What if IBM held a meeting and nobody came? What if that was the plan?
IBM Public Sector, the sales and marketing organization within IBM that focuses on government, education, and health care customers, radically changed its sales conference strategy this year. Instead of hosting several face-to-face kickoff meetings, the division brought employees and business partners together for one big online event--e.forum2000.
While many companies are dabbling in virtual meetings for training and product introductions, and some are branching out to Web-based shareholder meetings and brainstorming sessions, far fewer have trod on that bastion of backslapping goodwill and motivational moments--the face-to-face sales meeting.
IBM's choice had its obvious risks, but also an underlying logic. "The move had two main drivers," says Bruce Gardner, global sales operations manager for IBM Public Sector. First and foremost: "We wanted to employ the technology that we sell."
Indeed, e-services now matter more to IBM than the hardware sales and development that fueled its early blue chip growth. Since Lou Gerstner's arrival as CEO in 1993, IBM has pulled off a remarkable turnaround, reinventing itself from a struggling computer maker into an e-business champion. IBM would like to be to e-business what it once was to the PC, but that kind of brand identification takes more than clever advertising. You have to walk the talk, and that's exactly what Gardner and his e-meeting developer, Caucus Systems, intended for e.forum2000. The 19-day, 24/7 event ran online, and only online, from January 24 to February 11. Some 1,600 employees and business partners from more than 90 countries logged on.
A Bargain--Even After the Penalties Projecting an e-business image was critical, but Gardner had bottom-line objectives as well. Cost was the other "main driver" for moving his annual sales meetings into cyberspace.
In the past, the Public Sector, based in Bethesda, Md., had early-year sales meetings for each of its three divisions. In 1999, the education division met in Orlando, government in Baltimore, and health care in Atlanta, with IBM spending "over $2 million on the three separate events," Gardner says. In addition to those costs, which covered everything from transportation and housing to F&B and meeting space for the three 600- to 800-person groups, the Public Sector sales meetings kept three different planning teams busy and produced some travel-weary executives: "Some execs had to present at all three meetings," Gardner says.
"Like many companies, we're looking for more efficient ways of doing business," he says. A Web event met that goal: The e.forum2000 conference--a single online event designed for all three divisions--cost about $500,000. And the planning process took less than three months from the time IBM signed with Caucus Systems. Because Public Sector didn't decide until last fall to create the virtual conference, there was a price to pay for walking out on space booked at three different hotels, but "even with the cancellation penalties, [the Web event] was far less expensive," Gardner says.
The E-Designers At the time of the 1999 Public Sector sales meetings, webcasting partner Caucus Systems had yet to make its first sales pitch. In April 1999, Screen Porch Inc., which had developed a virtual conferencing software product, and Metasystems Design Group, an online business consultancy, merged to form Caucus. Half a year later, the fledgling company had theto produce e.forum2000, which Gardner says may be IBM's largest online event ever.
How did Caucus get so far so fast? For one thing, Metasystems had its foot in the door at Big Blue. It had already orchestrated two smaller, 400- to 500-person online meetings for other IBM divisions. Gardner also cites Caucus' creativity and dedication, and the benefits of working with an energetic startup willing to rally its full resources for a major client. Also working in the new company's favor, Gardner says, was its Arlington, Va., location, not far from Public Sector headquarters in Bethesda.
Of course, the cyber-meeting product was also a consideration. The philosophy at Caucus Systems is to recreate the positive aspects of in-person meetings and to improve on them by taking advantage of the long-term nature of the virtual conference.
"We're not really techies," says Bill Brouk, chief knowledge officer for the year-old company. "We're experts at meetings. ... What you don't want is a tech solution. That's like hiring the AV company to run your meeting.
"At a really bad live meeting, you get a sage on a stage," Brouk says, which offers attendees little in the way of targeted content and even less interaction. "The same thing can happen online."
Instead of just broadcasting workshops, Caucus, like some other webcasting providers, emphasizes the threaded discussion linked to the online workshops. Participants "attend" a session at the top of the screen and then join conversations at the bottom of the screen. Users can return again and again to see how the discussion is progressing or how their questions have been addressed. The chats were live, with just a half-second to 10-second delay between the time a comment was submitted and the time it was posted for everyone to see.
E.forum2000 posted a total of 150 workshops and keynotes, starting with 50 the first week and adding 50 more each week of the conference. All stayed online until the meeting was over. "What we're finding," says Kurt Nguyen, vice president of marketing at Caucus, "is that the online environment allows you to build a longitudinal conversation."
Freelance Writers While Caucus is capable of a range of delivery formats, including streaming video, the e.forum2000 conference was relatively low-tech, as high-tech events go. Sensitive to the bandwidth challenges faced by many attendees, especially those in the Asia/Pacific region, IBM wanted to keep it simple. "We wanted equity of access," Gardner says.
Like most face-to-face meetings, the IBM sales conference had keynotes, workshops, and networking events. Keynotes and workshops were delivered in one of two ways. Most were in an annotated Freelance format. (Freelance is a PowerPoint-type product bundled with IBM's Lotus Notes.) Attendees could see the "slides" and read the speaker notes, then join the online discussion on the bottom half of the screen. About 20 of the 150 workshops and keynotes were one step more elaborate, delivered in OPS, or Online Presentation Service, a proprietary IBM technology. OPS allows presenters to call a toll-free number and record an audio element for each slide in their presentation. Because OPS requires more bandwidth than Freelance, every OPS workshop was also available in Freelance.
One keynote, the kickoff by IBM Public Sector head Ken Thorton, was delivered live as a conference call--actually two conference calls, one early in the morning and one at night to accommodate the global audience. Attendees could call a toll-free number to listen to the speech. Those who couldn't make the real-time call could access Thorton's recorded comments at the conference site, linked with a chat environment. Thorton answered attendees' online questions throughout the three-week conference.
Did these cyber-events fulfill Gardner's objectives? "Our primary goals for our sales meetings have always been imparting education and communicating strategies and plans to as many of our members as possible," he says. "These goals were met. In fact, we exceeded the number of participants who were able to participate compared to prior years [since no one needed] to travel to a central point.
"A secondary goal ... has certainly been to offer an opportunity to share experiences with one's peers. While there was some feeling of personal interaction lost without the face-to-face contact, the ability to commu- nicate and share ideas was still a part of the event through the online regional cafes, where people could visit to say hello to each other."
The e.forum2000 cafe format was relatively simple, just a number of threaded discussions, but Caucus and IBM devised some clever ways to boost interaction. (See sidebar at right.)
Play It Again One of the residual benefits of e.forum2000 is that the 150 online workshops created for the conference still exist. They are considered a ready training resource for employees and business partners. "All the materials are archived and available on an ongoing basis--even for the one-third of employees and partners [companies that sell, distribute, install, or otherwise support IBM's solutions with customers] who didn't log on to the conference," Gardner says. Of course, the interactive element is no longer active, but the online discussions are captured as part of the workshop archives.
Attendee reaction to e.forum2000 ranged from "extremely positive to skeptical," Gardner says. "Some people missed the personal contact; others were happy to stay home. ... I'd support another e.forum type of event for this size group, but I'd hope there were other opportunities during the year to meet with each other in smaller groups.
"We're still evaluating this one. But suddenly we find ourselves considering whether we could [get salespeople together] more than once a year. Before, costs were prohibitive.
"Next year, I think we'll do it again."
Enter and Log In, Please IBM Public Sector had several goals for e.forum2000. The first was to build awareness of the e-conference throughout the three divisions. The measure of success was the number of employees and business partners who registered for a conference password before the meeting began. Response was high, says Bruce Gardner, global sales operations manager for IBM Public Sector, with 2,500 people preregistering.
The second goal was to get the registrants to attend the conference; this turned out to be the far greater challenge. Only two-thirds of the 2,500 preregistrants ever logged on during the 19-day virtual conference. "This is something we want to find ways to improve," Gardner says. "A challenge of the online environment is that it's much easier to do your typical work when you're in your typical workplace. ... Human nature is going to drag you back into your normal routine."
The turnout could have been far worse, however. Caucus Systems and IBM Public Sector had a number of marketing touches in place to keep the conference at the top of potential attendees' minds before and during the show.
* A physical mailing arrived a couple of weeks before the 19-day event, which began January 24. Mirroring the kinds of giveaways typical in the runup to a traditional meeting, preregistrants received a miniature translucent blue briefcase that came in a 6-by-9-inch gold foil envelope. Inside the case was a laser-light pointer imprinted with the e.forum2000 logo, a screen scraper for cleaning a computer monitor, a Washington, D.C., postcard with motivational copy (since IBM Public Sector is based in Bethesda, Md., Washington was the closest thing to a conference site), and a trifold card with instructions for logging on and maneuvering through the conference. (The quick-reference trifold card had been standard at the live meetings for years, so the tradition continued.)
* Via e-mail, everyone who preregistered received a personal schedule for the conference customized to his or her job function. With more than 150 sessions planned for the 19-day event, this helped to make the conference more approachable.
* As the conference got closer, a daily countdown appeared in registrants' e-mail inboxes. "Five days to go until e.forum2000 ... ."
* As the conference wound down, a similar countdown was mailed. "Only four days left for e.forum2000 ... ."
* During the show, managers received memos about participation rates of the employees in their areas and were asked to encourage their teams to log on.
* An award was given to the person who participated in the conference the most. Judges (managers) based their decision on the number of times a person joined the online discussion and the quality of those responses.
* Employee recognition was woven into the e-conference. Winners of sales contests and other awards were announced via postings in the online cafe.
* A directory of participants--anyone who had actually logged on--was accessible on the conference site.
Cafe Society At e.forum2000, the cybercafe was the place to network, but with no way to hand out cappuccinos and scones, Caucus Systems and IBM Public Sector had to devise other ways to draw crowds. Here are some of their techniques for keeping the networking fun and relevant.
* The cafe was the site for virtual awards ceremonies. Sales contest winners and other achievers were recognized with postings that included their names, pictures, a description of what they had accomplished, and the prizes won.
* Attendees could choose among three regional sub-cafes--Asia/Pacific, Americas, and Europe/Middle East--for discussions relevant to their area.
* In each of the regional cafes, a baby picture contest awarded prizes for the first person to guess the identity of the executives in the photos.
* Cultural postings, such as one about the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dragon, encouraged attendees to discuss issues beyond the workplace.