How a learning tech company reimagined its global, 24-hour virtual event
The absence of physical events in 2020 created a void for B2B marketers, many of whom rely on them for up to 80 percent of their leads. Marketers also count on events to educate, celebrate and entertain customers, partners and employees. Budgets are lavish, and hard-core digital marketers including Adobe’s Ann Lewnes praise their effectiveness. It wasn’t a surprise when big brands, including Adobe and IBM, staged virtual events in April.
While the brands benefited from early-mover advantage in terms of attendance, the overall experience could not compare with their stellar physical events. Looking to do better, the CMO of Skillsoft, the learning management system software and content producer, used design thinking to reimagine a virtual event experience from the ground up.
"Perspectives 2020," Skillsoft's 24-hour day of interactive keynotes, case studies and courses across four continents in May, was created by 128 total staffers working in 7 squads for 7 weeks. Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek discusses how Skillsoft pulled it off and how results exceeded expectations.
What did you learn from studying other virtual conferences?
The best guidance I got was to record every rehearsal and prepare for unexpected challenges. We had to build in redundancy and fail-safes. Our tech platform and production squad probably did the heaviest lifting as we got closer to the date. We had to turn sessions that were going to be hosted live and in studio into absolutely remote participation events. We also recorded them ahead of time in case they didn’t work live.
How long did it take to develop the event?
Over the course of a two-hour update meeting on March 2, we realized that an in-person event was not going to work. Between March 9 and 10, we spent 28 hours in a design thinking workshop, reimagining Perspectives—because it just couldn't be a simple broadcast version. Was it enough time? Probably not. Was it the perfect amount of time? Yes, because if we had had any more time, we would have overthought the plan, we would have considered it far too ambitious and likely gone in a different direction. Time served as a great forcing mechanism.
Why didn’t you use your own platform for the event?
Our platform is an intelligent learning platform and it does an amazing job at doing what it is, but it is not a social engagement platform. It is not a trade show environment platform and it's not designed to do what it is that we needed to do—which was bring all of these people together in a main stage environment and give us options. None of the traditional webinar platforms did that. We used Intrado, a really robust platform that we pushed to its very edge. We wanted it to do more. We wanted specific chat rooms by track; branding needed to be not only available in the platform itself, but in our own solution.
Why did you make the event free?
It was an opportunity for us to live our new brand. Our vision is to democratize learning, so what better way to do that than to open up an event that focused on the entire person professionally and personally? I firmly believe, as does our company, that we have to make learning radically accessible to all, wherever you are, whatever you need. It also felt like it was the right thing to do at this time. The fact that we had 17,000 pieces of content consumed at the same time and 619 digital badges earned tells me that people were craving this kind of content.
How many registrants and attendees did you have?
We started off with incredibly high expectations for an event that would have drawn a thousand people had it been in person. Our original target was 20,000. I'm excited to share with you that we more than doubled that with 41,000 registrants. We had roughly 34 percent in attendance, so we saw about 14,000 attendees during that 24-hour period with the bulk joining us during the U.S. segment.
What made you most nervous the day of the event?
What concerned me the most was whether we were going to be able to pull this off. Were people going to come? Were they going to stay? Were they going to engage? We knew the content was probably going to be good, but if you build it, do they come? The minute that we went live and I had my first break, somebody came to me and said, "You would not believe the chatter in the main stage chat session. It's going crazy." That was the moment that I breathed a sigh of relief because we had actually gotten people there. As you know, it ramped up as we went along and we saw our largest audiences when we hit the United States the next day.
How did you keep your audience engaged?
We tried to sprinkle things throughout that would give people a break from the very heady content that we had in the event. We had about 800 who played our challenges, and 2,500 do trivia. We think it really appealed to people's competitive nature to get at the top of that leader board, and it was a fun break during some of these sessions because there was a lot of content. I think that and the yoga breaks, as well as some of the just the fun teaser commercials, were a way for us to give people a little bit of time away.
Did it work?
The way that we really gauged the level of engagement was in looking at the chat. We have this studio feed that's coming in and just the overwhelmingly positive feedback that we got, I couldn't believe how many people were engaging in the chat. When we saw what was happening in Australia, we actually had to add additional moderators, so overnight we went and called a bunch of people from the company and said, "Hey, would you like to moderate some chat tomorrow?"
What post-event actions have you taken?
About 79 percent of the people were net new to us, meaning that they weren't in our database. We realized that this can serve as our primary demand gen engine for at least the next quarter, and we're now pivoting to determine how we augment this content with encore replay sessions with pop up video inserts. We’ll also have a chapter two, where we go back and revisit, meet with some of these speakers and do a retrospective to cover what has changed.
We also recognized that we needed to keep these net new folks engaged, not just with marketing content, but with the product that we have. We've offered 60-day free access to Percipio, our intelligent learning experience platform. There's no credit card, you don't put anything in. For university students, we extended that to 90 days. We wanted to make sure that they could gain some certifications, learn some new skills and hopefully be able to find jobs.
Were your virtual event KPIs different from physical events?
Registration was our first benchmark. Attendance was really important to us because you can register all day long, but actually coming and attending is different. We are a content company in and of ourselves, so looking at content consumed was really important and probably different from in-person event metrics. How many sessions did people engage in and to what degree? How many minutes were consumed? We had 1.4 million moments of content consumed over the course of 24 hours. Then, obviously, we also looked at the audiences.
How do you manage content for a virtual event?
We recognized early on that you can't just take something that you would do in person and plop it into a virtual environment. We knew that we had to do some things differently rather than just get up, stand, and present. People were probably going to tune out, especially with our customer presenters. We took a very different model and we looked at that Harvard Business Review-style case study where we had a written case study for our customers, and then a 10- to 12-minute TED-style talk with the presenter and a Q&A. We'll probably even test this at some point when we go back to an in-person event because it was incredibly compelling. You had to be far more concise and you had to really get your points across in a short period of time.