UPDATED 15:45 EST / MARCH 07 2020

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How digital events should work in the age of coronavirus

We’re going to take a break from our traditional spending assessments and share with you our advice on how to deal with the coronavirus crisis — specifically best practices in shifting your physical event to digital.

The team at theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s video studio, is in active discussions with more than 20 companies that have events planned in the near term, and the inbound call volume has been increasing rapidly. We have been doing digital for a decade and have lots of experience in this field, so we’re excited to share our learnings, tools and best practices.

Uncharted waters

We haven’t ever seen a country quarantine 35 million people. So of course everyone is panicked by this uncertainty. That said, our message, like others’, is: Don’t panic, but be decisive – you have to act and make decisions. This reduces uncertainty for your stakeholders, employees and community.

As you well know, major physical events are dropping fast as a risk mitigation measure. Mobile World Congress and HIMSS cancelled, Kubecon postponed, IBM Think has gone digital, SXSW was cancelled, and so it goes.

If you have an event in the next three to five weeks, you have little choice but to cancel the physical attendee portion of your event. Now you have really three choices:

  • Cancel the event completely and wait until next year. The problem with this is that capitulation doesn’t preserve any of the value related to why you were holding the event in the first place.
  • You can do what KubeCon did and postpone. That is a near-term decision on the event, but now you’re in limbo for a while. That’s OK if you can sort out a venue down the road that may work.
  • The third option is to pivot to digital. This requires more thought, but it allows you to create an ongoing content arc that will have downstream benefits to your business. (Full disclosure: TheCUBE’s business model is based on creating content from events and distributing it widely, so it would benefit from companies implementing this advice.)

The No. 1 complaint brands tell us about physical events is that they don’t capitalize on the post-event halo effect. A digital strategy that spans time will enable that. This is important because when the market calms, down you will be able to leverage digital better for your physical events.

Where should you start digital planning?

The key question you want to ask is what are the most important aspects of your physical event that you want to preserve. And then start thinking about building a digital twin of those areas. But it’s much more than that and we will address the opportunity that is unfolding for you: What are the most important aspects of your physical event that you want to preserve?

Your challenge right now is to act decisively and turn lemons into lemonade with digital.

Content, people and community: a virtuous digital circle

Experiences are built around content, community and the interaction of people. It’s a virtuous cycle where data and machine intelligence will drive insights, discovery by users will bring navigation which leads to engagement and ultimately outcomes.

Very importantly, this is not about which event software package to use. Do not start there. Start with the outcome you want to achieve, identify the parts of that outcome that are achievable and work backwards from there. The technology decision will be easier and more effective if you take that path.

Go forward, cancel or go digital?

At high level you have two paths:

  • The preferred path if your event is coming up soon is pivot to digital as shown on the right side of the chart below; or
  • Hold your physical event but be aware your lawyers are going to be all over you about the risks and precautions you need to take.

There are others more qualified to advise you on risk management and the specific live event precautions you should take, but we’ve listed some items on the left side of the chart above.

Nonetheless, we are suggesting for near-term events that you optimize for digital. Here’s what we advise:

  • Send a crisp, clear and simple communications. Adobe has a good example that asks your loyal community to opt in for updates and start the planning for digital.
  • Identify the key objectives of your event and build a digital program that maximizes value for attendees that maps to those objectives. There are some examples below in which that theCUBE participated this past week.
  • Event software should come last. Don’t even worry about that until you’ve envisioned your outcome. We’ll cover event software and tools later on in this analysis.

Old way –> new way

We believe new thinking is required and the digital learnings in the next several months will lead to a permanent change. Event hosts are entering a new era and our experience suggests they will find new value which will permanently alter their thinking. Going forward, we believe event organizers will put much more emphasis on hybrid physical/digital events where the digital component is no longer a bolt-on, but rather a fundamental driver of value for self-forming communities.

The old way was big venue, big-bang event, thousands of people, spending tons of money on a band, exhibitor halls, and the like. Now, event hosts are resetting the physical and optimizing for digital — which really is about serving a community.

Re-imagining events

The pattern emerging with our clients is they want to preserve five key content areas from physical events. Not necessarily all of them but some combination.

  1. Keynotes. You bring together a captive audience of customers and they want to hear from execs. Your customers made a bet on you and they want to feel good about it.
  2. Breakout sessions, the deeper dives from subject matter experts.
  3. Technical sessions. A big reason customers attend events is to get technical training.
  4. Press conference or news. Events almost always have big news and holding press/analyst events within the events activates coverage and engagement.
  5. TheCUBE. Many of our customers have said we not only want you to turnkey a digital event, we want theCUBE — or, alternatively, we want to plug theCUBE into the digital production that we are running.

Now these are not in stone – for exampl,e some customers are blending keynotes into their press conference. And we would to stress that initially, everyone’s mindset is replicating physical in digital form. It’s fine to start there, but there’s way more to the story, which we’ll try to flesh out a bit later in this analysis.

Some examples of digital event successes

The digital press event

Let’s look at some simple examples that we’ve executed on recently. First, take a look at a digital event we did this week with Aviatrix. They’re a small company, but they wanted to convey a brand image that garnered attention and underscored how they punch above their weight class.

You can see the live audience vibe above. This event was live but it can be prerecorded. All the speakers were together in one place, yes… but you can see the high production value.

We call this out because some of our clients have said they want to do digital as a completely remote event, with speakers 100% distributed due to travel restrictions. Our feeling is that’s much more challenging for high-value events.

Our strong recommendation is plan to get speakers into a physical venue — and ideally gather a small VIP and influencer audience to create an emotional connection.

Make your audience feel important with the vibe of a VIP event. If you can, wait a few weeks to see how this thing shakes out, and if and when travel loosens, you can pull that off with a professional look and feel.

Keynotes and breakout sessions

Below is an example of a digital event we held when we opened our new Palo Alto studios. You can see the production value and the live audience.

This was a less expensive production than the Aviatrix example, which had a bigger venue food, music for the intros and outros, high-end audio and visual, and more. The higher-end production requires more budget – think at least $200,000 to $300,000 and upwards of $400,000 for a full-blown event that invites influencers and invests in more paid media and syndication.

You have options. You can scale it down: Host the event at your facility, host it at our facility in Palo Alto, use your own people for the studio audience, use your own production people and dial back the glam, which will lower the costs. It just depends on the brand you want to convey and your budget.

As well you can run the event live or as a “simulive.” You can prerecord some or all of the segments. You can have a portion – such as the press conference and or the keynotes — run live and then insert the breakouts into the stream as simulive or on demand assets.

Best practice: Women in Data Science

Before we dig into technical sessions, we want to share another best practice. TheCUBE this week participated in a digital event at Stanford with the Women in Data Science organization where we plugged theCUBE into its platform and agenda.

WiDS created a hybrid physical/digital event – again with a small group of VIPs and speakers onsite at Stanford – with keynotes, breakouts and theCUBE interviews all streaming. What was really cool is that they connected to dozens of outposts around the globe who hosted in regions shown above with intimate meetups that participated in the live event. Of course, all the content is hosted on-demand for that post-event halo effect we always emphasize.

Technical sessions and training

Whereas with press conferences and keynotes we are recommending a higher scale and strong brand production, with technical sessions we see a different approach working.

Technical people are fine with earbuds and laptop speakers. You don’t need the high-end production for tech talks. Below we show an example of a technical talk that Dan Hushon has run. Dan is chief technology officer at DXC, and for years has run his technical sessions using the CrowdChat group chat platform. He uses the free community edition with Google Hangouts and has run dozens and dozens of these tech talks, designed for learning and collaboration.

Technical people love to participate in these. They chat and vote and the beauty is that unlike a Twitter chat, which is ephemeral, a transcript and record of the event is created for easy on-demand viewing of the video and chat conversations.

You can run these weekly, as part of the pregame of your digital event, run some day of event and continue the cadence post-event.

Don’t let the software tail wag the dog

Let’s spend some time on event software. There are lots of tools out there. Some are really functional, some are monolithic and bloated, some are emerging — and you may have some of these licensed or be wed to one. Webinar software such as ON24, Brightcove and other platforms are popular. That’s great.

From our standpoint, we plug right into any platform and are agnostic to the event software. But the key is not to allow your software to dictate the outcome of your digital event. Technology should serve outcomes, not the reverse.

TheCUBE’s philosophy on digital event tools: free and scalable

Forgive the shameless plug, but we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we want to share theCUBE’s approach to software.

First, our software is free. We offer community editions that are extremely robust – that is, not neutered – that we have made available to our community. We use a cloud-native, horizontally scalable model, bringing to bear the right tool for the right job. What does that mean?

Think of Amazon Web Services. You log into a console and you spin up services based on what you need. Those services each have granular functions, application programming interfaces and primitives.

They’re optimized for a specific job: RedShift for analytic databases, S3 for object storage, EBS for block storage, Kinesis for streaming, Aurora for relational databases. It’s not one-size-fits-all. You spin up the service you need, consume resources only when needed and then spin it down. No perpetual license, no 12-month forced license or subscription models, just services optimized for a specific task.

Whether it’s live streaming, hosting content on demand, engaging the crowd in chats, transcribing/searching/curating/sharing video, telling stories post event, amplifying content, we try to visualize communities as an organic whole and serve them. Also, presence is critical in a digital event: “Oh hey, I see you’re here – great, let’s connect and chat.”

There are a number of use cases and we encourage you to consult with us as to how to keep it simple. We have some really simple minimum-viable-product use cases that we are happy to share with you. What’s more, we don’t think of software just to hold the content, rather we think about members of the community and our goal is to allow teams to form and be successful.

We also see digital events creating new or evolving roles in organizations where the event may end but the social organization and community aspect lives on. Think of theCUBE as providing a membrane to the conference team and a template for organizing and executing digital events.

Whether it’s engaging the crowd in chats, curating video, telling stories post event, hosting content or amplifying content, visualizing your community as a whole and serving them is the goal. Presence is critical in a digital event: “Hey, I see you’re here – let’s talk.” There are a number of use cases and I encourage you to consult with us as to how to keep it simple.

Looking ahead: Coronavirus accelerates digital realities

We see a permanent change, and that’s not a prediction about coronavirus. Rather, we see a transformation creating new new dynamics. Digital is about groups, which are a proxy for communities. Successful online communities require new thinking and we see new roles emerging.

Think about the “event stack protocol” today. Venue selection, agenda, call for speakers, registration, production, bands, breakouts, food, sponsors, exhibits and so forth. Think about how this is changing. Today it’s very clear who is in charge of what as decision-making is dominated by the physical.

We see a different future. For example, a digital event may involve multiple venues (a la WiDS), many runs of show, remote pods, rules and tools around who is speaking when, online presence, self-forming schedules and communities. As digital becomes more prominent and the value is more obvious, the balance between physical and digital will shift.

We think digital moves us to a persistent commitment where the group collective catalyzes collaboration. Hosting an online event is cool, but a long-term digital strategy doesn’t just move physical to digital. Instead, it reimagines events as an organic entity — not a mechanism or a piece of software. It’s not just about hosting content. Digital communities have an emotional impact that must be reflected through your brand.

Here’s our full video analysis:

Image: _freakwave_/Pixabay

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