Cisco Links Work and Play in Huge Virtual Sales Event

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Cisco Systems had a problem: Its sales force was unenthusiastic about the company’s fall 2008 decision to upset its 20-year tradition of face-to-face sales conferences and instead hold a large-scale virtual event in 2009.

“The field was very cynical. They didn’t want to do it virtually,” says Angie Smith, manager, Global Sales Operations, at Cisco. But the change 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 Cisco field force, which is highly competitive and 82 percent male.

In addition to event and experience marketing agency George P. Johnson, Auburn Hills, Mich., which worked on strategy, registration, 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 experience as well as the games; and 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 working on a prototype for a groundbreaking technology had been kidnapped, and players had to solve the mystery. The espionage game began three weeks before the virtual event with a movie trailer¬–style video that provided the first of hundreds of clues.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of videos for The Threshold, the alternate-reality game created by JUXT Interactive as part of Cisco System’s Global Sales Experience virtual conference. The videos were among the clues in a corporate espionage mystery that many of the 19,000 virtual conference attendees worked to solve.

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. Clues were highly Cisco-specific and were slipped in at unexpected times—for example, on PowerPoint slides during virtual sessions, embedded in the conference “chat zone,” or tied into mini-games developed around Cisco content.

GSX attendees earned points for playing The Threshold; for attending any of the 58 keynotes, 10 breakout sessions, or 124 executive chats; for visiting the virtual exhibit hall; and for playing any of the mini-games. A “leaderboard” tracked attendees’ points, which they racked up in pursuit of prizes.

Approximately 19,000 people from 104 countries attended the virtual GSX conference and, of those, 13,000 played The Threshold game and 9,500 tried the mini games. 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 virtual 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. Interestingly, she notes that attendees who viewed the conference in any of the 617 company conference rooms she had reserved around the world tended to report having a better experience than those who attended alone at their desks. She attributes this to the camaraderie of the conference space.

Will she do it again? The bottom line is that Cisco produced the GSX event 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.

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