The Elegant Online Event

News flash from decade two of the digital age: Meetings are still important.

Be they sales pitches, shareholder presentations, seminars, strategy sessions, progress reports or trade conferences, getting together is as key to doing business — and living life — as it ever was.

Of course, the definition of “meeting” is now up for debate. Video and Web conferences, e-courses and Webcasts have appeared, allowing people to congregate in an information rich virtual environment as never before.

And where people congregate, marketing happens, especially marketing of the B2B variety. From direct lead generation to branding-oriented event sponsorships, it’s certainly going on.

Terms: Web Conference Versus Webcast

Web conferencing was among the first technologies (after Alexander Bell’s telephone) to enable virtual gatherings on a large scale. WebEx, PlaceWare and their ilk have introduced the means for people to share documents on separate screens and let them cheaply deliver sales and marketing presentations in PowerPoint, usually while talking on the phone.

But bigger events require bigger technology.

“Web conferencing products don’t scale well to above 200 attendees,” said Sharat Sharan, CEO of Webcasting vendor ON24, whose recent deployments include Cisco’s analyst day and the U.S. Treasury’s announcement last week of the color twenty dollar bill, both of which used video.

Sharan said he has seen an increase in the marketing and lead generative uses of Webcasting in recent months. “No other medium lets a company target an audience that is extremely interested in a subject area, storage area networks for example,” he said. “Even if only 30 people attend, they’re highly interested.”

The marketing implications of online events are not lost on NetIQ. As a market leader in the Web analytics space through its WebTrends product, the company has a strong stake in advancing awareness of online metrics in general, and of WebTrends in particular.

WebTrends’ Director of Marketing Brent Hieggelke has been a driving force at NetIQ for the development of online events. Since his hiring in spring 2000, the product division has launched and steadily grown its investment in Webcasts. This year, it will produce four or five of them — compared to approximately nine live events per quarter.

“These educational events let people around the world tune in when and how they want to,” Hieggelke said. “That’s an ideal education vehicle.” Shrinking Bugets, SARS & Face Time

Shrinking budgets have forced many companies to cut travel costs, a factor that fuels the Web conferencing industry even as it cripples airlines. SARS is having a similar effect on global travel and in-person meetings, especially in Asia.

But the word from many who have dallied in the Web events space is that face-to-face still can’t be beat.

WebTrends, for one, isn’t about to go completely online with its customer outreach events. Case in point: Hieggelke’s team last week returned from a seminar series the company puts on annually.

“Obviously they’re a lot more expensive, but you still can’t beat face-to-face meetings.”

One of WebTrends’ most successful online events was launched in conjunction with the American Marketing Association (AMA). Titled “Redefining Marketing: The three ultimate measures of your Web success,” it drew over 1,000 attendees, and approximately 300 of these requested the slides. The event’s audience mainly consisted of AMA members, but it was also promoted publicly on the industry group’s Web site and through NetIQ’s opt-in database.

Production Matters

Deployment of Web conferencing tools such as WebEx is relatively cost-effective. Since people use it mostly to share data in small groups, Web conferencing has fewer production issues than a one-to-many Webcast. “If you’re using video at all, you’ll just see my face for a minute,” said WebEx’ VP of Services David Hsieh.

For an event with greater attendance, you’ll need to devote money and strategy to production issues. People will click away from one-camera streams and weak video or (even worse) audio.

Michael Kushner, director of integrated media solutions for Reed Business Communications, has been at the helm of several sponsored events and knows that getting the look and sound right is a prerequisite for spurring attention.

“For our sponsors, it’s all about lead generation. I don’t want to go to them with egg on my face and say we had five streams,” Kushner said. He has found that tending to production values is key to preventing that.

There are numerous tech issues to consider when planning an online event. Companies must decide whether to Webcast live or to provide VOD, whether to transmit via ISP or ISDN (ON24 generally recommends that its clients use ISDN or multiple ISDN lines, where applicable), and whether to self-produce or farm out the effort. Add to these concerns the inevitable vendor considerations and things get even more complicated. To handle these and other decisions, it’s crucial that the marketing and tech groups sit down together.

“Decisions need to be made with the IT guys in the room,” said Gina Nelson, a principle technology consultant for services at AT&T. “Otherwise, even if you get 250 people to log on, they may jump off five minutes later” because of technical difficulties.

For one of its more elaborate live events, WebTrends recently farmed out all production aspects. The result was a clean multimedia package with streamed audio and video, four cameras and a professional set.

“[It was] expensive, but it left a great impression on the audience,” he said. “The trick when you spend that much on production is making sure you have enough money left to promote it.”

It’s also important to avoid plug-ins and downloads. Every additional step loses attendees and, by extension, actionable leads. Flash is often a best bet for player technology, due to its 98 percent rate of desktop penetration. (Flash content creation and delivery products developer Wanadu is now poised to tackle the conferencing and events market; and Macromedia’s similar Breeze product is gaining traction.)

“I like Flash for one main reason,” said AT&T’s Nelson. “A lot of companies don’t have the bandwidth to accomplish all they want to. Used correctly, Flash can give the same bang for the buck while using less bandwidth.”

WebTrends is now experimenting with Flash in a new online event format called “Take 10.” The short Webcasts feature content that boils a cauldron of Web metrics down into 10 essentials. These are then presented in just 10 minutes using animation synched with a prerecorded voice-over.

It’s the Content, Stupid

But while the medium may be the message — or a big part of it — what’s truly important is content. The outsourced WebTrends event mentioned above brought together a partner, an analyst, a customer and a couple NetIQ insiders in a “news show” format. Hieggelke moderated the whole thing, taking phone calls, fielding email questions and setting up point/counterpoint discussions.

He stresses education and entertainment over blunt force selling.

“Don’t make a sales pitch,” he said. “They’ll tune out. The core has to be educational content.”

Once you have engaged your audience with content, further attention can be grabbed with simple tricks of variation. Hiedeggke’s events always have at least two people addressing the audience, ideally a male and a female, since this adds tonal variety and creates a call-and-response effect. And he aims for slightly controversial content; surveys are good because even if people don’t respond, they’ll probably want to see the results. It’s simple: Build drama, people watch.

“I think we’re going to see Web events evolve into a much more entertaining and educational forum,” said Hieggelke. The novelty has worn off, so companies are going to have to make the content much more engaging, much more exciting.”

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