On24 touts virtual events as alternative to real thing

Watch pre-recorded presentations, visit virtual booths...

If you asked 100 random people what they dislike most about attending conferences, it's safe to say "travel," "scheduling," and "cost" would be at the top of the list for most of them. Finding the time to attend conferences and dealing with the hassles and costs associated with getting there can take away from benefits such as hearing experts talk and networking with industry colleagues.

Is there a better way? On24 thinks there is, with its virtual events platform. The product lets organizers create a virtual conference that participants can access via a Web browser. Through the Web interface, participants can watch pre-recorded presentations, visit virtual booths operated by vendors, and chat with vendor reps or other attendees, without having to leave the office. There are even areas to network with other attendees.

That's the idea, anyway. The Standard gave On24 a spin using an archived event by ION Geophysical. We were impressed with certain aspects of the service. It's not a 3D space like Second Life that you can navigate with an avatar, but it's not a typical browser-based Web conference, either. The interface is static, but is made to look like an exhibition hall, with virtual booths that attendees can visit at will. The photographic representation of an event space is a good way to connect with people who have attended real conferences or trade fairs but may not be familiar with online meetings.

Inside the virtual spaces, attendees can download product sheets, presentations, and videos, and attend live webcasts. The booths are staffed by vendor reps during live events, who can be reached via a simple text chat application. A chat app can also be used in the networking area, which also lets participants access message boards and take part in scheduled chats.

Despite the company's claim that no downloads or plugins are required to use the service, we hit a roadblock when attempting to view some of the videos, and were presented with a Windows Genuine Advantage configuration wizard associated with Windows Media Player. On24 says it also supports Real Media, Flash, and Silverlight for presentations, but these may also require software updates if you don't have the necessary components installed.

A bigger concern for any company that uses a virtual event service to attract or engage with people is whether they will get the same results as with face-to-face events. On24 claims that virtual events bring "all of the benefits and excitement of a physical event." The slogan for a competing product by Expos2 is "Real is so yesterday." However, a survey sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association last year found that most corporate executives are not convinced that Web meetings and teleconferences were as effective as in-person meetings.

On the other hand, cost and convenience may favor virtual solutions. Mark Szelenyi, On24's director of product marketing, says that its customers' shows can cost from $40,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the type of event and the number of live and on-demand webcasts. Real-world conferences may cost far more, particularly if speakers, staff, and attendees are flying in and using lots of conference center resources.

Sources and research: On24.com, On24's PR agency, emails with On24's Mark Szelenyi, Expos2.com, archived virtual event by ION Geophysical, ION Geophysical blog post, TheStandard.com

Ian Lamont is the author of The Social Enterprise blog on TheStandard.com. E-mail Ian at ian@thestandard.com. Follow Ian on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ilamont. Ian's bio and disclosures are located here.

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