When Cisco Systems moved its annual sales conference online for the first time this fall, the company needed to do something dramatic to get its field force engaged.
"The field was very cynical. They didn't want to do it virtually," says Angie Smith, manager,sales operations, at Cisco, San Jose, Calif.
But the break with a 20-year tradition of holding face-to-face sales conferences made sense as the company worked to cut costs in the face of a deteriorating economy. The August 2008 sales conference in San Francisco had grown to 16,000 global participants, and in 2009 it was expected to be even larger.
Committed to making the virtual experience work, Smith reached out to the field. "We know you don't want to do this, but what will it take?" she asked them. The messages she got back were clear: The virtual conference had to look great, be easy to use, and, perhaps most important of all, include some fun.
Layering those directives on top of Cisco's goals for the Global Sales Experience (GSX), which are to educate, recognize, and motivate the sales force, Smith and her team partnered with three companies to weave together a virtual meeting that would get Cisco's business done and an alternate-reality game that would get attendees pumped. Linking gaming and content, or "edutainment," as Chris Meyer, senior vice president of partner company George P. Johnson, calls it, was a good fit for the highly competitive, 82 percent male Cisco field force.
In addition to event- and experience-agency George P. Johnson, Auburn Hills, Mich., which worked on strategy and event production for the virtual meeting, Cisco partnered with JUXT Interactive, Newport Beach, Calif., (acquired by GPJ in 2008) for the look and feel of the meeting as well as the games; and with InXpo, Chicago, which provided the virtual event platform (into which the JUXT user interface, games, Cisco sessions, etc., were integrated). The premise for the alternate-reality game, called The Threshold, was that a Cisco researcher had been kidnapped, and players had to solve the mystery.
The espionage game began three weeks before the virtual event with a movie trailerstyle video that provided the first of hundreds of clues. The elaborate game involved everything from creating fake company Web sites to hiring actors for the game's video scenes to hiding clues in photos placed on the Flickr photo-sharing Web site. Each week the game designers sent updates via e-mail or voice mail, and players shared information on wikis and forums about their discoveries. The Cisco-specific clues were slipped in at unexpected times‹for example, on PowerPoint slides during sessions, embedded in the conference "chat zone," or tied into mini-games developed around Cisco content.
GSX attendees earned points for playing The Threshold or the mini-games; for attending any of the 58 keynotes, 10 breakout sessions, or 124 executive chats; and for visiting the virtual exhibit hall. A leaderboard tracked attendees' points, which they racked up in pursuit of prizes.
About 19,000 people from 104 countries attended GSX and, of those, 13,000 played The Threshold. While it wasn't InXpo's largest audience ever, it had "the most comprehensive engagement," says InXpo President Drew VanVooren.
"There's no doubt average hours [spent in the event] were up. It was the best I've ever experienced." From Angie Smith's perspective, many things went well‹in particular, overall attendance, participation in the sessions, and the sophistication of and engagement in The Threshold‹but Cisco didn't reach every goal it had for GSX. Motivation and recognition, she says, are difficult to achieve through a virtual experience. The bottom line is that Cisco produced GSX at one-tenth of the cost of the in-person meeting, and Smith believes virtual conferences are at least "partially how it's going to be" for events going forward. However, she expects to see a "hybrid" solution evolve, allowing Cisco to achieve a range of goals. "Virtual meetings are not going away," she says. But clearly, neither are in-person events.‹Sue Hatch
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