It is fortuitous that as the world appears to be shrinking through technological advancements and nearly instant global communication, opportunities for business expansion are actually growing. InsideVirtual LLC is harnessing that phenomenon through an online marketplace called PaymentsMarket.com.
The social media platform is an always-open tradeshow and educational forum that brings together all things payments under one virtual roof. After free sign-up, users are transported to a virtual campus that is futuristic in setting, like something out of a science fiction film.
Visitors are met with virtual people walking the campus (one is even riding a Segway), a flock of virtual birds flying across a skyscape and a clickable billboard that directs you in one of five directions. By mouse-clicking on the Industry Solutions Hall, for instance, you arrive on the convention floor, where you can choose from six payment-related categories.
"Each of the halls are broken down into large buckets for the way people would be looking for information, as if they were visiting at a conference or a convention center," said Jeremy Drzal (pronounced "Dral"), founder and Chief Engagement Officer at insideVirtual. "And then from there, there are wings _ for instance, the industry solutions wing incorporates fraud and risk, marketing and CRM solutions, SaaS, security and compliance, hardware and software, and payment services."
By clicking on the Security/Compliance banner, for example, you enter a hall of exhibitor booths dedicated to that area of payments. By clicking on a booth in the Security/Compliance hall, you "enter" an association's or a service provider's booth to obtain information on the enterpise and ask questions. It is like an actual tradeshow, without the legwork.
"When a person visits a booth, they are able to immediately begin to have a discussion," Drzal said. "Each booth is equipped with a particular partner's representative, whether they be subject matter experts, sales, marketing, recruiting, HR, etc. And we incorporate video, PowerPoint, PDF, Word documents - everything."
The marketplace is also broken down by vertical market, such as health care, general retail, government, airlines and travel segments.
Once at booths, tradeshow participants can engage with booth reps via social media sites Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as over a real-time Skype connection. Conversations can also be carried out through real-time booth chats or private chats.
PaymentsMarket partners assign team members within their organizations as booth reps. When at work, the reps keep browser windows open on their computers for when participants enter the virtual booths and ask questions.
Via the communication channels just mentioned, reps and participants interact. "And it's always based on an invite," Drzal said. "So either the visitor invites you to chat or you invite the visitor to chat. It's not invasive. It's all focused on the user experience."
Given that the tradeshow is open 24/7 worldwide, booth reps can't man posts all day and night. Therefore, when reps receive questions while offline, the questions show up for them in their email in-boxes.
"You don't have to be online," Drzal said. "But, if you are, it creates a better user experience because you can engage them. What it does do is it gives people from anywhere in the world 24-hour access to service providers based on industry solutions and market segments. ... And then service providers are able to engage in more meaningful conversations with those visitors."
The booths are customizable, allowing partners to upload such things as company logos, slogans, messaging, marketing material and videos. "Most customers are fully configured in less than an hour," Drzal said.
Founding members of PaymentsMarket include Vindicia Inc., Retail Decisions Inc., Smart Card Alliance, Opticard Payment Services Inc. and First Atlantic Commerce. InsideVirtual views its relationships with its partners as collaborative. Drzal is especially keen on partnering with industry associations. "We offer a special package for trade associations that includes a booth and discounts to their members that want to join," he said.
One goal of insideVirtual is to help associations develop virtual events that take place year-round to grow their presences and membership bases. Drzal doesn't want PaymentsMarket to infringe on associations' own physical tradeshows or events, or take the place of any organization's website for that matter.
"We just want to help them extend their reach and build a broader level of awareness to markets they may not other-wise reach," he said.
Drzal recognizes that people learn in different ways. Some like to read magazines, browse websites, download video presentations, or interact via social media. "What we want to do is give people options across the board of how they would like to interact and learn," he said.
InsideVirtual also provides subject matter experts in differing fields of payments industry knowledge. In the virtual tradeshow is an Ask the Expert booth. The booth is manned by Laurie LeBeouf, Chief Executive Officer of Take Charge Business Consulting LLC; Certified Fraud Expert Daniel W. Draz; and Susan Matt, founder and CEO of ThoughtKey Inc., all of whom have weekly scheduled hours when they are available to answer questions.
Drzal said over 50 trade organizations are focused on various aspects of the payments industry, more than 1,250 payment companies exist and they categorize themselves in "over 100 different ways. And so it's very complex when you have a small merchant or a small business that's trying to understand ongoing solutions, credit card processing or PCI [the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard]."
Theodore Svoronos, co-founder of Merchant University, a partner of PaymentsMarket, sees how PaymentsMarket addresses that complexity. He offered the scenario of a new ISO who decides to attend an association's tradeshow to learn about the industry and find partners. But where do you start? The ISO can do prep work at PaymentsMarket virtually free of charge, Svoronos said.
With a presence on the virtual tradeshow, an association would allow the ISO to do advance scouting and education gathering online.
The ISO can thus hit the ground running at the physical show, spend time more efficiently and cost effectively, and perhaps even consummate business relationships established online, Svoronos said.
Svoronos is also enthusiastic about PaymentsMarket's graphics. He likened the look of the virtual tradeshow to a version of the popular role-playing video game The Sims. "It is cool," he said. "It's the kind of thing where you want to go back and see who's advertising, who's exhibiting, who's been in your booth."
The principles on which insideVirtual was built can be boiled down to an acronym: CORE, which stands for Collaborative, Optimized, Responsive and Elastic. For Drzal, the CORE methodology is all about relevance.
"The content has to be relevant," he said. "The technology has to be, too, and an application has to be utilized the best way it can be. It has to be intuitive for the user experience. And so when we developed PaymentsMarket, we looked at how people want to learn and search for solutions.
"And then we wanted to make it responsive so that customers or service providers are putting together products and market strategy and educational promotions that respond to what the customers are looking for.
"So we look at analytics. We look at feedback. We look at networking groups and forums. We want to feed that back into our customer base so they can develop better products and better messaging for the users."
Drzal explained the elasticity of insideVirtual with another term: flexible consistency.
"What that means is that to be able to address the changes, the trends of the market, you have to be able to take the data, take that feedback, process it, and then modify your approach and be able to respond back to what the market is looking for," he said.
InsideVirtual grew out of Drzal's other media ventures, including online news outlets AllPayNews, Payments101 and allCUnews.
When LinkedIn started its interactive groups for industry professionals in various fields of expertise, Drzal started the Payment and Fraud Professionals Group, which now boasts over 9,500 professionals worldwide and is bringing in between 15 to 20 professionals daily, according to Drzal.
"We had a lot of requests for people throughout the world and in the industry that were looking for ways to expand their network and their reach, get more access to service providers, trade associations, etc., in a centralized location across silos and not just focusing on smart card or merchant risk or e-commerce or processing," he said.
"They wanted to cross boundaries because they were all fighting the same problems around security and innovation and technology," he added. "They wanted to be able to break those silos down and I saw that as an opportunity to be able to bridge and open up a collaboration between service providers, educational institutions, trade organizations and the ultimate users. And that laid the foundation for PaymentsMarket to become the first managed market for insideVirtual."
With the addition of PaymentsMarket to Drzal's other ventures, now consolidated under insideVirtual's Payment Strategy Group, Drzal has seen an increase in online traffic. An average of 300,000 monthly page views in late 2010 across the Payment Strategy Group mushroomed to over 580,000 in January 2011.
Drzal expects that number to continue to grow, as PaymentsMarket extends its reach globally, and virtually.
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