Why do some virtual events succeed while others miss the mark? One likely reason is that organizations simply try to recreate the in-person event they are familiar with digitally. Unfortunately, they fail to find the right medium and methodology for virtual success.
“The biggest thing we’ve learned is that when you are in a situation like this: You cannot simply translate by taking all the magical moments that happened in the in-person events and try to recreate things like an expo, and the hotel lobby bar. You really have to reinvent,” Bob Bejan, corporate vice president: global events, production studios and marketing community at Microsoft told me.
“You just have to let it all go," Bob said. "You have to say what I’m trying to do is make human connections. What I’m trying to do is make people more knowledgeable and understand more. And we’re trying to make people understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The root of these online experiences is about that, not how to create a perfect expo booth or a perfect keynote.”
In the second week of March 2020, Microsoft went from a strong focus on in-person event experiences, some for tens of thousands of people at a time, to cancelling 32 global events, taking almost all of them into the digital world. “That kind of transformation is pretty radical,” Bob said. “When you think about taking all the experiences that we know about and all of the things we’ve done for years and years and transforming them to a different medium, the learning curve has been very steep. What’s incredible is that when groups of people get forced into these situations, if you are willing to let yourself have your mind opened, it can create an enormously creative cycle. And that’s what’s happened at Microsoft.”
I co-presented at Microsoft Inspire with Bob on July 22 in a session titled Digital experiences in a pandemic era – connecting with customers when it is hard to connect.
Our talk focused on how to make a quick shift to digital communications.
Swim into the torpedo
“During times of adversity, how do you unlock the creativity that’s required to respond effectively? I think the answer is to cultivate a discipline of design thinking and develop a culture where you embrace failure,” Bob said about the strategies he uses at Microsoft. “What we say in our team is ‘swim into the torpedo’. Our entire team thinks it’s better to accelerate into the problem. We cultivate that and it takes discipline because you can blow yourself up. It’s like athletics, you have to do it every day. If you do that you can respond to difficult problems like the pandemic.”
While some powerful elements are lost when an event moves from a hotel ballroom or conference center to a computer screen or smartphone, there are other aspects that are optimized and superior online.
“The digital medium is way better than in-person for certain things like delivering information verbally together with additional supporting material and driving you to action,” Bob said. “This is more effective in the digital world. All of us in the events business have been lazy for the past decade about not thinking about the power of digital in combination with in-person. That’s been quite a revelation and humbling, I think. It’s so easy to get lazy.”
The switch to an entirely digital event schedule from March 2020 has been demanding for Bob and his team at Microsoft. However, by rethinking the entire events program and "swimming into the torpedo," the efforts have proven to be extremely valuable for Microsoft customers, partners, and employees.
“The power of the human spirit to connect with another one has been the biggest challenge as we explore and move ourselves forward as we learn how to communicate in a digital world. How do you make these emotional connections? Our feedback from the audiences at our digital events has been crazily, overwhelmingly positive” said Bob.
As you make the transition to virtual events like Microsoft has done, start with your audience. Think about what they need and what value you plan to deliver. Consider their desires and expectations. Then, consider budget and objectives.
It is possible to find the optimal intersection and deliver a virtual event that will delight audiences, build fans, and add to the bottom line. But the worst mistake you can make it to begin from a place of “we have always done it this way.” While you can deliver much of the value of an in-person event in virtual, the tools and tactics are different.
This post was adapted from my new book Standout Virtual Events: How to create an experience that your audience will love