Any trade show has a lot of moving parts. A virtual trade show has even more, and a virtual trade show on a platform built from scratch that we’ve never tested from the front-end is the thing of nightmares.
So last Thursday we decided to do a dry run on our platform to test the preparedness of our vendors, the experience for attendees, and the limits of the technology. In summary things went well, though there were a few hiccups.
We started with a plan, laying out the morning in blocks of time, just as we would during the actual trade show, with who-does-what-and-where all lined up and well organized. Each of the vendors took to their booths, and our emcees made their streaming debut (albeit to a private audience).
As always when you introduce technology into an equation you’re opening the door for entirely unforeseen and sometimes out-of-your-control issues to arise. For example, during our dry run the need for my server specs to be upgraded – something that had been in the plans for several months – suddenly became Priority One.
There were challenges with getting some live streams working, but as a group we bantered back and forth in our group chats to help develop a set of best practices, and general information shared along the way. The vendors, by and large, had no trouble with their content and their pacing in the dry run, which is encouraging. Engagement is a tricky thing in virtual world, especially when the budget to build the technology to make it happens was zero dollars.
But it’s all about the learning. We test the system, we try the things, we stress the system. Then we see what worked and what didn’t and we adapt and innovate.
After the dry run we all came together to debrief, and each group talked about what went well and what their challenges were. My job through most of this experience has been to ensure that the tech is doing its job to facilitate the trade show, but not get in the way of it. The feedback from the vendor groups was, for me, invaluable to the learning and final execution process.
The best practice list that came form the debrief will be invaluable for all of our vendors and makes us all more prepared to meet you, and all our attendees, and to do our very best for our charities on Thursday.
How do you reach your customers, clients, donors while you, and they, are stuck at home? How do you show support for your favourite business or cherished charity when a global pandemic looms large over you every day?
You get innovative and you make deliberate choices.
The path back to normal will be long, slow, and faced with challenges, but there are also opportunities hiding in the nooks and crannies of our work-from-home spaces that we can use to still have an impact and do good in our communities. We just have to look for them, and then choose to pursue them.
For us, as advertising and marketing students, that meant looking for ways to still run our annual charity trade show even though we can’t have crowds or use the space on campus. That was certainly a wet blanket thrown on our usual plans. But rather than just throw up our hands and say “whelp, I guess we just can’t” and opt to study trade shows in theory online, we decided to look at our options and find solutions.
The solutions available to organizations and businesses are going to vary based on industry and product/service delivery, but there are some good examples of creative thinking happening already: hair salons that offer services on the sidewalk, stores that have contracted with locals to do deliveries or do curb-side pickup, and charities that address food insecurity that are using take-out meals as a method of service delivery.
You have no doubt heard of examples of these businesses in your local community, in no small part because of the appreciation of their customers and the public for their innovation. This is where it becomes our turn to have an impact, too.
When we hear about local organizations and businesses that are staying open, offering their products and services, we must be deliberate in making the choice to support them. The big online retailers are an easy choice at a time like this because they can seemingly catapult anything you need onto your doorstep at a moment’s notice. But the more you look, the more you can find local organizations and businesses stepping up to match their larger competitors – sometimes by working together.
This is the approach we’re taking with Marketing for Good. We are using our marketing skills to further our reach beyond what we would usually have at our disposal – the regular traffic on campus – to have an even greater potential impact for the charities our groups have selected.
When a long silence follows the question “what’s our budget?” it doesn’t take me long to start building a no-cost-low-cost solution in my head.
But I still wanted to see what was out there.
The first step in deciding whether to buy a platform on which to host Marketing for Good or whether to built it was to figure out what features we wanted our vendors to be able to access. We started by listing out the things we could think of off the top of our heads:
Easy to build buttons/outbound links
Customization of look and feel
A way for visitors to be able to browse the “booths”
Then I set about figuring out what platform(s) offered this and what they cost, and how much time and effort it would require to build a free(ish) platform that could do the same.
There are many platforms – more now, I think, due to the pandemic – including INXPO, vFairs, 6connex, Hexafair, and more, that offer most or all of the things that I was looking for.
INXPO is a platform that has been around for a while. With its live-streaming service, it excels at presentation elements like keynote and breakout sessions, which can be presented live or as “watch on-demand”.
VFairs is geared towards online conferences, but can also do trade shows, and job fairs. Its trade show offering provides customizable booths that are designed to look like actual booths on a trade show floor that attendees can visit.
6Connex‘s virtual event platform is specifically designed for virtual trade shows and job fairs. It offers a ‘Sims’-like experience of walking though the different parts of a convention centre. Each exhibit booth appears as an image on the screen, and it can be customized to include brand materials. Some interactive features are missing, such as live video chatting.
Hexafair is the only tool on this list that focuses on being a tool for virtual trade fairs and expos; though you could certainly use it for conferences as well. The platform includes booths that attendees can interact with and even review in real time. It has that ‘Sims/Second Life’ feeling through its avatar-based interaction as well. It too does not offer live video demonstrations.
Each of these, while feature-packed and good platforms, was quickly ruled out for the purpose of Marketing for Good because they have, well, a cost that’s not zero and we have a budget that is. So, it then became a conversation about what do we sacrifice from these brass-ring offerings to be able to still have an engaging, informative trade show without spending any money.
Building a virtual world, with an avatar that attendees can use to walk around in, would have been amazing, but it’s just not feasible on a zero dollar budget, so that was the first thing to go, but as we look into other options and solutions – and we got a little innovative with it – we realized that it was also almost the only thing we had to sacrifice. We could offer most of the other things we wanted for our vendors, without costing any money.
Marketing for Good runs on the WordPress platform and uses a number of high-powered plugins to make it work. Since we couldn’t be sure of our vendors’ technical skill with website building we’ve included Elementor as a page-building tool for them to create and customize their virtual booth. This includes widgets that allow them to embed video, chat, documents, links, downloadable, games, and much more at the click of a button.
A bit of tech-savvy and some light coding has allowed us to create a guided-tour linking system that will take attendees from one booth to the next through the trade show on the day, to help ensure that all our vendors get maximum exposure. And one of the more creative – and dare I say edging on innovative – things that we’ve decided to do is to have emcees hosting a live video throughout the trade show where they will talk about what’s happening in the booths, the purpose of the trade show, and the outcomes being achieved as they happen. We believe that this little-bit-extra will drive up engagement, enjoyment, and interaction with our vendors and their chosen charities.
It now seems like it was an easy choice to build our own platform on which to run Marketing for Good, but it really wasn’t. A lot of thought went into it, and there were many nervous comments when we tentatively settled on the idea.
But sometimes innovation requires you to jump in with both feet and find the solutions to the challenges you’re presented with. And that is the common thread you will find in these pages, whether on this blog where we discuss the behind the scenes of the trade show, or on the vendors’ pages where they work to do right by their charities in a virtual world, or with the charities themselves and the challenges faced by our community that each one of them is tackling head-on in its own way.
Please register to join us and our vendors on November 26th, to experience the fruits of our innovative labour, and consider giving a little something back to one of the charities doing good work in hard times.
And also enter to win a prize. That’s worth it, too!
“Use your marketing powers for good!” It’s one of the first things you’re taught in the Advertising and Marketing Communications program at St. Lawrence College. Part of the way that we bring that mantra to life is by working with real clients almost from day one of our classes.
Working with real clients as students means we get to work with charities and that has been wonderful. In our second year, our class worked together on a large leadership project that saw us raise more than $14,000 to help build a well in a village in Mozambique.
Now in our third year, we’re doing it again – this time with a twist. Our class has broken into 7 groups, each of whom has chosen a charity to represent and we’re hosting a virtual trade show in support of them. But if you’re reading this blog I guess you already know that.
Over the next six weeks this blog will be exploring the process gone through by me and the two other students who are working as planners and administrators of the trade show.