The Software Agents: Episode 16 - Taking the Biggest Physical Events Virtual

Written by: Christina Noren
5 min read
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The Software Agents is a podcast series sponsored by CloudBees. Each week, we bring you a leader reinventing a different field through software for the new world that is being born. Listen to this week's episode.

Our software agent guests this week are two gentlemen who work closely together under the umbrella of Project Worldwide, one of the largest brand experience agencies in the world. 

Ken Madden is head of digital engagement at Project subsidiary George P. Johnson (GPJ). GPJ is the experience marketing agency that puts on events for some of the largest tech companies in the world, including the tech industry’s largest annual conference, Salesforce’s lavish Dreamforce event. GPJ is a 100+ year-old company that got its start in Detroit inventing the concept of the modern auto show. They’re credited with inventing the auto turntable exhibit all of us gearheads have probably enjoyed many times. Over the last 40 years, tech conferences have risen to more than half of their business. Ken’s colleague John Sampogna is CEO and co-founder of eight year-old digital marketing agency, Wondersauce, which Project acquired several years ago. John and Ken often collaborate.

I got to know GPJ through my dear friend Annette Griffin, the vice president at GPJ who has run the team that put on the 200,000-attendee Dreamforce conference in San Francisco these last few years. When COVID hit, and the idea for this podcast began to take shape, I got in touch with her immediately. I was very curious as to how GPJ and Project were helping clients take these massive physical events virtual. Annette pointed me to Ken and John as the software agents behind the scenes who make it happen. Once we got to talking it was clear they are in the thick of one of the most interesting overnight transformations happening this year.

(The timing was interesting for us: We recorded the episode in late September, a day before CloudBees’ own annual conference, DevOps World, was set to kick off as an all-digital conference for the first time. With 25,000+ registrants, we were all waiting to see what would happen. I had not attended a virtual conference yet, but since then, I’ve attended two as an attendee and one as a presenter. Now, at time of publication, our first virtual DevOps World is in the rearview mirror and the archive of the event is here.

Ken and John tell us that pre-COVID, digital was already becoming a more important part of the mix of the typical conference. Still, it was one component within the context of the physical experience, not the entire experience itself. Pre-COVID, pre-March, no one in their industry anticipated that every physical event in the world would be canceled or go virtual overnight. Much as our first guest Will Hayes told us about the retail world, digital went from being one channel of many, to the only channel.

Early on in the crisis, the response had to be tactical. The first conference on deck was a major tech company’s annual partner conference, only six weeks away. The content for that conference was mostly finalized, so their focus was on enabling remote attendance. At first, they planned to bring presenters together in one broadcast location. But as shelter-in-place orders quickly came down, they switched focus to enabling professional quality at-home recording and broadcast.

Once through this initial emergency, GPJ and Wondersauce came back to their central focus on the consumer or attendee experience. With bigger conferences looming through the rest of the year, how could these experiences achieve the same conference goals for their customers? How could the virtual conferences still foster community, learning, engagement and a great experience— that would make people want to convene in real time even from home with all its distractions, and not leave the event early?

Ken and John dive into this a bit with us, both from the experience and tech perspectives. They tell us how digital provides new opportunities to achieve traditional conference goals of networking and learning. If the platform knows more about each attendee, passive personalization can suggest specific sessions and connections amongst attendees, begin meaningful interactions pre-event, and then continue them post-event. These were ideas they had already been developing pre-COVID to enhance physical events.

At recording time in late September, GPJ was within 30 days of bigger events that had been replanned as digital-only with longer lead times. Ken and John couldn’t name them in advance, but I’m hoping they’ll update us on social media now.

We asked them about how the overall experience is evolving. What do I see on screen when I log into a conference that’s gone virtual? They told us that while a full-on VR, immersive Second Life-type experience may work for some clients and events, most choose to replicate a typical physical show in website format: the main stage, the breakouts, the expo hall, etc. It seems to me a bit like how we haven’t yet left behind the desktop metaphor introduced in the earliest personal computer operating systems. Only now are mobile-first interfaces treating the screen as a sui generis workspace.

Ken and John said the far more critical focus than rethinking UI is the unsexy stuff like content strategy, recirculation, targeted ongoing post-conference communications, and creating attendee connections. 

That last is a challenge online: How do you make social networking easier for the many who aren’t natural-born networkers? They seek to narrow the networking graph before the conference by recommending relevant sessions, facilitating introductions, and giving both the client and attendee tools to discover and create opportunities to connect.

We’ll "save it for the show,” but it’s also interesting to hear how two software agents of different generations arrived at remaking events via different paths. No one seems to plan to remake an industry with new digital tools. Our Software Agents are people who’ve recognized that the how is software, the when is now, and the who is them.

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