Virtual shows : it’s coming

I remember early 2000 or maybe 2001, time flies you know, when I got a first glimpse of the virtual show.  A demo, not even the real thing, and after long consideration and internal discussion with my colleagues, we decided it just didn’t present any additional value, let alone it could be an alternative to our real-life professional trade shows.  Furthermore it took a lot of technology setup.  It were the days when no or only few computers in your office had a microphone or speakers and the days when IT administrators hammered your computer’s connections with the outside world as shut as possible.  Rightfully so back then with managers thinking the world was constantly spying on their national secrets, security appliances being sluggish and users blissfully unaware of the risks involved in inserting foreign disks or USB-sticks.  Meanwhile managers have accepted the risks of online storage and SaaS and the web browser has become one of the most important corporate software items.

In over a decade of time, life changes and so does technology and the acceptance thereof.

And so last week I attended to an actual virtual show, the real thing – it didn’t even have a simultaneous real-life counterpart.  Just some place on a web server, you can reach with a computer, tablet or smartphone.  No need to drive over or fly in, take a taxi or find a parking place, walk a mile to reach the main entrance, and again a mile to reach the doors to the actual show.  No just login and start meeting people, start learning about new solutions and possibilities from exhibitors or conference speakers.

As with a brick-and-mortar show a virtual one is considered successful when it allows visitors and exhibitors to connect, learn from each other and do business, exchange ideas, gain new insights and network.

And that’s when you notice that we’re not there yet with virtual shows to replace real-life shows.  The interaction isn’t as natural as in real life, in fact you can literally ignore all attempts at interaction without being impolite or brutal.  It still takes some plugin installation to experience all of the show’s features, which can be a barrier for some and one you wouldn’t experience in real life.

BUT let me tell you all, a virtual show has some at least these 8 great advantages :

1) networking opportunities

By default a virtual show opens up a world of potential people you want to talk to, simply because it will allow you to see who’s attending and who’s present together with you.  You can filter on company, interest or any other criteria the organizer has set in the registration form – and just strike a conversation with one or many people.  On top it allows you to schedule meetings or leave a message in the person’s inbox.  On the spot or planned well in advance.

2) presentations

Following a webinar is as simple as taking a seat in a conference or seminar room and listen to the speaker.  Yet in a virtual seminar, you’re in your own comfortable office chair and have access to your computer, laptop or mobile device to take digital notes, record the speech and if it’s all too boring to you, leave the room without being noticed or disturbing the other listeners.

3) moderated

The presentations on a virtual show are always moderated which assures a well-kept timing and easier interaction.  A good moderator has some questions of his/her own at the end of every session and can keep a debate going.  A fine moderator also makes a powerful introduction and a brief resume before and after each presenter.  A good moderator last but not least points at the appreciated evaluation of each session, very important to understand the needs of your audience.

4) takeaways

Exhibitors, speakers and sponsors used to participating in virtual shows provide ample takeaways.  Whether it be white papers or case studies or presentation handouts or basic information pdf’s, everything is ready for download.  The content is there for you, the visitor, and not promoted in some way or pushed at you in a plastic bag while you walk by.  You’re in control, check if the content has meaning to you, and then save it to your toolkit or inbox.

5) digital

Every transaction you make in the digital world of a virtual show is purely digital and therefor traceable.  Might sound a little bit scary but it’s actually not.  You can go back the next day and still remember who you spoke to and on what subject, you can see which sessions you followed and review the slides.  Check your downloaded documents.  And the really great thing is, you can easily share it with your colleagues and other stakeholders.

6) social media

Social media integration in a virtual show comes very natural.  It’s like almost normal that the link with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing, Tumblr, and others is omni-present.  Allowing for twitter chats, Q&A over Twitter, follow an exhibitor’s Facebook-page,…

7) marketing platform

All interaction being logged, means a world of opportunities for the exhibitors to follow-up immediately, after a few days or at the visitor’s request with the right feedback and information.  It can still go wrong but the chances are slimmer and as everyone knows, lousy follow-up means frustration.  At least in a virtual show it can’t go wrong anymore because you plain lost, in all the fuss of a show dismantling, the red plastic map you used at your booth to collect all business cards your sales reps collected during the show.  Believe me, that happens!  I can’t remember the number of times I got, as the last operations man on site, a call from a totally desperate exhibitor the first morning after the show.

8) transparancy

A virtual show offers complete transparency for a visitor and exhibitor on who’s been on a booth and what was talked about.  What interests did the visitor show, which speakers did he like,…  Imagine how that can help you, as an organizer to analyze the success of your show, build new revenue streams on that, adapt your billing on the facts, help you find the trigger points that attract visitors.  In short it will allow you to increase the likelihood of conversion.  In the end the only reason your show exists.

The virtual show market is a clearly growing one, estimated to get to 18,6 Billion USD by end 2015.

Not only do I think we will see a further growth in 100% virtual shows, we will at the same time experience a rapid virtualization of offline trade shows today and in the future.  Just think about the custom show apps for visitors, indoor location tracking, QR codes to retrieve exhibit information and in the near future what Google Glass could bring to a show and its visitors.

What follows in the next few lines is something many of my esteemed former colleagues will not be amused with, to use an understatement.  It will more likely tempt them to react fiercely, defensive and impulsively negative.  Good for the interactivity score of this blog, but think a little longer before calling me bad names.  Think about the 8 advantages I stated above and how you relate to them as a visitor of your own show.  Clearly it’s not a black and white choice but an option to consider and investigate.  Let your community decide, they know what they want.

My single conclusion : virtual is coming.  Not yet as a full replacement but definitely as an add-on to real-life shows or as an extra event in your organizational calendar, for those in your audience who can’t attend the physical show because of distance or lack of time.  Or as smaller international networking opportunities, to keep in touch with your audience or community.

Again looking forward with an open mind to all your remarks, even if you fully agree.  Share and like at will.