When I think of virtual worlds, I automatically think of San Francisco-based Linden Lab's Second Life virtual environment. Personally, I have a hard enough time with my first life; I don't want to have a second life and mess that up, too.
Linden Lab says its platform is used for education, business and entertainment, but another Bay Area company, Unisfair, has done many B2B trade shows and conferences for companies such as Microsoft and Qwest. I explored this a bit with Julie Jordan, senior marketing programs manager at ILOG, an IBM company. Julie has produced online trade shows both on her own as well as a few hosted through Unisfair.
Julie explained to me that a trade show in a virtual environment is similar to a live trade show. You still have an exhibit hall area with booths, a main area for keynote speakers and a place for chatting and asking questions. The difference is that you enter the virtual trade show through an online trade show portal; the keynote speeches are like webcasts and the chatting area is an active online forum.
Julie likens the virtual trade show environment to a rich and enhanced website portal with ton of content and offerings that can be saved in a virtual briefcase for future viewing. In the Unisfair environment, you don't have an attendee avatar. This is helpful as most of us would probably have trouble navigating around other clumsy avatars who are probably seeing if they can fly or be hip or strange in the anonymous ways that are encouraged in some virtual environments.
As you navigate in the virtual trade show and enter an exhibit booth, a sales rep avatar can pop up and greet you and chat with you via IM. Unfortunately, as in real life, people still don't like sales reps, even if you are virtual. "They tend to ignore any attempts to engage you in an IM chat," says Julie. "It's also easier for them to leave the trade show portal and be distracted by something else."
The best thing about virtual trade shows is that you can track every action an attendee does and slice and dice that information in numerous ways. You can get reports on every content download, webcast viewing and IM chats. This sure beats the "punch a hole in this card, put it in a fishbowl and win a prize" way of tracking who went where.
Julie warns that it's more time consuming and costly to produce it on your own as you have to manage the content production and all the other backend work to pull it off. On the plus side, it's pretty cool to put a PR spin on your work and say you've created a successful virtual trade show. Running it through a publisher like Unisfair allows you to use their engines to do all the heavy lifting of creating an optimal environment and getting attendee reports.
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