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

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about 30 other modules and widgets, according to Mark Szelenyi, ON24’s senior director of webcasting platform product management. The resulting content is all browser-accessible, with no Webex-style client downloads required. “It’s just like going to a trade show and interacting in the booth,” Szelenyi says. “I used to produce physical events at 10 times the cost, but with this you can do it globally and have a greater reach.”

But in principle, a virtual event could be designed with any backdrop at all—from a Monopoly board to the skyscrapers of Coruscant. So why would ON24 so often fall back on the old convention-hall metaphors? “It’s early in the evolution of the technology, and people want familiarity,” Sharan says.

And while virtual booths might look old-fashioned, they have some important advantages, he says. “If I’m at a physical show and I put my business card in the fishbowl, they don’t know who I am. But if you are a CEO and you walk into Oracle’s virtual booth, they know exactly who you are, and how big your company is. And they can have people staffing the booth, from product managers to tech people, so you can select who you want to talk to.”

At the end of the day, Sharan argues, both physical and virtual trade shows are about marketing, demand generation, and sales. The company’s pitch is that webcasts and virtual shows offer customers a more flexible, self-service experience, while giving companies a more automatic way to capture leads. And there’s one more benefit to webcasts and virtual shows: you never have to tear them down and go home. In an interesting echo of its original business plan, ON24 now offers a portal called Insight24 where visitors can browse more than 10,000 recorded webcasts, white papers, and virtual events from 300 ON24 customers, from giants like EMC and SAP to startups like Apperian.

“We were down to 35 people in 2002, but we’re now five times bigger than anybody else in this space,” Sharan boasts. “In fact we are creating the space. We see a green-field marketing opportunity. I can almost guarantee you that companies that are doing 1,000 events a year today will, in three years, be doing only 700 physical events and 2,000 virtual ones.”

So if Moscone Center looks a little emptier the next time you walk by, you’ll know who to blame.

Here’s a short video courtesy of ON24, showing how the company developed the 3D environments for VUE2011.

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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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