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COVID-19: Turning the virtual into the virtue – how coronavirus will reshape industry conferencing

April 1 2020
by William Fellows, John Abbott, Matt Aslett, Ian Hughes


Introduction


Will technology industry conferencing and travel practices be permanently reshaped, or will they ultimately revert to the volume and velocity of activities that were tried (and tired) from the BC (Before Coronavirus) age. 451 Research's Coronavirus Flash Survey: March 2020 suggests there will be some permanent changes. Last week, our analysts assessed what's working by attending some of the first tech vendor events that transitioned from physical to virtual conferences.

The 451 Take

451 Research's flash survey has found the coronavirus outbreak, and the response to it, will likely have a permanent impact on modes of working. Enterprises surveyed are broadly implementing travel bans, as well as work-from-home policies and limits on internal and external meetings (see Figure 1 below). There's no question that the technology industry analyst community is currently grounded when it comes to person-to-person interactions, including summits and events. Whether these continue to happen in the same volume, or at the same velocity, in online form remains to be seen. They are typically aligned with the broader customer, partner and developer events that vendors have built up to engage with each of those three groups. These events have either been cancelled altogether, or postponed or transitioned into virtual/online events.

Aside from an attendee's experience of virtual conferences and events, the key to success will be what the exhibiting vendors feel like their return on investment is. The chief concern will be whether conference organizers and their customers (the exhibiting vendors) are able to guarantee, and then get the lead flow or deal propulsion, that they are used to getting from physical events. If enabling delegates to be mentally at a virtual location while physically at their computer is a goal, then virtual reality may have a role here.

Organizational policy response to coronavirus: WFH is here to stay


Our Coronavirus flash survey, March 11-19, 2020, polled around 800 IT and line-of-business professionals on the impact of coronavirus on their IT plans. Figure 1 below suggests there will be some significant and permanent organizational policy responses: 38% of organizations said their expanded/universal work-from-home policies would remain long term or become permanent. Travel limitations or bans are also expected to remain or become permanent for 23% of organizations.

When it comes to shows and conferences, 16% said they no longer expect to attend events they have attended in the past, while 13% said that delaying or cancelling their company events would be long term or permanent. The fact is that several billion people now have the experience of working from home, and will need to be taken as seriously as being at the office.

The need for improved home networking is clear, and better home office equipment/furniture will drive change and opportunity for some vendors. However, the overall experience is what needs upgrading. Plenty of vendors see this as their 'moment.' But over and above the collaboration-tool hype, there will be a bounce for work management, converged and intelligent workspaces, and employee engagement tools.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Coronavirus Repsonse 451 Research

Going virtual


Scheduled for March 16-18 in Las Vegas, Nevada, this was converted into a virtual-only event at very short notice. Some 2,500 attendees turned up to last year's event, and 100 breakout sessions had been planned. What helped this event still attract considerable attention was its highly relevant guest keynote by political scientist Ian Bremmer on the volatile geopolitical environment and the economic threats of global supply-chain disruption – effectively delivered from his home. It felt very immediate, and SAP executives continued the discussion afterward in a virtual panel session, successfully tying in Bremmer's non-company-specific presentation with Ariba's Discovery offerings, which enable buyers to post their sourcing needs for up to four million suppliers to respond with their ability to deliver goods and services.

The service is being opened up with no fees until June 30. All the eight keynotes are available on-demand, as are a selection (15 or so) of the breakout sessions, with no fee. While nowhere near as detailed or interactive as the live event would have been, SAP has made the online site exceptionally clear and easy to use. And with a bit of extra publicity, it looks likely to gain an audience for the material it has provided well in excess of the number of attendees it would have hosted on-site.

Held March 17-19, this event was a virtual version of what was originally planned as the annual staging of the company's physical event in London. It was delivered via the Brightalk webinar platform. One of the first among the tech sector's legion of conferences and events to be transitioned to a virtual event, it was held just before the UK government's lockdown on travel in the UK (March 23), so some keynote sessions involved multiple speakers, panelists and moderators in the same physical location streamed to the audience.

With physical meetings now mostly banned, the option of live streaming multi-person sessions to an online-only audience has disappeared, at least for the time being. Panel sessions at physical events can often be dull affairs; however, for the most part, Micro Focus had engaging moderators from its own ranks, and also used third parties. A separate and well-attended analyst track was provided over GoToMeeting, but the company made a bold decision not to record it for replay and subsequent wider distribution, believing this would drive a livelier and more engaged set of QA/audience interactions. It drew a crowd. Although the QA format – canned questions provided by a Micro Focus moderator, and then questions from the audience – was adequate, but by no means a standout.

The keynotes on Day 1 of Virtual Universe pulled in some 1,300 virtual attendees of the 3,000+ event registrations. Conference keynote sessions were available live (or near-immediate replay), as well as for later viewing on-demand. The company is also compiling a set of virtual or soft Lookbooks that highlight the content proceedings and themes. Sponsors included key Micro Focus integrator partners including PwC (Diamond); Deloitte, DXC Technology (Platinum); and Capgemini, Infosys and Ingram (Gold). Micro Focus Virtual Universe North America takes place May 19-21, and is also as a virtual event. It will be interesting to see how much content is duplicated and how much is fresh, and whether feedback from attendees is used to upgrade the experience.

Domo is well known for its extravagant in-person events, and now with its well-thought-out conference, has set the bar high for virtual events to follow. As a '100 percent virtual' occasion, it replaced the planned physical event in Salt Lake City, Utah, on March 18, which had 3,000 registrants. The company took he time and effort to do something different – rather than simply broadcasting a traditional live conference keynote (what we expect many others will do), it tailored the content and delivery for the medium. The keynote was comprised of a mix of live studio presentations, prerecorded location videos, and remote attendees joining via Zoom.

Attendees were able to ask questions via chat. While it wasn't the most interactive occasion (and lacked the fun and games of an in-person Domo event), importantly, each item – including customer stories and product announcements – was short and focused (unlike most traditional live conference keynotes). All the more impressive was that it was delivered in the middle of an earthquake. There was also a selection of prerecorded breakout sessions available on-demand, and a two-hour, analyst-only meeting on Zoom. The latter was a fairly traditional multi-analyst briefing with Q&A, and while it lacked the interactivity of an in-person analyst event, it at least provided the opportunity to delve into further detail on the announcements made during the keynote.

NVIDIA's annual GTC conference in San Jose, California, scheduled for March 22-26, was focused on the hot topic of AI. It had expected to attract some 20,000 attendees from 70 countries. NVIDIA's CEO Jenen Huang was scheduled to continue with his high-profile – and typically very long and detailed – keynote session online, but on March 16, he announced a postponement. "GTC news can wait – this isn't the right time," he said in a blog post.

The associated Enlighten analyst summit was also cancelled. However, GTC Digital has gone ahead, but focused on live and on-demand webinars of demos, educational and training session. Many live events were held at their original Pacific Times, and didn't appear to be accessible on-demand, although there was plenty of new on-demand content, and the promise to upload more regularly each Thursday from now on. The trouble is that without news and announcements, which many developers were hungry for (expressing their views via blog comments), there was no particular sense of urgency to spend immediate time on the conference.

The GTC site has some great content, but it doesn't feel like an event site – it seems like more of a general library of online material not tied to a particular moment in time. One piece of news that did make it through the door is that NVIDIA is making its Parabricks genomic analysis toolkit available free to researchers working on the fight to understand novel coronavirus for 90 days, alongside access to GPU resources to power the tools from partners such as Oracle, NetApp and Core Scientific.

Observations and conclusions


  • Discussion and exchange of opinions is the basis of conferences, but moving beyond 1:1 web conferencing interactions in the virtual realm requires some fresh thinking and new approaches, especially to replicate what are – when successful – completely immersive experiences for delegates.

  • Simply transitioning physical to virtual events by streaming sessions with some kind of Q&A won't cut it as a feasible long-term platform. All companies will need to explore new ways to attract, engage and connect audiences digitally, as well as demonstrate enough value to attend.

  • Vendors have an urgent need to keep their various communities of customers, partners and developers engaged, and to spread their message to new and adjacent communities. At in-person events, each of those constituencies can see and hear about the activities of the others; that interaction, when positive, keeps the community as a whole vibrant. Some replication of these personal interactions is a must for any virtual event – it's a huge motivation for attending them. Encouraging the use of personal video cameras during sessions, where possible, really drives up the quality of engagement, although of course it's harder to manage at scale. 'Speed dating' sessions among attendees, open communication lines, and activities during and between sessions can also encourage active engagement. Chat and Q&A can still be cumbersome, however – although live polls can add a new element to proceedings.

  • One tool we'd like to see in live sessions is an easier screen-capture capability to preserve PowerPoint and other content as it happens. The ability to retrieve material after sessions is often a black art, and the attention suck for attendees that are taking photos during sessions, or having to screen-grab, is not time well spent on the content itself. This is an area that needs attention.

  • When executives are delivering presentations from home, it's important to at least attempt to set a base level of quality control (we realize this is currently a difficult task). In the virtual analyst sessions that we've attended over the past few weeks – which typically have 15-20 analyst attendees and four to five speakers – the quality of connection, audio and video has been incredibly variable and sometimes disruptive.

  • Keynote speeches can be variable in quality, to say the least – 451 Research analysts attend hundreds of them in the course of a year. There's always a balance to be struck between general content and company-specific pitches. Unless a firm is in a particularly hot and fast-moving sector, too strong a company pitch may limit interest for online consumption since the audience is no longer captive. Similarly, general pitches or motivational speeches by marginally relevant figures will likely be ignored as a waste of time.

  • Finding a relevant and compelling outside speaker, and then tying the content into company-specific news and technology developments, will provide content that could find a much wider audience over a longer time frame, especially if well promoted.

  • Aside from the prepared program and materials, the conference experience itself is unique and a key value – the sidebar chats, chance meetings and show-floor encounters with both the known and the new. This is difficult to replicate. In the near term (2020), we expect virtual conference organizers to be seeking online platforms that will allow for interaction between event participants – including attendee-to-speaker communications in keynotes and sessions, attendee-to-attendee in 'virtual hallway' tracks, and in attendee-to-sponsor in virtual sponsor showcases.

  • If enabling delegates to be mentally at a virtual location while physically at their computer is a goal, then virtual reality may have a role. VR is ideal to give a sense of being somewhere else and have an experience, and virtual worlds are the next level of that. After that, augmented reality brings digital content, including other people, into a delegate's physical space. So can this be the use case that VR needs to carve out a real market? Considerable challenges remain, though: in addition to an upgrade of the user experience, headsets remain expensive and clunky, and there are not-insignificant personal comfort and security limitations.

  • For virtual event sponsors, opt-in delegate chat, demos and webinars have been mostly digital froth to physical events – the challenge now is to turn these and other kinds of devices into what delegates will want to interact with and in. Finding ways to guarantee lead flow and deal propulsion to sponsors and exhibitors as a result of these approaches will be key.

  • Results from 451 Research's Coronavirus Flash Survey show that finding ways of connecting without needing delegates to get on a plane, train or car – often resulting in a week OOO – will be an imperative.

  • The very best events:

  • Clearly communicate the speakers/agenda ahead of time

  • Stick closely to the agenda and timeslots so people can migrate in and out if necessary

  • Build in plenty of time for Q&A

  • Allow for multiple input options in case attendees can't talk or have poor audio connection.

  • Make session materials available immediately after event with clear indication of material that must be treated as NDA

  • Provide a transcription of Q&A 

  • Use a platform (like Zoom) that allows a concurrent speaker video and slide performance

  • Build in planned breaks if the event is over 90 minutes

  • Follow up the event with a personal note to the attendee offering follow-up opportunities (including unanswered submitted questions) as necessary

  • Record the event and send replay details