If you build digital marketplaces, will they come?

Stephanie Selesnick takes a look at exhibition organiser-owned industry marketplaces as a new trend in digital offerings.

In pre-pandemic 2019, Forrester’s VP of research Allan Bonde noted B2B marketplaces were on the uptick. He said: “[with]marketplace selling, how you get started depends on where you sell today, what types of products you sell, who you are selling to, and the frequency and size of the purchase. You also need to consider the value of existing relationships and effort needed to change behaviour internally (e.g., in your sales team) and externally (e.g., among your key accounts)”. 

In April 2021, Bonde updated this topic: “Two-thirds of global B2C e-commerce sales are now captured by marketplaces. On the business front, we are tracking the growing options for B2B sellers, with the emergence of over 200 funded marketplace operators across multiple sectors, from aircraft parts (ePlane) to life sciences staffing (Science Exchange) to general business services (Upwork).” 

The top two most common exhibition industry-based proprietary e-commerce portals set up are either integrated into a show’s website, or set up as a stand-alone platform with links to the show website. 

When done correctly, digital marketplaces are data rich, and can expand a three-day in-person exhibition into a vibrant 24-7/365 digital experience transforming the platform or website into an active community and commerce hub – driving innovation, new content, personalisation, engagement and sales. The digital data gathered may also be used to drive more buyers and sellers to in-person shows. 

When done poorly, standalone marketplaces are unused and expensive reminders of a digital strategy gone awry. 

I spoke with Ms. Brandy Alexander (pictured), managing partner at Spaceshop.com - an e-commerce service company which recently jumped into the exhibition and events pool. The company, she said, builds marketplaces on known platforms including Adobe Magento and Shopify, so upgrades and data security are built in for delivery directly to the client. 

“Marketplaces drive information and sales for products. Organisers can use their show brand equity to increase market awareness and expand their audience. They can offer sponsorships on many levels – product launches, category placement or highlights, etc,” she said.

Suppliers (exhibitors) are in charge of uploading products and updating their storefronts (stands). Buyers pay the sellers directly through Shopify or whatever service provider the show chooses.

Other organisations have chosen to go with dedicated marketplaces and have an affiliation to the tradeshow. ShopVISION from the US-based Vision Council/Reed Exhibitions is one such e-commerce platform. Launching 3 June in conjunction with Vision Expo East, it will operate as a year-round, 24/7 virtual marketplace.

Fran Pannella, vice-president, Vision Expo at Reed Exhibitions said: “The past year and a half has demonstrated the importance of keeping the community and industry connected. ShopVISION extends our sourcing offerings and introduces a content-focused resource that amplifies the marketplace’s value. ShopVISION will live side-by-side with Vision Expo, providing a modern and global way to conduct business year-round and on-demand.”

She added: “Vision Expo East 2021 exhibitors have been given complimentary access to ShopVISION and will have showrooms available to buyers.”

Regardless of the e-commerce model an organiser chooses, proprietary digital marketplaces may provide an enormous amount of data capture for use in machine learning (AI), segmented and personalised marketing, educational session recommendations, all the while driving new exhibitors and visitors to in-person expos.

Visualise an exhibitor launching a new product via the expo’s digital marketplace prior to the in-person event. A buyer sees the product promotion and books an appointment to see it at the in-person expo, then uses the marketplace portal to place an order. Imagine the opportunities. 

If your expo wants to be successful with expanding into the e-commerce world, do your homework. Research what your attendees and potential attendees will require to be successful in today’s world. Provide good content to keep visitors engaged with your site. It should be more substantial than show updates or an advert for your next webinar. 

As Alexander said, “There are two internets: Amazon and The Internet.” When I began researching the digital marketplace trend, my primary thought was would buyers regularly visit business sites to stay informed and purchase products? My conclusion: If you build it right, make it engaging, informative, and keep after your exhibitors, the buyers will come.