Virtual Analyst Events
Last week I attended the Zoom Analyst event (#Zoom20). This was my first virtual analyst event as it was for many others — including Zoom. I attend a lot of events, and conclude each year that I should attend less. That’s easier said than done as there’s no simple way to eliminate events:
- There’s the vendors I know best, so it would be silly not to not attend their events.
- There’s the vendors I don’t know so well, so I should attend to get to know them better.
The result is too many events. Last year I attended 24 events (and earned 1K status on United). While airline status does make travel better, I think not traveling is even more civilized.
Zoom’s event wasn’t intended to be virtual. The event was to be a two day event in San Jose, California, near Zoom’s headquarters office. Analyst events tend to follow the familiar pattern of an evening reception followed by 1.5 days of sessions. Add in the round trip travel, and it’s at least three days. Most analyst events are completely programmatically filled - from 7AM-9PM. And, depending on the location, travel time can be significant. For me, San Jose is just a two hour nonstop, but east coasters it’s at least 4 hours (assuming a nonstop flight), plus commute, parking, and plenty time for the TSA show.
On Friday, February 28, I had heard from the AR team that the event was still on. That weekend is when The coronavirus came to the US. The event was cancelled over that weekend as concerns over the coronavirus rapidly escalated. Santa Clara County, where the event was planned, confirmed its fourth case. Zoom decided to cancel the event that it presumably spent the past few months planning. Most of us were booked to fly on Tuesday, and sessions were to begin Wednesday morning.
The easier answer was just to cancel or postpone the event. The decision to adapt it to a virtual event, with only a few days of planning, is not something most firms could do. I think of that scene in Princess Bride after they revive Wesley and explain the current insurmountable situation.
He says, “that doesn’t leave much time for dilly dally,” and he quickly assesses liabilities and assets.
- Short amount of time to plan.
- it wasn’t clear what a virtual analyst event looks like.
- The analysts had their calendars open.
- Zoom happens to have a world-class webinar tool.
- Presentations were ready.
- Zoom Chat was already set up with interactive communications with the attendees.
- Presenters were already familiar with online presentations.
For Zoom, the assets must have outweighed the liabilities. I can only report what I observed: they eliminated a few sessions to condense the agenda to a single day. They cancelled travel and hotel arrangements, and shipped their already assembled goody-bags overnight. They adapted their pre-event paperwork to DocuSign.
Analyst events are as much about food as information. The goody bags had some snackables, and they also attempted to arrange lunch through DoorDash. That was a very clever idea, but unfortunately Doordash was not as nimble as Zoom. Lunch vouchers are expected to arrive in a few days.
As was Wesley with the princess, the Zoom AR team was successful. All the analysts I spoke with were pleased and impressed with the event. Sessions started Wednesday morning with more than 50 analysts in attendance.
Overall, the virtual event wasn’t as thorough as a longer in person event, but it was only a day instead of three. The analysts were possibly even more interactive regarding Q&A, a lively Twitter feed, and there was also lively discussion taking place in the event’s chat channel (using Zoom chat).
I can honestly say that I understand Zoom’s value proposition, momentum, and vision better than before. They did it all without travel and germs. They also happened to demonstrate the effectiveness of their product.
There are benefits to both in-person and virtual events. Though they are not the same, each has benefits and trade-offs. I don’t want to see in-person events go away, but I’d like to see an increase in virtual events. It’s hard to change the status quo, so we can thank the coronavirus for forcing some experimentation. If we are honest about it, in-person events have some serious disadvantages:
- They are intense: tons of content with very little to zero free time and/or time to do other work.
- Expensive in time and money regarding travel. Not to mention unpleasant. Travel gets much more “expensive” in time with missed or cancelled flights. Not to mention travel impacts our families. Travel is so expensive that vendors often must limit their invites.
When Zoom cancelled its in-person event, I got back two days.
This got me thinking, how does one plan a virtual event? Zoom’s AR event more or less followed the in-person event playbook, but perhaps it’s time to write a new playbook for virtual events. Here’s some considerations:
The Day: As a modern teleworker, I split my day. I aim to work 10-2 twice a day because I consider the 8 hour workday a carry-over from a time when people commuted or dressed for work (suits and other uniforms). No one wants to work 8 hours straight. If you eliminate the commute and uniform, why work a straight eight hour shift?
Along those lines, analyst events are normally filled days to make the most of a short trip. What if there’s no trip? I think future virtual events could be stretched over three or four days with shorter sessions. This also can mitigate the time zone issues. The Zoom event was a full California day. The Europeans dropped off after lunch, and the East coasters started disappearing in the afternoon.
Shorter spans also acknowledges the distractions of being in the office. There are more distractions with a virtual event. At an in-person event I have my single 13” laptop screen, and I give my attention to the live speaker. At home, i had three giant monitors and some 50 windows and tabs. I can turn off my camera, and let my eyes wander over my other apps and the pile of papers on my desk. It would be even worse at a regular office with colleagues popping in. Plus, at an in-person event, I don’t deal with cooking, cleaning the kitchen, taking out the trash, answering the door, and dealing with the pets. I never really appreciated how in-person events eliminate so many distractions.
Shorter days could also address the issue of meal breaks. Because there are so many time zones represented in virtual meetings. Meal breaks are very difficult to time right.
The Tech: Zoom had a huge advantage with its own technology. Not only does it provide a reliable service, but their execs are already comfortable with it. Zoom even does its quarterly Street briefings over Zoom. Even though the vast majority of UCaaS companies have video, few are that savvy with their own tech. As an indirect benefit for Zoom, the analysts got to experience Zoom’s service in action. This is a pretty big deal. Analysts can’t become experts in all of the products we cover, so this was an effective and educational demo (with risk).
The tech has become so much better. This meeting was mostly video and content share. Future meetings will benefit from many technologies including electronic whiteboards, live translation, auto-framing, and more.
Online Social: The online social activity seemed higher at this virtual event. There were two main channels. Zoom set up group discussion in Zoom Chat. This is also where we received event information. Zoom Chat allows each of us to create additional channels for conversations as well — with Zoom staff and with each other.
Twitter was also active, and compelling. Having all of the content right on my PC made things easier. Snapping, cropping, and tweeting is much easier when the slides are on my monitor. I bet in-person events will gravitate toward live feeds.
Q&A: I think the virtual event stimulated some good discussion and Q&A. At in-person events the subject matter experts typically remain generally available. On a virtual event, they are likely to leave after their presentation, so the interactions during and after presentations are sharper.
Pre-Recorded Presentations: Back to the timezone issue, I wonder if the presentations could simply be pre-recorded and viewed on-demand. This would enable shorter, live AR sessions that could just focus on discussion and questions. I like the idea, but I wonder if everyone would actually watch the videos first? I think of Amazon’s famous meetings which not only include a meeting memo, but time in the meeting to read it. It probably wouldn’t work.
Networking: In terms of content delivery, a virtual event can be just as effective as an in-person event. They should be cheaper and everyone has a great seat. However, a big part of analyst events is relationship building. Personally, I get a lot out of the meals, receptions, and networking times. Most of the comms analysts know each other very well, and it’s also a time to network with the hosting employees. This social interaction is the big nut to still crack regarding social events. In theory we could break up into small, interactive groups. We could even dine together as we do at in-person events, but it is odd to dine in front of a camera. The interactive chat channels are a step in the right direction.
That said, social interaction always takes effort. It’s not just up to the host, we all need to adapt to different ways of work. In-person events are no guarantee that analysts will engage with each other.
I expect virtual events will start to become more common. Actually, I expect coronavirus will change attitudes and acceptance of virtual work in general. While there’s been prior health scares, there’s never been such accessible alternatives. It takes something like a coronavirus to get people to question the status quo and embrace change.
Video is often positioned as a less fun alternative to travel. The coronavirus has curbed or eliminated the desire to travel, and suddenly video is safer and preferred. That will wear-off, but modern travel is unlikely to get better or cheaper. There’s clear trends that travel is becoming more of a burden, and we are becoming less tolerant of inefficiencies. Simultaneously, the tech for virtual meetings is becoming easier and cheaper.
Every significant conference in the first half (or beyond) of 2020 has been cancelled (the major exception is EC20, which is the conference most about enabling virtual work is still on expected to continue). Cancelled events include MWC, SXSW, Facebook’s F8 and Google’s IO and Next events (Apple’s WWDC is presumably being questioned, but is further out). Cancelling these events means less commerce, fewer customers that will see (and read about) new products, and it also disrupts the momentum of the events themselves (meaning potentially fewer attendees next year. The impact is huge — making the need to master virtual conferences a must. Big events will be the next test, but smaller, analyst events are a no-brainer.
While I like the idea of virtual events, there’s an elephant in the enterprise communications room. Not all providers are savvy enough to host a virtual analyst event. There’s two pieces: the tech and the familiarity. Most of the UCaaS industry touts its ability to work anywhere, any time from anyplace; but virtual events are more complex than accommodating teleworkers.