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Connecting to the Masses
Program manager Ashley Massone delivers a four-part solution to assimilate new Cisco Live attendees, 98 percent of whom promise to spread the good word about the event among their peers. By Kelli Billstein
ashley massone

Ashley Massone is a marketing and operations program manager on the Cisco Live team. She is responsible for multiple cross-functional programs, event-experience initiatives, and communications efforts for Cisco Systems Inc.'s flagship customer event. After working on Cisco Live for five years, she has formed a deep understanding of what it takes to deliver an effective event experience.
At its best, a conference is an event where you can geek out with peers about your industry, network over cocktails, and learn a slew of new things to impress your boss. At its worst, it's an onslaught of yawn-inducing sessions, isolation, and one nagging thought: Why did I petition to attend this?

For conferences of a certain size, these attendee impressions can spell year-over-year growth or a precipitous decline in attendance. Enter Cisco Live, the event of the year for anyone whose work even remotely touches information technology. Cisco Systems Inc., a multinational networking technology conglomerate, kicked off its first conference for a couple thousand IT professionals in 1989, and in the decades since expanded it into a multiday event featuring major keynote speakers, myriad educational sessions, a robust show floor, and celebrity appearances. Cisco Live attendance is now in the ballpark of 25,000 per event. But just because everything seems to be coming up roses doesn't mean it always will.

The Cisco Live operations and marketing teams understood that if anything was ever going to threaten their IT conference empire, it would be the unpredictable impressions of first-time attendees. On average, a whopping 40 percent of Cisco Live attendance is made up of new participants. And as Cisco Live grows even larger, so does the likelihood that these conference newbies might get lost in the shuffle and miss out on the meaningful experience that Cisco Live veterans enjoy. Indeed, the Cisco Customer Advisory Board warned Cisco Live staff about this possibility, and post-conference survey responses from attendees reinforced that same concern.

In 2015, to put first-timers on the fast track to feeling right at home during the conference, Cisco Live program manager Ashley Massone spearheaded and oversaw the New to Cisco Live program. "We realized the conference is a lot to take in," Massone says. "There was a hunch that people may find a program like New to Cisco Live helpful." That hunch led Massone to deliver a multichanneled collection of four innovative solutions to welcome new attendees to the fold and keep them coming back for more.

Understanding the Community
Massone knew her challenge was greater than simply directing newbies to download an event app. She had to inspire the same giddy enthusiasm and sense of community that the veterans who describe Cisco Live as "space camp for adults" feel. So she and her team asked themselves what it takes to make a community thrive and, perhaps more aptly, what makes often-shy IT professional light up like kids on Christmas morning when they arrive on site.
"We had a brainstorming session where we put ourselves into our attendees' shoes to think about what we would want or need when attending a very large event for the first time," Massone says. "We thought a lot about how overwhelming this event would be for a first-timer. We wanted those individuals to feel like they were already part of a community before Cisco Live even started."

To accomplish this, Massone chose a multipronged approach for the New to Cisco Live program, which included an online chat room for answering questions and networking, an on-site preconference meet-up for new attendees to network and ask more questions, and a mentor program in which first-timers had access to a Cisco Live veteran. These solutions were piloted in 2015 and then monitored in 2016 for an increase in participation. By the time 2017 came along, it was clear that there was an appetite for each of the program's components, and then some. So in ramping up for Cisco Live 2017, Massone was challenged to take her newbie initiation strategy to the next level. With more than 28,000 people registered to attend the 2017 conference in Las Vegas – the largest Cisco Live attendance to date – Massone's program was perhaps more important than ever.

Solution No. 1: Chat Me Up
The first touchpoint for new attendees unfolded in virtual chat rooms dubbed "Spark Rooms," which were set up six weeks prior to Cisco Live. A far cry from the one-dimensional AOL chat rooms of the 1990s, Spark Rooms offered dynamic spaces where users could share files, images, and videos as they chatted. Hosted by Cisco's collaboration platform Spark, the chat rooms served as a dedicated space for new attendees to network early on, ask conference staffers questions in real time, and gather information about the event.

All Cisco Live registrants who indicated on their registration forms that they were new to the conference would automatically be added to the Spark Rooms and invited via email to join the conversation. Massone and her team prepopulated questions in the spaces to keep things active, but soon saw a surge of organic activity as new attendees started to sign in.

"We saw a lot of basic, logistics-focused questions at first," Massone says. "But as we got closer to the event, we started seeing people making plans to meet up on site for a cocktail or meal." In other words, new attendees were starting to network long before checking in for their flights to Vegas – and creating bona fide connections they would then continue on site.

This was precisely the type of interaction that Massone was hoping to see. "It's not cheap to attend a conference, so it's common for Cisco Live attendees to be the only ones from their companies to attend," she says. "It was great to see those solo first-timers making connections so they would have at least one person to meet with upon arrival."

The Spark Rooms remained open throughout Cisco Live and were especially active during the event, as attendees threw out spontaneous meet-up suggestions or clued in one another when there was free food available at one of the booths – an unmistakable sign of true attendee camaraderie at any conference.

Solution No. 2: Here's a Tip
Knowing that the majority of first-time attendees would likely scour the web for information before the conference, Massone and her team decided to do the digging for them. This was primarily done via a post-conference survey sent out to 2016 attendees soliciting information they wished they'd had leading up to Cisco Live. The same question was posed to Cisco's Customer Advisory Board.

The advice was organized onto one convenient landing page on www.CiscoLive.com. For example, at the behest of past attendees, the landing page included tips on everything from what to wear (comfortable shoes are a must), when to sign up for the education sessions (as early as possible), and which items to put on the packing list (power strips).

Enhancing the laundry list of Cisco Live tips were helpful blog posts and videos from the previous year's Cisco Live, which gave a flavor for the conference atmosphere. There was even a step-by-step "convince your boss to send you to Cisco Live" guide for those who were not yet registered. Overall, it was a one-stop information hub for new attendees, making them that much more prepared and jazzed for the conference to begin.

Solution No. 3: Meet Your Mentor
During the registration process, attendees were asked whether they were a first-timer or a veteran. Then, depending on the response, each was asked if he or she would be interested in participating in the mentor program as either a mentor or mentee.

"Having that relationship with a mentor before you even arrive on site is like having a friend before the first day of school," Massone says. "Once you get there, you have at least one familiar face that you recognize and may have talked to once or twice before even arriving."

In previous years, Massone paired up new attendees one-on-one with conference veterans. But in 2017, she shook things up a bit and matched two new attendees with each participating veteran. This would allow new attendees to have both an additional connection and someone to identify with in terms of being new to the event. Mentors and mentees were provided with each other's contact information and encouraged to email or chat prior to Cisco Live, as well as set aside time to meet up in Las Vegas so they could network in person.

"We know that our conference veterans are more than just repeat attendees; they're evangelists for Cisco Live," Massone says. "They want to help other people see the benefit of the conference and get that same value out of it." As such, these mentors were more than mere resources capable of dishing out advice, answering questions, and welcoming newbies into their circles of friends. They were also brand advocates and conference proponents happy to extoll Cisco Live's virtues to anyone who'd listen.

Solution No. 4: Veterans Tell All
Cisco Live offers a slew of educational sessions to help attendees learn about everything from mobile technology trends to cloud-based machine learning. But in 2017 new attendees found that there was something special reserved just for them: an hour-long session called the "New to Cisco Live Meet-Up," which took place the evening before the conference officially kicked off. Massone had organized a preconference gathering for newbies in 2015 and 2016, but there wasn't a dedicated session. Rather, the meet-ups were held in a lounge where conference veterans informally fielded questions. In 2017, however, new attendees had access to a session that was set up like a swanky, invitation-only cocktail reception.

It's lights slightly dimmed, the room was stocked with round tables and a bevy of appetizers and drinks. After 15 minutes or so of mingling, new attendees took their seats and all eyes turned to a panel of conference veterans at the front of the room, all of whom were primed and ready to get the crowd pumped up about the conference. Each spoke about his or her Cisco Live experience, took questions from the audience, and expressed his or her take on how to maximize the conference experience.

"The addition of the veteran panel was great because first-timers could hear from fellow attendees, not conference staffers like me," Massone says. "I can guess about the things that new attendees want to know, but the attendees themselves are far better equipped to answer those questions."

Rave-Worthy Results
Finding your niche while surrounded by a sea of nearly 30,000 people can be more difficult – and daunting – than online dating. Compounding that is the fact that Cisco Live comprises five short, action-packed days, representing a window of opportunity that can slam shut before first-timers are able to hit the ground running. But thanks to Massone's New to Cisco Live program, the 2017 class of novices had multiple opportunities to assimilate with the conference community. As one All-Star Awards judge said, "This was a great way to engage with new attendees beyond the typical social media and email marketing. Instead, Massone created a program that was interactive and intuitive, making attendees feel special and included."

The Spark Rooms hosted a total of 6,000 first-time attendees, an impressive 100-percent increase from the year prior. New-attendee survey results revealed that 88 percent of those users rated this tool as either "valuable" or "very valuable," while 71 percent said that the Spark Rooms helped them engage with their peers in the tech industry.

Meanwhile, 214 first-time attendees connected with conference veterans in the mentor portion of the program, a 52-percent rise from 2016. As for the on-site meet-up session with the panel of Cisco Live old-timers, more than 750 people attended, and 95 percent of those individuals reported that they would recommend the session to other newbies.

The overall sentiment about the New to Cisco Live program was overwhelmingly positive, with 98 percent of attendees intimating that they would tell their colleagues about the conference, and another 94 percent saying they were provided with helpful information to navigate the ins and outs of Cisco Live.

"I think the value of the New to Cisco Live program has a lot to do with the emotional connection it helps create between attendees and the Cisco Live brand," Massone says. "We want them to feel that they belong so they'll return again next year and recommend it to their peers."

Thanks to Massone's ongoing efforts to acclimate new attendees through multiple channels, it's safe to say that Cisco Live will continue to see new enclaves of conference converts. It's worth noting, too, that the program is a mere three years old, and Massone can already boast about its award-winning results. Take that as a testament to the value in building conference loyalty through inclusivity and community. E

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