A Webinar at a Tradeshow?

    April 25, 2007

What if you organized a trade show and sold booth space to vendors, advertised the event, got a few thousand people to register… And then nobody showed up? If you were using Unisfair Virtual Events, you’d be perfectly happy.

Unisfair is a California company that sells software enabling a virtual re-creation of a live conference. An event organizer rents a virtual "hall" from Unisfair. The hall consists of auditorium space, exhibitor booths, a media library, professional networking lounges, and a decorated lobby for visitors to enter. The organizer can then sell booth space to exhibitors, charge for sponsorship and signage, charge a registration fee to attendees,and so on. It’s very much like a live show, but everything takes place on the computer.

Participating exhibitors can create a complete booth layout, choosing their colors, signage, demo spaces, and available documentation for visitors. But instead of paying for electric drops, plant rental, garbage pickup, carpeting, and setup/tear-down labor, they create their space using software wizards. They can assign salespeople, marketing reps, engineers, and executives to "booth duty" from each person’s office. As visitors arrive, they engage in chat sessions with the right people to address their questions. If they happen to show up after hours (when the exhibit hall is "closed") they can browse through the company’s documentation or leave a message for later follow-up.

That’s all very cool and an interesting take on business collaboration in a familiar context that echoes a real world experience. But this column concentrates on web conferencing and webinars… What’s the connection?

Any good public conference is going to feature speakers talking about subjects that the audience wants to hear about. In an online environment, the analogy is a webinar. So the audience can enter the public auditorium and listen to speakers at their scheduled times – with reminders for upcoming presentations broadcast throughout the event "hall" to prompt attendees to stop in. A large conference might organize presentations into topic-specific tracks, with several different presentations going on simultaneously. Of course the advantage to the online version is that each presentation can be recorded and made available very quickly for people who want to catch a subject they missed during its live presentation.

When I talked to Brent Arslaner, the Vice President of Marketing at Unisfair, he told me that another big advantage to giving presentations online is that speakers can pre-record the bulk of their presentation to avoid live session jitters. They can then run the recording of their speech as if they were live, answering audience questions through chat as they go and switching over to a live Q&A session at the end of the canned portion.

I took a look at the webcasting portion of the software and I got a kick out of the big-screen theater motif they used to frame the available presentations. The presentation functionality is fairly simple, by design. You can upload a PowerPoint slide deck, advance through the slides, and chat through text messaging with audience members. The audience can see pictures and biographies of the speakers. Brent says that the software supports PowerPoint animations and slide transitions, although I didn’t have a chance to test the implementation myself.

There is no support for live annotation ("whiteboarding") over slides, there is no desktop/application sharing, and there is no support for interactive audience polling. What you do get is field-tested capacity for very large audiences. Brent said they had run a real-world event with 6000 simultaneous participants.

While we’re talking about figures and statistics, Brent also impressed me with some studies Unisfair had run on audience behavior patterns. He says they found that customer virtual events tended to average 3000 registrants and 1500 attendees, with the average visit lasting for 2.45 hours. That long attendance span surprised me. Brent allowed that people may leave the event up and running in a browser window, checking back to see when the next presentation of interest is scheduled to start.

Unisfair provides complete event production assistance, including hall design, exhibitor assistance, promotion and marketing, and production and recording of webcasts used in the auditorium. They also provide reports on attendee behaviors and they can put together lead scoring based on a client’s indicators of "significant" activities. The majority of business to date has come from the publishing industry, with the big magazines putting on trade shows and conferences in the subject area of their publications.

But Unisfair introduced a new product offering last week designed to serve the needs of single enterprise customers. Virtual events in this space might encompass user conferences, partner shows, or educational summits, as well as general lead generation. I tried out a virtual event that Tibco had put together as an enterprise conference and I liked the way that it felt more interesting and "seductive" than simply posting a list of available webinars and marketing documents on a web page.

This is a fun and potentially lucrative application of some established functionality in a new and appealing context. The business world can use more of these unique ways to make remote collaboration more friendly and familiar. Kudos to Unisfair.