We do several virtual trade shows in closely monitored corporate environments, very successful, and very loved by participants, held entirely online – with no in-person counterpart. The definition of success of these virtual fairs however, is different from what the convention industry would consider to be the definition of a successful trade show. What I foresee happening is for every marketing department to be weaving in virtual trade shows as part of its marketing mix. This post may seem like introspection or a set of lessons learned. As is usually the case with any exercise in introspection, some good will come out of it. By understanding and confronting the reasons for the failure of virtual trade shows to realize their true potential – of being able to connect millions of businesses worldwide – I hope to facilitate some thinking about the right climate for virtual fairs to flourish.
It is just a matter of time before virtual fairs become as popular as social networks. Social networks are limited to people who know each other through a certain degree of separation. Virtual trade shows, on the other hand, make chance encounters possible. Therein lies their power and potential.
- Virtual tradeshows might connect businesses, but they fail to connect emotionally with business professionals. It is more interesting to hear of a real-life romance that grew out of an online dating site than to hear of a successful business deal through a lead found at a virtual trade show. Ever heard of two businesses falling in love with one another at an online matchmaker, and wanting to do business together? Even if we hear of them, there are perhaps very few scenarios in which they could become human-interest stories.
- Virtual tradeshow participants do not like to share their success stories. When we piloted a trade show for the promotional products industry way back in October 1999, I did some follow-up calls to find out if any real inquiries and orders were generated. An exhibitor actually had someone place an order directly after visiting his virtual booth. Here’s the problem. For competitive reasons, he did not want me to publicize it. About a month ago I heard that a virtual exhibitor was talking about 2 contracts she won after online visits at her virtual booth from buyers of a large Fortune 100 corporation. Again, due to competitive reasons, she has avoided media attention. I heard that it took 15 years for sliced bread to become wildly popular. I believe virtual trade shows will have greater success once it is not such a well-kept secret.
- Virtual trade shows are too transparent. Every click of the mouse can be tracked in a virtual trade show. Trade show organizers are more easily held accountable for the return on tradeshow that they deliver to exhibitors. The return on investment in a virtual trade show is easy to identify and analyze in absolute terms. In a real-world trade show, there are several subjective aspects that factor into a participants’ perception of whether they consider a trade show a success or not.
- Virtual trade show is an underdog with no cheerleaders. Without exception, whenever I have mentioned virtual trade shows to marketers and exhibitors they have always expressed tremendous enthusiasm for its value. However, when perceived as a replacement to in-person trade shows it has evoked strong mixed reactions. Often a trade show gig is an escape from the cubicle. It is the time when one can combine a trip to exotic locales along with the family and have a mini-vacation. Virtual trade shows are not merely fighting misconceptions about what they can do for a business, but they actually compete with a marketing executive’s leisure time. Virtual trade shows shoot themselves in the foot when they try to position themselves as helping a business executive spend time with her or his family. Asking someone to give up in-person trade shows and do only virtual trade shows is like asking a connoisseur of chocolates to give up chocolate. Highly unlikely.
- “There is no such thing as a virtual trade show”: This, quite literally was the welcoming remark of a veteran trade show industry executive whom I had gone to meet during our early years in business, as I was being ushered into his office. As he described the magic of bringing to life an in-person tradeshow, the magic of ‘getting it right’, the magic of bringing the right attendees in front of the right exhibitors year after year, the magic of seeing an empty convention center come alive over a 3-day period, the thrill of creating value and entertainment, I could see in his eyes the pride and joy of creation. He said it feels like a Hollywood movie maker. Virtual trade shows may very likely have to wait until they have learned to scale up in alternate untapped markets before they can earn the respect and the attention of veterans in the trade show and media industry. For now, it is like telling Formula One drivers that their races will be held in the video game arcade. In their present state, virtual trade shows can provide neither a comparable adrenalin-rush, nor the incremental financial incentive to get established trade show organizers excited about them.
- The tradeshow metaphor is being carried too far. When we began in the late 90’s it made sense to borrow the trade show metaphor for these online events. Making a virtual booth look and feel like a real-world trade show booth helped users scale the learning curve rather well. However, the demographics of the workforce has changed significantly in the past decade. The new entrants to the workforce view the web as an extension of their universe. There is no need for a real-world metaphor to explain what one is trying to do with a virtual trade show. Why then should a virtual booth look like a real-world trade show booth. Why should one have virtual trade shows that have a panoramic 2-dimensional view of an exhibition hall with meaningless human-like figures gliding by aimlessly? Why are virtual trade shows not defining themselves to really provide an extra dimension to the entire marketing experience of a business. Why provide a metaphor when the virtual trade show can never replace the in-person trade show and is not designed to replace it?
- Absence of standards on what an ideal virtual trade show should do is a major obstacle. We get inquiries for different kinds of online environments. It is not possible to describe them accurately with the term virtual trade shows. They serve various purposes. They always have a business objective. They aim to solve one or more problems. They often have nothing to do with in-person trade shows. However, the absence of standards for virtual trade shows means that it is open to anybody’s interpretation. When one looks at publicly accessible virtual trade shows, whether they be of HGTV or of the EPA, one never knows what to expect. The concept of same-time, different-place interaction as my co-founder aptly puts it, is missing most of the time. Making users go through meaningless convoluted pages of navigation only go to reveal that the virtual trade show suffered from lack of a clear direction, purpose or sense of ownership.
- Use of traditional media to pull audiences into a virtual trade show is known to fail. We have learned this from experience. If you send me a post card in the mail reminding me of a virtual trade show, or if you put an expensive ad in the nation’s leading journal about a virtual career fair, I still can’t click through to enter.
- Exhibitors and sponsors fail to take ownership of the virtual trade show experience being offered. Unfortunately, some of the virtual trade shows that I have experienced include cases where a media company goes through hoops to advertise the virtual trade show, pummels me with emails to stay on my radar screen, only to have no real human being available online during the live event, or have someone clueless and/or indifferent, who simply takes down an email address and phone number to pass on to the right person. Virtual trade shows fail when sponsors and exhibitors do not have sufficient skin in the game.
- The feeling that anything online ought to be free. There are two problems with giving access to a virtual trade show for free even when a sponsor is supporting it fully. One is that without sufficient skin in the game, the groups that are supposed to show up online to make the virtual trade show a success, will more than likely not show up. Secondly, when a virtual trade show is delivered for free, it can not be adequately supported. An improperly supported virtual trade show in turn is a disservice to the users and to the concept itself. Just like in-person trade shows, a virtual trade show distinguishes itself by the quality of the traffic and interaction it can produce.
- I danced even though I had sore feet. Trade shows usually are a lot of fun. Often they include a band and a dance floor. Virtual trade show producers then have a very poorly woven argument under which to take cover if they try to tell trade show participants that you can spare yourselves some sore feet at our virtual trade show. Sometimes, the ‘no sore feet’ argument sells, but it is not a sufficiently strong one to result in a sweeping acceptance of virtual trade shows.
- Neither the green movement nor soaring gas prices can help virtual fairs become mainstream. While getting on the green movement is great, I hesitate to anchor the value proposition for our virtual trade shows on that argument. It is the same about spiralling gas prices. The virtual fairs have been compelling in their value even when gas was selling at $0.95 a gallon. It should be no different even if gas hits $8 a gallon. Virtual fairs have been compelling in their value well before see-through screeners at airports force us to spend an extra 10 minutes at the gym. No free-gas coupons here. Riding the latest news headlines have never helped virtual trade shows.