Source: flickr (User: cafebiz08)
Virtual trade shows got their start by creating 2D graphical replicas of physical trade shows: exhibit halls, booths, auditoriums, lounges, etc. Most users are “wowed” in their first experience attending a virtual trade show – they enjoy the quality of the user interface and often comment that they felt like “they were there” at a physical event.
Exhibitors, too, find the virtual trade show experience to be quite enjoyable – at the same time, they often highlight important differences between exhibiting virtually vs. physically. In a physical event, for instance, you have some amount of guaranteed foot traffic on the show floor – a portion of which will naturally wander into your booth. The “efficiency” of a virtual event means that users only enter your booth by explicitly clicking into it. In a physical event, exhibitors can greet prospects with a friendly handshake – in a virtual event, the exhibitor may never see the prospect’s face.
How can virtual event platforms incorporate aspects of the physical event experience? Let’s consider a few ideas.
Source: flickr (User: ExhibitPeople)
How To: Gain Virtual Foot Traffic to Booths
On a crowded show floor at a physical event, an exhibitor knows that some percentage of attendees will visit their booth – additionally, exhibitors can increase their investment and receive strategic placement on the floor (e.g. near the entrance, near areas where food and drink are served, etc.). In a physical event, as attendees walk towards (or past) your booth, there are tactics to catch their attention (e.g. making eye contact, telling them about a special sales offer, showing T-shirts that you’re giving away, complementing them on their laptop bag, etc.). In a virtual event, you never see someone “passing by” your booth – they click directly to where they want to go.
The Guided Random Walk
Virtual event platforms could re-create the leisurely stroll down the show floor aisles. Clicking on a “take me on a guided booth tour” button could allow the platform to become the auto-pilot and guide the attendee to the “store front” of randomly selected booths. At each “stop”, the attendee is presented with an overview of the exhibitor, the products/services they provide and a list of staffers with whom they can engage. The attendee can click to enter the booth – or, continue on with the “walk”.
Once they enter a booth, attendees would see a “resume walk” button to return to the guided tour. Additionally, the virtual event platform could collect “interests” on the registration form (or on the attendee’s profile) to more efficiently recommend exhibitors (on the tour) to attendees. Since most virtual attendees prefer to visit only those areas that interest them, this service would be completely optional.
Strategic Offer Placement
Virtual event platforms provide many avenues and areas for exhibitor branding and promotion (e.g. banner ads, jumbotron, etc.) – similar to a physical booth located near the food and drink, virtual event show hosts could map out the event hot spots (e.g. lobby, auditorium, etc.) and provide sponsorship opportunities for exhibitors. For instance, the Auditorium could display banner ads that drive traffic to premium sponsors’ booths. Since the virtual attendee is bound to navigate through key areas (e.g. the Auditorium), promotions in those areas creates the equivalent of “passerby traffic” in a physical event.
Webcast Exit Actions
Imagine taking all attendees of a physical conference session and teleporting them to a specific sponsor’s booth at the conclusion of the session. Well, a virtual event makes such teleporting possible. If an exhibitor is presenting in one of the event’s Webcasts, have the virtual event platform provide an “exit action” to drive Webcast viewers to the exhibitor’s booth when it concludes. Be sure to instruct the Webcast presenter(s) to inform viewers that additional questions can be addressed within the booth at the conclusion of the Webcast. And, be sure those presenters also “exit” into their booth to provide the answers!
Source: flickr (User: SESConferenceSeries)
How To: Gauge Visitor Interest
When an attendee visits your physical booth, you can quickly judge their interest level based on facial expression and body language. While these signals are not available from virtual booth visitors, you certainly can decipher interest based on the visitors’ mouse clicks. Eloqua developed the concept of digital body language – and it applies directly to virtual booth visitors – “Digital body language can arm sales people with deep insights into the areas and levels of interest of every prospect.” (source: Eloqua)
The virtual event platform could provide real-time profiling of booth visitors, based on the actions they’re taking within the booths. Inactive visitors can probably be left alone, whereas highly active users (lots of document views, document downloads, web site views, chat requests, etc.) may literally be raising their hand to engage in a conversation.
The virtual event platform could first characterize the nature of the prospect’s interest (e.g. map the requested documents to high level “interest categories” defined by the show host) and then place a subtle offer in front of the visitor (e.g. “An online representative is available to answer questions about telepresence – click here to engage in a 1:1 chat”).
Since this feature could be deemed too “Big Brother” by attendees, it would have to be tested (to gather feedback) and/or have an explicit opt-in setting that allows attendees to enable or disable the feature.
How To: Connect with Interested Attendees
During periods of high activity in a physical booth, visitors often walk up, see that all staffers are speaking with other attendees and decide to move on to the next booth. Perhaps later in the day, the same visitor returns to see if any staffers are available. The observant exhibitor may recognize the visitor (from her prior visit) – and if so, provide special attention to her (since she made the effort to visit the booth and return a second time).
In a virtual event, all activity is tracked, which means that observant exhibitors need only turn to the services of the platform to let them know about repeat visitors. Virtual event platforms ought to explicitly track repeat visitors and alert booth staff accordingly – perhaps the platform plays one audio alert for the first time visit – and separate audio alert for the repeat visitor.
Additionally, the platform could allow exhibitors to build in rules and offers based on the amount of repeat visits. For instance, on the fifth visit to the booth (within the same day), the visitor could be offered to download a free copy of the exhibitor’s software. Exhibitors could then leverage the resulting action to qualify the worthiness of the prospect (e.g. visited my booth 5 times + downloaded a copy of my software = have a sales rep follow up tomorrow).
Source: flickr (User: bilateral)
How To: Create Better Attendee Networking
One of the key attractions to an event is the ability for attendees to network with like-minded professionals – exchanging ideas, thoughts and business cards. In a physical event, there are many “transitory phases”, where attendees migrate from one locale to another. These phases create opportunities to meet or “bump into” random strangers.
That being said, meeting at a physical event is largely inefficient, based on the random nature of the meet-up. Who knows if you’ll meet someone aligned with your interests or an uninteresting individual who’s there only for the free cocktails? A virtual event can leverage the information available in user profiles to make meet-ups a bit less random – and far better “matched”.
In virtual, we can skip past the not-so-subtle glance at another attendee’s badge label – instead, we can auto-recommend like-minded individuals. In my mind, the single most effective feature of LinkedIn is the “People You May Know” listing in the upper right of your LinkedIn home page. Virtual events ought to create recommendations (of other attendees) with the same effectiveness.
The recommendation engine could be combined with an interface similar to ChatRoulette – whereby attendees enable their webcam and rotate through and chat with other attendees in roulette-type fashion. It may not be quite the same as the physical experience, but the use of webcam can add a whole lot more than just text chat.
While it’s still true that virtual events can never replace the handshake – there are benefits of physical events that if modeled and implemented properly, can be a boon for virtual events.