1,000+ hours of hosted content.
1,300 invited delegates.
Viewers in 17 countries.
4.5 hours average watch time per delegate.
20,000 page views.
92% 'certain' to attend another virtual conference.
Who says virtual events are dead?
There’s power in a community. Bring people together, let them talk, share, discuss and debate, and magical things happen.
Ideas flourish, bonds form, progress marches forward. So when Charlotte Raynes looked at the thousands of people she was responsible for and saw that, despite being part of the same team, they had no shared identity, no community, she knew she had a problem.
Not that they knew it. To the people of the Core Business Services (or CBS) they were just a small cog in a larger machine, helping serve the client facing roles across the company. What did an IT technician care that they were in the same team as a HR professional? Sure, they felt a little isolated sometimes, a little overlooked by the senior management, but they could struggle through. Besides, nobody had ever tried to bring them together before.
Charlotte would. With practically no budget and limited time, she’d make a CBS community. She just didn’t know how.
Communities spring up organically. Look at Reddit, the home of millions of active communities, collecting around everything from musical guilty pleasures to fine works of penmanship. Each community has its own rules, ways of speaking, inner-jokes and lore. Every day Reddit users create hundreds of new groups, hundreds of new communities.
Not that it was always this easy. If you had a burning passion for talking about maps in 1990, finding others who felt the same risked alienating most of your social circle. Nobody wants to be the weird map guy. Technology has been the difference, enabling connections that otherwise couldn’t exist. Charlotte knew technology would be key for CBS. Sure, she needed a world-class event provider, but she also needed one that could weave technology into every aspect of the solution.
So when the brief landed on our very own Head of Content's desk, Bruce knew he was looking at something a little special. “It was one of those tricky briefs you just love to wrap your mind around. They had people spread all over EMEIA, senior leadership available on a single day, many communication objectives and a limited budget. Easy, right? We were free to think big, because taking the traditional event approach was impossible, we had to look at other things.”
There was one thing that could work. It just had one small problem; nobody had ever done it well.
Echoes of the past
If you were doing multimedia on-line in the late 90s and early 2000s, you knew Flash. The tool promised to unlock the ‘Rich Internet’. Web features we take for granted now; animation, video, sound and more, were only available with Flash. Companies seized on this. From banner-ads to complete websites, Flash flourished throughout the web.
It was only a matter of time before people in events took notice. With simple 3D rendering, streaming and interactive displays, event organisers began to whisper about ‘Virtual Events’. Why waste time and energy going to conferences when you could have the same experience from the comfort of your own desk? Why agonise over the perfect venue when you could just create your ideal one digitally? Why spend vast sums of money when the virtual space enabled you to reach out to people for a fraction of the price?
At least, that was the dream.
Flash was powerful, but it was clunky, slow and frequently blocked on enterprise computers. If you had the joy of attending a virtual event in these early days, you were more likely to see a buffering icon than the keynote talk you wanted. Even those that had the right plug-in, a powerful enough machine, and a fast internet connection often found the experience baffling. Content was hard to find. They designed virtual event websites to look like venues, as if the concept of trudging from one hall to the next was why people attended conferences. Top to bottom, the experience was hellish. Sure, Virtual Events were cheaper, but what did that matter when nobody connected?
With little fanfare Virtual Events stopped being the next big thing, swept away by the tide of event apps that would come to dominate the decade.
It seemed a little crazy when we started talking about it seriously. But the more we thought about it, the more it made sense. Travel was out, there was a lot of content to get through and they wanted something that would last beyond the day. We just needed to make it happen.
Building the event of tomorrow
The early virtual events were technology showcases. That would not cut it anymore. We began looking at the experience from the ground-up, tweaking everything from the feel of the website to the release schedule for the content. Wowing people with tech was out, people are smarter than that. Technology. Content. Design. Support. All of it had to come together to create something unique. It had to feel familiar, while being something new and exciting.
The website, built in a little under two weeks, was definitely something different. Gone was the typical registration site, replaced with a content-platform that invited people to keep checking back, keep engaging with videos, podcasts and more. It was a guided experience. The first thing people saw wasn’t a form or a simple splash page, it was a video that walked them through the ambitions of the programme, the things they’d learn and critically, how they could help shape the day.
Empowering people was key. The portal invited people to share their voice, wherever they were on the site. Without it, the whole thing wouldn’t have worked. Live Group were trying to build a community, not a lecture platform. Users could rate every piece of content, they could comment, vote it higher or lower. People got the sense that they were the ones in control, having their say, getting content tailored to them.
The most inspiring content came from the users themselves.
The page, titled ‘People of CBS’, was simple. It had one instruction. Record yourself introducing yourself to the wider CBS team, talk about what excites you, inspires you, gets you fired up. At first, it was a little slow. We had to seed the content, get a few videos up from the project team. Once that happened though, everyone wanted to get involved. The result was this giant wall of people. Open, honest, human. From the senior partners to the new starters, everyone had a say, a place to set out their stall.
Letting people share their human side broke down so many barriers. Each user’s video was complete with a link to their LinkedIn profile. Connections within CBS skyrocketed. People who had never met face-to-face, who didn’t know they were part of the same team, were suddenly connecting, laughing at each other's videos, learning about each other. The community was forming.
The activity on the site was exciting, but the day had to match it. It was time to build some content. The team crafted an ambitious agenda for the day, taking place over two streams, allowing people to watch the sessions that excited them. A series of niche 'breakouts' hosted via Skype enhanced the live streams, allowing a single CBS leader to talk intimately with a smaller group of individuals. The result was a virtual event that provided real-time content choices, not a simple single live stream.
That was the plan, we just had to deliver it.
60 interactive questions, 20 presenters, 15 slide decks, 8 videos, 2 professional actors and a single studio. All of it for one of the two streams running on the day. Complicating things further, the maximum break between sessions was 15 minutes, making turnaround times near impossibly tight. Oh, and one more thing, there was no budget for a rehearsal day. It was a lot.
Planning had to be meticulous, with briefing sessions around the clock, script reviews and dry-runs via videoconference to help speakers hone their content, make it better, make it sing. It was crazy. Everything we’d done led up to that moment where we walked into the studio on the morning of the event. It would be amazing. Or it would crash and burn. But it was in our control.
The studio lights lit up. The cameras focused in. The broadcast began.
“I was sitting in the control room, wide-eyed as the viewer count ticked up,” Bruce admits. “No matter how much planning you’ve done, how ready you know you are, there’s always that nagging bit of doubt. The viewer count kept growing; people started submitting questions, engaging with it. There’s a real magic in that moment, where it works, where the idea suddenly becomes a reality.”
Eight hours later, when the host closed off the event, over 800 people had watched from 17 countries. They hadn’t just dipped in either, average view time was over four and a half hours. Questions had flown in, votes counted, people had come together through the technology. It had worked, and it was only the beginning.
The end of the live stream day was not the end of the event. Even as the host signed off in the final session, they reminded people that more exclusive content and opportunities were still to come. Since that day, we have continued to publish new content to the platform, inviting users back to watch new sessions and share their views with the broader community. It’s proved effective, with site traffic showing the CBS team is still engaging, watching, sharing, building their community.
CBS Virtual is still going on. New content appears weekly, view counts continue to rise, but the end is in sight. Conceived as a six-month project, the release schedule will slow as the users focus on new challenges within the business, before we shut down the site. Even then, the content scripted, shot and edited for the project is ready for future use, ensuring the project has a positive impact well outside of its lifespan.
You really want to celebrate what you’ve accomplished, but we don’t want to rest, we want to revive virtual events. Shrinking budgets, the climate crisis, disparate workforces, they’re issues that events like this can impact. CBS Virtual will always be special, but over the next year, we will eclipse it.
CBS virtual was something familiar, yet new. It was digital, but delivered with humanity, putting people at the heart of the content. It was a response to limited time and a limited budget, yet was ambitious in scope, and uncompromising in achieving its objectives. It’s part of the new wave, one that promises to change the way we think about events. The question now is, how ready is the rest of the industry for it?
Take part in a live Q&A with Bruce
We're holding a live webinar with Bruce and our clients on 22 August, at 11am. Tune in, hear it for yourself, and send your thoughts and questions in to the team.