Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What! No Virtual Booth Models?

I’m “at” the Comdex Virtual event right now. It’s an unusual experience. This is not the first time I’ve participated in virtual trade shows as both an attendee and a speaker. It’s been awhile though and the experience is a bit different than it was in the past. It’s much more elaborate, more like a real conference. Unfortunately, some things are the same such as jumpy video.
I get virtual trade shows. Let’s face it, for a lot of attendees big trade shows are boondoggles. Expensive boondoggles. You have to pay to travel, pay for hotels and meals, and pay for the show. A lot of IT managers used to justify trade shows as part of employee education. That was true for some people but a lot of folks got too little “education” out of these industry confabs. Instead they got a lot of swag (the stuff they give away at booths). Marketing people even have a term for these folks. We call them trick-or-treaters. Besides junk to fill up their cubicles all that most attendees got were vendor pitches masquerading as seminars. Not a good use of limited budget dollars.
From the vendor point of view, you spend a big chunk of your marketing budget on booths and travel and came back with few qualified leads. Instead of customers with money, you waste your time on trick-or-treaters and folks too low on the totem pole to have any influence on spending. Trade shows in general have two business goals. First, spreading the word i.e. marketing. Branding, education, PR, positioning, and messaging are key activities at trade shows. In this regard, trade shows are generally successful. The press is at these events and people have little else to do but listen to your message. Unless the show is in Las Vegas. Then all bets are off. Get it? Bets? Okay we’ll move on.
The second big goal of trade shows, from a vendor perspective, is lead generation. No matter how you look at it, there are better ways to generate leads. Again, you have to pull some of your marketing and sales team out of the field so they can sift through lots of the trick-or-treater types to get a few decent leads. It’s not very efficient. To get anyone to talk to you at all, you have to sink a boatload of money into flashy booths, presentations, entertainment (magicians, comedians, etc.) and other diversions to cut through the white noise of the expo floor. That’s just to swipe the badge of someone unlikely to buy anything in the first place.
Virtual trade shows are intriguing because they are cheap for everyone. No flashy booths or expensive travel for vendors. For attendees it has the advantage of  allowing you to do other things while “attending” (like your job) and it doesn’t take a big divot out of your budget. I can see it for education and messaging. I still don’t see it for lead generation.
I’m fascinated by how much effort has gone into making Comdex Virtual mimic the experience of a real trade show. There are keynotes, breakout sessions, virtual booths and a lobby with flashing advertisements. There’s even hospitality suites that you’re not allowed into without an invite. You get to feel the same pang of of disappointment you would experience walking past a real hospitality suite that you’re not invited into. Ah, the memories.
Despite advances in show design there are still a bunch of annoying quirks. Video is jumpy and makes every speaker sound like Max Headroom. If Hulu and YouTube could figure this out you’d think Comdex Virtual could. The slides for the keynote don’t change. It’s probably a stupid technical problem but it effects the experience. Some of the virtual booths have tiny PowerPoint presentations running. It’s like business for Smurfs. And just like Smurf signs you can’t read the slides. Folks like Microsoft and EMC figured that out and had video presentations. You can hear just fine no matter how tiny the talking head is.
What Comdex Virtual can’t reproduce is, for me, the most important aspect of a real show – running into people I know. A lot of business gets done when you happen upon colleagues and old friends. They try to do this with the VAR Bar - group chat room - but it doesn’t work. It is overpopulated with vendors and the text scrolls so fast that you can’t really see anything interesting. It is tough to search for someone you know (the virtual equivalent of scanning the room) because the application had the annoying habit of suddenly jumping to the top of the list. Besides, looking around a physical room is much faster than scrolling through more than 200 names and icons.
Comdex Virtual goes a long way to making virtual trade shows more enjoyable and interesting. The structure of the event, made to appear like a live event, provides familiar context. It is certainly easier on the budget. Still, it doesn’t allow for one of the most crucial parts of a trade event – human contact.
At least the food is better than it was at live Comdex. And I don’t have to wait for a cab back to my hotel. That’s something the original event could never deliver on.


Jim Reilly said...

Hi Tom,
I enjoyed reading your review and totally agree virtual events will never replace or even come close to the human interaction you get at a physical event.
However, I would disagree that virtual events are worthless for lead generation. In fact, as all interaction and activity is 'on platform' the exhibitor should be able to get very useful intelligence regarding visitor/prospect activity: what videos were viewed, what documents downloaded, transcripts of conversations, what questions were asked, most popular search terms, etc.
All in all, I think virtual events still have a way to mature, but the same principles for physical and virtual events still apply: content is king - give people valuable information and they will make the effort to find it and consume it. Create a proposition of genuine value, market it well and then deliver on all your promises.
I look forward to reading future posts.
Kind regards,
Jim Reilly

Tom Petrocelli said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the comments. You mention out one of the big points I missed - gathering intelligence. Getting real intel on customers is likely easier at a virtual event than a real event, at least in terms of measurable intel.
I'm still not convinced on lead generation. Getting valuable leads at a live event is difficult enough. I still have my doubts if virtual events can do any better.

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Tom Petrocelli said...

Boy, this is what I hate about moderating comments on a blog. I was not sure what to do with this last one. Is it spam? Quite possibly. Real praise? I hope so. It was crafted in such a way that it was ambiguous. So, I'm letting this one go by.
In the future, anyone who puts a link to something that is not relevant to the post will be rejected.

Jim Reilly said...

Hi Tom,
I wouldn't worry about it - at least you're getting some traffic and some interaction. Congratulations - it's not too easy when people have thousands of us bloggers competing for their time and attention.
I'd be happy with a single comment at this point in time LOL! (That isn't a thinly disguised attempt to get a 'sympathy comment' by the way).
Kind regards,