Inside Microsoft - Event Marketer

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Inside Microsoft

The tipping point happened about 12 years ago. It was a warm April day in 1998 and inside Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, more than 100,000 people gathered for the spring COMDEX trade show, one of the largest technology events in the world. Featured keynote speaker Bill Gates was on stage with an assistant named Chris Capossela, gearing up to show off the capabilities of the new Windows 98 operating system to overflow crowds when suddenly, the system crashed, leaving nothing displayed on stage but the infamous “blue screen of death” (the error message means the computer is crashing, and taking all its data with it.) In the moments after it happened, Gates and Capossela made a few jokes and seemed to get the crowd on their side. But from an event strategy perspective, the damage was already done. Most event marketers have been there, watching helplessly as the technology fails, the speaker loses his way, or some other unexpected force of destruction comes along to ruin what otherwise would have been a pretty darn good event.

While many might consider these unfortunate accidents just one of the unavoidable but temporary blips that come with the job, for Microsoft’s event staff, it was a clarion call for smarter processes and more reliable results—at every single event. For decades, it was a wild ride in event marketing at Microsoft. The company did nothing but grow, stocks split and then split again, and when it came to funding events, there was a “money grew on trees mentality,” according to one long-time events staffer. It was a culture based on doing your own thing quickly and competitively, and employees were given the resources and freedom to execute at will. But inside the company, the rapid growth was slowly starting to eat away at the bottom line. Events were being planned by disparate groups, each with their own structures and processes. Inefficiencies were starting to add up. And it became apparent that the events group needed more than just big budgets to be effective. “Microsoft has always been culturally very tolerant of people just going off and doing their thing to get successful business results,” says the company’s head of events, general manager-events and studios Jeff Singsaas. “And the problem with that is that as we got bigger the dollars got bigger, the number of people involved got bigger and what we were seeing was lots of decision makers but zero accountability for business outcome.”

Singsaas joined the events group in 2001 and set out to establish order and processes where it had been lacking, and create a foundation for the evolution of the event marketing function at Microsoft. In the nine years that followed, the team has restructured, centralizing the events team under one organization within the Global Marcomm Group, and put in place consistent planning and budget management standards. The group focused on ways to evolve the event marketing function through initiatives like developing global standards and measurement tools and driving new areas of growth like digital events, event metrics and sustainability. As these internal projects come to fruition, they are elevating the status of event marketers within the company to a position of strategic leadership on a global scale. Events have always been taken very seriously at Microsoft. It is the group’s commitment to turning its quest for perfection into a formidable force—a true event marketing discipline—that differentiates it from many of its peers.

“The key thing was that we had to, as an organization, make a decision that we wanted to pursue it because it wasn’t easy,” says Singsaas about the process. “Everybody involved was super strong in the execution space but we asked ourselves, ‘What do we really aspire to? Do we aspire to continue to be the best at executing and staging or do we want to really become a hardcore part of the marketing mix?’ When we saw the group was really anxious to move forward professionally, we put together a lot of infrastructure for how people could develop their careers, what strategy looks like in the space and the steps that we could take in order to get there.”

Late in 2009, EM executive editor Jessica Heasley traveled to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA, on a mission to find out how Singsaas and his team changed the course of one of the biggest event spenders in the industry. After three full days on campus, 30 hours of unprecedented access, 19 interviews and 13 lattes, a blueprint emerged, filled with steps and processes critical for any event marketing organization that’s looking to get serious about advancing its field. First up in our special report, a look inside Microsoft’s journey from tactical expert to strategic partner and producer of thousands of global events. Then, deep dives into some of the processes and initiatives that are driving the sea change.

INSIDE THE PORTFOLIO
Large-scale product launches, keynotes and high-tech education events have always been a part of Microsoft’s DNA. Today, the bulk of the event budget goes to what it calls Tier One events, primarily b-to-b and b-to-e shows like TechEd, Convergence and its global sales meeting (and home of the 14-hour-long keynote presentation), MGX. The Tier One list encompasses 17 of the company’s largest and most strategic proprietary internal and partner events ranging in audience size from 115 to 15,000 attendees and spanning the globe from Seattle’s Safeco Field, where it holds its annual company meeting, to the pyramids of Egypt, where it recently hosted the Imagine Cup, a tech competition for students from around the world. The team also supports CES, now managed by a new, separate Experiential Marketing Group (look for more on this new initiative in an upcoming issue). While CES continues to be one of Microsoft’s flagship Tier One events, trade shows overall have become a rarity in Microsoft’s Tier One events portfolio due to a trend towards diminishing returns. Smaller, more targeted proprietary events (some in Tier One and others that fall into the smaller Tier Two and Three categories) have taken their place.

“Getting visibility [at trade shows] was important for Microsoft at a certain point in our history,” says Singsaas. “But when you consider the expense and the number of people that it takes to run the [exhibit] and the amount of energy that goes into trying to figure out what our appearance should be on the floor and what should the keynote be all about, you look at it afterwards and ask, ‘Did we sell anything? Besides being there what did we get?’ That’s a harder and harder question to answer.”

Tier One event budgets can be in the tens of millions. Audiences range from government leaders, developers and IT pros to internal sales people and employees. Microsoft has traditionally spared few expenses to pump up its 13,000-member sales force, impress international dignitaries and c-suite decision- makers or treat its employees to a one-day state of the union bash. In some ways, the company’s unique business model has something to do with that. Microsoft’s revenue comes from a vast partner ecosystem of thousands of companies like HP, Dell and Intel that have developed products on Microsoft platforms, utilized Microsoft products to develop their own products or have products that enhance or extend the Microsoft platform. The company makes about 95 percent of its money from this network of partners and does very little direct sales (its Xbox unit is the largest anomaly). The partners that make up Microsoft’s channel are given the opportunity to showcase their products at the brand’s shows and events. In most cases, the Tier One event team’s job is to break even on each event’s budget. The goal isn’t to make money or drive leads, per se, but to arrive at net zero after event expenses have been balanced against attendee registration and partner and sponsor income.

It’s a tricky model for event departments in search of a provable ROI because the event’s budget structure can’t be mapped back to revenue-generating activities like data collection and lead generation. The system instead relies entirely on satisfaction scores (more on how that is changing later). With event budgets being the third largest marketing spend across the company worldwide after advertising and agency retainers (events account for 10 percent of the entire marcom spend), and with the company requiring little accountability for how it was being spent, it was time for a change.

A DECADE OF TRANSFORMATION
Killer ideas and strong logistics chops are the value propositions most event marketing departments bring to the table. But it would take a slightly different skill set to start turning Microsoft’s event team around. When Singsaas’ joined the company in 1995 he was charged with managing large-scale manufacturing in the company’s trade group and setting up a product fulfillment infrastructure in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. He joined the event marketing department in 2001 and began leveraging his background in operations and finance to create the foundation for a more efficient and business-minded event function. Part of that process involved cleaning a little house. “The job initially was to get everybody together, make sure that the people that stayed were the people that we wanted, that had the highest skill level and were committed to moving on,” says Singsaas. “And then try to make sure that we could get some stability in the process.”

The events team was centralized into one group under Singsaas’ direction and then given a permanent place in the company’s Global Marcomm Group (GMG). The Central Marketing Group (CMG) is at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the Global Marcomm Group (GMG) and then Singsaas’ group, Microsoft Events and Studios. Several months after the reorganization, with roles better defined, new systems in place, budget templates and processes being followed and a legitimate place in the corporate marketing infrastructure, director of event marketing Kati Quigley began the process of moving the discipline in a more marketing-centric direction. “Given that we’re sitting in a marketing organization, we thought it didn’t make sense that we were not really spending a lot of time on what the marketing portion of an event is,” says Quigley. “It was more just the logistical and execution.”

To get things started, Quigley reached out to a research organization called Marketing Leadership Roundtable that conducted in-depth interviews with 20 marketers in a variety of industries and surveyed them about their approach to event marketing and what they aspired to achieve within the discipline. “The great thing about doing all these interviews with all these people was that everybody agreed largely that you’ve got to start with process as your foundation,” says Quigley. “Whether it’s outsourcing it all, whether it’s the financial management. How you go about it, that’s up to each company, but you’ve got to have those standard processes in place.”

The resulting document became a roadmap, filled with event marketing skills, areas of focus and a diagnostic tool that gave Singsaas and Quigley’s team a set of benchmarks they could use for determining what skills they lacked and what skills they needed to acquire to evolve the team. “We said, ‘Okay, what does it mean to be a tactical event organization versus a strategic one?’” says Quigley. “And what are the different areas that we need to focus on to make that shift? So we did that. Then we started to kind of parcel out the different parts of expertise and really leverage the knowledge that people had.” Quigley pinpointed the areas the team needed to focus on and then instituted a divide and conquer approach, identifying pain points where inefficiencies cropped up, like registration, partner relationships and vendor management, and growth areas like the emerging digital events landscape and environmental policy, then created specialized roles to address them head on. Today, the team is 92 members strong; about 40 are focused specifically on events.

Next the team created a Hierarchy of Aspiration— the group’s vision for the future—and a Worldwide Event Marketing Framework, a roadmap for getting there. The aspirations are a list of the team’s five key year-over-year objectives along with how they will change from 2009 to 2010. For instance, in 2009, digital event delivery, strengthening global leadership and driving process evolution were top goals. In 2010, each aspiration gets bumped up a notch to digital event standardization, global thought leadership and being recognized as an industry leader. The Worldwide Event Marketing Framework roadmap includes five main areas: vendor management and sourcing, strategy and maturity, metrics and tools, engagement and process models and people capabilities and growth. Within each area, the framework is broken down to illustrate how many of the team’s specialized roles support each of the larger areas of focus. Finally, the team created seven pillars and priorities that also map back to the larger list of aspirations. It breaks down the big picture priorities, such as excellence in execution, into actual deliverables, like developing a how-to guide that maps back to the excellence priority.

The Hierarchy, Framework and Pillars help guide the department’s internal priorities, but also serve as the kind of buttoned up external communications messaging that helps the group evangelize its value to the rest of the company. “Events are like the dial tone—you need to have them happening and being done well, but these are the things that are going to help move them forward; the underlying projects that help across the board,” says Quigley. Semantics also became a critical component in raising the profile of the team. Four years ago the team changed its core job title from event program manager to event marketing manager (EMM). A year later the team took on the ownership of the job description worldwide and began developing career paths and core competency lists that can be used consistently, around the world, for hiring and advancing any Microsoft event marketer. The “events” got a promotion, too. The team steadfastly refers to them as their “businesses;” calling the work they do “running” or “owning our businesses.” “We run the events team like we’re running the events business,” says director of business operations Jill Daggett. “We are not just a bunch of marketing people that happen to do events. We think of it from a business perspective.”

THE EVENT MARKETING MANAGER
When your founder is a bonafide technology guru, the richest man alive and half of one of the greatest business rivalries in history, there’s always a target on your back. And when you’re in the technology biz, even if the power goes out at the convention center from a lightening storm (it can happen), Microsoft still gets the blame. Risk mitigation—making sure everything is in place from backup power sources to privacy standards—has always been a critical part of the event marketing mandate at Microsoft. Now, the team was tightening up its functions and processes and closing the gaps where there had been disconnects or unaddressed needs across the company.

Most EMMs have either dual roles, managing Tier One events and leading other internal initiatives, or acting as subject matter experts, focused specifically on pain points or areas that require more attention and expertise. One EMM, for example, is working with outside vendors to bring environmental sustainability standards into the process fold; another is driving the EMM job description worldwide and mapping career trajectories for his peers around the globe. On the subject matter expert side, the team includes two dedicated vendor account managers, who act as liaisons between the EMM and Microsoft’s pool of vendors; a person dedicated solely to registration, another to privacy; two digital events specialists and two partner specialists tasked with managing Microsoft’s thousands of partnerexhibitors and sponsors.

“A lot of people on the team love to execute on their events but at the same time they also love taking on projects that move the discipline forward or highlight these kinds of areas where we see a gap, like sustainability,” says Vivian Eickoff, group event marketing manager. “For us, one of the things our team prides ourselves on is not only delivering exceptional experiences for our attendees, our speakers, our sponsors and everyone who goes to our live events and the digital portions of our events. But it’s also how we help move our industry.” Smaller Tier One shows generally require a team of three EMMs. Larger events can require a team of eight or nine. EMMs work on the same shows for two to three years and then rotate to new events. “It’s great for freshness, looking at a new event, a new audience in a different way, bringing something new to it, bringing different backgrounds,” says EMM Carol Cooper. “It means that we bring very different things to the shows, very different strengths, skill sets, very different thought processes. So, it really helps the event to have that changeover every two to three years. It lets us see different things and do different things and not get stagnant.”

EMMs bear the ultimate fiscal responsibility for the events they manage but unlike many of their peers in other organizations, they don’t own the budget. It’s their job to work with business owners across the company to help them use their budgets in the most effective and judicious way. As part of its evolution, the team determined it didn’t need to own the budgets to influence decisions. Also unique to Microsoft events is its outsourced model. Rather than hiring the expertise of an agency to handle the company’s events from soup to nuts, the team cherry picks specific technical, creative and logistics specialties from a very select list of vendors that have been vetted and approved through a rigorous process, and then assembles the right team for the job. Each EMM works closely with the event group’s business operations director and vendor account managers to find the right vendor through RFPs and reverse auctions, and to coordinate with procurement to find efficiencies across multiple events by bundling vendor contracts. Many of Microsoft’s vendors have been working with the company for more than a decade.

Just a few blocks from headquarters is another one of the organization’s unique in-house assets, Microsoft Studios—a full media, broadcast and production compound that would make CNN envious. Before it was rebranded and brought into Singsaas’ fold in early 2007, Studios was solely focused on the creation and execution of executive keynote presentations— the content, lighting, technology and multimedia. Today, the unit still maintains its live media, technical and A/V expertise, plus what Singsaas calls its “PowerPoint team on steroids,” but has grown to include television production, live and on-demand webcasting and content archiving capabilities in its bag of tricks. The group today works much more closely with the company’s public relations arm to partner and consult on its executive productions, and to align its approach with the company’s high-level publicity strategies.

“We’ve really added this skill set around trying to work with our internal clients on the story they’re trying to tell,” says senior group manager-executive productions Brian Schilling-George. “What are the moments they’re trying to capture? If there’s press, what do you want the headline to be in the newspaper? What do you want the picture to look like? Really working to create those environments, so we’re trying to be as successful as possible against the goals of what those outcomes are. Versus, ‘Let’s make sure these computers talk to these projectors and we can see all this stuff.’ So that’s the place we’ve really focused on and tried to shift the team around—we’re not just the technical production team; we’re really about telling a story and understanding the goals and objectives of the overall communication, whatever that may be, and then determining how we can best deliver that.”

RAISING THE PROFILE
One of the ways the team plans to deliver against its key priorities is to take all of the best practices, processes and learnings it has developed over the past 10 years and distribute it into the field where thousands of smaller conferences, road shows and events happen around the world. Global leadership and standardization are top objectives, so the team has been working on ways to share its wealth of knowledge with Microsoft’s other event marketers around the world. The team is using its Top Tier events as the incubator for its best practices with the hope that the learnings can be applied to events of every size. To get there, in 2006 the team created a Tier One Event Council.

At semi-annual half-day meetings and monthly conference calls, business owners, content owners and event marketing managers who work on the global Tier One portfolio come together to share what they’re learning. The meetings have been especially productive as Microsoft navigated the economic crisis this past year. Long-term, the Council is promoting a new level of communication and leadership from the event marketing group at headquarters, and helping to bust out of the silos that the groups had historically operated in. “A few years ago we probably never had conversations with [the field],” says Quigley. “Whereas now it’s a regular community in which people talk to each other; they share best practices, what their challenges are, what they need help with, that sort of thing.” European field managers also have the benefit of more conversations with the team. They recently came into Quigley’s fold and now have a direct reporting relationship into the event marketing organization.

Taking on leadership positions outside the company is another way the team is increasing its visibility. Eickoff is the president of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Pacific Northwest chapter. Quigley is the 2009 chair-elect of the PCMA’s national Board of Directors. Singsaas is on the Board of Directors for the Seattle Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the Executive Advisory Council of Meeting Professionals International (MPI). “Social responsibility and industry leadership is a big part of what the company’s about today,” says Singsaas. “We’re encouraged as a senior leader to get out there and participate and be a part of the industry, be a part of the community and offer what Microsoft’s paying me to do to the community as well. A lot of what drives how we’re approaching developing this profession is about how Microsoft is expecting us to think about ourselves as professionals and what we do for the community that we’re in.”

Winning a little more respect across the company can also come from some surprisingly simple solutions. The events group maintains an email alias that people at Microsoft can use to throw out questions to the event community at large. Quigley’s group takes the initiative to provide most of the answers, giving an extra nudge to their group profile every time they share their expertise.

THE NEXT PHASE
This year, three of the team’s top priorities will gain even more momentum as they evolve from their initial stages of development into standard practice across all Tier One events. An Event Metrics Tool will ramp up from a pilot program in a few major markets to become a globally available event measurement system. Digital event best practices will be shared across Tier One and worldwide events. And current sustainability checklists will be expanded to include more local and socially responsible elements. Each initiative maps back to key objectives, i.e. the team’s “pillars and priorities,” around measurement, leadership in the digital space and social responsibility, and will transform their big-picture ambitions into actionable initiatives.

Historically, Microsoft has measured the success of its events by looking primarily at attendee satisfaction scores. The team would combine its postevent survey results with some budget metrics to assign a value to the program. The data wasn’t helping the team tell a very good story. The concept for a consistent measurement tool was brought to the team in 2008 from one of its European subsidiaries and was executed at U.S. headquarters starting in 2008 in two phases: first, the team standardized the metrics so that it could compare data across events, apples to apples; and second, they created one central repository to hold all of the information.

“We’ve based [the tool] on our marketing objectives for the company,” says Quigley. “We’ve looked overall and said, ‘these are our six marketing objectives for the company that we care about, no matter what kind of marketing you’re doing.’ We can feed into that and say, ‘Here, this is how [our team] touches and affects those marketing objectives.’ I think it continues to make the case that events is a strong marketing vehicle.” To standardize the metrics, the team merges traditional cost-per-head metrics and satisfaction data into an overall satisfaction score. Then, the tool combines those scores with new metrics that are tied to the company’s Return On Marketing Investment (ROMI) objectives.

A new weighting system gives more weight to the ROMI scores so the events staff can get a more accurate picture of how the event did in terms of marketing strategy, versus attendee perception. The tool requires anyone initiating an event program to select primary and secondary marketing objectives as part of a pre-show brief, building more accountability into the process and putting the EMMs in a more strategic role as consultants and advisors to the business owners they work with. “It’s a conversation with that business team but we’re driving it,” says group event marketing manager Jenny Laidlaw, who heads up the initiative. “It’s something our team is now bringing forward to say, ‘Hey, we have these ROMI objectives as a company. Let’s make sure your event objectives tie to that.’ We’re asking questions so at the end of the event we can actually tell you if you were successful in that realm.”

In the digital space, Microsoft started proactively shifting its live event content online in 2003. Since then, it has developed an array of digital and virtual platforms, each uniquely suited to leverage and extend the life of its broad portfolio of events. For example, Live Meetings enables groups of 50 to 100 people to connect virtually in a small conference or chat format. A vast internal video archive gives employees, press and partners access to keynotes and event sessions that they can search, watch and rate any time. A Silverlight player platform offers business owners what the team describes as “a more sophisticated YouTube.” Media rich websites with integrated social media and community features can be developed to tie to live events or stand alone.

And finally, the virtual event platform—the digital environment most people think of when virtual events come to mind—is available mainly for product launches and Microsoft’s growing number of hybrid events where partner and expo activity is an important part of the package. Two of the event team’s staffers recently shifted roles to focus purely on the digital event space. In the next year, the duo will help create systems and standards around the a la carte approach and will work on developing a vendor pool that can provide the same consistency across events, plus some turnkey options for events the Tier One team doesn’t handle.

The ultimate goal: to provide leadership and strategic counsel to Microsoft’s business owners and guide them towards the right combination of digital and live events that will move their businesses forward. “It is about extending that content,” says event marketing manager Mike Immerwahr, who heads up the initiative. “It lowers your cost-per-head and you get to expand your reach. But it’s a different toolkit depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Last year, the events group made major strides toward its sustainability objectives when it achieved the first U.S. certification to the BS 8901 standard— the new British standard developed specifically for the events industry. Together with a checklist it developed for greening its Tier One events, the BS 8901, along with a few other emerging industry standards, are becoming best practices for the company’s events worldwide. The team has been executing against a three-phase green leadership plan—environmental, social and economic—since 2008. In 2010, it will amp up its “social” phase by seeking out eco-conscious ways to give back to the communities and cities where it holds its major events. At its Convergence 2009 event, for example, attendees were invited to spend a day off-site building homes for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, where the event was being held. At some events Microsoft also donates $1 to local charities for every completed post-event evaluation form. “A lot of the things that we’ve put into place have not only had an environmental benefit but a social and economic benefit, too,” says senior event marketing manager Gina Broel, who leads the sustainability program. “That’s one of the things we’ve really been trying to evangelize internally as well.”

Evangelizing the event team’s eco-conscious activities is an important part of elevating its profile across the company. Broel maintains a close working relationship with Microsoft’s Environmental Sustainability Team, making sure to share her team’s wins, like when ditching bottled water at events saved the group nearly $600,000 last year. As a result, and thanks to the promotional work the corporate sustainability team is doing, the events group gets credit for creating a business practice worth emulating.

BUILT FOR ACTION
When the economy collapsed last year and Microsoft for the first time in its history was faced with major layoffs and budget cutbacks, Singsaas and his team were poised for action. The work the team had done over the past eight years not only put it in a position to drive event marketing strategy, it gave the group the skills and resources it needed to steer portfolio strategy as well. Currently the team is driving an initiative called the Event Rationalization Project, essentially a portfolio rightsizing project that addresses budget cutbacks for both Microsoft’s events and its paying attendees.

With so many Tier One and Tier Two events to choose from, Microsoft found that it was asking too much of attendees, cannibalizing its own audiences and duplicating spends in the process. “There’s an effort afoot right now to try and collapse some of the like offerings together into one and try to offer something that’s to a little bit broader audience,” says Singsaas. The Business Intelligence Conference, for example, is now combined with TechEd North America. If the data points to executing fewer events, the team is prepared to do what’s best for the company and the customer, even if it means going up against its own peers.

“It’s a big cultural shift because everybody had ‘their show’ and, by god, we’re going to do that show every year,” says Singsaas. “But there’s good business reasons for continuing some events and other business reasons why we should rethink others.” Indeed, it all comes back to the business. It’s the kind of project the event marketing group couldn’t have done 10 years ago—it didn’t have the infrastructure, the systems and processes or the data to tell that story or to convince Microsoft’s senior management that it could fix the problem. Today, that’s all different. Although the team never stands still for long (the quest for perfection is ingrained in the culture) most staffers are spending far less time living in fear of the dreaded blue screen of death and much more time letting the event machine they’ve created whir along at a predictable and steady pace. Oh, and enjoying some of the perks that come along with being a credible and recognized marketing discipline. “I recall the time when we did have to go out and kind of sell ourselves because people didn’t know why they should come to the events team,” says Eickoff. “We did have to really prove ourselves and say, ‘Here’s how we can save you money, we’re experts, we can help mitigate your risks.’ Then our reputation got out there to the point that many times, unfortunately, now I have to turn people away.” EM

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