Marty Homlish, global CMO at enterprise software company SAP, says the event business “has come a long way from business cards in fish bowls.”
Homlish, who joined SAP 10 years ago, was charged with relaunching the company's annual SAPPHIRE customer event in Las Vegas in 2000.
“Ten years ago, there was only one option, and that was a physical event,” Homlish said.
“The traditional event model got to the point where you couldn't really scale. You're not going to bring 100,000 people with you and, even if you did, the most critical aspect is providing the ability for them to connect in a meaningful way.”
He said SAP wanted to change the event model from talking “to” customers to talking “with” customers and allowing them to engage with each other.
“We wanted to build an environment where people can learn, experience and interact on their own schedule, with their own agenda and at their own pace,” he said.
So last year, SAP conducted its first virtual event in conjunction with its annual SAPPHIRE conference in Orlando, Fla., which drew 10,000 physical attendees and about 8,000 virtual attendees.
“Last year, we had a good attempt at creating a virtual event world,” Homlish said. “The challenge was that it wasn't truly integrated into the fabric of the physical event. The virtual platform didn't really serve out the content the way people consumed the content.”
He said in just one year, “The transformation has been radical. This year, we truly wanted to understand how people consumed the content first, and the reach was so much greater.”
At this year's SAPPHIRE NOW event, which was held May 17-19, SAP conducted two live events simultaneously in Orlando and Frankfurt, Germany, as well as satellite events at which people met in physical locations around the world to view live satellite feeds from the live events. SAPPHIRE NOW attracted about 20,000 physical attendees and more than 30,000 virtual attendees.
In addition, online users could participate in the event virtually through live HD-streaming feeds of more than 400 conference sessions, as well as participate through live chat and Q&As with speakers.
SAP worked with software company VCopious to build the virtual platform and built a broadcast center with partners around the world consisting of editing studios, satellite trucks and a global broadcast network to transmit the live feeds.
“We have literally created a three-day CNN experience, completely connected and completely seamless, while running two simultaneous events and, at the same time, a virtual event,” Homlish said.
One of the biggest changes this year over last year was the use of interactive technologies to let attendees build their own agendas and interact with content as well as each other.
“We wanted to build a model where customers are talking with other customers, and allow all attendees to create their own agenda and experience,” Homlish said.
At the physical events in Orlando and Frankfurt, SAP used Hewlett-Packard Co.'s touch-screen monitors throughout the show to let attendees view the conference agenda, download content such as videos and white papers, request additional information and connect with other attendees.
“It is all self-serve,” Homlish said: “They put their badge registration number into the touch-screen and we sent all information over e-mail, so we are capturing [information on] anyone who has viewed the touch-screen.”
SAP developed a robust content management system to not only send out content to show attendees but also to closely monitor and measure how customers are interacting with the conference content.
“This provides incredible insight to us,” Marty said. “We can see who viewed what information, for how long and what information they viewed. It is a spectacular opportunity, and it helps us capture demand.”
In addition to capturing information from the touch-screen monitors, SAP was also able to capture information from virtual attendees who viewed content on computers, as well as from its sales force.
“Our field organization is able to track customers and where they are in the sales cycle with SAP and identify incremental information,” he said.
SAP also made wide use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to promote the event and interact with customers.
By the close of the conference, SAPPHIRE NOW had more than 2,000 Twitter followers, who posted more than 14,800 tweets about the event.
“I wanted all viewers to walk away from SAPPHIRE NOW with the following perception: SAP is innovative, SAP is relevant and SAP is essential,” Homlish said. “If attendees, and viewers, and people tweeting and watching truly believe SAP is innovative, relevant and essential, they will believe SAP is an amazing company.” M