A great conference can be the catalyst to a well-educated, driven sales force. But conferences cost a great deal of time and money. Organizations can typically spend thousands of dollars per employee--flying them to the conference site, putting them up in a hotel and feeding them--in addition to costs incurred in running the actual conference.
IBM's Public Sector Division has found a technological solution that has allowed the company to expand the scope of its conferences to a far larger audience, while keeping expenses to a minimum. Last January and February, it held its e.forum2000 conference on the Internet, using a service and technology solution from Caucus Systems.
This was IBM's third and largest virtual conference. Its previous two, held in 1998 and 1999, were fairly small, with only 350 to 500 attendees, compared to the 2,300 for the e.forum. The previous conferences were also hosted by Caucus.
Ken Thornton, general manager of IBM's Public Sector, says that this type of conference allows IBM to "significantly lower expenses, reach a higher number of people, increase customer 'face' time [by keeping salespersons within their territories], and create modules of learning that can be used throughout the year."
Through the course of the three-week online program, the virtual conference simulated what someone would learn in a three-day physical conference. Upon logging in, attendees would find a virtual layout similar to the real-world kind, with a registration desk, keynote presentations (IBM calls these "main tents"), break-out sessions, a show floor and even chat rooms called virtual cafes.
Exhibitors could invest as little as a few thousand dollars for their show presence or more than $100,000, with results ranging from a basic Web page at the low end to product demos and staff dedicated to answering questions when attendees visit the booth.
Bill Bruck, chief knowledge officer at Caucus Systems, notes that virtual conferencing reduces customer pressure. "In a face-to-face show, [exhibitors] have 30 seconds, while in this format, they have three weeks to interact with customers."
Bringing the Public Sector Online
IBM's e.forum 2000 conference was held to motivate sales people, communicate key messages and strategies for year 2000, educate teams about new e-business solutions and demonstrate new IBM technologies.
In the past, one-third or more of the approximately 1,500-member division would be left out the conference due to business conflicts and budgetary constraints. Bruce Gardner, sales operation manager at IBM who oversaw the e.forum project, says, "By conducting this electronically, we were able to get all 1,500 members of our team [to participate]."
IBM business partners were also invited to access information about IBM strategies, plans, skills and knowledge. Gardner says, "They are an important part of our team, and we wanted them to know that."
The employees participated both through teleconferences and Web audiocasts, which were enhanced with rich graphic and text presentations.
e.forum2000 was held for about a quarter of the usual conference budget, costing a little more than $500,000. Gardner says that the elimination of hotels, flights and food expenses were major factors in the savings. He also emphasizes the advantage of being able to hold the conference over time, which allowed over 2,300 users from around the world to participate when they wanted to and resulted in substantial savings.
Taking Advantage of the Web
Thornton says this conference is consistent with IBM's overall e-business strategy. Gardner says, "We were implementing the tools that we sell to customers and some of that included accessing material at your own pace and time."
Cushing Anderson, an e-learning analyst with IDC, says, "The most powerful features about this type of conference are the ability to participate live, get feedback and record it for later review." Attendants can be directed to go offline for items that were not presented at the conference, such as Web sites, reports, books and other information sources dealing with related subjects.
Anderson notes, "The thing about the Web is that you can take the pieces you want." Instead of being limited to attending one conference track at a time, people can create threads from multiple tracks that include only those sessions from the conference relevant to their interests.
Planning for Virtual Success
IBM's online conference still required a great deal of preparation and planning in order to capture participants' attention, provide them with useful information and motivate them for success. The physical logistics were less complicated, but the planning still took a little under three months, which is similar to the effort required for a physical world conference.
Gardner notes, "The logistics were quite different.... [Rather than meeting space and audio/video requirements,] the focus became coordinating presenters and making the presentations available through the technology."
Another major difference was figuring out how to engage an audience that's spread around the globe on a day-to-day basis. Participants were each given a road map recommending the subset of sessions that would be most useful for the types of sales they do. There were also a number of main tent sessions to get people motivated and moving in the same direction, the first of which was conducted over a large telephone conference call that enabled attendees to participate from any location.
Overall Positive Feedback
Overall, participants had positive experiences and wanted the conferences to continue. One 25-year IBM veteran says this was by far the best conference he had ever attended. He liked the fact that he could review the presentations if he missed a point and could schedule time at night if required.
But some people missed the face-to-face interaction and wished they could have had real meetings. Gardner says, "We had to weigh that against the benefits and the desire to get as many people into this space as possible."
Anderson cautions that larger audiences can mean more potential dissatisfied customers, "so you have to make sure you get it right."
Anderson adds that it can prove difficult to recreate the experience of a live event on the Internet. "You cannot simulate going out for a drink with someone you used to work with.... That kind of experience is good for corporate culture."
The virtual format required a greater level of self-discipline on the part of participants. Unlike traditional conferences, where attendees are away from home with nothing else to do but attend the conference, employees must find a way to fit the conference into their busy schedules.
IBM's single biggest challenge was the participation rate. It was difficult to help people make the break from doing their jobs to focusing on the event. Gardner says, "That is where we will have to focus our time next year."
Gardner sent out memos reminding employees that previous conferences cost them three days of sales, but that now he was asking them to make that same three-day commitment over a longer period in smaller increments that would fit into their schedules appropriately.
As a core motivator, participants were reminded about the new sales opportunities that learning about new technologies, solutions and sales strategies would provide them, which in turn would lead to increased sales and commissions.
Although the conference was limited to a three-week period so that presenters would not have to indefinitely check for and respond to questions, the presentations are still maintained online so that participants can go back and review information to gleam new ideas. However, the dialogues have been taken off in order to reduce space requirements.
Limited Technology--Maximum Impact
Advances in Internet technology can enable some incredibly dazzling online presentations, with streaming video and 3-D virtual worlds where participants can wander around and virtually bump into each other. But Gardner says they decided early on to use fairly limited technology in the design "so that people in all corners of the globe would be able to see the same material that someone with a high-bandwidth connection could.... We chose to use technology in a simple way that was more effective."
The technologies of choice were telephone conferencing, streaming audio and voice-annotated slide shows. The slide shows were delivered via IBM's own Online Presentation System (OPS) technology, which allows presenters to speak out as they present a series of slides in a lecture hall format. Presenters were able to get their messages across in a medium more effective than slide shows alone.
Regardless of the technology you choose for a conference like this, it must be reliable. It would prove disastrous if the technology were to fail in the middle of a session. In a purely electronic presentation, if the technology dies, so does access to the audience. "The fact that our technology component went off without a hitch was very important to this event," says Gardner.
Reaching every number of its Public Sector division--and then some--was also very important to IBM. And with Caucus' help, they were able to do so thoroughly, inexpensively and with the greatest respect to the schedules of all involved.