Big Builder virtual conference mirrors reality TV

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Few industries have been hit as hard by the recession as residential real estate and construction, and few b-to-b media companies have been as challenged as Hanley Wood Business Media, which is weathering a three-year slump in its residential building-related print, online and event businesses.

Next month, Hanley Wood's Big Builder group is restaging its annual Big Builder Conference, launched in 2003, as a virtual event titled “Home Building at aA Crossroads: Accelerate the Positive.”

To set the event apart from the myriad webinars in the marketplace and maximize interaction among participants, Big Builder is taking a page from reality television. The highlight of the virtual event will be a series of five webcasts, to be held from Nov. 16 to 20, in which hand-picked multidisciplinary teams in five regions of the country will air their solutions to developing a parcel of land in their respective geographies.

The five markets are Southern California, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

“Think of ‘Iron Chef,' ” said John McManus, editorial director of Hanley Wood's Big Builder and Multifamily group. “Where those chefs all work with a secret [food] ingredient, we have a challenge that revolves around a real parcel of land.” McManus added that the aim is not to select a winner among the five teams, however, because each virtual project will be market-specific.

The challenge allows Big Builder to create a social networking buzz for a month before the virtual event. McManus and News Editor Sarah Yaussi are reporting on the activities of the “dream teams” via their own Big Builder blogs, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

“We're trying to get people to form user groups around the teams in each geographic region,” McManus said. “Then, in addition to the teams of five to six people we've chosen, we'll have other people with market knowledge who can say things like, ‘Did you think about this zoning regulation?' ”

These conversations will also provide opportunities for the virtual event sponsors to engage with conference participants. “We don't see [the activity] ending on Nov. 20,” McManus said. “We see a continuum of community engagement after the presentations spawn more dialogue and questions.”

In addition to the five webinars, “we will have a number of other, prerecorded, on-demand, mixed-media types of programming,” McManus said. “They will range from a typical webinar to slide [shows] to videos.” Many of the programs will be shorter than a typical webinar, only five to 15 minutes long.

Alec Dann, general manager of business media online at Hanley Wood Business Media, said Berkeley, Calif.-based Decision Counsel is building the custom interface for the virtual conference on a Drupal platform.

“The interface is what we call a ‘wonder wall,' where participants can register and engage with all the content,” Dann said. Sponsors have visibility on the wall as well as their own microsites. “This is experimental. We're trying to go beyond the passive webinar model, and we're going to learn as we go,” Dann said.

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