I’ve always thought virtual trade shows were a gimmick, but that changed on April Fool’s Day.  Feet on my desk, notebook in my lap and determinedly multi-tasking,  I was able to carry out one of the key functions of trade shows: networking. What made it possible was the virtual lounge area of spring 2009 Digital Marketing World.

This screen grab (click to enlarge) shows only a sample of the introductions, shout-outs, transfers of v-cards and plans to follow up that flooded the “lounge” all day.  It looked like an IM chat session with 400 new acquaintances, all at once.  Keeping track of it did get daunting, especially because the entire list annoyingly scrolled with each new update, knocking you off the post you were trying to read.

But that’s easily fixed.  What’s important is that more than 14,000 people from all over the world pre-registered and those who I “saw” seemed to love it.  The interface looked like an actual conference (complete with aimlessly wandering attendees and crowd noise) and the sessions were, well, like most Webinars. Just like in the real world, you could discreetly leave if your attention flagged, with no worries about banging the door on your way out.

The lounge, though, was where the real value was for me. The chats had the same energy and feel of the spontaneous meetings you have at an old-fashioned show (the one with airline trips and expensive hotels.) It was actually easier to post a message asking “anybody here into (name your subject)?” than trolling a happy hour.

For vendors, in fact, I think the lounge could be one of the key draws to get prospects to their virtual trade shows. A few suggestions: Make it easy for attendees to easily redirect chats off-line to their personal email, to exchange v-cards and to create topic-specific sub-groups. And don’t let your salespeople  jump in too often to steer a prospect to a session or a booth.  Instead, let the attendees tell each other what’s cool, and discreetly eavesdrop to learn what they really are thinking about.  That’s something that hard or impossible in the impossibly old-fashioned real world, where you have to get up from your desk.

Time to short your airline and hotel stocks? 

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Filed under: IT MarketingPR/Marketing Trends

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