Trade Shows Go Virtual at ON24; The Civilized Alternative to Second Life?

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video press releases, then evolved into a provider of streaming, on-demand financial news about the Internet economy—sort of like Bloomberg TV, but a decade ahead of its time. The company grew “exponentially,” according to Sharan. But after the dot-com bust of 2001, the upscale retail investors who had been ON24’s main subscribers lost interest, and the business fell apart.

“Sometimes you hit a wall and you die, and sometimes you get to continue as a management team,” Sharan says. After burning a million dollars a month through most of 2002, he and his co-founders realized that the same streaming technology they’d used to publish newscasts could support corporate webcasting. The company slimmed from 120 employees down to 35, recapitalized with help from Rho Ventures, Canaan Partners, and U.S. Venture Partners, and landed two big life-saving financial-industry customers, Credit Suisse and Merrill Lynch.

Sharan took the opportunity to focus the company’s engineers on eliminating the waits, interruptions, audio snafus, and other hiccups long associated with Web video. “If you are doing a large webcast with north of 20,000 people, you can’t be down for even 30 seconds,” he says. By building a reputation for reliability and scalability, ON24 grew into one of the leading webcasting companies by 2006, earning revenue on a combination of annual subscriptions and one-off event charges.

In 2007, Sharan says, “I started hearing from our customers that there was this new category emerging and beginning to be used for demand generation—live, full-day-long virtual events. It became very clear to me that we had to have either a build or buy strategy on that. We decided to build it.”

To understand the type of virtual event ON24 supports today, don’t picture a fully immersive video-game world. The company’s Web-based events can include some 3D environments, but they’re usually more like stage sets than fully explorable environments. “This is not Second Life, where there are people flying around and giant avatars giving you the finger,” says Sharan. “These are controlled business environments.”

In ON24’s virtual spaces, content is king. The screens are peppered with buttons, links, or videos designed to help prospective customers find product information or connect with company representatives. It’s all organized using visual metaphors drawn straight from the world of physical trade shows or office buildings. This sample webcast produced for IBM, for example, frames a webcast and slide show within a virtual auditorium. The image at left shows a virtual convention-hall atrium, with doors leading to a virtual auditorium, exhibition hall, communication center, and resource center.

Platform 10, which the company released in March, includes a kind of editing studio that lets event hosts customize their virtual show spaces. They can include slides, media players, live chat, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn sharing, data sheets, white papers, case studies, virtual business cards, and … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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