Three Ways Virtual Environments Are Changing How Companies Conduct Business

Today's virtual environments are much more focused on helping organizations break through physical barriers in order to deliver superior results.

One of the more popular attractions at major theme parks is the "motion ride." Through the use of visual, audio and other sensory cues (along with some pretty slick technology), visitors are given the opportunity to go places and do things they never could in the real world. Whether it's flying through the jaws of a dinosaur in Doc Brown's Delorean, visiting a galaxy far, far away, or taking a tour through the inner workings of the human body, these virtual environments engage visitors with a sensory experience that moves them in a way ordinary roller coasters can't.

While business organizations may not quite be able to capture the "thrill" of the motion ride -- nor in most cases would they want to -- they can still use branded virtual environments to create deep engagement and interaction with customers, prospects and employees in a way that ordinary Web sites or group sharing technologies can't. And rather than pushing information out and creating one more interruption to be ignored in an already-hectic day, they can make the information available on-demand, 24 x 7 x 365, whenever the customer, prospect or employee is ready to receive it.

Virtual environments for business take technologies such as sales, collaboration or online learning, and give them a human context. For example, an ordinary online partner training program might display a list of available documents, audio and/or video files in a text format, with a few stock photos or logos inserted to break up the text a bit. Select one, and you're in for an experience that mirrors everything else you do in a day.

But a virtual environment might take you to a sleek, futuristic-looking university campus with different classrooms for each topic. Enter the classroom and you could find yourself watching a presentation in a lecture hall, or sitting in a small discussion group, surrounded by other virtual students (some real, some just for atmosphere). Although the same material is being presented, the learning environment has been enhanced by taking you away from wherever you are in the real world and inserting you into a classroom in a completely different world.

A virtual environment also differs from traditional document sharing in that it allows organizations to gather data about where users go, how often they go to each room, what they view and/or download while they're there and more. By running a variety of reports, organizations can learn from their users and continue to improve the experience, adding the right content where consumption is high while eliminating information that no longer appears relevant.

While the technology for virtual environments has been around for a little while, what's new are the ways it's being applied. In the early days, the focus was more on the avatar; users seemed more interested in making them walk around, sit on a couch, or fly around the room than on absorbing information. Today's virtual environments are much more focused on helping organizations break through physical barriers in order to deliver superior results. They're also breaking the limits of who is using them within the organization; thanks to new, easier-to-use technologies, virtual environments may now be used for a variety of purposes inside and outside the enterprise. Here are three ways virtual environments are being used today.

New Product Rollouts/Updates

Over the last 20 years, the pace of business has continued to accelerate at a rate that makes the visuals in motion rides look like they're in slow motion. Information has to be delivered quickly, both internally and externally, in order to gain or maintain a competitive advantage.

A virtual environment creates this mechanism. Organizations can have knowledge centers for each product, tailored to each audience -- customers/prospects, internal sales, partners, customer service and more -- that allow them to get in, get the specific knowledge they need, and get out without having to wade through information that is irrelevant to them. By incorporating collaboration technologies in the virtual environment, organizations can also give visitors the option to ask for more information or help from subject matter experts, schedule a meeting or take some other action that advances the sales process.

For internal knowledge sharing and collaboration, a virtual environment gives employees more personal access to peers, helping them develop relationships in a way email or other technologies can't. If they choose, organizations can even create a virtual water cooler to encourage the type of off-the-cuff exchanges that used to be so common (and valuable) before the workforce became so dispersed.

Reaching New Audiences/Entering New Markets

Virtual environments not only make it easy for organizations to communicate and collaborate with their current audiences better, they also allow those organizations to reach audiences they've never been able to touch before.

A good example is a large technology company that was able to educate 2,000 partners spread across 81 different countries using a virtual environment. Had they tried to do this in the physical world, the barriers would've been astronomical. The cost of travel (and personnel being out of the office) alone would have been exorbitant. The time factor to reach all of those partners country-by-country (or region-by-region) would have greatly slowed the process down as well.

Instead, they used a virtual environment that included information in seven languages and chat translations for 50 languages, all available to everyone at the same time. The program was completed quickly, and the company was able to gather data on usage that will help them make it even better as time goes on.

Extending the Conversation Before and After the Event

Trade shows and sales meetings tend to have a short shelf life. There is a lot of work and effort that goes into the build-up, making sure deadlines are met and everything is just right. But once the event is over, it becomes a memory -- even if attendees are willing and ready to continue the conversation.

Adding a virtual environment to an event provides a place for organizations to keep the conversation going, and keep its products and services top-of-mind. For an internal event, it provides ample space for collaboration and interaction. For an external event, especially one you don't own, it allows you to continue reaping the benefits of your huge investment of time and money, directing attendees to your materials and subject matter experts as the natural extension of what they just experienced at the event. Providing this virtual environment gives you the ability to take on or enhance a leadership position in your industry.

Just as motion rides let theme park visitors experience whole new worlds at a heightened level of excitement, virtual environments greatly enhance the user experience for customers, prospects, employees and any other audience you need to reach. And with today's growing list of self-service capabilities, virtual environments can be developed quicker and easier than ever, even with a limited budget.

Whether you're looking to improve internal communications, educate partners, reach new audiences quickly or solve some other communications issue, virtual environments bring a whole new level of engagement to the process.

Eric Vidal is the Director of Product Marketing for the Event Services Business Segment at InterCall, a conferencing and collaboration services provider.

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