Virtual Event Model without Exhibits (Vance McCarthy Interview)

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Virtual Edge: Today we’re going to be talking to Vance McCarthy who is the content director for iDev News and the iDev website and runs all their virtual events. Vance could you start with giving us a little overview of your business iDev News and then maybe lead us off into a description of the types of virtual events that you’re producing now?

Vance: Sure, iDev News, which is short for Innovation Developer News, is a web destination that is focused on addressing the information needs of the enterprise architect and the information technologist who is concerned with all technologies and all best practices having to do with integration.

Now, that can be traditional software application integration or even some of these new age integration platforms such as ESB and SOA and hooking legacy mainframes into web and Apache based applications.

Virtual Edge: How long has the site and the community been around now?

Vance: We launched our actual information site, iDev News, in 2002, figuring that that integration space would get hotter and heavier as time goes by and I’m happy to say that that has proven to be the case. The events portion of it only began, I’d say in earnest, in last early 2005.

Virtual Edge: So, in that time frame, or since the time that you got into virtual events, how many would you say you have been involved in producing?

Vance: Well, we have a pretty rigorous schedule of virtual events, and I would say, an aggressive view toward what virtual events should be. So, I’d say, let me just count them as far as the individual episodes, I would say it’s probably close to 70 of them. As far as how they’re packaged together, because we have multiple tracks or multiple sessions in one event. We have produced about 20 major multi presentation virtual conferences.

Virtual Edge: Could you walk us through maybe one of the multi presentation virtual events and give us a description on how you produce those and what those look like from an attendee standpoint?

Vance: Just to give you a general idea, our philosophy of putting these virtual events together is kind of driven by the same principles, I think, that probably drive general community models. And that is, get the best from content and experts and speakers, and meet their needs by providing a forum that the attendees that would come would be valuable to them. And at the same time, so accommodate the more valuable or the higher level, higher job title attendee, make sure that the content is from high caliber experts and its also succinct and worth their time.

So, we want to blend the best of the speaker with the most attractive packaging and then have that somewhat work to help self-identify the high level attendees we want.

Virtual Edge: Okay. Are these typically one day, two day, half day events or shorter?

Vance: Well, the structure we’ve kind of come to settle on is, I guess the half say is a good way to describe it. We start off with a key note panel, which is a kind of a virtual panel where we have upwards of 5 experts all gathered together to respond to several questions that we ask them about a particular technology, integration technology, and they all get the same question, they all get the questions in adVance. Because we’re not really out to play “Got You”. We’re out to be informative.

So, they get to respond to those questions and then there are breakout sessions throughout the day. Each of the participants is given upwards of 50 to 55 minute solo time.

Virtual Edge: Who are the speakers that are participating in your virtual event program?

Vance: From a speaker’s point of view, our participants are the top companies that are involved in the integration sector. So, depending on what analyst firm folks might be familiar with, either Forester Research or Gartner Group or Butler Group, they’re basically the usual players: IBM, Oracle Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and some technology sectors is very prominent. Sun Micro Systems is a frequent contributor.

You know, we’ve been very lucky as far as being able to fulfill a need that these companies see as far as communicating that message to a high level enterprise architect or senior developer, integration mill ware type of person.

Now, as far as exhibitor type material, we looked at many exhibitor options and decided that the best thing that we could do for our format was to just purely stick with the content side of things as far as events go. Now, we do offer, you know, download options and information splash pages that we call spotlights for folks that want to focus on a particular granular level of technology, particular product portfolio. But, when it comes to the events, we tend to stay away from that.

Virtual Edge: Interesting. So, the model is really more of a thought leadership model as opposed to a lead generation where, you typically have more of the virtual exhibit or various types of virtual expo halls.

Vance: Well, don’t misunderstand us. Certainly the end result of the registration/attendance activity is treated as a lead by many of our participants. They like the thought leadership, they certainly, as one leader told me the other day, they like to be in the ring with their competitors, because they get to see what the attendance questioners are and they get to get a sense of what is on top of mind among the people that come, because we do offer chat facilities.

But, we just find that the exhibit hall area, it tends to conflict with the fact that we have content running half the day. If folks do have a specific download requirement, we let people download the slides that are in the event and that of course, amplifies the qualification for that lead, as an example. But, if it’s a particular series of white papers that they’ve got, we’ll offer them, we’ll offer our sponsors that as a separate option.

Virtual Edge: Okay, so let me ask you about the process of getting a speaker or a group of speakers and my sense is that the types of folks that you’re trying to get are high-level; obviously these are big organizations, big companies, out there, well know in the IT space. Is there or was there, when you first started doing this type of format, a problem with regard to convincing these folks that they should be sitting on a panel of their competitors or peers and dealing with a common issue or technology problem?

Vance: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question, because the answer is yes and no, not to be too muddies about it. There were some vendors or some companies that actually were very giddy about the prospect of being able to speak to the same specific question as one of their competitors. There were other sponsors that were a bit leery about doing it, because they’re just so used to doing the single speaker webinar and waiting to see what would happen.

But, I think that when we started a year and a half ago, that there was a pretty common sense that the trade show format, or the panel format in the real world, was something that wasn’t being done very effectively in the online world and that they were willing to give it a try. And certainly we made quite a strong commitment to making sure that the individual messaging that they would have would have a platform for this event so it wouldn’t only be a keynote among multiple people that they could drill down and discuss their own benefits and particulars later in the same day.

The other thing, of course, was that we thought we could really shake up our readership, our basic readership, with the prospect of getting 4 top experts in a very short period of time. So, as far as the number of leads and a high percentage of participants that we would get or even the higher percentage of registrants versus participants, we had a pretty good sense from some testing that we’d get a pretty knockout number and that’s also proven to be true.

Virtual Edge: That’s great. So, the format is, again, to have an opening keynote and is there a moderator in the keynote? I would imagine so.

Vance: As the content director, that falls to me to do and there is a moderator and what happens is that we transition from one speaker to the next. We gently send them reminders if their answer is going to go over their allotted time, because we try to keep them all from hogging the mic from one another, as you might expect. And they basically are very respectful. It took a little training, but they really do embrace the idea now and they respect each other.

In fact, the one thing that we’ve actually heard anecdotally, after the keynotes are over, is that the speakers actually learned something about the other person’s point of view or perception from speaking. So, they don’t just necessarily think of this as an opportunity to speak directly to the attendee, but they are pretty interested in hearing what the other speakers have to say. So, that’s kind of a side benefit that we’ve heard.

Virtual Edge: Sure. So, do you find that the attendees stay for the breakouts? And do you run them simultaneously? After the keynote, do you run all the breakouts simultaneously or are they scheduled one right after another? And if so, how is the attrition as the event proceeds?

Vance: We run them right after another. We don’t necessarily compete one against the other. Certainly the technology platform we use might give us an option to run parallel tracks and then navigate with that, but we find, frankly, that we run them just serial, one after another, and then the on-demand option is available, that is the archived options available with 24 to 48 hours of the event.

Virtual Edge: Vance, I want to just give you one more opportunity here to give any last thoughts on this and we do have another podcast interview that will be scheduled and I’m looking forward to that. We’re going to be talking more about audience acquisition and some of the metrics behind the virtual events that you’re running.

Any general thoughts here or any best practice hints that you can throw out there or any cautions that people that are interested in producing virtual events should be aware of?

Vance: Well, the one thing I think I would share is that the one thing that’s different about an event as opposed to just a one shot webinar is that it really is important to prep the speaker a little bit. Let them know a little bit what the rules of the road might be. Give them every opportunity to ask you a questions before you’re live so that they feel prepared and not ambushed or cut short. The premise here is that they are one of a select group who are basically the top experts in a certain field. That’s not to say that they are less important than another speaker or there might be a competitor that’s they’re speaking right after or right before, but for the point of view of the audience, for the short period of time that they keynote’s running along, it’s important to let them feel that they’re getting equal treatment and equal time, but that as a group, it’s an extremely valuable experience for the attendee.

Virtual Edge: I appreciate all your time, Vance, and I look forward to our next conversation

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