What do you do when you are on track for over 300 people registering to attend, 10 sponsors setup to exhibit, nearly 100 speakers committed to present… and 6 weeks before the event you learn all of these people now can’t leave their homes?
For the MER Conference, the solution was to quickly pivot to a digital experience; one that could engage audiences remotely while placing them in front of experts and thought leaders. This case study outlines their transitional story, of shifting the conference, in just 6 weeks, to the new format. In the end, the team executed a seamless digital event experience and achieved an increase in year over year registrations by about 45%. Here’s how they did it.
COVID-19: pivoting from in-person to digital
The 28th annual MER Conference was set to be another successful event, when just six weeks prior to the conference date, organizers realized they had to quickly pivot the entire event to an all-digital experience because of COVID-19. The two-and-a-half-day event draws business professionals from across the globe to attend, seeking solutions to their business’s most pressing Information Governance challenges. “It was a daunting scenario at first, but we were determined not to let people down,” said Seth Williams, MER Conference President. “The Information Governance practitioners who attend our conferences rely on the information and updates they receive to help them stay ahead of ever changing legal, technical and operational challenges. Information is timely and we just did not want to delay the conference.”
Because there were only a few weeks to figure everything out, the organizers decided to pro-actively advertise the digital event and continue selling passes online while they simultaneously took action to determine what technology or technologies would be used to actually deliver the digital event.
Dial in the experts
Without a lot of time to analyze every possible digital event solution available, and with a limited budget, the team turned to Revent Consulting, an IBM Business Partner, for help. Revent specializes in live event and video streaming and the MER Conference team needed experts who had familiarity with a myriad of solutions and who could help them pivot extremely quickly. From this they quickly learned that the technology selection was just one piece of it. The details surrounding how to leverage the tech to maximize the overall experience was a big factor. Fortunately, Revent took the time to understand the specific MER Conference community and was able to make recommendations and steer the team in the right direction.
Video and streaming 101
One of the biggest challenges was the fact that the MER Conference team had never live streamed any of the conference sessions in the past. Consequently, there was no familiarity with any of the technology for video streaming. An extra challenge was managing the nearly 100 speakers/panelists who would have to deliver their sessions from home, and who worked for many diverse and separate organizations with different standard communication toolsets. The team quickly recognized that they needed to make things as easy and stress free as possible for the presenters. They decided to have all the presenters use Zoom and put together speaker training checklists and how to instructions. Prep sessions were also setup for the MER Conference team.
All of the speakers where excited for their originally planned live, face to face presentation and wanted, as much as possible to do the same virtually. However, they quickly came to understand the very real risk and potential for technical issues midst a live broadcast and therefore accepted the creative “simlive” format where each speaker would pre-record their presentation and that recorded video would play during the conference. Then, once the pre-recorded video was complete, there would be a live session with the same speaker immediately following where he or she would be available to answer live questions coming in from the audience.
Live switching and remote producer assistance
The team quickly realized that they needed a way to seamlessly switch between pre-recorded video and live Q&A sessions. In addition, there was a long list of requirements that included virtual space for sponsors to showcase their solutions, virtual networking during at coffee breaks, pathways for attendees to follow track sessions, and custom branding of the overall experience. They needed more technology than just a tool for presenters to record video presentations. Given their requirements, the decision was made to leverage IBM Enterprise Video Streaming as it was able to meet a diverse set of needs while allowing the team to stay within budget. Revent would also provide an expert event producer to remotely manage the event and do all required live switching during the event to ensure smooth transitions. Revent provided additional guidelines for the live Q&A sessions that outlined details for the speakers such as not to watch yourself on the live stream and to only watch the incoming questions because it can get confusing with the inherent few seconds delay of a live video stream.
Dedicated streaming channels and pre-roll ads for sponsors
There were three different levels of sponsorships and the team needed to figure out creative ways of making sure that the sponsors would get the right level of benefit. One of the main ways was to incorporate pre-roll ads that would run before each session was scheduled to start. The highest level sponsors got the most and the best pre-roll ad spaces. Sponsor logos were added to the main pages. There was a virtual happy hour with “MERtinis” with a live mixologist the evening of the first day that featured a key sponsor. And, in order to help ensure that the event sponsors would have an opportunity to showcase their solutions, each was given a dedicated channel where they could have videos playing, rotating images, and other details about their solutions. These channels would be available throughout the live event and attendees would be encouraged to visit the sponsor channels during breaks. A key learning after the event was that it would have been a good idea to allow more time during the breaks to allow for each sponsor to do live streams on their channels as well. Because the streaming technology could deliver so many different elements so effectively, the MER Conference team decided to keep the sponsor channels for pre-recorded content only.
Other innovative uses of streaming channels
With the IBM Enterprise Video Streaming channels being so easy to customize, it was decided that they would be used for several other purposes to enhance the overall digital experience of the event. For the primary Channels that would host all the various speaking sessions, it was decided that the Channels would be named after the physical conference rooms where the in-person sessions were originally planned to be. This offered an element of familiarity to those who had attended previous events at the same venue. There was a dedicated “411 Channel” which featured live moderated chat that ran throughout the entire event where anyone could type into the Channel and ask a live question and get an immediate response. There was a “Coffee Break Networking Channel” where people could go during breaks to connect with one another. It was essentially an open chat room with an on-going conversation that just kept going the entire conference depending on who was in the Channel at any given point in time. And, there was the Eagles Channel which was intended as a way to take a mind break mid-conference. It was literally 3-hour pre-recorded video of an eagles’ nest.
In total, there were 18 channels (4 main track channels, 10 for solution provider sponsors, and the remaining 4 for innovating networking and 411 questions). Agenda for each Channels was posted on the Channel page that included hyperlinks to other Channels where appropriate to create smooth pathways for learning.
User tracking and reporting
It was important to understand which sessions each person attended so that follow-up activities could be relevant. Because registration began long before the decision was made to pivot to a digital event, the attendee information was all sitting in an event registration system called Bizzabo®. The question was how to have people login to view the sessions in a way that could be easily reported on. Fortunately, the IBM Enterprise Video Streaming platform supported a simple upload of a registration email list. Then, each user just authenticated with their email address and a familiar click to validate email at the start of the event. Reports could then be pulled showing what specific attendees participated in each session. In-depth tracking was also available showing whether they watched the entire session or just part of it and whether they actively participated in the Q&A, including specific questions they asked.
The MER Conference sessions were all published for on-demand viewing after the event. This allowed attendees to come back and review sessions again or watch those they may have missed. Because the sessions qualify for continuing education credits, it’s expected that this will be a popular new offering. The online nature of the event also now allows for incremental sales post-event for anyone who would like to purchase a ticket and view sessions on-demand.
The digital event was a huge success. Post conference survey results indicated that 97.4% said that the digital conference “Did” or “Absolutely Did” deliver the value they needed to be successful. All 42 conference sessions were delivered digitally with a truly interactive digital event experience. Feedback from both attendees and sponsors was extremely positive. Not only was the MER Conference team able to retain the audience size they expected to have at the in-person event, they gained additional registrants and increased the overall audience by about 45%.