A virtual trade show is a cross between a webcast meeting and a video game. And it's the next big trend in trade shows. Although a mere 1% of all trade shows are now held online, industry experts expect that by 2015, more than 25% of trade shows will be conducted in virtual environments. That's a market you can't afford to ignore.
Like online meetings, a virtual trade show can be simple or breathtakingly realistic. The simplest assemble a series of pages, each one a virtual booth for an exhibitor, plus instant messaging so exhibitors and attendees can talk in real time. The more complex are complete environments like high-level video games or such online worlds as Second Life. In these, each participant controls an avatar. VOIP (voice over internet protocol) can allow you to talk to attendees, and you can easily email brochures or allow attendees to download them.
But why bother when face-to-face meetings are so much more satisfying and real? Because virtual trade shows offer some solid advantages.
1. Triumph Over Tighter Budgets
Imagine a trade show with no costs for transportation, shipping, hotels, hospitality, or booths, and just a minimal cost for exhibit space. That's a virtual trade show.
With travel costs rising and travel budgets falling, more industries are turning to virtual trade shows as a less expensive way to showcase their wares. Electronics and high tech companies are naturally comfortable with the online format, but they're not alone. Plenty of other industries, from plumbing to candy-wrapper design, have held successful virtual shows.
2. Spread Your Wings
All too often, the sheer size of trade show investment keeps the marketing department stuck in a traditional rut of "what worked last year." The new medium will free you to experiment with innovative exhibit ideas—and rapidly change the ones that don't work. At a virtual trade show, you don't need to worry about the flow of foot traffic or many other design constraints.
Moreover, you'll have help designing your display. Set-up on virtual trade show sites takes less than an hour, and the software is supplied. Depending on the site, you will have an exciting array of multimedia tools at your service. Some offer VOIP (voice over internet protocol), so you can chat by voice with attendees. Most offer instant messaging capabilities, so you can chat in real time with attendees—and keep several conversations going at once.
3. Open a Stall in a New Market
Not only will you be able to test fresh approaches, you will also have the freedom to explore new markets without fear of blowing the annual budget. Because of the low overhead, you can dare to attend non-traditional trade shows you might not otherwise attempt.
4. The Future Is Green
Compared to traditional trade shows, virtual trade shows are "greener." Lowering environmental impact is an increasingly important goal for many companies. Tax incentives for cutting fuel costs are also likely to increase, making virtual exhibits an even more attractive proposition.
5. Follow That Lead!
Traditional trade shows often generate exciting leads. Unfortunately, 80% of those leads are never followed up - a statistic bound to discourage the most enthusiastic marketing professional. The reasons are myriad: disconnects between marketing and sales departments, the difficulties of reading hand-scribbled names and addresses, the tedium of entering contact information by hand into databases.
However, virtual trade shows collect the data for you - and most include built-in lead management software. Suddenly tracking those leads becomes simple. In addition, many systems offer tags so you can make notes on attendees or companies, making it easy to follow up. You can also keep tabs on both staff and attendee activities.
Virtual trade show systems generally allow you to run analytics as soon as the show is over. Instead of entering all the data separately, the virtual trade show tracks and analyzes it for you. You'll be able to start following up leads immediately, which can greatly improve your return on investment.
6. Market to the Twenty-First Century Customer
Most important of all, virtual trade shows will help you reach out to the digital generation. Over time, more and more corporate decision makers will be at least as comfortable with the virtual world as they are with text on a page.
Already members of the digital generation are taking over key positions in government and business. President Obama's transition team was co-chaired by a Wharton professor distinguished not only for his scholarship but for his skill at World of Warcraft, a virtual raiding game. Plenty of people now in their thirties could use a mouse before they could clutch a pencil, and they spend their spare time on Second Life and other virtual realms. A virtual trade show will seem as natural to them as the telephone does to older people.
This demographic trend is bound to continue. Gaining experience now in the virtual world will give you an edge in marketing to this vast demographic.
The virtual trade show may never completely replace the great exhibit halls. Face-to-face contact is just too essential for many people. However, a wise marketing professional will use this exciting new technology to reach out to customers. It's one more tool in your arsenal, and you can use it effectively to improve your company's bottom line.
Written by Susan A. Friedmann, CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, internationally recognized expert working with companies to increase their profitability at tradeshows. Author: "Riches in Niches: How to Make it BIG in a small Market" and "Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies." For a free copy of "Exhibiting Success" sign up for "Tradeshow Tips Newsletter" at www.thetradeshowcoach.com
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