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Digital transformation of live events: Bob Bejan’s observations from the frontline

As the work week draws to a close, we continue to feel the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. With remote work and travel restrictions on the rise, teams everywhere are facing a big question: What should we do about virtual events? I can’t think of a better person to address this question than my colleague Bob Bejan. In his role as Corporate Vice President of Global Events, Production Studios, and Marketing Community at Microsoft, Bob has deep experience overseeing events and productions—often at huge scale. Today on LinkedIn, Bob shared insights from the event-production frontlines. I found them so helpful, and I think you will too. So I’m sharing them here.

A quick note before I turn it over to Bob: throughout the outbreak, we are using this blog to share advice, customer stories, and information designed to help our customers navigate this challenging moment. So far we have shared tips for businesses on working remotely with Microsoft Teams. We turned to my Education colleague Barbara Holzapfel for remote learning tips. We asked Nathalie D’Hers, an IT leader here at Microsoft, to tell us how her team enables remote work. And we shared a piece by my colleague Ann Johnson, Corporate Vice President of our Cybersecurity Solutions Group, with advice for CISOs. We’ll continue to update this list in the coming days, so check back often. Okay, here’s Bob.

It’s been a pretty intense few weeks for those of us working in events and experiential marketing.

To say the very least, this has been an unsettling time. It is easy for me to say with absolute certainty that nothing like this has ever happened during my career. That said, we all have work to do and situations like this can sometimes be important opportunities to develop others and yourself, as the teams you work with teams continue to make and create great experiences for customers, partners, and employees.

To that end, the following encapsulates what we, as a production team, are learning just a few weeks into this journey into unexplored territory. Hopefully, it will provide some insight and perhaps some peace of mind as you work through your own particular challenges with the projects you are working on.

TOP LINE: As a way of creating a framework for decision making, the following observations are top of mind in reflection given what has transpired over the last month to six weeks.

  • Accept that there is no playbook: It is not an overstatement to say we are living in “Unprecedented Times.” Unfortunately, there are no individuals, no websites, no books or articles that are going to offer you the exact recipe for working through the cancellation of an event or large meeting of any kind. As the spread of COVID-19 continues throughout the world, there is certainly an increase in guardrails that help define the parameters of the decision, including heath organization proclamations, national, state, and local restrictions, corporate guidance, which all help to frame what is possible; but as this is being written, there is still significant wiggle room when it comes to the essentials of mission critical work.
  • You have to look at each case: Despite the fact that many of us produce events that vary in scope, ranging from customer briefings, envisioning sessions, and small group trainings on one end all the way to multi-thousand person experiences on the other. Obviously, each case (at least for right now) is different. For example, in small meetings the personality of the attendees has everything to do with whether you should try and continue to hold the meeting live or push to a virtual experience. In the case of large events, state and local positions are critical and, of course, increasingly the actual location itself.
  • Be ultra-tuned to the environment: This is all about empathy and understanding. It is simply impossible to deny the prevailing consciousness. In the case of COVID-19 there is a shared perception that is creating our reality. Regardless of how much effort, time, and energy has been put into a project, as a production and business team you must face the reality and respond accordingly.
  • Take care of your team: Finally, make sure you take of your team. What is happening is not only disruptive to the plans we all have made with regard to our events, but it also is incredibly disruptive to the people who are working on them. Humans and ambiguity do not for the most part mix well. Take the time as a leader to reach out and communicate encouragement often. It will go a long way!

SOME BEST PRACTICES LEARNED TO-DATE: Wanted to share some of the learning we are gaining as we continue to move through these changes.

Smaller meetings: a few points to consider for smaller meetings

  • Lead with attendee sentiment: Whenever possible, try and get the input and opinion of your guests/attendees first and let that initial reaction guide your decision making.
  • If you go digital, make a pre-production checklist with your attendees: There is nothing more frustrating than spending significant time getting technology to work in a group virtual meeting. When you make a decision to take a live meeting/event virtual, do the pre-production work to get everyone on the same technical page. Step-by-step email communication, even to people who are technically savvy, will be appreciated.
  • Have a moderator: Yeah, it sounds pretty obvious, but you will be amazed how much the dynamic of a meeting changes when you go virtual. People get much quieter and pauses that might feel natural in a room full of humans feel excruciating in the digital world. Make sure there is someone who is the moderator of the meeting who can step in and keep the conversation moving and on topic, or restart if there is one of those awkward silences.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a little fun: A little music at the beginning of a virtual meeting, something funny in the background of your home office that can be seen in the camera, a “On break; back in five minutes” table tent that you put in front of your camera when you take a break, are all small things, but they go a long way in a virtual meeting. Especially one that was supposed to be live and then got switched to virtual because of the coronavirus.
  • Lead with empathy: Given that every customer, business and organization are going through a very difficult time as well. The team should ask the following questions before moving to a virtual iteration of an event:
  1. Is this the right time for a Sales or Demand Generation engagement?
  2. Should Microsoft be in a position as a Supporting Consultant to our customers during this time vs. leading with “the sell?”
  3. What offerings or case studies of our customers and partners can we offer as examples of how we are enabling others to do more given the current situation?
  4. Does it make sense to push out until the current situation has improved? Is our prospective audience, while now working from home and in some cases, caring for children or loved ones also impacted, ready to hear what we have to say?

Larger events:

  • Third-party participation: If you are thinking about pulling out of a third-party event, wait. This is a big one for us. We have had to pull out of or cancel a number of events. In the case of third-party events, the big lesson for us is to wait. In almost every instance, the event organizers have made the decision for us and canceled their events. Even in the case of two events where we felt like we needed to withdraw before the event was canceled, the events ended up being canceled by the organizers. In the case of third-party events, patience is a tremendous best practice.
  • Reach out to peers and competitors: Understanding the prevailing positions of our peers and competitors can be very helpful in third-party event decisions. In the case of one event, we made contact with several of our competitors and actually went to the event organizers as a coalition to discuss the future of this year’s event. That discussion led directly to the cancellation of that particular event this year.
  • Be thoughtful about content and distribution after a cancellation: This is very important. In a number of cases, after we have chosen to cancel our participation in a third-party event, the core team has rushed to simply transfer all of the content and presentations to video and push for a live streaming moment to share our stories with the world. While the instinct is right, it is important to take a step back and recognize that the content and narratives that were made to thrive against the backdrop of an industry or thought leadership event now have to stand on their own, and in that light may not be as effective. In every case, tremendous work and effort has gone into creating the content that was going to be featured in these events. That work deserves a little more effort and thoughtfulness to ensure that you are getting the most out of it. Lastly, we recommend that teams be very sensitive to context, timing, and tonality of the virtual event they wish to now deliver.

Your own Tier 1 events: You can make a case that all of the above apply and

  • Over-communicate to everyone: Attendees, vendors, agencies, venue, and of course the production and business teams are being thrown into a tumultuous period and they need to be reassured and supported even more than in typical production situations, and we all know that production cycles are already tumultuous by definition. The other element is that in virtually every case, we are making these decisions well down the production path of the live event. So, in addition to the shock and disappointment of canceling the event after planning and producing it for months, you now must wipe the slate clean and reinvent a virtual version in a ridiculously short period of time. The only way to get that done is to over-communicate to everyone involved.
  • Rethink, don’t just translate: For the most part, the translation of live events to digital or virtual is an exercise in documenting the “live event.” Repeatedly what we see as the attendee of a virtual event is a person or persons presenting on a stage that looks exactly like the event that we would have preferred or were supposed to be at in-person. When you think about it, that is a powerfully negative impression. If you make the decision to cancel the event, then take the time to be thoughtful and brave about how you are going to deliver the content in a virtual environment. Think about the show in shorter segment. Remember, you are making television now. Sure, there may need to be a keynote or two, but think about interviews, video rolls, and interactive elements to help keep attendees interested and engaged.
  • Speakers need to bring it down: Corporate/organizational live events are very much like live theater. In a large live event, the presenter must be bigger than life to bring energy into the space they are presenting in, just like a live theater performer. When you move to a virtual/digital version of a given event, the presenter must tune their performance to the intimacy of the camera, like a movie or television performer. This is a subtle but incredibly important change when going from live to virtual events. It is also one that often does not get made. Giving a theater/ballroom level of energy when you are doing a virtual event can not only be off-putting, it can also play as disingenuous and inauthentic.

In closing:

Hopefully these observations add to the body of learning and experience all of us are gaining. We’ll continue to share with you as we continue on this incredible adventure. (Is “adventure” too optimistic a word?) As always, we look forward to hearing your questions and comments as well as your own learning and experience.

Stay courageous and keep driving for quality, creativity, and real connection with our audiences.

All best and ever onward,

bbejan

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