How to Evaluate and Choose a Virtual Trade Show Platform
Choosing the right Virtual Trade Show software platform for your organization is no easy task. There’s a surplus of suppliers promising low-cost, high-quality virtual trade show software. But how can you tell the reality from the rhetoric? There are no 3rd party Virtual Trade Show Platform review or comparison sites so this article will help you do your own homework and choose a provider wisely (beyond price and a brochure).
Imagine choosing a hotel as a venue for hosting an on-site trade show or conference. You would not think about selecting a hotel without a site visit to see how easy it is for attendees to get to the hotel, the quality of the hotel infrastructure, how many staff they hotel employs to help you and your guests, amenities offered, the hotels reputation, etc. The same level of evaluation, if not more, is required when selecting a virtual trade show platform provider.
We’ve pooled our collective knowledge and put together a list of questions to ask potential suppliers.Since the service is fully hosted by the vendors or Software as a Service (SaaS), the following criteria will help you dig into the behind the scenes. It’s easy to compare price, but you really want to make sure that the business is viable/reputable, the technology is going to work when your event goes live with attendees joining, flexible and easy-to-use and there is sufficient staff available to help you post sale.
- Is the provider a viable provider?
- Where are they incorporated (are they offshore)? Ask for a copy of their W9 form which will include their employer tax ID number
- How many staff members?
- How long in business?
- What 3rd party validation is there as to quality of the company and platform (Better Business Bureau listed, product awards, security certifications, etc.)?
- Product/Features: Several platforms may look the same on the surface, but as the saying goes “the devil is in the details”. Make sure to perform a thorough demo to get a detailed understanding of the capabilities and limitations.
- Usability: How user friendly is the interface for your attendees? For example, does the chat open in a nice clean window within the location or does it revert the user to a separate chat room? Some platforms only support chat within booths, while other platforms allow you to enable chat within any locations (e.g., Theater)
- How easy is the content management system (CMS) for you and the booth admins to use to set up and make changes to the virtual conference? This could be the administrator creating a welcome center or an exhibitor creating a booth with content such as files and videos. Some virtual conference platforms notorious for being complex.
- Gamification: This is an incredibly useful feature for certain virtual events such as trade shows, user conferences, kick-off events, training events and benefits fairs.
- Customization: Good online trade show platforms allow you to greatly tailor the solution according to audience and business needs. Moreover, as with the functionality of SaaS solutions, it should provide point-and-click customization that can be handled by non IT employees. This allows content owners and booth administrators to mold the solution according to their branding and virtual conference requirements.
- What technology does the platform use? Many platforms still use Flash which has growing problems with attendees joining from various browsers and operating systems, particularly mobile devices. Make sure the platform is built using modern HTML5 technology, which works on mobile devices.
- Ask about the hosting infrastructure. Is it hosted in a single data center or multiple data centers with redundancy? The most reliable (and fasted response globally) would be hosting via Amazon Web Services (AWS).
- Performance and availability: When choosing virtual conference vendor, you are relinquishing control over the service/environment. So, make sure you choose a vendor that has invested in cloud hosting technology and staff to ensure fast response (no delays navigating, playing video’s, etc.) and up-time.
- What are the up-time/availability statistics?
- If you anticipate international attendees, make sure the providing is using a global hosting infrastructure. In other words, if an attendee is joining your event from Germany, the attendee should connect to a close by edge server and travel over a high-speed backbone CDN network to access the hosting server in the US. Otherwise, the German attendee’s connection would need to travel across the public internet all the way to the hosting server. The quality and performance of these two connections is vastly different. Particularly if the attendee is watching a live or on-demand video stream.
- Does the provider use content delivery network(s) (CDN) to ensure fast/responsive speed. The goal of a CDN is to serve content to end-users with high availability and high performance. The Internet is a network of networks. To get content (files, documents, video, etc.) from a server to each end user, IP packets have to travel through a series of backbone servers and public network cables. The speed of delivery is constrained by the slowest network in the chain. The solution is a CDN that places servers around the world and, depending on where the end user is located, serves the user with data from the closest or most appropriate server. CDNs reduce the number of hops needed to handle a request which ensures the fastest speed.
- How many attendees can the platform scale?
The best virtual conference vendors will have:
- Redundant data center operations in off-site locations, in case of a catastrophic event (fire, earthquake, etc.).
- Back-up servers so there are no service disruptions if a piece of hardware fails
- Around-the-clock performance monitoring, so issues can be immediately detected and addressed.
- Integration with external and internal Content Delivery Networks (CDN). This ensures scalable, global distribution. With no single point of failure.
- Cross Platform Compatibility: One of the touted benefits of virtual trade shows is that they’re fully functional in the diverse technology environments that might exist for your attendees or sponsors. Your traveling attendees might have Microsoft XP with Firefox browser or a MAC with Chrome browser. You want a virtual trade show platform which is fully functional across operating systems and on all major Web browsers.
- Data Security: Data is the key to success of conferences, events and trade shows. Every virtual event that you host generates a mountain of data ranging from attendee personal details to sponsor data. In privacy-conscious times, it is critical for you and your organization to understand your legal obligations to this data. As soon as you collect and store information about someone else, YOU become responsible for ensuring their information is kept securely and used appropriately. In the US, the Data Protection Act (as well as HIPPA and other privacy laws) apply. In Europe the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulation applies to anyone holding information on any EU citizen (even a US based or hosted event with an attendee joining from Europe). Since your organization is accountable for the attendee and other data collected, you’ll want to choose a virtual conference hosting provider that has invested significant time and money to ensure that their systems are as secure as possible and comply with state and federal (and EU) privacy laws.
- Firewall – this is a minimum must have as a basic method to protect your attendee data
- Network and infrastructure security
- Application security
- Intrusion detection
- Physical security (on-site)
- 24×7 security monitoring
- Third party certifications for security practices.
Look for a provider that has ISO27001:2013 accreditation, an indication that they follow international information security best practices to keep your data safe. Click here to read an article outlining 4 Steps to Enabling Privacy of Event Data.
- Integration: Even though you’ll be moving to SaaS, it’s likely that your virtual conference application will be required to link to or share information with other 3rd party systems. It is important to determine if:
- The SaaS solution will work seamlessly with your existing (CRM or LMS) applications.
- How integrations will be achieved (e.g., SAML)
Avoid any vendor with limited integration capabilities, or those who require expensive and time consuming custom coding to achieve those connections. Ideally, you’ll want to look for a SaaS solution that uses open, standard based APIs to link to your on-site systems. This will make integrations simple, fast, and cost-effective
- Data retention and ownership: Your information will be stored and managed by your virtual conference vendor, so make sure all rights to it are maintained by you. Ask about:
- Their policies regarding your data.
- Data portability.
- You’ll want to quickly recover your data if you choose to stop using the service, you’ll want to easily export your data and take it elsewhere.
Choose the vendor who guarantees that:
- Your contact data will never be shared with or sold to a third party.
- It is not possible for your data to be retrieved by anyone other than authorized representatives of your company.
- You’ll have full access to your information, for viewing or transfer, at any time.
- Information can be downloaded in a .csv or other format
- Upgrades: As discussed before, one of the main benefits of SaaS is that you have an ongoing access to innovation and new features, as opposed to the sporadic method of “new versions” for on premise software. Make sure that your virtual trade show platform vendor regularly upgrades the product, and you have free access to these upgrades. Find out when the product was last upgraded, and how often it is upgraded. Moreover, ask them what is the current version? If the vendor says version 1.2, you now right away that the product is brand new and has not been on the market very long.
- Reporting and analytics: The virtual conference platform show provide three key reporting areas:
- Who they are?
- Where did they come from?
- Did they attend
- How long did they stay?
- Where did they go?
- Did they come back?
- What content did they view?
- What content did they take?
- What did they say including on social media?
- Chat messages
- Poll & survey responses
- What are they interested in (booths visited, documents viewed, videos watched, etc)?
- What questions did they ask?
- What information did they request?
The virtual conference platform should allow you to:
- Optimize follow up with registrants and attendees
- Configure metrics important to you
- Score attendee participation
- Customer Support: As with all service contracts, the relationship with a SaaS vendor is ongoing and much more than merely the technological tools. You need a vendor who is fully engaged and involved throughout the life cycle of your relationship – from helping you define your business problems, to training, to implementation, to dealing with problems and so on.
Specifically the elements of service are as follows:
- Training – Do they offer training? Is it free or paid? What are the costs?
- Self-Support – Do they have extensive help documentation? Do they have an automated self help engine that helps you easily resolve your queries? Since SaaS solutions evolve very quickly, has the help documentation kept up to date with latest changes and bugs?
- Customer Support – Do they offer live support? What are the mediums? How prompt is the response time? Do they have a working live support number on their site (call it to verify)? What are the hours? Do they have a support ticketing system? What is the time horizon for the resolution of support tickets? Is the support paid or free?
- Business Consulting – Is it free or paid? Who does the business consulting?
For more information on Communique’s Virtual Trade Show software platform go to www.virtualtradeshowhosting.com.
- Article – Virtual Trade Show Benefits and Advantages
- Research Report: Virtual Conference & Webcast 2016 Benchmark Report
- Tip Sheet: Selling Virtual Trade Show Sponsorship Packages – Tips & Best Practices
- Tip Sheet: Virtual Trade Show Contests & Gamification Best Practices
- Tip Sheet: How to Set Up and a Virtual Career Fair
- Tip Sheet: Assemble Your Virtual Conference Team
- Case Study: Worlds Largest Virtual Trade Show Runs on Communique’s Platform
- Research Report – Virtual Conference & Webcast 2016 Benchmark Report
- Case Study – Worlds Largest Virtual Trade Show Runs on Communique’s Platform