|t was a malady that would have made Dr. House reach for his stash of Vicodin. For 30 years, Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc.'s user conference for its Healthcare IT unit was the go-to forum for the company's clients. Alongside hundreds of their cohorts, they came to learn about the latest changes and advances in Siemens' information technology (IT) products in areas ranging from revenue cycle to
clinical workflow to business|
intelligence. Held in attendee-magnet destinations such as Orlando, FL, and Las Vegas, the annual assembly known as Innovations for Healthcare IT drew hundreds of attendees every year.
But even a company with health-care sector revenue of about $17 billion in fiscal year 2011 wasn't immune to the fiscal affliction now known as the Great Recession. In 2008, for example, when the downturn was metastasizing through the economy, attendance at the conference slumped by about 10 percent. In 2009, when the recession was at a feverish high, attendance flatlined. Fittingly, for a company that also manufactures diagnostic-imaging and lab-diagnostic equipment, Siemens saw what was happening: corporate triage. To the hospitals with tourniquet-tight budgets, the four-day conference was considered by some to be expendable. "Travel dollars were harder to come by," says Roger May, Siemens' senior
director of global marketing.
"Even the best content in the world can't bring customers in if they can't afford to travel."
Faster than an ER doctor with a set of defibrillators can revive a patient in cardiac arrest, the company embarked on a new strategy: If customers couldn't come to the event, the event would come to the customers. For the 2010 conference in Orlando, Siemens decided it would initiate an experimental foray into hybrid events, mixing the traditional assembly with an unconventional cyber counterpart. "We knew that if the experiment worked, we would have a template for future user conferences," says Andrea Boos, marketing events program owner
An Ounce of Prevention
But arranging a virtual
event wasn't as simple as meeting up with friends on Skype. For instance, Siemens pondered how it could inoculate itself against what it perceived as its two biggest obstacles: user resistance and, paradoxically, user acceptance. While virtual events have been with us since about 1993, they have not caught on at a fast and furious pace. In fact, only 12 to 18 percent of companies had previously held one by 2010, according to Tagoras Inc., a Carrboro, NC-headquartered company that produces online events.
Six Tips for Virtual Events
For its part, Siemens never mustered any metrics on how many of those in its Innovations for Healthcare IT mailing database of 10,000 had been to a virtual and/or hybrid event before. What it did have, however, were anecdotal reports about its webcasts and a one-shot
hybrid event it hosted a
few months earlier in conjunction with the 2010 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference. Their positive reception suggested Siemens' customers would glom on to a virtual event as easily as a teenager does texting.
According to the Virtual Edge Institute, a research and advocacy organization based in Pleasanton, CA, 87 percent of marketers it surveyed believe virtual or hybrid events will make up half of all events within five years. Yet there are few guideposts for turning what can seem like a cyber stunt into a success. So we asked several of the leading online-event production companies to give us their best tips, then sprinkled their words of wisdom across the next four pages to help you dial up a virtual event where your success will be real even if your setting is virtual.
If Siemens was at all concerned an online conference might flop, it was equally worried that a hybrid event might be too successful. Its second chief concern - user acceptance - sounds like the kind of problem you'd want to have. But unlike some companies that arrange hybrid events in which the real and the virtual take place simultaneously, Siemens was skittish about running them at the same time. The block of hotel rooms it had reserved, for one thing, could turn into an attrition nightmare if attendees who might otherwise make the trip decided to travel no further than their desktops instead. For at least the first iteration of the hybrid event, Siemens decided, the virtual adjunct would begin about a month after the live physical conference closed. "We didn't want to cannibalize our own audience," May says.
Starting roughly three months before the 2010 event kicked off, Siemens' first step was choosing a curriculum that it hoped would appeal to the broadest range of its users - an audience that spans from health-care executives and clinicians to IT managers and laboratory specialists. To accomplish this, the company chose a proportional sample of sessions from its overall slate of courses that were spread across 11 tracks, such as Clinical Solutions, Revenue Cycle Solutions, Technology Solutions, and Interfaces & Interoperability.
Get the Word Out
In the end, it selected 55 sessions - about 30 percent of the 190 classes offered at the live event - drawing them from each of the different tracks. So, for example, if Siemens had originally scheduled 30 Clinical Solutions courses and 60 Revenue Cycle Solutions courses for the live event, it chose 10 and 20, respectively, from those categories for the event's digital doppelganger.
Your virtual event might be amazing, but if no one knows it's happening, it won't be successful. To ensure your attendees are aware of the virtual happenings, Eric Vidal, director of product marketing for Chicago-headquartered InterCall Event Services,
recommends an integrated-marketing strategy that comprises e-mail campaigns, website banners, social media, e-newsletters, print invitations, and online advertising to promote your event.
Thus, it made a reduced, but nonetheless representative, virtual model of Innovations 2010. This would be especially attractive to those attendees who wanted to earn educational credits through the event's classes that are recognized by a variety of organizations, including the Healthcare Financial Management Association and the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
If choosing what to
record was vital, deciding
how to videotape it was just as important. Instead of a home-movie style where it would simply record the presentation from a fixed position on the floor (which could end up visually and aurally fuzzy), Siemens turned to online-conference software from WebEx Communications Inc. of Santa Clara, CA. Now a subsidiary of Cisco Systems Inc., WebEx offers a webcasting tool that allows integration of visual and audio material that can later be viewed on desktop PCs, iPhones, smart phones, and iPads.
Siemens arranged for presenters to load their sessions' PowerPoint slides onto a WebEx server. The presenters ran the slides and delivered their audio
presentation over the phone to the server as if they were conducting the actual webcast; Siemens used the WebEx feature that allows webcasts to be recorded for replay to create files containing both the visual and audio portions of the presentations. Siemens later deployed these recorded webcasts as the virtual event's educational sessions. While certainly professional in their appearance, the presenters' run-throughs came with an unexpected bonus. "Recording the session became a full-fledged rehearsal for presenters that allowed them to master their material even more," Boos says. "It actually benefited the live event as much as it provided material for the virtual one."
For sessions that ran longer than the norm of 45 minutes, Siemens made an exception to the way it recorded classes. Instead
of the phone-based WebEx
coordinated a professional
videotaping of these longer sessions. Typically, these were classes with multiple presenters from Siemens that lasted up to 90 minutes. The company recorded the audio and video segments, and then inserted PowerPoint slides to emphasize key points and signal changes in topics.
Synchronize Your Watches
Siemens' fear that the online event could accidentally devour the live one wasn't irrational. Should the virtual version draw away enough people to result in, say, another 10-percent decline in attendance, it might seem to physical attendees that the conference had entered a death spiral. Accordingly, Siemens waited until Innovations 2010 for Healthcare IT was in full swing to notify customers of the virtual
option. On the first day of the corporeal conference, Siemens sent out a slew of 8,000 snail-mail messages and more than 10,000 e-mails to the hundreds who were attending, as well as the thousands more in its database who weren't. (It followed up with another e-mail to the same recipients the day the virtual conference began.)
While attendees at a physical event need to conform to the schedule set in your event's time zone, those at a virtual one may hail from any of the world's nearly 40 other time zones. Keeping that in mind, San Francisco-based ON24 Inc. advises against starting your online events earlier than 1 p.m. EST. "This accommodates attendees on the West Coast as well as the East Coast, while still being convenient for more far-flung attendees," says Tricia Heinrich, ON24's senior director of strategic communication. Additionally, if you want a particular speech or session of your hybrid event to draw the largest number of viewers, slate it for 2 p.m. EST.
In those messages, Siemens enticed recipients with offers of the most popular educational sessions from all tracks, exhibits of Siemens products, and
collateral materials they would be able to download.
Even for those who had attended live, there was plenty of attractive bait to bring them back for more. Not only could they catch classes they might have been unable to schedule or would like to take again, but they would also be able to grab any material they might have overlooked, or which they passed on because they didn't want to lug home a hard-copy version.
On tap were nearly 100 documents, including reprints of articles from Siemens' publications, such as "Strengthening Revenue Cycle Capabilities in an Era of Reform," or copies of case studies the company
produced, including "Susquehanna Health and Siemens: Partners in Integration, Sustainability, and Patient-Centered Care." Even better were the virtual event's hours: It would be accessible around the clock for 90 days, roughly 22 times as long as the event's real-world version.
Test it Out
The cost, too, couldn't be beat - and explained more of why Siemens didn't want to promote the virtual event before the live one: The online version was totally free for everybody. Indeed, not putting a price tag on it was a savvy move on Siemens' part. While in-depth groundwork on what motivates people to attend virtual events is more skimpy than substantial, there are some available metrics that illuminate why it was shrewd. Digitell Inc., a Jamestown, NY-based digital-multimedia development company discovered when its clients charged for a virtual event, they attracted an average of 50 to 250 attendees. But when they offered free access to the event, attendance soared almost 1,000 percent, drawing in a mean of 500 to 3,000. "We wanted to ensure as many as possible would come, and not put up any unnecessary barriers," May says.
Don't go live without testing and rehearsing your virtual event. "Bring in a fresh pair of eyes because you'll be surprised at what you missed," says Julian Hill, marketing manager at Vcopious Inc. Typos are the foremost errors, followed by malfunctioning links. Be wary also of problems that often aren't caught until an event is underway, such as password resetting tools that don't work, or chat rooms that appear empty to viewers even when occupied.
Working with 6Connex Inc., a Campbell, CA,
provider of virtual trade shows and events, Siemens
launched the online version of Innovations 2010 for Healthcare IT - dubbed
Virtual Innovations - in September of that year. When attendees logged onto the site with a user name and password they had been given at the time they registered online, a screen popped up with a picture of a generic conference center with areas marked for an auditorium, meeting rooms, education sessions, and materials to download. If they clicked on the exhibit hall, they went to a section of eight virtual booths of Siemens' products and services in areas such as business intelligence, IT, and clinical services. Clicking on the education area ushered them to the nearly five dozen sessions available. If they chose the meeting rooms, they entered a chat area where they parlayed with experts on Siemens' products from the company's marketing department.
The Same, But Different
Virtual events should be mirrors of their physical complements but not carbon copies. For instance,
Siemens made the live event's keynote speeches - from luminaries such as the company's incoming CEO, John Glaser, and Afterburners, a team of U.S. Air Force doctors and fighter pilots, who shared their tips for improving workplace performance - available online. But here Siemens demonstrated that it understood one of the key differences between live and virtual events.
Attendees might suppress the urge to bolt from their seats during a live keynote, but they exhibit no such restraint if they're watching the speech from their own desks. Instead of posting the keynotes (which could run as long as 45 minutes) in their entirety, the company chopped them up into bite-size
Break it Up
portions of five minutes each, which made it possible to check them out one or two at time. Attendees could then go back later for more without having to restart the video from the beginning, wait for it to buffer, and navigate to wherever they thought they might have left off. (Similarly, Siemens split the 90-minute-long sessions it videotaped into five or six smaller segments of 15 to 20 minutes, so the audience
could watch these in smaller, more convenient chunks as well.)
Watching a 90-minute session at a virtual
event can be as sleep-inducing as watching security-camera footage of an empty parking lot. That's why Tony Lorenz, the founder of bXb Online Inc.
in Chicago, suggests breaking up the
monotony every 3 to 7 minutes. "If you watch a television show, you'll see changes in scenes and pacing in that time frame," Lorenz says. Avoid the potential tedium with polls, surveys, and links to related content, for example, to keep attendees more wired than weary.
To add value to the virtual event and to prevent people from viewing it as a one-and-done experience, Siemens added a video of a new keynote speaker every two weeks for the first six weeks to keep drawing attendees back. The three additional speakers (which included the dean of a school of nursing, a medical informatics officer, and a chief medical information officer) were professionally videotaped. Siemens recorded them as if they were live before an audience, then posted the recordings in small nuggets, as it did other keynotes. Adding even more value to the talks, the company arranged for each speaker to hold a live question-and-answer period in a chat room after their speech had aired.
For all of its preparation and effort, Siemens kept its eye on a single goal: increase the number of people it reached with Innovations for Healthcare IT. By the end of the 90-day online event, nearly 500 people had registered for it, about 70 percent more than Siemens had originally hoped. Without a baseline to work from or even a rough idea of what would constitute success, Siemens felt the only metric it could judge the event by was the sheer number of attendees. "The first year provided us with an idea of what would work and what wouldn't," May says. "In 2011, we would start
applying those lessons."
When it was time for Siemens to start planning the Innovations 2011 for Healthcare IT, there was no question its event strategy now included hybrid events. By going hybrid in 2010, it effectively expanded its audience by 62 percent, rising from approximately 800 to a combined total of 1,300. While the company had no official threshold for success, May admitted he would have been content with far fewer than the 500 online registrations it garnered. "I think the virtual event would have been a success with 30 percent of that number," May says.
Keep in Touch
Now that its clients would expect there to be another online supplement to the conference, Siemens decided to send a "Save the date" message five months before it was due to start. The initial snail mails and e-mails blasts were again sent to roughly 10,000 prospective attendees, and were followed by two more waves of e-mails. Its name teased slightly to Innovations '11 Virtual Encore, the online version would start 30 days after the live version, but run for just 60 days. After realizing the vast majority of website traffic ebbed within two months, Siemens decided there was little point to keeping the event going much longer than that.
Like the Energizer Bunny, an online event can keep going and going and going. But even the battery-powered hare needs recharging now and then. It's the same with a virtual event, which typically runs for as long as 60 to 90 days. Dennis Shiao, the director of product marketing for Chicago-based InExpo Inc., suggests keeping it fresh by hosting "mini events" in the weeks immediately after the main event. For example, you can invite presenters or keynoters to return for live sessions or live chats.
Working again with 6Connex, Siemens cloned much of the 2011 event from the previous year's archetype. For example, when attendees checked in, they encountered a screen similar to 2010's picture of a convention center, with clickable areas for an exhibit hall, meetings,
educational sessions, keynotes, and the like. The number of education sessions remained at about 55, representing 30 percent of the live sessions.
There were a few minor adjustments made, however.
Instead of WebEx, the company switched to Camtasia. Made by TechSmith Corp. of Okemos, MI, Camtasia could record live presentations much as WebEx did, but also boasted useful editing tools that let Siemens eliminate speakers' pauses and any other errors without having to re-record an entire session.
But the biggest change Siemens made wasn't in content or technology but in cost. Like physicians who think their patients will be better off if they tweak their prescribed medication just a tad, Siemens decided to tinker with the virtual event's price structure. It wasn't
because the company looked at the event like it was an ATM machine that would magically dispense money to create a plumper and more measurable ROI.
Go Beyond Body Count
Actually, Siemens was concerned attendees might perceive free education as a case of getting what you pay for. Thus, it put a nominal price tag of $29 for those customers who were also attending the physical conference and $99 for those who signed up for just the virtual option.
Virtual events offer a unique opportunity
to track and measure attendees' behavior
in a way rarely possible with their physical analogues. "You can monitor participants to see how your content and messages perform in different settings," says Rick Saunders, the head of marketing and business development for 6Connex Inc. of Campbell, CA. "Online tracking tools allow you to measure the effectiveness of videos, exhibits, and promotions by how long they're watched, for example, or how often they're downloaded." It's even possible - and advisable - to monitor chat rooms to quantify which products and services are generating the most buzz or blahs from event attendees.
It turned out to be just what the doctor shouldn't have ordered. A lackluster response forced the company to lower the fee to
$29 for everybody. It was a critical lesson for anyone
offering an online component to their exhibit or event strategy: When sterling-level schools - with Tiffany & Co.-level tuitions - such as Stanford, Yale, MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and MIT are offering a total of more than 2,000 courses free online, the only way you could charge for online classes is if they were taught by Hogwarts faculty members. "Our customers expect that any education we provide them online will be free," Boos says.
Siemens didn't budge from its main goal of expanding its audience as much as possible. Paralleling the 2010 event, Innovations '11 Virtual Encore drew almost the same overall attendance. While its virtual event was not as elaborate as those staged by other companies - for example, it lacked a sophisticated social-media angle or in-depth follow-up with virtual attendees - Siemens did not fall into the "more is more" trap others often stumble into. In other words, the company didn't fritter its money or resources on high-tech frills it didn't need. Siemens understood its users well enough to grasp the reasons behind their reluctance to attend the live event, their time constraints, the kind of content they enjoyed, and how to appeal to those who wanted educational credits. Then it created a simple but sufficient online experience designed precisely around those needs. With its user conference in distress, Siemens prescribed a dose of virtual medicine that left it the picture of health. E