How does a meeting Web site, particularly one geared to a technologically savvy audience, take e-business past the simple stage of online registrations and itinerary planning? I'll assume that most of you already have your session information fairly well automated, with abstract descriptions and after-the-fact PowerPoint presentations online. I'll also assume that you understand the opportunities for Internet-based registration and housing, and are posting lists of vendors who will be exhibiting in a virtual(VTS) or a product forum (PF) setting.
Here's a suggestion on how to link some of these site features to deliver new value to your online visitors, and possibly to bring in a little extra revenue in the process. Why not link educational content directly to the PF? (It could just as easily be done with a VTS.) If an educational session touches on a subject that several vendors address, why not provide links directly from the educational content to those vendors' PF listings? (By the way, there's very little difference between a VTS and a PF, but for the sake of definition, we'll say that a VTS features only companies that are exhibiting at the show and usually includes an online floor plan. A PF, on the other hand, may list other industry-related companies, whether or not they're exhibiting, and generally does not include a floor plan.)
In-Context Advertising Before we deal with the questions of academic impartiality and commercial conflicts of interest that this type of arrangement inevitably raises, consider the benefits. The vendors obviously gain audience attention. They gain not merely more general audience exposure; rather, they gain point-of-sale exposure, or more accurately, point-of-delivery exposure. This, of course, is the same principle used by major commercial Web sites, such as Yahoo, to give you in-context advertising banners. This delivers real value to your exhibitors, presumably enough value for them to pay a little extra for the service.
Your site visitors also benefit because they get direct leads on products and services that address issues in which they are interested. Your audience attends your event to learn about new ideas and techniques and then to search the exhibit hall for vendors that supply products addressing their needs. Why not give your audience some shortcuts? Some of you will object, saying that your site visitors don't like advertising. But I argue that what they actually dislike is irrelevant advertising. If you bring relevant, in-context suggestions (in the form of tasteful links, instead of intrusive banners) to your visitors, then you are bringing them value-added information, not just more ads.
How about academic and commercial impartiality? Well, to paraphrase a Net cliche, context is king. I believe you need to set the context in three ways:
* First, properly inform your visitors about your relationship to your exhibitors and advertisers.
* Second, provide explicit disclaimers that explain that you are not endorsing any particular company, product, or service.
* Third, provide a clear statement of your editorial and commercial policy.
If you cover those three bases, I believe your visitors will accept the links from educational content to PF exhibitors as easily as they now accept corporate sponsors for events.
You may think that this idea improperly blurs the line between education and commercial promotion, but I believe that the Internet is changing all manner of business. Only by stretching beyond the familiar and exploring the evolving relationships made possible by the Internet will we stake out new territory and make new gains.