For a technology brand with the word “invent” as its slogan an early foray into the world of virtual events may not seem like much of a stretch. It was Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard after all who first staked out territory in Silicon Valley in 1939 founding one of the most successful high-tech companies in the world out of a one-car garage and bringing to market over the next 75 years industry firsts like calculators handheld devices email programs laser printers and touchscreen PCs.
Indeed new technologies and an entrepreneurial spirit have permeated the corporate culture at Hewlett-Packard since the beginning. But for the brand’s modern-day event marketing team a recent jump into virtual events wasn’t driven solely by an organic connection to the company’s high-tech roots. Like most serendipitous moments in brand-development history it was a matter of bringing the medium to the masses at just the right time. In HP’s case virtual became reality when its customers were ready.
“Our customers use the web for product research to purchase to research buying options ” says HP event marketing manager Marie Cottrell who heads up the company’s centralized virtual events push. “The move came from that—to help service the behavioral needs of our customers.”
Two years ago HP started laying the foundation for a customized virtual events platform that would address the fast changing needs of its Web 2.0 customers—immediacy accessibility and flexibility—and provide HP with a hard-working marketing tool that could engage customers generate leads and move the performance needle. The platform dubbed Virtual Events Central went live in December.
Much like a real-world event HP’s virtual events welcome attendees into an immersive 3D representation of a convent ion space where content is delivered through presentations keynotes and demos—both live and on demand. Attendees can travel from virtual exhibit halls to auditoriums and select content to watch and then chat ask quest ions and network with HP reps and their peers in real time. They can drop event content and collateral into an event bag and when they’ve completed their experience they’re able to take their bag with them just like they would at a physical event. The platform can be used as a standalone event or as an extension of a live program.
“The virtual space is such a beautiful thing because it can be scalable for what you need it to be ” says Cottrell. “You can use the platform as a teaser to a physical event. You can use it in augmentation with a physical event. You can use it as a post-event tool. Or you can do it all. It’s not one or the other. Whatever you want it to be it will be. You don’t get that in a physical event. You don’t have the opportunity for your customers to be able to come back 24/7 at their own convenience to be able to re-experience what’s relevant to them.”
Today the company with the modest beginnings serves more than one billion customers in more than 170 countries on six continents employs 321 000 employees worldwide and boasts $118 billion in revenue. For a brand with such massive global internal and external audiences virtual events present obvious benefits: they eliminate the time and expense required to travel to live events they allow customers to participate from wherever they want when they want and they offer event managers access to real-time and post-event data that often outperforms that collected at live events.
“We look at this as one of those evolutionary moments that we have within corporate marketing to say how can we use the digital technology that we produce and sell and offer as services to create an experience that has a better ROI certainly is less expensive and is self-selecting in terms of customer profiling ” says Gary Elliott vp-corporate marketing at HP. “It demonstrates a much better user experience and provides us with information that we normally wouldn’t get at the live events that we would hold.”
Ready to go virtual? Then let’s go. HP has given EM readers exclusive access to the strategic thinking that guided the power brand’s first-ever virtual events platform plus a behind-the-scenes tour of the events in action.
THE HP WAY
Corporate legend has it that sometime after 1939 a radical new approach to management was born in Hewlett and Packard’s tiny Palo Alto garage. The founders dropped old school hierarchical management structures in favor of an inclusive workplace with open doors and open communication; they respected and empowered the company’s employees as their greatest assets; and they encouraged flexibility and innovation in the ways employees worked as methods for creating better products and a more productive work environment. This pioneering corporate management style became known as The HP Way and the philosophy still guides the company’s culture today.
Self-directed experiences have always been part of The HP Way. The company formally introduced the idea of flextime in 1973. In 1994 it began encouraging telecommuting; today 13 000 HP employees work exclusively from home. The company has also invested in virtual teleconferencing tools such as HP Virtual Room and Halo its telepresence technology solution that allows meetings to take place via the web from anywhere in the world. The company was ready internally to bring innovative new brand engagements to consumers wherever they worked and lived. It was just waiting for the tipping point which came about two years ago.
“Web 2.0 was really taking hold and we all were looking at ways to operate differently ” Cottrell says. “Technology was developing at such a rapid pace—the transition from doing things physically to potentially doing them virtually was coming to fruition. You could see it in segments of the web. So we said how do we look at ways to be faster and smarter and service our customers in the events and trade show space and one of those was with a virtual platform.”
In 2007 HP started its platform development process in earnest. In 2008 Cottrell joined the team and kicked off a thorough internal research and consideration phase. She began by checking out the competition to see what they were doing in the virtual space and what products they were using. Then her team went internal to assess the one-off events and quasi-virtual programs that had cropped up in various HP groups and divisions over the years. Data was collected for each virtual initiative to help determine which features and functions were successful and which weren’t. “The metrics behind that the behavioral feedback was great for us as part of our consideration phase ” Cottrell says. “So we weren’t going at this [having not tried anything].”
Next up a dive into the company’s own event and trade show portfolio and a review with each of its constituents. The internal review included a thorough audit of every asset and customer type including external customer-facing events channel and partner events and then internal events like sales training product training channel training learning and development training plus leadership and organizational meetings.
To meet the needs of these thousands of unique global targets with one virtual platform HP developed a wish list. At the top: scalability. “Very important because you wanted it to go from the very personalized customer meeting that has 10 or less attendees to user forums that have thousands of attendees so scalability was key ” Cottrell says. The platform would also need to be repeatable and localized for global markets. The content management system would need to be user-friendly and turnkey for event managers. And it would need to be robust enough to seamlessly integrate with HP’s existing event marketing practices and its performance measurement program which differs in each of HP’s international markets.
Finally the platform environment—the architecture the look and feel the immersive 3D experience—would need to be HP branded beyond the capabilities of what an off-the-shelf virtual events platform product could offer. Interactive elements would need to be more than just cool features to impress the high-tech set. It had to adhere to the same brand standards and engagement strategies as any other tool in the marketing mix.
“What we were seeing was other companies going off and building one-off platforms; taking it off the shelf throwing up their little banner and logo and just buying it ” Cottrell says. “For me I honestly believe that doing something like that actually dilutes our brand. Because it has to be consistent with the way that we touch our customers in every other aspect. So it had to be in-sync and in-step with how we as a company market ourselves and how we present ourselves to our customers. It was critical that we had something that was fully HP-branded.”
Armed with information Cottrell’s team executed an investigation into a short list of top virtual event partners compared feature sets and chose San Francisco-based interactive agency Design Reactor to develop the customized platform.
With Cottrell’s key objectives laid out as “a single platform that was repeatable scalable and fully branded and has the most innovative technology integrated within that platform allowing us to be able to execute various types of events ” Design Reactor led HP through the development process starting with a brand discovery phase followed by a deep dive into the unique marketing objectives for each of HP’s three main sub-brands: Technology Solutions Group (TSG) Imaging and Printing Group (IPG) and Personal Systems Group (PSG).
“We spent a lot of time with our brand teams to ensure we deliver a specific business unit branded site for each of our event and marketing teams within each of those units globally ” says Cottrell. “That was a huge portion of the planning phase. What would it look like how do we integrate the look and feel the icons how do we be consistent with each of their marketing campaigns? We tested that internally to ensure that it was appropriate.”
Next Cottrell began the work of translating the deliverables of the physical realm—brand consistency engaging content business unit-specific experiences—into features that could deliver the against real-world objectives online. Once a strategy was in place and a toolbox of features developed Design Reactor presented concepts tweaked page designs and narrowed in on a suite of scalable features best suited for HP’s needs. The entire process from concept to pilot took 12 months and in December 2008 debuted as the hub called Virtual Events Central (http://virtualeventscentral.veplatform.com) HP’s customer-facing virtual events platform. At Virtual Events Central customers can check out past events like the platform’s debut program a free virtual event called Data Center Sticker Shock held Jan. 17 plus scroll through a roster of upcoming events like the Technology You Need for Today’s Economy event scheduled for May 12-14. All four events currently featured at VEC are new additions to HP’s event portfolio.
Cottrell says the scalability of the custom platform has led to quick adoption and early signs of success across all business units. She calls the effect “Build it and they will come.”
“We were thoughtful through the planning phase in ensuring the functionality that we have integrated into the platform allows us to scale for any type of event that we as a company may need to hold ” says Cottrell.
She declined to quantify the total number of internal and external events HP has executed to date but says “We’re seeing a significant increase in momentum for the virtual platform from our events and marketing teams globally. So they’re looking at this as another way to reach their customers in a very targeted and focused manner.”
Elliott has witnessed the momentum too adding “In terms of the people who said ‘Count me in ’ it’s gone from zero to a lot.”
PLUG AND PLAY
HP event managers who are ready to go virtual are trained on the content management system (it takes about a week and there are 27 two- to five-minute how-to videos to refer back to) and then they’re off and running.
To plan a virtual trade show for example event owners start by selecting the business unit they’re associated with. With a few clicks the program instantly “skins” the platform with the appropriate branding icons logos and color palettes. Then they plan their layout. For every business unit there is a library of between 180 and 200 booth designs to choose from all with branded colors and imagery appropriate to the customer and audience base they’re presenting to. The consumer-facing IPG and PSG groups for example use black with blue accents for their event environments. The silver laser-cut HP circle is their brand icon. The business-facing TSG group uses an orange color palette with sleek ribbon-shaped demo stations to differentiate its branding from other groups.
Event owners decide where their booths are going to be and if they want two- four- or six-sided demo stations. There are graphics decisions to make to customize the look and feel for their event depending on the offerings the solutions or the products they’re showcasing. Last stop they upload collateral and video content and then track and manage the whole shebang in real-time with the help of an event metrics dashboard.
Cottrell says the planning process for an HP virtual event is “scarily” similar to the planning process of a physical event. “It’s exactly the same thing ” she says. “Everything you need to do [for a physical event] you need to do in a virtual event.”
Unlike real-world events however virtual events lack a few of the pesky restrictions of the physical realm. The exhibit halls are soaring spacious and light-filled demo stations plentiful and limitless and the game-like interactive elements fun to play with and never blocked by throngs of people. It would be tempting for an event marketer to pack his or her booth with every cool feature on the menu. But a successful virtual event platform is much more than just bells and whistles. It is also an exercise in restraint. For HP each feature must map back to the individual event owner’s specific objectives. If a feature is not necessary it’s left out of the virtual space. Research proves that if there’s too much going on that’s not germane to the objective customers will tune it out and turn it off.
“Part of being relevant is to do away with all the things that aren’t relevant ” says Design Reactor president Leon Papkoff. “If you put 100 pieces of content on one counter people are not going to look at it all. But what we’ve noticed from our tracking and metrics is if we put seven pieces of content on that counter they’re going to notice it. So what we do is spread the rest of that content out to other counters. We’ve noticed that a lot of that content then does get viewed.”
Event managers also still need to develop content book keynote speakers sell space on the show floor and manage booth staff. And of course lead capture audience acquisition post-event surveys and staff surveys still need to be managed and executed. But the tools are in place and the major branding decisions are already made. The intuitive plug-and-play content management program eliminates the need for additional event staff dedicated to virtual events. “The purpose of this platform is not to build a platform that needs to be hand-held for every event. It’s self-service ” says Cottrell. “We’ve been able to build it in a manner that allows the event administrator or manager to build it themselves.”
RICH ATTENDEE DATA
There are two types of measurement that HP does within the virtual platform. One is performance and lead-capture measurement “very solid numbers we’re able to report right from impression through to sales ” says Cottrell. The others are the behavioral metrics “that you don’t really get at a physical event ” she says.
To capture lead-gen metrics the platform has its own formula that feeds into HP’s performance measurement program. Together the systems formulate ROI data for each event. It’s all built in so the event administrator can just identify their audience acquisition criteria like purchasing lists telemarketing or buying keywords and the platform does the rest from lead capture to qualification to telemarketing right into HP’s Siebel CRM system and then out to the sales teams.
Many brands that have experimented in the virtual space have used the platform to generate additional event revenue. Charging additional fees for access to one-time physical event content like keynotes for example is one way to leverage the value of the on-demand space. HP doesn’t use its virtual platform as a revenue-generating platform in the e-commerce sense (some events are deemed “revenue generating” because of the audience type but not because it monetizes the event content itself) but credits the platform with shortening and accelerating the sales cycle.
Cottrell is seeing “significant ROI” for its virtual events specifically in the number of attendees. One case study that compared a physical and live event showed an increase in ROI from 15-to-1 to 51-to-1. The brand has also seen a marked increase in lead capture and a five-fold increase in qualified leads. Full metric reports aren’t in yet (the platform is only four months old) but here’s a taste of some initial results from the launch: the program generated more than 3 500 individual document downloads average session time was one hour and 16 minutes (far exceeding mere minutes spent on linear and HTML website sessions) and in some instances the program cut the cost of qualified leads by as much as 95 percent.
The customer data is pouring in too. “Through post-event surveys our customers are telling us the virtual events platform and the event they attended was exceptionally beneficial it provided relevant information and that their engagement in the platform—their experience—was very high which is great for us ” Cottrell says. “The more surveys and data we get back actually either validates that what we’re doing is right or provides us the feedback to go back and look at a certain aspect and tweak it a bit. The goal is to ensure we always have a very rich customer experience.”
Adding to the value of the rich customer metrics is the brand’s 24/7 access to customer data. Event managers can track in real-time what content is getting visibility what features are getting more than others and when people start jumping out of demos and keynotes. For example a customer can watch a keynote and three days later go back and re-watch it get a few of their questions answered via an online chat then download some related collateral. The virtual platform tracks this movement kicks the data into HP’s Siebel CRM system which routes leads like this one to sales shortening the lead-gen cycle and delivering highly-engaged qualified leads to the field.
Tracking engagement trends can help shape the live content strategy. When Design Reactor executes a virtual event 100 percent on-demand—no live webinar no live video no live moderated chat—average session time is 15 minutes “which is still a lot higher than a website but for an event is very low ” says Papkoff. At virtual events where there’s at least one live webinar or a live-moderated chat or a live video session time jumps up to between an hour and a half and three hours. “We definitely suggest doing a few live components. Even if it’s just a live webinar it tends to pull your metrics up quite a bit ” he advises.
One-time off-the-shelf virtual events can range in price from $15 000 to $35 000 according to Papkoff and can be launched with as little as one day of lead-time (four to six weeks is more common). For that one-time fee the platform can stay up for a period of time from a week to a few months to a year. Custom platforms like HP’s may run more in upfront development costs but over time will amortize and actually drop the cost of each event below the single-use price tag.
So far HP’s virtual events have proven they can reduce the budget by as much as half. “The numbers are startling when you look at what you can do here versus what you can do live in terms of actual out-of-pocket costs ” Elliott says. “You can run an event with 10 webinars for under $50 000 so it’s a pretty powerful tool.”
THE COMPUTER IS PERSONAL AGAIN
Brands that have dabbled in the virtual space know that online event content can augment and extend the reach of live events. Posting keynotes demos and podcasts online and hosting webinars and webcasts are practices that have gained momentum since the last recession forced a collective belt tightening across the industry. While HP is discovering with its new platform that virtual events can be a powerful alternative to the real thing Cottrell says the question shouldn’t be a matter of virtual or physical.
“It’s about enhancing your customer’s experience whether we do that through a live event a virtual event or through an augmented process where we have a live and a virtual presence. It really is about enabling our customers to be able to operate in a manner that makes sense to them and offering them the option to be able to do so ” Cottrell says. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the virtual space and the fact that it now is part of our marketing portfolio allowing our event and marketing teams to be able to select it if appropriate to their campaign and customer base. They decide whether it’s a complement to their live event or if they only do a live event or only do a virtual event.”
With a portfolio of virtual events in full swing and more on the way HP continues to have brainstorming meetings with its internal teams and Design Reactor to fill out the road map ahead and to continue to anticipate and adapt quickly to the changing needs of its customers. Cottrell couldn’t confirm the next round of improvements (a major announcement is planned for late April at our own Event Marketing Summit) but says areas of growth in the next 12 to 18 months are likely to include social media integration and more localized languages—all features that further enhance the self-directed attendee experience. It is after all the Web 2.0 customer’s way. And it’s the HP Way.