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     Early in 2009, SAP hosted a virtual event set up to train field sales people, FKOM. This was SAP’s second large-scale virtual event, and my first–I worked in the booth of the Office of the CIO (yes, I was a virtual “booth babe”). Just to clarify, this was a “live” event where participants could attend virtual keynotes and sessions, visit a virtual show floor where they could interact real-time with others, and “hang out’ in a virtual networking lounge—much like you or I would do if we were attending a typical tradeshow or conference.

     I walked away from this experience in awe of what had been accomplished as well as the possibilities that virtual events offer our communities of the future– clearly virtual events increase accessibility in addition to saving time and money for both organizers and attendees. SAP’s virtual event opened the door to a group of SAP employees that would ordinarily not be attending this event–all attendees had the advantage of learning from the streamed keynotes and sessions, and “walking” the show floor to get in-depth information on topics of interest. Live Q&As after sessions and events reinforced information to enhance the educational experience, and generated a greater sense of community. I not only deepened my understanding of SAP’s products, but also my awareness of how we sell them—all happening in real-time, along with the sales force.  Using this vehicle to offer all employees this depth of information could only positively impact our success as a market leader.

     However, I also left with an acute awareness of some of the challenges that must be overcome in order to make these events as valuable as their live counterparts. With another virtual event coming up in February for SAP’s partners, PKOM, I thought this would be a good time to reflect on some of the lessons I learned.  Mostly, I want to share my experience in engaging others in a virtual environment.  Mastering interaction (whether it is with a customer or a fellow participant) in order to assess needs and qualify leads is an important way to justify an investment in this type of activity.  But as I learned, engaging others is challenging, but manageable: the key is to look at this vehicle on its own terms and leverage the social media technology at your disposal in “this world.” 

Challenges: 

     Some general challenges were obvious, such as becoming familiar with accessing and maneuvering the virtual space.  Others were more subtle. The excitement of attending keynotes and sessions and hearing the “big announcements” with a large group of people simply wasn’t there–although SAP did try to provide this experience by creating virtual sessions where the rooms looked as though they were filled with people. This was a good start, however, the interpersonal experience that often follows a session couldn’t happen, such as when a conversation erupts with a seat neighbor or at lunch that leads to further insight and growth of one’s personal network. I remain skeptical that this type of experience, generally inspired by an openness expressed through body language, is possible in a virtual network. However, social media tools that would allow for community comment and discussion during and after a session do provide a vehicle for following and learning from other’s – and by becoming part of the discussion, can dramatically expand one’s virtual personal network.

 

Lessons from Working a Virtual Booth

     I learned many lessons about the challenges of working at a virtual booth. The most significant was related to needs assessment and lead qualification. A primary goal of working a booth is to understand an attendee’s needs in order to qualify them as a lead and provide them with targeted information. At a live event, there’s generally some device—such as a running demo, or a theater activity, or even a game—that is set up to engage a customer. The “virtualness” of the FKOM booth made it difficult to “hook” guests. Although there was plenty of material made obvious via kiosks in the booth for review and download, engaging people in discussion without live interaction and non-verbal cues was extremely difficult. Booth staff were asked to be proactive in virtually “tapping” guests on their virtual shoulders (i.e., initiating a chat session). Guests tended to ignore chat requests, and those that accepted seemed uncomfortable engaging in any conversation.

 

     I soon realized that virtual events required a different approach towards engagement then did live events. The first simple thing I did was to change my avatar to a photo. This seemed to increase receptively towards me. Then I began to review user profiles before approaching an attendee to look for information that might help me “break the virtual ice.”  Real-time access to user information is one of the true advantages of operating in a virtual event environment over a live environment.

 

     There were some things I might have done or suggested to booth leads had I better understood in advance the dynamics of engaging attendees. These might also have leveraged the unique value of operating in a virtual environment over that of a live environment  For instance, I would have:

  • seeded the virtual booth with those who could ask compelling questions in public-facing chat environments. This might have generated interest and participation from other guests, and inspired them to proactively approach staff to answer questions;
  • suggested that virtual games with incentives be designed that required interaction with staff (note there was a game but it did not require interaction with booth staff);
  • taken advantage of active community members by asking them to blog in advance of the virtual event about booth-related topics. This would enhance community interest that would drive people to the virtual booth;
  •  reviewed attendee profiles in advance to target those likely to be interested in my booth topics, and create “smart content” that offered them targeted information based on their interests; and
  • tracked attendees path so I could understand where they had been before visiting my booth—giving me a great deal of information on their interests.

     Virtual events will never be live events; however, perhaps the right approach is to see them on their own terms. By leveraging social media tools and planning ahead, attendees can have an educationally rich experience that expands their personal network, and hosting companies and exhibitors can create powerful means to qualify customer needs and generate leads. I hope partners take advantage of the upcoming opportunity offered by PKOM.

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