photos: International Business Machines Corp.
Colleen Bisconti is the vice president of global conferences and events for IBM Corp. For more than 20 years, she has held a variety of marketing roles across the company and has a proven track record in the successful development and execution of marketing strategies.
In Colleen Bisconti's 22 years with International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), the vice president for global conferences and events has witnessed the company survive the computer industry's cutthroat competition with bold moves fueled by shrewd strategies. With the emergence of cloud computing transforming every aspect of the computerized world, IBM faced another challenge, requiring an equally adroit response: Cloud computing threatened to turn three of its oldest and most popular conferences into something as out of date as computers with punch cards and 640K of memory.
Spanning nearly two decades (the oldest of the conferences dates back to 2000), IBM's Innovate, Impact, and Pulse conferences had focused mainly on mobile, information technology (IT), and Web issues, attracting a combined attendance of 22,000 in their latest iterations. But as successful as the events were (typically, 90 percent of attendees indicated they would return the next year), Bisconti sensed a seismic shift taking place in the computational landscape in ways that were rendering them less effective – and even incrementally outdated.
Even though the Pulse conference had, for example, started concentrating many of its sessions on cloud computing, the forums overall tended to be informational silos where the sessions and products rarely touched on outside fields. "Many participants told us it was becoming increasingly difficult to decide which event to attend because today, all of these topics overlap," Bisconti says.
Known as Expo, the trade show component took on much greater importance at InterConnect than ever before, with an exhibit hall divided into thematic sections that reflected the conference's topic areas.
Thus, Bisconti spent several weeks in 2014 crunching numbers and analyzing everything from the types of attendees (71 percent were IT professionals, with the remainder comprising C-level executives, business managers, consultants, and others) to their behavior at the events, including where they went, how long they stayed, how they engaged socially, etc.
By late 2014, Bisconti had come to an inescapable conclusion: The best way to get attendees to merge their knowledge bases was to merge the conferences themselves. Such a union could make it almost impossible not to break down the barriers that existed between them. Physically, attendees would have to mix and mingle with each other. Educationally, guests could join sessions where the topics reflected a more holistic approach.
But unifying the conferences was not as easy as rebooting a computer. "The biggest challenge was making sure everyone that had gone to Pulse, Impact, or Innovate could see the value of attending an entirely new and unknown event," Bisconti says. "Change can be hard, so building the right plan was critical."
Settling on a new notion for the conference was one thing; selling it to attendees accustomed to another concept was an exponentially more difficult task. Joining forces with experience-marketing agency George P. Johnson Co., Bisconti knew she would have to build the new conference step by careful step, much as a programmer forges the thousands of individual lines of complex code into a single coherent program. Those steps included: create a new name, design a fresh curriculum, construct a virtual component, and reinvigorate the trade show element.
Loaded with that ammunition, she and her team at IBM could take aim at their target market of current and potential IT-heavy attendees. Matching those daunting tasks were objectives that might have intimidated a less experienced hand: draw 20,000 attendees, 25 percent of which would be new to IBM conferences, and steer 70 percent of attendees to the event's exhibit hall.
|The goals International Business Machines Corp. and Bisconti set for InterConnect were appropriately ambitious for a company that pioneered the first commercial hard drive as well as the first computer to defeat a reigning world chess champion.
➤ Draw a total of 20,000 attendees overall
➤ Attract 5,000 first-time visitors to the events
➤ Entice 70 percent of InterConnect's attendees to visit the trade show floor
The first item of order was to find a designation for the new event. Bisconti and her staff weighed a variety of options for a new name before settling on "InterConnect." "The name represented exactly what we were trying to accomplish with the event," Bisconti says, "linking the conferences, the attendees, and the technologies into a unified whole."
The next step Bisconti took was to construct its curriculum. Instead of three separate syllabi, there could only be one that was easy for attendees to navigate during their registration. For the four-day conference, Bisconti and her team created eight different topic areas, including ones for cloud-based business applications, the Internet of things, and security. All told, 42 individual tracks took shape, comprising a mind-bending 2,100 classes.
To handle the anticipated audience of 20,000 or more attending the numerous classes, IBM planned to hold InterConnect at two venues simultaneously in Las Vegas, the MGM Grand Conference Center and Mandalay Bay Convention Center. To avoid the isolation that might occur from such a split arrangement, Bisconti and the team arranged for several of the sessions at each location to be broadcast to a theater in the other.
Knowing from anecdotal evidence that many potential attendees had neither the time nor the budget to travel to attend the conferences, Bisconti decided to inaugurate a virtual component that she hoped would become a fundamental part of InterConnect in years to come. Called InterConnectGO, the corresponding virtual event would ideally draw in thousands more, and allow attendees, after a simple registration, to watch a selection of several key sessions, connect with various experts at the event, and mingle with other attendees online.
Lastly, Bisconti wanted the trade show – simply referred to as Expo – to be a culminating experience that would draw in a large portion of attendees and encourage them to explore their particular field and others. She would add graphical elements, hands-on demonstrations, and even storytelling aspects from IBM itself that would transfer the various cloud-related technologies from their abstract realm to a more physical, palpable one. "We wanted attendees to feel cloud technology on a visceral level," Bisconti says, "and to see with their own eyes, and feel with their own hands, what it could do."
Head in the Clouds
Four months before InterConnect was slated to open in late February of 2015, IBM began reaching out to several thousand prospects, including previous attendees, with promotional emails branding InterConnect as "The premier Cloud and Mobile conference," with the theme of "A New Way." The company also posted an agenda-building tool on the event microsite.
Roughly six weeks prior to the event, IBM also made its event app available on the microsite. Furthering the idea that the event was about connecting on multiple levels, those using the app could also log in to InterConnectGO during the event.
When InterConnect opened its doors, thousands of attendees took a deep dive into an event full of educational enrichment, magnetic presentations, and spellbinding scenography that emphasized storytelling as much as technology, and creativity as much as computers. For four days, the conference sessions were as jammed with intellectual excitement as they were attendees: The two-hour blocks of five- and 10-minute classes called Ignite sessions, for example, were the intellectual equivalent of speed dating, with everything from rapid-fire presentations on the "Star Trek"-like future of design to a Baltimore City Public Schools hackathon.
Those amuse-bouches were followed by the heavier fare of 14 keynotes and three general sessions. But the stars of the keynotes weren't, as is often the case, speakers whose sole attraction is their celebrity. Instead, what drew attendees were the topics themselves – e.g., building the next generation of apps with IBM's "Jeopardy"-winning supercomputer, Watson, and redefining digital business with what is colloquially known as Big Data.
In addition, on each of the conference's four days, InterConnect ran a general session hosted by IBM execs, which might sound like a recipe for Sahara-dry techno jargon. But instead of a landslide of PowerPoint presentations, the sessions turned to a technique as old as Aesop: storytelling. Reps from companies as varied as modern video-game maker Electronic Arts Inc.'s FireMonkeys Studio, and 144-year-old cosmetic company Shiseido Co. Ltd., recounted tales of how they had successfully overcome obstacles with the help of IBM cloud technology.
|Ensuring crossover traffic among the various tech areas was a primary concern for Bisconti. Fortunately, InterConnect delivered in spades: Sixty-five percent of attendees crossed streams from one tech specialty to another. In addition, Bisconti exceeded attendance goals across the board.
➤ Attracted 21,500 visitors to InterConnect
➤ Lured nearly 9,675 first timers
➤ Surpassed Expo attendance goal by 25 percent
Adding a dash of drama, judges for the popular reality-TV series "Shark Tank" appraised the startup schemes of three entrepreneurs whose business ideas relied heavily on IBM technology. Theaters broadcast keynotes and general sessions from the corresponding event venues, while InterConnectGO drew thousands of virtual attendees.
Even the trade show component, Expo, reflected Bisconti's passion for constantly connecting the event's disparate elements into a whole greater than the sum of its many parts. Located inside Mandalay Bay, the Expo included 175 exhibitors. To ensure, however, that guests could easily find what they were interested in, Bisconti aligned the floor to the eight curriculum streams. Each stream was represented by what she called "a mini-center experience," which included a theater where client case studies, demonstrations, and meet-the-expert sessions were conducted.
Beyond the free tchotchkes and the collateral literature, Expo included the IBM Cloud Experience, which offered a massive 11-by-40-foot engagement wall of 27, 55-inch LCD screens showcasing cloud technology, and the Urban Art Cloud, a 20-by-13-foot fabric canvas suspended from a truss. Both elements combined created a centerpiece, drawing in attendees through the sheer power of their visual gravity. When guests came near, one of up to three IBM staffers greeted and guided them through the process of creating and sharing works of art that would appear on the stylized cloud and later on social media.
Lining up 10 deep at times to wait their turn, the guests drew on a 55-inch touchscreen serving as a digital canvas. Using a dry paintbrush or even just a fingertip, the guests created artwork with a variety of colors, patterns, objects, paint effects, and graphics available through a painting program.
After completing their compositions, the fledging artists were photographed next to the touchscreen and their creations, which were cleverly displayed on a faux cloud attached above the touchscreen, the Urban Art Cloud overhead, and the live-feed display on the engagement wall.
Next, a program called IBM Bluemix uploaded the images and photos to www.urbanartcloud.com, along with a conference hashtag of #IBMInterConnect. Guests could add their own hashtag, and indicate which social-media platform they wanted to share it on, from Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to Google+, Instagram, and Tumblr. After receiving a branded Urban Art Cloud T-shirt from staffers, participants could browse the www.urbanartcloud.com gallery to look up their images and share them at any time on social media, thus extending the reach of the conference.
Attendees could also view the works of art on the engagement wall set alongside various informational displays on cloud technology. If their interest was kindled, they then wandered into adjacent areas called Discover & Learn, Try & Buy, or Adopt & Advocate. At these stations, visitors could delve deeper into cloud technology with demonstrations, trial runs of software, hands-on experimentation, and presentations running on a 60-foot curved screen. If all that didn't result in information overload, a nearby Expert Bar, stocked with IBM's savants instead of scotch, allowed guests to brainstorm on how cloud technology could turn their worst nightmare into an idyllic dream.
On Cloud Nine
On its last night, InterConnect closed with a concert by Aerosmith, whose lead singer's gruff and rasping voice belied the smoothness of the conference itself, whose results can only be described as remarkable. With Bisconti and IBM hoping to attract 20,000 guests, 25 percent of which would be newcomers, the conference drew nearly 21,500, with 45 percent attending their first-ever IBM conference. Planning on roughly 70 percent of guests hitting the Expo portion, 88 percent ended up visiting the trade show floor.
While no official goals were set for InterConnectGO, the virtual version of the live InterConnect conference attracted 10,000 digital attendees, roughly twice the number Bisconti would have been happy with. Most tellingly, Bisconti estimates that 65 percent of the audience crossed streams from one technical specialty to another, accomplishing her goal of attendees fusing their knowledge bases by unifying the conferences.
Given the many hurdles Bisconti had to surmount, she proved Winston Churchill was right when he said, "Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it." To say that All-Star Awards judges concurred with this assessment of Bisconti's performance would be an understatement. One judge succinctly described InterConnect as "A huge gamble that paid off"; another elaborated on what set Bisconti apart. "She carefully and methodically thought out the conferences," the judge said. "She showed loyal followers of the previous events why this evolved conference would benefit them, and she attracted an entirely new audience as well."
As richly deserved as the judges' laurels were, perhaps the highest acclaim for Bisconti might have come from the lyrics of the Aerosmith song "Dream On": "You got to lose to know how to win." Biscotti knew that "losing" three popular conferences by combining them into one could attract the old audiences and new ones in droves – something that not even IBM's supercomputers might have calculated.