Come out of the kitchen and join the party

Back in January the marketing team at 6Connex posted the following:

Here’s a list of live (as we write today) virtual environments to give you an idea of how the virtual technology platforms (6Connex and others) are being used:

  • Secure international sales and marketing conference (3 of these)
  • Continuing medical education center
  • Partner portal with both secure entitlement and public access options (4)
  • Association trade show (14)
  • Executive briefing center with public access (2)
  • Product line marketing and communication portal (6)
  • Consumer product information center (31)
  • Highly secure pre-patent (executive only) poster show on new technology
  • Medical equipment tradeshow (4)
  • Hybrid events – virtual component to a physical show (22)
  • Sales training conference (3)
  • Thought leadership knowledge center (2)

If ever there was evidence that virtual event solutions are becoming an integral part of the mainstream, surely this is it.  And every day there is yet another announcement from a technology provider about new clients and new uses for the platform.

With the possibilities only limited by your imagination, if you haven’t already investigated the opportunities, don’t you think it’s time you did? Come and visit us to see for yourself.

Revolutions need revolutionary thinking

A mill town in the North of England

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK in the 18th Century, the greatest need was not for more raw materials, investment or manpower, but for the effective and speedy transfer of knowledge.

The key to success was collaboration and cooperation.

Back in the time of the Victorians some of this important knowledge transfer happened in exactly the way it does today: by the fluidity of employment where an individual takes their skills and contacts to a new organisation, which hopefully is open to their ideas.  Study tours were also a big part of the process, one which today we have replaced with specialist business media and exhibitions, though it is unlikely these activities are approached with the metholodical zeal shown by our ancestors.

Where we have diverged from the Revolutionaries of 200 years ago is in the formation of open collaboration, often with direct business rivals. The network of informal philosophical societies, like the Lunar Society of Birmingham, in which members met to discuss ‘natural philosophy’ (i.e. science) and often its application to manufacturing flourished from 1765 to 1809, and it has been said of them, “They were, if you like, the revolutionary committee of that most far reaching of all the eighteenth century revolutions, the Industrial Revolution”.

It was this collaboration that enabled the leading industrialists of the day to continually make progress, adapting ideas created, tested and developed by others to make their own processes better rather than trying to create solutions by spinning solely in their own orbits.  By knowing what others had trialled and tested, it meant that much going over new ground was avoided, mistakes remained unrepeated and progess rapidly made.

Collaboration and effective networks have never been more important in our changing economies, but how to build and sustain them in a culture of information overload?  By creating virtual spaces that facilitate networking across boundaries, where information can be shared, action plans created and outcomes measured, again and again…

Bye-bye Mr Association – we don’t need you any more…

Wow that’s scary.

According to the ASAE – American Society of Association Executives, in 2009 they had 90,908 Trade and Professional association members and 1,238,201 philanthropic or charitable association members.  That’s an awful lot of people.

But hang on a minute.  Let’s examine the individual’s motivation for joining an association.  For tradespeople and professionals it may well be that they are unable to practice without membership or affiliation; or that the letters they receive after their name are the kudos they need to get the job.  Within philanthropical or charitable associations the incentive is clear, an individual may be driven by personal circumstances or a desire to affect change in a certain area.

What we must examine is just what proportion of the membership actually participates in the activities of the Association and therefore has a real relationship with the organisation it gives its annual fees to.  At a recent conference we asked a roomful of event managers from Associations what proportion of their membership came to their conferences, meetings and other events.  There was an audible gasp when one individual said 50%.  Not in horror, but in awe.  Because no one else in the room was able to quote a figure above 5%.

Which means that for most Associations, the events, educational seminars and other niceties they spend the membership’s money and their time on creating are failing to engage 95% of their target audience.  If you have 5000 members therefore you can only really rely on 250 people when the chips are down.

Why bring this up?  Because if you are an Association you need to understand that unless you offer something that your members absolutely can’t do without, then they can go elsewhere, for free.  Social networking enables the creation of special interest groups, the ability to get expert advice from verifiable experts and be able to create meetings in venues that are convenient to all.  If you want to make sure that you are delivering something different, tangible and valuable then you need to embrace the new virtual technologies, like 6Connex, to create ongoing content, events, comment and advice that puts you right at the heart of your membership.

Otherwise, quite frankly, they are just going to go someplace else.

Virtual set to become the norm rather than the exception

Six months ago, if you mentioned the word virtual event 5 out of 6 people would shrug, look sceptical or even splutter at your naïvety.  Like all new innovations, trying to explain the capabilities and opportunities created by this technology was easily lost in the objections.

Not any more.

While technology companies and those used to employing disparate, often home-based, workforces were eagerly embracing this new way of communicating, professional protectionism has held other sectors back in terms of both understanding and implementation.  Areas of business that could benefit hugely from the ability to disseminate large amounts of complex information, with the ability to receive live feedback and action plans were either unable to see the possibilities or quite frankly were singing with their hands pressed over their ears.

But the economic, business and learning opportunities offered by the very best virtual solutions platforms have been hard to ignore.  Recent research by e-learning consultant Jeff Cobb among associations in the US showed that nearly 20% had already held a virtual conference with a further 45% planning to do so.  Although it is the big organisations that have been the early adopters, this research showed that the smaller groups are also able to see the benefits that this could deliver to them and were looking to follow suit.

While virtual events can’t replace that impromptu chat, where they do win hands down is in their attendance figures.  Just as many exhibitions are currently struggling to convert more than 30% of their registrations into actual visitors, virtual events are seeing conversion somewhere in the region of 70%.  In fact we have one commercial event where 1300 registered and 1297 logged on to participate in the event.

But it is when you start to see organisations like the American Nurses Association adopting the technology to enable them to deliver one of their six-monthly meetings virtually and saving approximately $80K (and all those greenhouse gases) that you should understand how communicating this way removes cost directly from the bottom line, and yet affects service delivery not one iota.

Which is probably why no one is singing any more when virtual events are mentioned.

At last the internet lives up to its early promise

When the first web site built at CERN was put on line on 6 August 1991 its aim was to enable participants to create real-time collaboration, potentially forging more open communication.

Since then, we’ve been having lots of fun creating masses of content for this beast, it has enabled more open access to information and there is no doubt that it has helped save a lot of people a fair amount of money on their car insurance.

But has it lived up to its promise?

Arguably no, because although the Internet has allowed everyone to become a publisher and a spectator, the collaborative element has been very much the poor relation.  While there are social networking sites and intranets which do, to some extent enable two-way interaction, the difficulty is that these are all micro conversations happening in splendid isolation.

Good business, medical science, research and project management of course do not run like this.  The conversations need to be linked, decisions made on sound judgement and a clear intelligence trail left behind should steps need to be retraced.  While there are many technologies that do individual bits, like TelePresence, online conferencing and networking groups, these hoover up precious time rather than creating it.

But the virtual solutions created by companies such as 6Connex, Ubivent, On24 and InXpo finally address this issue.  They bring all of the communication and social networking tools together in a single, easy to use interface that mean at last the idea that Tim Berners-Lee had nearly 20 years ago of transparent collaboration is now a reality.

The best things are always worth waiting for.

Networking delivers competitive advantage through the sharing of good ideas

In his paper The Social Origins of Good Ideas, Ronald Burt from the University of Chicago looks at the behaviour of employees and how their networks affect the generation of new ideas and how often they are applied.

Two key trends appeared from his study: that ideas generated from within a particular department were rejected more often, being seen as too insular; and that people who’s network spanned individuals across departments and organisations were more likely to come up with good ideas.

Neither of these results should be particularly surprising, but it’s good to see them qualified in an academic study.  Water cooler conversations that take place between colleagues from across an organisation enable indivudals to put a different perspective on a situation, giving examples of how something has been done elsewhere or simply to say ‘have you thought of doing it this way’.

Burton summarises the study in his paper:

People whose networks span structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations which gives them a good competitive advantage in delivering good ideas.  People connected to groups beyond their own can expect to find themselves delivering valuable ideas, seeming to be gifted with creativity.  This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability.  It is creativity as an import-export business.  An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.

Some of this explains the explosive growth of social networking.  With 25% of all internet pages visited being to one of the top 10 networking sites and 9% of all internet visits going in the same direction, our insatiable need to connect with others is going somewhere to being satisfied.

The next step is to move this networking into a truly collaborative environment, where conversations can take place between many in a virtual space that crosses geographic and language boundaries.

Ten years ago this was just a figment of our imagination, today, thanks to some very clever folk, it’s a reality.

Social media is better for networking than the real thing…

Not our words, but those of a leading exhibition industry figure in one of the LinkedIn groups that we follow.

This is backed up by some of our own research which shows that, on average, an attendee at a virtual event connects with and exchanges details with 13 other people.  From our own experience this is far more than at any exhibition we have ever attended, and on a par with the most intimate conference or meeting.

While large, live exhibitions are great for getting close to products and getting a feel for the company you might want to deal with they are not ideal for networking with your peers (despite what any event marketing manager will tell you relentlessly within their campaign communications).

Why not?

Because they are simply too huge, too disparate and don’t create areas where individuals who have the same interest or problem can congregate to exchange ideas.

A virtual event environment is built specifically to do this.  Meeting rooms, discussion topics and even conference presentations all have the facility to see who else is interested in the same topic.  You can even see a list of their names and get an idea of who they are without having to scout around looking for an entry badge helpfully stuffed in a pocket.  If you strike up a virtual chat you can exchange business cards, or maybe call them via Skype.

What virtual environments have also conquered is the concept of real accessibility for all.  Even the best of venues cannot accommodate for everyone because while they are designed to allow for a wide range of physical disabilities they cannot cater for the delegate who suffers from agoraphobia or the one who cannot bear to be in enclosed spaces without having a clear escape route.

Only by embracing new virtual technologies and blending them with the very best of live events will we finally be communicating with everyone in a particular community.