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5 steps for in-person event to be a compelling virtual experience

Pivot, pivot, pivot! We spent 10 days turning Salesforce’s largest APAC event, attracting more than 10,000 onsite attendees and taking more than six months to organise into Salesforce World Tour Sydney, a fully virtual event.

In February, Salesforce turned its World Tour Sydney conference into a virtual event in just 10 days. Here’s what we learnt and how you can do the same for your company. 

Last month, due to the unprecedented situation with COVID-19, we spent 10 days turning Salesforce World Tour Sydney into a fully virtual event. This annual conference is Salesforce’s largest in the Asia Pacific region, attracting more than 10,000 onsite attendees and taking more than six months to organise. 

Our reimagined event attracted almost 13,000 registered attendees and 80,000 views on our video platform Salesforce Live. Additional views on social live streams throughout the day took us to 1.2 million all up – an unimaginable reach for an in-person event.  

As other companies face similar challenges, they too are reimagining flagship events to suit virtual spaces. This article is for those making the difficult decision to transform large-scale events from in-person to online. We share what we learned and how our experience can help you. 

1. Scope the challenge and assemble teams

Despite the hurdles we faced on the path to this monumental shift, we realised there was an opportunity to do something special. Live streaming and conferencing tools are more available than ever before, and online events are far more affordable to produce. There’s also no indication online gatherings are a passing trend: Cisco predicts by 2022 82% of all internet traffic will be video

Our APAC marketing team had been talking about doing online events for years, and Head of Solutions and Product Marketing APAC Derek Laney says he was excited to replan the conference, despite the challenge ahead. 

“There was no precedent to what we were doing,” he says. “So there was no reason for us not to try something new.”

Let’s start with four things to keep in mind as you strategise: 

  • Get leadership buy-in with visuals.
  • Develop new teams as needed.
  • Scrum often.
  • Ruthlessly prioritise and reprioritise every day

The APAC marketing team oversaw the creation of a series of work streams for World Tour Sydney, each focused on a different aspect of the event: content, engagement and communications. Other subgroups covered online streaming, live demos, customer management and more.

Regular scrums ensured everyone knew what deliverables were most pressing. There were meetings with headquarters in the US every morning and with the local APAC team in the afternoon. 

“With the time difference, we had people working almost around the clock,” says Renata Bertram, Vice President, ANZ Marketing. 

Getting buy-in from the very top at the start was an important part of the team’s success. 

“We learnt early on the importance of creating visuals to help people understand what the event was going to look like and what our production values would be,” Bertram says. “For example, we built slides that replicated looking at a presentation through a screen.”

Ruthless prioritisation was also key. 

“I stopped answering everyone’s questions so we could focus on prioritisation,” says Laney. “We didn’t want to be overwhelmed with the amount of challenges that we had to solve.” 

2. Shortlist your session content 

Our World Tour Sydney team procured a broadcast location and set to work on content programming. A war-room team was assigned within the first few hours. 

On day one, we determined which of the event’s 150 sessions would translate best to a virtual format. We came up with a plan for the top 30 sessions and all the people needed to deliver them. Laney recommends working with the wider team on a need-to-know basis to stay on target and move fast. 

“It’s okay if there’s ambiguity around the process,” he says. “Not to say that we kept anything confidential, but we needed to focus. Opening up ideas to a larger group can create distraction.” 

To avoid clashing interests, event leaders should determine the right time for open collaboration and the right time to be directive.

3. Plan online audience engagement 

Next, we unwrapped all the elements that were in place for the physical event. Piece by piece, we determined how to change direction with the resources on hand. A key part of this was outsourcing. Many of our suppliers were able to pivot to create an engaging online experience. Our audio visual production partner, for example, had extensive television experience. That meant it could quickly create a compelling multichannel digital experience.

We also considered what we could repurpose. Digital content developed to project onto the back wall of an exhibition hall was used as engaging backdrops for online sessions. The builders for the exhibition stands shifted their work to constructing studios where the content team could film sessions.

The engagement experience work group focused on keeping the interest of people who had planned to spend a day attending sessions and meeting people at a physical event.

“Streaming content is relatively easy, but how do you build in two-way interaction?” asks Stuart Frank, Director, Strategic Events Asia Pacific.

The initial live event was meant to include an expo hall, so our team built a digital experience inspired by the act of browsing booths. Attendees from around the world could explore 18 virtual rooms based on Salesforce Customer 360. A company expert hosted each room, sharing demos with visitors and answering questions in real time.

The experience let visitors engage with content in a way that was more active than watching a video and less formal than a scheduled meeting. And speed beats performance on building the first iteration of that experience.

“For people wanting to try something similar, we suggest building a working experience quickly so you have time to refine it. It made all the difference.” says Alena Fereday, a Community Cloud solution engineer who helped create the digital experience.

Social media can also share highlights and preserve an element of two-way, live interaction, as do activities such as contests, Q&As, polls and other fun moments. 

4. Prep the team for live broadcast without an audience

Speakers used to a live audience would be in a feedback vacuum of an empty set, so they had to project confidence to engage the audience. Show speakers what the set and overall experience will look like for viewers, and encourage them to rehearse in front of a camera as early as possible. Then give them the opportunity to see what they look like while presenting. This way, they can empathise with the viewers’ experience and change their delivery.

A few other things we learnt:

  • Shorten the duration of sessions, because attention spans are shorter online. 
  • Try a conversational format with multiple people talking to each other. A variety of speakers makes for more engaging discussion.
  • For most sessions, the camera only sees a one-by-one meter square, so the detail of what’s in that area is really important. Think about what’s going to make it into that space and how it will appear to viewers. 
  • Ensure your content is accessible for visually and hearing impaired people. If you’re planning for a global audience, consider translation services for captioning.

5. Keep everyone informed

We communicated quickly and directly with sponsors, partners and customers about our decision.

“There’s nothing worse than hearing secondhand news that will materially impact your business,” Frank says. 

Many stakeholders are in the same situation and will understand your decision. Since they have a stake in your event’s success, collaborate with them on shifting content programming if needed.

Finally, consider your sales team. The in-person event was a significant opportunity to gain new leads, connect with existing accounts and win new deals, so it’s important to keep the sales leaders and reps in the loop so they can plan accordingly. 

You can hold briefings and post updates on internal channels. Build slides and renderings that replicate what you’d see on screen so the sales team knows what the event will look like and can speak confidently about what people can expect on the day. Record a quick one-minute explainer video to give employees a chance to sample the experience. And demonstrate the production quality so sales can relay progress to their clients. 

Executing a strong game plan can allow you to shift your in-person event strategy to a virtual one. And think of it this way: you’ve now rewritten your company’s event playbook and replaced it with a modern, forward-looking one. 

“What we did was born out of necessity, but what has come out has the potential to change the game in what we do,” says Betram. “There is an appetite out there to engage this way.”

See all the sessions from World Tour Reimagined on Salesforce Live.

Relive Salesforce
World Tour Sydney 2020


Leandro Perez

Leandro is Vice President, Asia Pacific Marketing at Salesforce. Connect with him on LinkedIn.  

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