David Tebbutt, Teblog

As you know, most of us are facing financial difficulties and some of us are becoming concerned about our environmental impacts. Or we may actually find ourselves being pushed in that direction by customer pressure or legislation.

We still like the idea of jetting round the world, or even driving round the country, in order to meet our suppliers, customers and work colleagues. But, faced with the aforementioned issues, we're increasingly turning to online meetings and events. And, for many, the experience falls short of expectations.

Of the whole panoply of virtual engagements from webinars to telepresence, one type probably sticks out as the most likely to disappoint and that's the virtual exhibition and conference. And this is probably because we all know what a physical event should be like, so we expect the same or something very similar with the online version.

This is a mistake.

They are not the same and each has its strengths and weaknesses. To ignore this, when planning to present, exhibit or visit, is to invite disappointment.

We are all familiar with the physical event, so perhaps it's best to focus here on the good and the bad of the virtual. You may have your own views in which case we'd love to hear them.

Primarily, a virtual event (subject to some technical and localisation caveats) is available to all, anywhere in the world. And it involves no travel or accommodation expenses. It will still, of course, take up some of the delegate's time, but they can generally choose when they want to visit. (The events usually remain online for a while after the initial event closes.) If you visit in real-time, you can probably participate in live Q&As, for example, but you may put a higher value on personal convenience. Because of the social networking tools wrapped round a virtual event, you will still be able to reach out to speakers, exhibitors and fellow delegates as long as the event site remains live.

Exhibitors and speakers also benefit from lower costs, although these are mostly staffing, travel and accommodation savings during the event itself. They still need to prepare and adapt their approach to suit the online world. Making a recorded 90-minute PowerPoint presentation available online is really not taking advantage of the new medium or, indeed, the attention span of an online visitor. Remember that, just as with the web, escape for the visitor is just a mouse click away. In theory, a virtual event should be able to pull together a high calibre of speaker or panellist because of the smaller impact on their time. They would probably be happier to do shorter presentations too if they don't have to travel thousands of miles for their appearances.

A hierarchical approach to exhibit materials would make sense. Exhibitors could offer a cascade of presentations from short and sweet down to whatever depth they feel is appropriate. And back this up with a menu of downloadable materials such as case studies, product/service information and white papers. This is similar to real life, except that shelf space is infinite, different languages can be accommodated and the materials can include podcasts and movies as well as documents and links to web pages. This self-service approach has the advantage for the delegates that they don't have to run the gauntlet of the sales team in order to lay their mitts on the collateral. They'll come back soon enough if they're interested. And, because they've prequalified themselves, their value is much higher than that of the average booth visitor at a physical event.

From the organisers' and exhibitors' perspective, they can collect an incredible amount of detailed business intelligence during the event. All the conversations a company has with its visitors and who downloaded what collateral could be captured. At a more anonymous level, all the visits, engagements and downloads made by delegates show the organiser which parts of the event are working well and which are not.

At real events, 'networking' is probably claimed as the number one payoff for the delegates. And it's true that this physical, "look 'em in the eye and shake their hand", contact is missing from online. This is an incredibly important facet of our everyday lives but, if you can't afford the time or money to participate in an important event, then a virtual equivalent might be better than no event at all. Having said that, in some respects the virtual event is better because of the ability to check out companies and individuals through the event directories and make appointments to meet them virtually. It is also theoretically possible to stimulate serendipitous meetings by having lounge areas for people to virtually mingle, backed up by on-the-fly created chat rooms if they need privacy. This does, however, miss all those body language cues which tell us whether we want to make contact or not. But some things things we're just going to have to do without if we're concerned about our budgets, our time and the environment.

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