Toronto firm’s WebTV network will build community of entrepreneurs

A Toronto-based company will be launching a new Web portal for small business owners that combines aspects of a social network with live and archived Webcasts.

Direct Engagement Inc. has been creating interactive Webcasts — involving both government and industry leaders — since last Fall and plans to bolster these with a social networking component over the next couple of weeks.

The company is sponsored by the Information Technology Association of Canada and its new project could also garner government support. A proposal is currently being considered at the office of Harinder Takhar, the Ontario minister of small business and consumer services.

“The goal is really to merge the expanding world of social network computing with the growing popularity of Web television,” says Stefan Lialias, executive producer at Direct Engagement. “It’s direct contact networking – we want to be able to offer opportunities to get business, to get more revenue.”

Direct Engagement currently has attracted a user base of more than 32,000 with its Webcast series that also often involves live audience participation, Lialias says. The social networking aspects will allow community members to continue their conversations well after the Webcasts, before they take place, or during the Webcast.

The portal will be dubbed “SME Web TV,” Lialias says. It will feature regularly scheduled shows that focus on specific industry areas.

One show a month will be dedicated to the healthcare industry, and another to the environment. Sandra Pupatello, minister of economic development and trade, has agreed to do several Webcasts. But Takhar could end up being the regular star of the Webcasts, with his own show.

“He’s putting a lot of time and effort in to address the topical concerns of his constituency,” Lialias says. “I always have a senior government official that provides the regulatory constraints – it’s unique that you can get a diverse stakeholder group to access them in one place.”

Takhar participated in a Feb. 2 Webcast focusing on examples of technology assisting small businesses. There, he cited the example of Direct Engagement’s Web TV approach.

“The idea was to bring the experts from industry and other areas so they can highlight their experiences,” he said. “Small businesses should be aware of technology and how it can make them more effective and profitable.”

Michael McAvoy, director of commercial marketing at HP Canada is another participant in that same roundtable discussion. McAvoy says he was looking for the right opportunity to participate in one of the Webcasts, and having the minister there provided the incentive.

“It adds credibility to the event, and a little cache,” he says. “I was curious about what he had to say and his approach to business in Ontario.”

McAvoy found the roundtable event was a good networking opportunity. He said several members of the live audience approached him at the conclusion of the Webcast, and brought up potential business opportunities.

“I’ve got several follow up meetings planned,” he adds. These include a meeting with the head of an organization of female business owners, and another audience member interested in Green IT.

That experience has left McAvoy interested in the social networking being built around the Webcasts. The community of like-minded business owners presents good opportunities for HP to get involved in a meaningful discussion, he says. Any good marketer takes advantage of opportunities to better understand the needs of potential customers.

“Social networking has exploded,” he says. “It’s just a matter of how small businesses can jump on, and here’s a way that community can be built.”

That will have McAvoy creating a profile when the social network features are launched, he says.

By including representatives from government on a panel involving several other business people, and in front of a participating audience, Lialias hopes there’ll be a “candid conversation.”

“To get politicians to speak off message is relatively unheard of, even when they do a one-on-one interview,” he says. “When you have so many panelists offering different perspectives, and then questions from the audience, that’s when you get them off message.”

A number of partners are lined up to help support the project. They include the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, Certified General Accountants Canada, The Health Technology Exchange, and Impact Entrepreneurship Group.

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