March 02, 2011
How To

Virtual Events: How IBM’s marketing department quickly responded to the economic downturn

SUMMARY: Change can come quickly in business, and often, the larger the firm, the tougher it is to adapt. An unstable economy coupled with a reduction in business travel over the last several years meant attendance at live corporate events was down. One very large company known for its live events felt the pinch.

Its solution was to create a top-down effort in online interaction that led to the creation of a virtual event center for the entire company. Find out how this very large firm is capable of equally significant change when faced with a serious business challenge.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter

In 2008, IBM, a company known for hosting live events across the globe, found some of its marketing groups experimenting with virtual events. This dabbling came from reacting to the reality of the business environment, the key being a bad economy that was keeping people from attending live events.

Instead of allowing various outposts to create these online events in isolation, Big Blue decided to take a holistic approach by taking select customer interaction virtual across the entire company. The result is the Virtual Event Center, launched in April 2010.

The VEC hosts all manner of IBM events from announcements to multi-day meetings, and it is addressing all pieces of the marketing pie, including:
o Product launches
o Cross-selling
o Up-selling

Obviously very few companies, or marketers, have the resources of IBM. The old adage goes, "You can either be big and slow, or small and quick." In this case IBM belied its size and acted quickly. The company identified an issue -- problems with attracting attendees to live events -- in 2008, and by Q2 2010 had a company-wide solution in place.

Here's how IBM reacted to a major change in the way it did business and its marketing in a short period of time. The lesson and challenge, for smaller companies is if IBM can change its marketing strategy this quickly, you can, too.

Step #1. Determine the need for a change

In 2008, IBM faced the same business climate as everyone else:
o The economy was unstable
o Business travel was down
o Getting people to attend face-to-face events was becoming difficult
o The audience was becoming very tech-savvy and comfortable working online

For a company that based a lot of marketing around live events, the economic and travel issues were a real problem. If people can't, or won't, come to you, how are you going to reach them?

IBM took a look at that combination of factors and realized something needed to change.

Cheryl Max, Director of Functional Capabilities, Corporate Marketing Department, IBM, stated, "The opportunity for virtual events started to really have some great promise."

Step #2. Experiment with possible solutions

"In 2008 and 2009 some of our marketing groups were dabbling, experimenting with the idea of virtual events, and we were running a few of them across the organization," said Max.

These experiments began proving the viability of virtual events as a feasible marketing tactic and IBM was faced with a question -- how should this solution be approached:
o By business unit
o By country
o By the entire company in a holistic manner

The decision was it would be more efficient and effective to create a single center that would be appropriate for all of IBM's brand and marketing programs and still be effective for:
o Every country
o Every language IBM did business in
o Every business unit

Step #3. Roll out your findings into one, organization-wide solution

Once the decision was made to create a centralized online solution, the IBM Virtual Event Center came to be.

Max explained, "It allows us to create different environments. It's a bit of what you would consider an event campus. We have the capability for every country to own their own venue, and within that venue they can run different events. So we have the ability to slice and dice in many ways."

Once the team decided to add a virtual piece to the roster of traditional events, IBM decided to use the Virtual Event Center in many different ways including:
o Product launches
o One-hour announcements
o Full-day events
o Multi-day meetings
o "Always-on" virtual briefing centers
o Exclusive C-level executive training
o Briefing center with 24/7 access to consultants

The buy-in for this initiative at the company has been strong. Senior executives are willing to do virtual presentations, and Sales gets engaged when asked to invite clients or leads to specific events.

Step #4. Simulate live events

The entire reason for creating the Virtual Event Center was the problem of getting people to attend live events, so the platform was created to be a simulation of a face-to-face event, to actually replicate the experience of a live event.

The Virtual Event Center offers many elements of a physical event:
o Networking lounges where visitors communicate with other attendees
o Briefing centers where visitors ask questions to be answered by experts
o Resource centers with information for download in multiple formats
o Breakouts with smaller groups of people congregating

Beyond the obvious, there are limitations on simulating face-to-face interactions. For example, participants with lower bandwidth will be facing buffering with streaming video. Even with the limitations, the experience has become sophisticated in the fact it is possible to replicate many elements of a face-to-face event such as live interaction at the virtual event.

The typical interaction at these virtual events is instant messaging between both attendees and the speakers. These conversations are typically watched or moderated, and many events are done in real time. Twitter is also used for communication at the virtual events.

Step #5. Market virtually

Because the Virtual Event Center quickly became a top-down effort at IBM, it necessarily became a major part of the overall marketing strategy.

"We develop 360 (degree) campaigns. We don't look at things in isolation," stated Max. "And when we do that, each tactic or activity we have has a specific purpose. When we develop content for the Virtual Event Center, it gets repurposed and that stays on the center for on-demand replays. We drive people back to the center through search and through eNurture campaigns so that content is always getting reused."

She added that looking at the strategy of virtual events, it's possible to reach more people than with a face-to-face event.

In terms of promoting virtual events, some events are open and some closed, so all promotion is based on a strategy of getting the desired people to attend.

Max said, "(For closed events) we have a very targeted campaign in terms of email or direct mail or Sales involvement. If it's a more open event it might actually be available through merchandising modules on our website. It could even be available through search."


Since launching the Virtual Event Center, IBM has executed more than 80 events across 26 countries, reaching more than 18,000 people and serving upwards of 15,000 downloads of content.

These are large numbers, but you would expect large numbers from IBM. They aren’t called Big Blue for nothing.

Much more impressive than the raw numbers, however, is the fact that three years ago a major global company realized a fundamental part of its business -- live events -- was endangered by elements far outside its control. A bad economy, weak business travel and diminishing live event participation were negative, but increasing comfort in online interaction was something to exploit.

Useful links related to this article

1. Virtual Event Center screen capture

IBM Virtual Event Center

Members Library -- Primer on Virtual Event Marketing: 10 Tactics, 3 Strategies to Draw Visitors, Sponsors

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