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May 10, 2009

SOCIAL CLUB 3.0:Where did all the virtual meetings go?

Last year virtual worlds were being hailed as the next big thing in the meetings and events industry, but with economic conditions becoming increasingly stormy, the technology seems to have dropped off the agenda. Pete Roythorne looks at what’s going on in the virtual meetings and events scene.

Of all the new technologies coming on the scene, Virtual Worlds have been hailed as the one that could really change the face of meetings and events. But is this technology really delivering on its promise or has it just disappeared off the meetings scene altogether in the past 12 months?

“A year or so ago many companies were hitting the news as they experimented with Second Life as a platform for virtual meeting and events, but virtual worlds seem to have slipped off the hype-radar over recent months,” says Peter Dunkley, director of depo consulting which specialises in business applications of virtual worlds and social media. “This is a little surprising as so many of the headline benefits of virtual events are right in the hot-spot of today’s recession-hit companies looking for ways to reduced cost.”


Off the radar: Virtual events may not be the current hype,
but they won't be out of the headlines for long


According to Nick Wilson of Clever Zebra, which designs real events in virtual worlds, despite the lack of hype, the demand is definitely still there. “We've seen more interest in secure virtual world events so far this year than the whole of 2008," he says. "Much of that can be attributed to the near perfect storm of economic downturn, accelerated environmental concerns and virtual worlds technologies starting to mature.”

Meanwhile, Tim Gibbon, director at social media and marketing agency Elemental, believes it’s the attendees that are pushing adoption: “There has certainly been more interest around virtual events," he says. "Although some brands and organisations have exercised caution, the interest from attendees has been more optimistic.”

Waiting to take the plunge

However, Wilson believes that brands are holding back and waiting for their peers to move first. “Some organisations we're working with are clearly breaking new ground in their industries and we're hoping to work with them to produce case studies later in the year to get more people to jump onboard,” he says. “Our goal is to make business travel obsolete. All the things we need to do this are available today, it's just a question of reaching the tipping point in adoption.”

Of course, stepping into virtual worlds is a bold move, requiring vision and the capability to convince your colleagues that attending events as a cartoon-character in a Tomb-Raider-like computer game is a good idea. Downturns are not generally the best time for cutting-edge eccentricity, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some brands are holding back.

For those bold enough to experiment, however, the rewards can be impressive. Dunkley points towards a recent IBM case study. “IBM has been engaged with virtual worlds in a big way for a few years now and is starting to use them as part of its corporate technology toolkit,” he explains.

The case study focuses on IBM’s Academy of Technology Annual Meeting, held over three days last October in Second Life. With 200-plus attendees, the return on investment (ROI) for the event was $320,000 in reduced travel costs and increased productivity on a total event cost of $80,000.


Tech heads: A social and technical exchange delivered
at a fifth of the cost and no jet lag


Positive impact
Joanne Martin, president of the IBM Academy of Technology, says: “Second Life provided an opportunity for us to have a positive social and technical exchange, addressing most of our collaboration objectives. And, we delivered the experience at about one fifth the cost and without a single case of jet lag.”

Martin saw the key to a successful event as being its effectiveness at connecting people and providing a networking opportunity. “The fact that I really felt a part of that [virtual] existence surprised me a lot — it opened up the potential for what this technology could be,” she explains. “The immersion [in Second Life] resulted in a very strange, yet compelling psychological effect, where part of me really felt like I was physically there. And I would watch myself walk around and talk to people. Colleagues would wander over to talk to me.”

Not everyone can do it on this scale. “Events on this scale are not the ideal starting point for the inexperienced (IBM has over 6,000 staff in its ‘Virtual Universe Community’) but if you are looking for a way to get a geographically dispersed audience together on a tight budget then Second Life might just be worth a look,” explains Dunkley.

A more social future
So what does the future hold for virtual events? Gibbon believes that linking them to social networking is a key way forward.

“Attendees should be able to create profiles of contacts that they 'meet' and possess the means to contact them via email, messaging and more recently, and obviously, social network capabilities that are available,” he explains.

“If these virtual events were more 'open' then they could possibly enjoy good relationships with social networks that they share synergies with, this extending the life of what transpires beyond the event. The ability to connect, update and re-engage with users is critical if relationships are going to be created and sustained, so whatever mechanism can be integrated into such virtual meetings and interaction need to be sustained beyond the virtual realm.”

The reality is that while attending or even organising virtual events can certainly tick all the right boxes on the corporate social responsibility agenda and deliver sustained ROI here too, it seems we still have a way to go before virtual worlds really fulfill their hype and potential in the meetings and events space. But with some high-profile movers and shakers leading the way in this environment, this current dip below the hype-radar is unlikely to be a permanent one.

You can download a full copy of the IBM case study here

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