Posted in April 1, 2013 - 8:28 am.by Tami Demayo
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How virtuous are virtual trade shows?

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Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive an invitation to an online event of some kind: podcast, webinar, virtual trade show, and the like. Sure, it can be challenging to weed through the constant barrage of email offers. But what could be better for a content professional like me than to simply click my way to broader horizons? My boss can’t complain, either: For the price of a few tidbits of my contact information, I get free professional development, with no time away from the office.

Considerations such as these may be one reason virtual conferences and trade shows are becoming more popular. (Market Research Media Ltd. forecasts a 56% compound annual growth rate through 2018.) The question is: Do virtual events deliver the same level of intellectual enrichment and business opportunity as their real-world counterparts? Or, do they sacrifice face-to-face relationship building on the altar of cost-efficiency and technophilia?

Recently, I participated in a virtual trade show sponsored by B2B Magazine and delivered through ON24, a provider of cloud-based webcasting and virtual communications solutions. My impression was that, in their zeal to deliver an experience that rivaled a brick-and-mortar event, the sponsor delivered many of the advantages—and some of the disadvantages—of the trade show experience.

How “live” is a talking head?

The event’s live seminars were delivered in a web conferencing format, with one window showing a live headshot of the speaker, another showing the presentation slides, and a third allowing audience participation. Although I am comfortable with web conferencing for meetings and education, it seemed to significantly compromise the benefit of attending a presentation in person, where I would be able to read the presenter’s body language and visually gauge the reaction of those around me. (ON24 offers various presentation formats, but I assume the event sponsor chose this one for bandwidth considerations.)

The side-scrolling trade show game

In the exhibit hall, I was able to scroll quickly across the line of vendor booths, which allowed me to optimize my time on the floor. (No exercise benefit there, but then again, I wasn’t indulging in any hotel breakfast buffets.) The trade show booths were a pleasant surprise in the degree to which they allowed presenters to introduce themselves and their offerings, answer my questions and provide me with relevant marketing collateral. The avatar-enhanced chat format allowed for both private and public conversations, but here is where mimicking the real world became a disadvantage. At one booth, the simultaneous conversations quickly became overwhelming, as more participants “arrived.” At that point, I took my virtual tote bag full of handouts and headed to the lounge.

Virtual coffee klatch

The event’s lounge area was a meeting place where participants could network, trade business cards, and even transact business. Not surprisingly, ON24 implemented this area using a messaging environment. No sooner had I entered the lounge, than I was approached by several other participants with requests to exchange business cards. Very little time seemed to be spent in relationship-building chit-chat, a phenomenon I found rather unfortunate, albeit time-efficient as far as superficial information gathering goes.

Although the compressed timeframe of the virtual event made it feel rushed, I left with the sense that I had learned a bit and made a few good connections. Some of these connections have since benefitted my company. As I attend more virtual events, I will probably become more adept at making the best use of the various virtual environments to achieve my objectives in the time allotted. So, I’ll reserve judgment on the lack of human contact. It’s a tradeoff that works for me—for now.

The author is a senior writer at NAVAJO Company.

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