One of the major reasons people attend association meetings is to network with others who may be working on similar problems or using similar products. So why not provide another avenue for them to get that networking value anytime from your Web site? Here is an idea that one of my clients is implementing that adds value to meeting Web sites.

This technique, which we've dubbed the Visiting Professor Forum (VPF), is particularly useful for meetings and expositions centered around multiple vendors, because the VPF not only provides extra value to site visitors, it might also give you a new revenue source.

More Than Summaries I'll assume that your site already contains a virtual trade show or product forum or some other type of catalogue of vendors in your field, including summary information about each product or service. VPF allows you to step beyond offering summary information by creating a forum where visitors pose questions directly to experts in the field who have used a particular company's products or services.

In a VPF, any participating vendor would select one or more key representatives in their field, e.g., programming team leaders, R&D managers, industry-recognized consultants, etc., who are not on the payroll of the vendor. These experts (the "visiting professors") would be available to field questions about particular technologies.

Participating vendors probably will want the VPF to have a moderator to route and consolidate questions and to post answers. My client also chose to keep all questions private until answered. All questions will be archived in a searchable directory, along with their answers.

Of course, vendors can do this themselves on their own sites, and some do. But the advantage of offering a VPF on your association site is that anyone interested in your field of technology can go to a central location to find answers from a wide range of vendors, and even pose the same question to a number of "visiting professors" representing different vendors.

Value for All Sides Vendors get value from the VPF for several reasons. First, they can choose their own experts, thereby ensuring that the "visiting professor" will be well-versed in the vendor's offerings. In many bulletin board discussions, companies have little or no control over what respondents say, and anyone with an ax to grind can rant on and on. The VPF ensures companies that their offerings will be fairly represented.

Second, they get their experts in front of an online audience that may not visit vendors' Web sites. If your current site audience is large (i.e., more than 10,000 visitors per month), this kind of increased visibility should be very attractive.

Visitors gain value because the "visiting professor" carries more independent credibility than a vendor company spokesperson or tech support employee. And site visitors can ask several experts the same question. Since the answers to all questions are archived and searchable, visitors can get a substantial amount of information from independent sources, all available in the central location of your Web site.

The technology to support a VPF is very straightforward, but the costs are less clear. Setup costs and ongoing administration costs should be fairly low, even if you choose a moderated VPF. Pricing to participating vendors, however, is completely dependent on the size and depth of your audience. If you have the audience, then you should be able to set a price that covers your costs plus a reasonable margin and still deliver substantial value to your vendors and site visitors.