Designing virtual events for the top, middle and bottom of the sales funnel: interview with Gerd De Bruycker, EMEA Marketing Director, Cisco

Cisco has been a pioneer when it comes to online events, successfully implementing a global online and live event strategy. The online event component has been an integral part of their live events pre COVID-19, and they have constantly been testing and experimenting to find the right consumer-centric approach. 

Now  with online events becoming the norm, Cisco has had to rapidly adjust their current online event strategy and continue to innovate in this space. In this session with Gerd De Bruycker, EMEA Marketing Director: Strategy & Planning and North Europe Director & EMEAR Event Marketing, at the Event Planners Talk e-conference in Bern on August 30 2020, we discussed what changes they have seen with online events and how they continue to innovate further.

To give you a background about events at Cisco, in 2019, Gerd spoke at IMEX Frankfurt about Cisco’s strategy in combining both online and offline events. It was an interesting talk that presented the pre-pandemic event strategy at Cisco. This talk in Bern examined how they have pivoted and adjusted to the new normal. 

Do you see virtual events taking over the live component so that would you need to change your marketing strategy? 

I think everyone is aware now that we are 100 percent in the digital world—that’s where all the European continent is at right now. Online events are taking over all physical aspects of an event; they try to, but it’s not easy. Some elements such as presentations and one-way streams are easy, but organisers must be mindful that it’s still a different channel, and people have options to multitask and are easily distracted. Where it’s more challenging is the immersive experience and interactivity that are offered at a physical event.

We see some virtual events where interactivity works and other events where people don’t do any interaction—they just listen. So, definitely virtual events can take over quite a few aspects but not everything. Virtual events are not new; platforms have been around for 15 years. They have evolved, the user interface is better, but now we see a rapid evolution and innovation in this space significantly faster than we would have observed in a non-corona environment. 

You talked about hosting live events for customers who are in different awareness stages, interacting with your company. For example, an online event could be suitable for the awareness stage, and a workshop could be good for deployment. How do you adjust now to support your customers virtually in the advanced awareness stages (where previously it was a live event).

Here, we discuss the so-called top, middle and bottom of the funnel stages. Typically, for top of the funnel, it’s about thought leadership, which can be easily done online. Middle of the funnel concerns customer cases, and bottom of the funnel is more about interaction. Now, we try to do that online. 

Top of the funnel could involve more broadcasting and broad reach audience, and as we go down the funnel, we attempt to do it in smaller groups and endeavour to be creative: Small groups are where we bring existing customers and potential customers. Or we do more hands-on workshops, where we have a demonstration environment in the cloud where people can do that together with a representative from Cisco. And even for our physical events, we have technical audiences that we attract to our big events such as Cisco Live; even at these events, we are doing gamification where people are required to be on their laptops. 

We have developed a game ‘Capture the Flag’ for technical environments and, in this instance, we bring people at a physical event into an online environment. So, we’ve been porting all of that in completely into a virtual world—that helps to show existing customers our new enhancements, features and products that we can cross-sell and outsell. 

Event planners need to think in that online environment from the starting point. From a planning perspective, it is exactly the same as the physical event. That has not changed. Yes, the virtual event is a different channel than the physical one, but the two main questions stay exactly the same: Whom do I want to reach, and what do I want to achieve? 

We then try to build the right experience based on budgets, time frames etc. and integrate that into the overall marketing mix. 

What is going to change now with your flagship event Cisco Live?

Cisco begins with the customer at the centre of everything they do. They understand that different personas need varying products, and apart from acquiring new customers at third-party events and trade shows, they also have their own proprietary event strategy, which includes a ‘three-event brand strategy’: Cisco Live (big, regional worldwide events, which are physical and online), Cisco Connect (county-specific events) and Cisco Engage (thousands of smaller events in the offices and workshops). That’s how they approach it from a global perspective and integrate events with the overall marketing.

There were three Cisco Live events around the World pre COVID-19: in America, EMEA and APGS. To put it in context, the Cisco Live physical event in Australia had about 8,000 attendees, Cisco Live EMEA attracted 18,000 attendees and the US 28,000 attendees. 

Cisco Connect, the brand below Cisco Live, is the top brand in a country, similar to a Cisco Live but on a local level. Underneath is the Cisco Engage, which counts all the small events the company does around the world. That brand was developed to offer a subtitle to specify what technology it is and for what audience and what’s happening in the city. 

The last live edition of Cisco Live took place in Barcelona at the end of January to the beginning of February 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. They were still able to do the event without any problem. Then, a couple of weeks later, Cisco had their event in Australia, and that could not happen. The team only had about four weeks to build an online experience, ‘We shifted everything online, but because of the short time frame, that could not be the whole thing. Therefore, the Australian team did mainly broadcasting with a Q&A and live chat. No sponsorship—everything was free and pre-recorded, which required a lot of advanced planning to align the scripts for different channels. Despite all content being pre-recorded and streamed during the event, speakers and moderators were present and available live for the chat and Q&A.’ 

Afterwards, we had our American event. On average, we see for our online event the number of attendees (not event registrations because there’s a drop out); those who are watching for a longer period of time is multiplied by 4–5 times. For example, for the American event in June, we had more time to prepare and, therefore, were able to offer more channels and also hosted a Cisco TV event with a broadcast and live Q&A. However, we added quizzes, leader boards, social media and a meet-the-expert session 1-1 chats with all our technology team, increasing the audience from 28,000 to 125,000 attendees. 

The next event will be in Amsterdam and will again be virtual. For that event, we will begin charging for some of the premium content and offer, for the first time, sponsorship and packages in an online environment. We ported everything into the virtual environment for all our events.

When to begin charging for an online event is not an easy decision. ‘We have good connections in the IT industry; we are talking to our peers, examining other companies. Cisco is similar to any other company because they are under pressure regarding revenue, costs and savings. Some of our events we are running break even or generating revenue through sponsorship. In an online environment, the overall cost to produce an event is lower depending on what is done compared to physical events, but the way to generate and monetise that is also different. We think that in a virtual environment, organisers can’t charge the same amount for a sponsorship package compared to one held in the physical world. So, we are constantly testing and trying new approaches—we don’t have a crystal ball. A Cisco Live event is typically about €2,000 for a week of education. You cannot charge the same for an online event. Furthermore, if we start charging, it needs to be premium, exclusive content. You need to have more exclusive added value compared to a pure broadcast. There are many considerations that we take into account. For example, sponsorships: How do we do sponsorship in the virtual environment? And then it depends on the platform you use and your overall schedule when you can insert opportunities for sponsors to connect with your brand or present something, but it’s not the same as a live event.’

Virtual events are global. How do you approach your local event strategy; for example, Cisco Engage, which takes place in the offices and workshops?

This question refers to the three-event brand architecture and the Cisco Engage brand. ‘In the virtual space, there are different things that you need to keep in mind. For example, when in a physical event, you need to think about the geography where you are—in the online environment, the geography doesn’t matter, except from a time-zone perspective. But instead of geography, you talk about languages. Hence, in the past, examining Cisco Live and Cisco connect, that could be in the same region; however, now we are saying if our Cisco Connect is about offering technical education to the IT audience, that’s all available from Cisco Live. Why should we do Cisco Connect, which offers the same? So, we are actually competing and not complementing each other, and that is where we are thinking about having different events. When we talk about Europe, it’s all about different languages, and that is, therefore, already a local added value. Local customer cases, local customers, what the culture is there, how people do business and talk about the product and the environment.’

‘If you want to position your local expert, your local management team and your local people, then you could do this in these local events. It’s about local connection and local added value. In that way, we are building our event strategy in the online environment in a rapid manner. There’s a place for all of them, but then it comes down to the same two questions: Who is your target audience, and what do I want to achieve?’ 

What will be the added value for the customers paying for the virtual event? 

Premium content, exclusive access to new things, access to experts such as those we have in our physical environment, and we are thinking about other things. At these events, we are generating a lot of video files. We are building a Netflix environment for all Cisco-related videos on our own platform, where we are also developing our own virtual event experience—we have the technology. We are attempting to bring all of that together, and then can offer a subscription model. We don’t have it all figured out yet, but we are going to test it for the February event (this interview took place on August 30 2020). We will charge for premium content and access to experts and the added value we offer. There will be a free element to the event as well for the thought leadership and awareness at the top of the funnel.

In our company, as part of our enterprise agreements and contracts where we sell our products, we are also offering learning credits. These credits are similar to virtual money that people can use to attend training with our partners or training from Cisco. We’ll offer these learning credits to attend the premium content as well. 

Last year, you spoke about how you are increasing participation in online events, and that’s a challenge that many event professionals face right now. You’ve said that one of the ways to achieve this aim involves offering simultaneous translation into Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Are there any other approaches to increase online participation? 

The languages are highly specific. We are testing to have broader, online participation. But there are also different nuances. You can reach a broader audience, but then it’s about interactivity and participation, not just attending but participating. Participating means more—there’s interaction and something happening. 

We hosted a Cisco Impact online experience (Instead of a live event in Las Vegas). We did it in two days and three waves. Some of the sessions were live, whereas other sessions were pre-recorded. We had 20,000 people online, where everyone could build their own schedule. We’ve gained best-practice examples from this experience: First, every session is 30 minutes and to the point where speakers are particularly well prepared. We had slots of a 30-minute talk, a 15-minute break and again a 30-minute talk. There was no interactivity with colleagues, but people were able to listen for 30 minutes to the session. The 30-minute sessions were engaging to watch—not monotonous where the speaker is only speaking—because they included discussions and had a good production level. Interactivity was now there. 

The second aspect we observed was that speakers standing in a virtual environment is a much more effective way to maintain the audience’s attention. 

Thirdly, change the scenery. One of our speakers had his presentation on the rooftop with a view of San Francisco. That immediately got more attention. 

Lastly, we use hosts in between to connect the dots and keep it going content wise. Content needs to be short and to the point.

Talking about production value, ‘With production, you can do so many nice things; there are many tools available nowadays. That can be just as simple as creating a different background for your event. You can start playing. For example, the way you think about your experience for a physical event—you need to do the same for online. If you have great speakers, a big production and many participants, you can send speakers a microphone and lamps to have a better experience. These are all learning points from the past months. It’s just doing it, seeing the interaction and learning every single event we do. Another simple aspect is the camera position. If you speak to an audience, you have to talk to the camera, but typically the notes are somewhere else, or you want to see something, and the speaker looks up or down. You need to be authentic—you must talk to people in the online environment.’ 

There are many ways to create experiences at live events. One of them is to use artificial intelligence to help attendees select their sessions that are most suitable for them. Are there any other examples of how you deliver a superior online customer experience? 

As with a physical event, the flawlessness of execution is important. For example, have enough bandwidth, be careful what you are streaming and not streaming, which tools you are using, and test it in advance. Technology is important. 

Secondly, production. With simple things, you can achieve a lot. I’m set up with three screens. On one device, I have the broadcast, and on the other device, I have the app where you could interact with the speakers and peers. Organisers need to think about this second screen. Is it distracting or adding value? I still believe, even more than a physical event, that your content is so important. It needs to be specific to what the audience wants because people can be so easily distracted as soon as an email or notification pops up. You need to keep the audience’s attention. 

‘Data drive business for your company when you do online events. You identify your target audience and design the right live event for them.’ What has changed now when there are no live events to plan for the time being, and how do you use the data from online events to make business decisions? 

First of all, it’s about collecting the data. Then, do the analytics, followed by the insights. Based on those insights, you can plan. Collecting the data is one of the beautiful aspects of online events. It’s all binary in a certain way—it’s all digital—so you have the data, which are at your fingertips. You know how many people there are, and how long they are staying. Companies need to consider their data strategy, what they are collecting, what the measurements that they care about are and their objectives. You can have thousands of people who watch for 3 seconds, but this is not a qualified lead—that’s not a metric. 

One of the metrics that we are examining is average view time. We will analyse how many people registered, how many affectively attend and what the average view time is. There, you can categorise: short amounts, longer and how long they stay. The ones that watch 6 hours a day these are those who are interested. And then, you can do something with that data. 

We go further. We have developed a methodology to measure ROI as part of our overall marketing approach, and not just for our online events but any digital campaign that we have. We are tracking what an engaged account is. We attempt to determine what our accounts are doing on our websites and whether they are coming to our events. Then, we collect these data in a data pool and perform a specific methodology to understand what an engaged account is. For accounts coming to our website, we know that there’s a pipeline there. We then take the next step; if from that same account, multiple people are active, and they are staying longer for our events, they are looking at something—that’s an opportunity, and that’s where we need to go after. That’s when we start seeing trending about whether our volume of significantly engaged accounts begins going up or down. We look at potential opportunities; we have such opportunities in our CRM system, but we see that these companies are no longer engaged, not coming to our online events or not spending time on our website. So, that means this opportunity is at risk. Therefore, we provide these data to sales because they need to do something.

Then, we have the opposite as well. No opportunity on your CRM system, but the account is highly active; so, here’s a potential opportunity—can you reach out there? So, that’s not just about the online event. It’s where we bring all the data together of all our online campaigns and online events to decide what the right next step is regarding what to do in terms of the bottom, middle and top of the funnel. 

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