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Microsoft learns lessons from virtual launch event

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At 9 a.m. on March 7, 2012, more than 20,000 attendees tried simultaneously to log on to an SQL Server virtual launch event hosted by Microsoft Corp. The traffic overwhelmed the site, and organizers rushed to increase bandwidth and quell frustration popping up on social media feeds. “We were able to add additional servers within 20 minutes, and we started to see some of the tweets and complaints go away within the first hour,” said Emilie Bridon, senior digital marketing manager at Microsoft. The number of attendees who visited the virtual environment on that first day exceeded total pre-event registration. The flood, drawn largely by a yearlong social media effort, left Bridon's team with a two-sided question: “Do we celebrate because we broke the platform for a little bit or are we upset because of it?” Bridon oversaw development and promotion of the event, and she already had an idea that the launch would draw the largest virtual b-to-b audience that her division had yet seen. She had already adjusted bandwidth once, knowing initial projections of fewer than 7,000 attendees would be low. As registration numbers climbed to 35,000, however, she pulled back spending on pre-event marketing. Conventional wisdom said that only about half of the registrants would visit the environment over its 90-day life span. In the end, 600,000 people came online over a three-month period to view sessions organized around product pillars and filmed in 20-minute chunks in front of a green screen in a simple conference room. About half that traffic came from social media channels. Bridon and her team built a presence on Twitter and Facebook, and they also developed a blog and an MVP community. Bridon emphasized one-on-one communication. Community members might win a prize, but the team did not promote the reward. They sent private messages and tapped MVPs for feedback as they developed event content. Formal promotion began eight weeks before the event. Microsoft released short videos and other content, and it promoted contests and opportunities to chat live with engineers and experts—tactics designed to boost attendance on day one. “I had a low media-buy budget, but I did a buy for SEM and online display ads,” Bridon said. She stopped those buys two weeks later in an attempt to slow unprecedented registration levels driven by social media. “We knew the experience was going to live 90 days. I would rather spend the money after the fact to drive people back to the experience.” The big lesson: “Over-plan for capacity,” Bridon said. “If you have an active social community, a lot of goodness comes from that; they help you get attention and promote the event. But if something goes wrong, they are very vocal.” The fallout did not overwhelm a social media effort that included a 24-hour triage team to monitor and respond to technical problems, questions and concerns. Microsoft offered a same-day mea culpa: “Quite simply, demand far exceeded the capacity,” the company stated in a release. And the community responded. About 45,000 first-day attendees overlooked the morning bottleneck and visited the environment, Bridon said.
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