Monday, August 8, 2011

Counter-Intuitive Conferencing

Repost | 08/08/2011

During this prolonged period of unemployment, I began using Weight Watchers Online (WWO) and have dropped 20 pounds since April. It's really important to have positive things going on when you're in my spot career-wise.

One thing I've noticed about WWO is that McDonalds has a vast listing of their food on the WWO database. You type in McDonalds and you will find what the points are for almost everything on their menu. It's my understanding that they have to pay to have these entries listed. And you have to wonder why the red and yellow target of so many who descry fast foods as the enemy of good dietary practice would willingly submit their products to this kind of scrutiny and pay for it. A double cheeseburger alone is a third of my daily alloted points.

Why do they do this? Because if I so choose, I know what it's going to cost to indulge myself and on a rare occasion, stop at McDonalds. What this indicates to me is that the folks at Mickey D have done their homework. They understand the WW philosophy: you don't have to go cold turkey on fast food, only be aware of the cost when you indulge yourself. I have no idea of what the ROI is on that investment but I'm impressed.

I'm going to change gears now and try to apply this approach to nonprofits and conferences. A superficial analysis of the conference experience might lead one to think that the keys to raising conference attendance is to promote high-profile keynote speakers, provide engaging programming, entice popular exhibitors to attend, and find great cities and services to draw in attendees. All well and good. But the foundation of the conference experience is social and professional networking.

This conclusion is not drawn from polling attendees because I wonder if this foundation is even part of their consciousness. From my experience as a facilitator at many conferences and meetings, my observation is that the interaction of people at conferences is what brings them back even when the keynoter is not on one's personal A-list, the programming or the schedule sucks (sorry for the use of technical language there), and going to exhibits is an obligation one would rather avoid. I think the underlying driving force is people wanting to see the people on the other end of their emails or phone calls.

Let's go one step further, because right now most conferences and meetings are hurting big time. Is it because of keynotes, programs, exhibits, or location? Yes, it's due to the economy ... but again, the underlying factor is the absence of that core network of people who take the conference as an opportunity to reconnect. If colleagues A, C, F, and J aren't going, I'm not compelled to go unless one of those other "superficial" assets is an almost once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

If you're with me on this, then it's entirely possible you'll jump ship when I return to my usual theme of how Second Life is the Next Big Thing for handling conferences and meetings. If face to face networking is so important, why would virtual conferences even be considered as some kind of alternative? As you read this (August, 2011), the Second Life Community Convention is going on and people from around the country are converging on San Francisco to attend both in actual and virtual forms. You will walk through the host hotel and see people online inworld. Two things are going on here: we are social creatures and the face-to-face experience is second to none in fulfilling that need. But when you've experienced colleagues in the virtual world, the face-to-face is compelling. It's the next best thing.

Oh yeah? What about Skype? you may ask. Well, I can see the actual person and hear him or her. Speaking from experience in talking to my son overseas and attending business meetings, the video portion of Skype grows old in minutes! I am observing the person (or people) on the other end. Even if the camera is wheeled through an exhibit hall or aimed at some kind of demonstration of a product, I am detached from the event, as an observer. This is true for just about any kind of virtual meeting format where video is thrown in. You know I'm right, there's a huge difference.

What happens in Second Life is immersive. You are not an observer, you are a participant. You may be chatting via text or speaking via voice, but more than that, you are doing something together with the other avatars.

When you understand how significantly different this experience is from observing something via Skype or other conferencing tools, then you can realize that virtual conferences via Second Life provide a compelling alternative to the face-to-face experience when someone cannot afford to attend the face-to-face version. An alternative, not a replacement.

I have heard this several times now that the hotels around O'Hare Airport do great business because of the central US location. People can fly in from around the country just to meet for a day and discuss business. The NFL Owners did it a month ago. And I suppose when you're talking about billions of dollars' worth of business, a round-trip flight in and out of Chicago is just a blip on the expense account. But it could have been done in Second Life for a lot less.

Second Life is not a huge investment. It does require investments of time for the participants to get oriented to the way it works. (Ask me how, I can help you.) But the cost of tickets for a dozen people to fly to Chicago pretty much covers the cost of a very simple parcel or sim in SL and my services to make it work. It's a hedge investment. Kinda like what McDonald's has done in spending money in a territory that on the surface seems quite hostile to McDonalds' business plan.