In my view: Online communities find new value at offline events

Last June, 10,000 eBay users gathered in the US for the third eBay Live users conference. The three-day event gave eBay users the chance to attend classes, swap ideas, hear presentations from company executives and buy products and services from a host of relevant exhibitors, such as PayPal Buyer and

The company also sponsors the eBay University programme, a touring 'university' which last year visited 35 cities across the US and provides eBay's customers with information on how best to use the website.

There is a clear commercial rationale behind this. After all, eBay takes a percentage cut of each transaction based on the final sale price. It makes sense, then, for the company to ensure that sellers are as proficient as possible. But there is a more subtle - but no less tangible - advantage to be had from events such as these. Events give the virtual company a real face, allowing it to listen to customers, understand their needs and build relationships with them.

Talking of relationships,, reputedly the UK's largest dating service, acquired Brand Events' Chemistry franchise last year.

DatingDirect, which already hosts singles nights, is no doubt hoping that extending the events side of its business will help it build closer links and more brand loyalty with its 2m members.

It's not just dotcoms who are waking up to the charms of events. Traditional businesses, that have developed very effective online communities, are now overlaying these with physical meetings. For instance, in September last year we ran an event for the members of Orange's online Partner Programme.

The 190,000 members develop applications for use on the Orange network and mostly interact with the company via the web. By giving them the chance to get face-to-face, relationships were deepened, the Orange brand was experienced and the development process was accelerated.

Ever since the world went wild for the web we've been banging on about how a virtual reality just can't match the experience that comes from a real event. These few examples tell me that the message has at last got through.

Neil Jones is group managing director at The George P Johnson Company and a regular Event columnist.

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