucked into your seatback.  And when it’s near time to land and you need to “turn off all electronic devices”, it’s all too easy to grab the SkyMall and peruse through a product catalog.  Before you know it (for some of you), you’ve just charged $50 onto your credit card.

In virtual events, the active audience is a captive audience – attendees are busily viewing sessions, visiting booths, chatting with other attendees and chatting with exhibitors.  Show hosts and exhibitors need to provide this captive audience a valuable and convenient way to “convert” attendees.

Organize your content well – and provide tailored content to individual “personas” (e.g. “Storage Administrator’s Guide to Data Deduplication in the Financial Industry”).  Provide tools (e.g. an RFP requester) that allow attendees to conveniently reach out to multiple exhibitors at once.  Engaged attendees who are not converted from a “visitor” to an “opportunity” are merely lost opportunities.

In conclusion, I think the virtual events industry stands to benefit from adopting tactics used in the airline industry.  Now if only I could convert my virtual event attendances into frequent flyer miles!


How Virtual Worlds Technologies Benefit The Real World

April 5, 2009

Source: Hopecam

Source: Hopecam

Let’s play word association.  “Webcam” – for me, the association is about keeping in touch with family or perhaps collaborating with colleagues and partners on business topics.  “Virtual Worlds” – my association here is 3D, fantasy, escapism and gaming.  While those associations will likely remain that way for quite some time, there have been numerous uses of virtual worlds technologies that go beyond the “neat and fun”.  It’s not an overstatement to say that they are helping humanity.

Take, for instance,  Hopecam, whose motto is “Connecting Homebound Children to LIFE”.  Founded in 2003, this Virginia-based non-profit connects children (undergoing treatment for cancer) with their friends at school with nothing more than a laptop, webcam and high speed Internet connection.  Hopecam has brought this “connection” to over 75 homebound children.  Their web site has an “Our Kids” section that profiles some of these children – and on this page, you can make an online donation to the organization.

Note: I did an earlier interview with a similar, Ireland-based non-profit, Vizitant.

The Washington Post published an article titled “Webcams Allow Students to Stay Connected“, which profiles 7-year-old Becky Wilson, who’s able to virtually attend class at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington County via a webcam.  Becky, who was diagnosed with leukemia, is a full participant in classroom activities, according to her teacher, Lainie Ortiz:

The webcam has exceeded Ortiz’s expectations as an academic tool. When Becky tunes in for class and has a question, she raises her hand and Ortiz calls on her. During story time, Ortiz will bring the book she’s reading up to the computer, so Becky can see the pictures, too.

At the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, researchers are leveraging a grant from the US Department of Education to “develop an intervention program in Second Life® that focuses on self-esteem, a critical element in health and wellness.”  For women with disabilities, virtual world technologies mean that access to rehabilitation services require nothing more than a computer, an Internet connection and a virtual world application:

“Second Life® allows women with disabilities to experience virtual life as an able bodied person,” said Dr. Margaret Nosek, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at BCM. “They can be who they want to be in the virtual world rather than living by the standards set by others,” said Nosek.

“Second Life® allows them to interact with other women while learning and practicing new self-esteem building skills in the virtual world,” she said.

The program will be available in late 2009 – the Baylor College of Medicine published a news article about this virtual intervention program.

Finally, a BBC News article titled “What it’s like to have schizophrenia” tells the fascinating story of Dr. Peter Yellowlees, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, who is leveraging Second Life to take you inside the mind of someone afflicted with schizophrenia.  Currently on a password-protected island, the purpose of this initiative is to educate people on the condition – there are clear benefits to understanding what it’s like to be afflicted schizophrenia:

“We welcome anything that proposes better understanding.”

“It broadens people’s experiences and narrows the gap between ‘us and them’.”

UPDATE: I published an interview with Professor Yellowlees regarding his use of Second Life.

The next time I login to Skype or Second Life, I’ll be thinking about the wonderful applications of these technologies and how they’re able to deeply improve the human condition.


Videos On Virtual Event Best Practices

February 26, 2009

I created an open Facebook group for Virtual Event Strategists – my goal with this group is to foster discussion and collaboration around virtual event strategies and best practices.  I’ve seeded the content on the group page by developing a series of Virtual Event Best Practices videos – short, 2-3 minute clips where I cover one particular best practice each day.

Since Facebook provides a very convenient video recording and upload utility (right there from the Group page – for anyone who has a webcam), my hope is that other group members will start contributing their own thoughts via video.  Or, start posing questions to the group via video (if not text).  A YouTube-like channel for Virtual Events sounds good to me!

I thought I’d post links to some of the videos I’ve produced to date.  Of course, to view subsequent videos, be sure to become a member of the Group – it’s open for anyone to join.

bestpract_2

In this first video (click on the image above), I talk about how to effectively use prize giveaways in your virtual event.

bestpract_3

In this video (above), I discuss the importance of “promotion source” tracking and data analysis.

bestpract_4

And in this final video (where I got all dressed up), I talk about ways to dress up your virtual event.

If you view the videos, be sure to let me know what you liked or disliked – thanks!


Join A Group To Collaborate On Virtual Events

February 23, 2009

Over the past few months, I’ve observed an increasing amount of chatter within Twitter (the popular micro-blogging service) regarding virtual events and virtual tradeshows.  In many cases, Twitter users who are considering their first virtual event will submit a tweet such as, “considering my first virtual event.  Anyone have information on best practices?”.  I chime in when I can, but Twitter and its 140 character limit does not facilitate much in the way of extended dialog.

In fact, when two or more Twitter users need to delve deep on a topic, the next step is usually to “connect offline”.  Similarly, this blog is a useful vehicle for the communication of my thoughts and ideas – but isn’t great for facilitating discussion.  Despite the comment feature of blogs, there hasn’t been much extended discussion here, by way of commenters.

So I decided to create a Facebook Group to address these challenges – it’s called Virtual Event Strategists and is open to anyone interested (you need a Facebook account to join).  Here’s a snapshot of the group page:

Source: Virtual Event Strategists' Group Page

Source: Virtual Event Strategists' Group Page

Why a Facebook Group?  A few reasons:

  1. The 175MM active users (of Facebook) – most readers of this blog are likely on Facebook – if not, let me know why not!
  2. Threaded discussions – are you a first-timer in virtual events?  Well, starting up a threaded discussion may be just the thing to do
  3. The Wall – post miscellaneous thoughts and ideas about virtual events
  4. Post Links – let us know what interesting blogs or articles you’re reading about virtual events
  5. Post Video – Facebook has a convenient video recording and hosting capability – plug in a webcam and start using it

In fact, I’ll be doing brief “Virtual Event Tip of the Day” video clips on the Group page.  Here’s one of my first video clips, where I talk about the use of prizes in virtual events:

fb_video

I’ve seeded the site with some initial content – but, what I’d most like is to hear from all of you.  So, start some discussions, post some videos, post some links.  The group page is:

http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=52325833170#/home.php?ref=home

Let’s collaborate and learn together – see you there!


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!


Product Comparison Guides 2.0

February 20, 2009

In the world of Enterprise IT, sales cycles for IT products and services tend to be long and complex.  Decisions are made by committee (vs. by an individual) and the process follows an extended cycle that begins with problem definition, progresses to vendor selection and arrives at a final destination of price negotiation and purchase.  Once the problem has been defined, the committee identifies the set of vendors who provide applicable solutions.

It’s at this stage where technology publishers can often help, with the publication of product reviews and comparison guides.  Here’s an example of a product comparison guide for Hosted CRM, published by InsideCRM.com:

Source: InsideCRM.com (partial view of comparison guide)

Source: InsideCRM.com (partial view of comparison guide)

So this is Product Comparison Guide 1.0.  For version 1.5, you might host this guide on a web site (rather than a PDF) and allow readers to click over to the vendor’s web site — perhaps the vendor’s product page for their Hosted CRM offering.  Maybe you host a registration page and drive sales leads to the Hosted CRM providers.

Now, let’s take it to the next step.  Product Comparison Guide 2.0 is an interactive community site that’s powered by a virtual event platform.  Let’s imagine the same Hosted CRM guide – published as an SEO-friendly HTML page.  Perhaps you leave the high level product information on this page – just enough to entice the reader to continue.  The purpose of this page, then, is to drive traffic into your interactive comparison guide.

Once a user enters the interactive site, you collect some basic demographic information – enough to uniquely identify the user (and contact her), but not too much that the user abandons and leaves your site (e.g. first name, last name, title, email address).  And now, the full product details behind each solution is provided not by you – but, by the vendors themselves – in their product showcase virtual booth!

Within the booth, a vendor might provide:

  1. Detailed specifications about the product
  2. White Papers that describe how the product solves a given technology challenge
  3. Case Studies that describe how customers have used the product
  4. On-Demand Video and Webinars related to the product
  5. Sales and Marketing staff who staff the booth during business hours
  6. Group chat to allow visitors to interact with the vendor – and with each other

Especially in this economic environment, decisions on IT purchases are not taken lightly, even if the offering is a SaaS solution like Hosted CRM.  And what better way to connect with qualified sales prospects than engaging with them while they’re reviewing the solution space?  Having a user enter your staffed booth (to engage with you)  is a much stronger proposition than sending them to your corporate web site to peruse your content.

So vendors “win” in this scenario.  The publisher also wins!  The publisher can sell sponsorships of Product Comparison Guide 2.0, allowing vendors an assortment of features in the environment (e.g. vendor booth, advertising placements, speaking opportunities, etc.).  I’m sure that most vendors listed in your Product Comparison Guide 1.0 (that SEO-friendly web page) will feel pressured to have a virtual booth in the interactive environment – after all, what happens when users click into the environment and interact with your competitors?  Your absence results in a lost opportunity.

With Product Comparison Guide 2.0, the jobs of buyers and sellers now become much easier.


VMworld Complements Physical Conference With Virtual Conference

February 7, 2009

VMworld

Source: VMworld

What do you do when you produce the world’s leading virtualization conference?  You make it better, of course!  VMware teamed with Jive Software to take the once-per-year VMworld conference and extended it (online) into a 365-day-per-year, always-on community.  A Case Study on this initiative can be found here:

http://www.jivesoftware.com/customers/case-studies/vmware

And this quote from Eric Nielsen of VMware sums it all up:

We expanded the VMworld conference from a three day event for 15,000 to a 365 day/year destination for 50,000 virtualization professionals.   — Eric Nielsen, Director of Web Communities, VMware

So that’s a triple play for VMworld – by complementing their event online, they’ve generated a more than 3x increase of participating virtualization professionals.  As quoted in the Case Study, the VMworld.com community has 35,000 active members, generates 35,000 page views per day and 2,000 video views per day.

Quite an impressive level of activity.  A clear example of an active community at work – 35,000 page views (in a single day) is hard to come by with traditional b-to-b content.  However, in a highly active social community, the blog posts, discussion board entries, podcast downloads, video views, “ask the expert” questions, etc. – all contribute to traffic generation.

Just have a look at the volume of Discussion Board traffic:

VMworld.com - Discussion Board

Source: VMworld.com - Discussion Board

Now that’s an active community at work.  But there’s a chicken and egg problem – how do you generate an active community in the first place?  Well, the organizers of VMworld.com made the wise move to integrate a full suite of social networking tools – essentially building a mini-Facebook around the conference.  Tools available include:

  1. Discussion Boards
  2. Podcasts – both those produced for the conference, as well as third party / external podcasts
  3. Integration with social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  4. Blogs – both in-house and third party
  5. Ask The Expert sessions and content
  6. Video
  7. Photo Wall (with pictures from the physical event)

VMworld.com also leveraged neat tools within Jive Software’s platform to encourage activity.  For instance, on a blog post, a user can click on “Watch This Blog Post” and be notified when comments are appended to that post.  Additionally, most content pages have a left-hand sidebar titled “More Like This”, which certainly encourages additional clicks and page views (it worked for me!).

VMworld created virtual conference sponsorship packages for exhibitors, with pricing discounted if you’re already exhibiting at the VMworld physical conference.  3D style booths are planned – the current community features 2D style booths.  Here’s the Dell booth:

VMworld.com - Dell's Booth

Source: VMworld.com - Dell's Booth

This shows the top third of the booth – below it is Dell content, along with community content (blogs, discussion posts, etc.) around Dell topics. You’ll notice a “floor map” of the booth, which shows the physical location of my avatar.  Users utilize the arrow keys on their keyboard to move around within the booth.

VMworld Europe “floors” later this month (February 24-26) in Cannes.  If you’re lucky enough to get to Cannes, enjoy the show.  If you’re not able to attend, then go online and enjoy the online networking.  Registration for VMworld Europe can be found here:

http://vmworld.com/community/conferences/europe2009/


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