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Well, of course there is. All you need to do is exhibit at a trade show. Take me for example: I always liked “working the floor”, “pressing the flesh”, “making the rounds” and being an active participant in the sights, sounds, discussions and exchanges. But in today's digital age and with my diary being full (and then some), I simply don't always have the time to visit – or the resources to exhibit at – a trade show.

Thankfully, I don't need to. I found that there is a highly attractive alternative – online exhibitions. I was a bit hesitant at first, I must admit. But given the fact that they cost a fraction of participating at a ground event, I thought I'd give it a go. The results? Well, what can I say. In all, I got 217 hot leads during the exhibition, which is not bad for a small web design company in Webmasters Expo. That event generated sales of around £90,000. And what did I have to do for it? Just select a stand template, upload my product pictures and respectable links to my website and that's it. (click here to see an example stand - fyi: size is 75KB)

Visitors visited my stand, were greeted by my virtual sales assistant, click on the product links and that's it. The exhibition's clever CRM software would then pass on to me the details of visitors who showed an interest in my products. I was impressed that I could get a listing of each visitor along with what product links they clicked on.

I would then have a sales person call them up and discuss their needs. Having all the prospect's information (everything from decision-making privileges to his nickname in some cases), their gatekeepers were kind enough not to screen the call out. “I'm calling from ABC Inc., regarding Mr Smith's visit of our stand in XYZ exhibition.” A quick check with Mr Smith, and sure enough, he did visit that online exhibition. And the conversion rates were just great. It pays to do your homework (or have someone do it for you).

I don't know how I would use that information in a B2C industry, but in B2B this is exactly what I want. I only wish we could have that exhibition every 2 months! It paid its money many times over. No wonder COMDEX and Internet World are having virtual versions of their exhibitions already. Other corporates are using custom-built shows to present their whole product portfolio, like Microsoft's Enterprise exhibition.

So why do online trade shows work? It's because you have too little to worry about. If your exhibition organiser is a decent one, they will promote the online exhibition along with the on-the-ground one. It's not really hard work, they only need to put a “Visit us or click to www.MyExhibition.com”  under their adverts. And then, it's really up to you.

If you make your stand attractive and differentiate yourself from the crowd, you will get sale leads. Some of the exhibitions offer stands in Flash and even 3D, so you have enough room to play in. Differentiating your stand is key here. The people that make it to the online exhibition are highly qualified visitors: they have a genuine interest in your business, they have allocated a budget and they are looking to buy right now! Surely, you don't want them to think you're as good as everybody else, do you? If you have the time to man your stand – virtually, of course – you can log on to the system and chat to your visitors, or discreetly listen in on visitors' chat around your stand. That should give you a good idea about what they are really looking for.

At the end of an exhibition, the organiser will send you your visitors' contact details and there you have your leads. And you don't need to do any of the hard work: no moving, no training, no staff, no printed promotional materials to give out (they can download all they want).

Currently, just about half of the world's exhibitions have some kind of online presence, but not as sophisticated as the one I described. If in doubt about how the organiser promotes a show online, give them a call and ask. Give them the address of this article if you think that there's something here that they should know about. What is worth trying, is to call up the organiser of an online exhibition you are interested in. More often than not, they will not mind if you only want a virtual stand and not one of bricks-and-mortar  (so to speak). After all, with today's needs for time and the slump in the travel industry, would you – as a visitor – want to spend your time and money on visiting a show and meet people? I think not. That's why I tell you – online exhibitions are hear to stay!

If your current exhibition organiser does not satisfy your needs, you can refer them to some of these fine exhibition ASPs:

§          Expocentric: Flash and 3D exhibitions in the UK, US and Sweden.

§          Virtex: Focus on Panorama and 3D experience exhibitions in the Middle East.

George Anagnos can be reached at george@georgeisyourman.com

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