At Livewire and elsewhere, we are seeing direct evidence that COVID-19 pandemic precautions are affecting how organizations conduct business and communicate with their employees. As containment measures like travel restrictions, work-from-home policies, and embargoes on gathering in large groups are enacted, companies that rely on live events and meetings must re-evaluate the communication channels they use.
When it comes to planning for events, there are a host of considerations that need to be taken into account that extend beyond the meeting component into travel logistics, accommodations and venues, but for purposes of this article the focus is on how to replace the loss of live events as a channel to communicate with and engage employees.
Many of our clients have an international workforce spanning many cultures and languages. Keeping in touch with employees, giving them important tools, information and time with leaders is even more vital when externalities like a pandemic put pressure on business performance. If you’re an Internal Communicator or a Leader, it is essential to bridge the gap in communication, and the technology and expertise available today makes a virtual meeting strategy logical and compelling. However, before you cozy up with your comms agency or local webcast provider, there are some key considerations to keep in mind before you commit time and resources to a virtual solution:
Job one is to determine what the appropriate virtual delivery vehicle is to engage your audience, and generally that requires making a choice between conferencing or webcasting. On the surface, conferencing and webcasting do the same thing: connect people together online. But they each facilitate that connection in unique ways.
Here’s a simple way to think about the differences: Conferencing happens with or between participants and Webcasting is generally a broadcast to an audience.
Conferencing system advances in recent years have enabled individual or group participants across different parts of an organization to connect and work together in unprecedented ways, with close to real-time video and content sharing capabilities. So the immediate question that often comes up is “we’ve invested a great deal in this infrastructure, why not use this to method to replace live meetings?” The answer is in the name: experientially, conferencing describes a peer-to-peer activity between individuals or teams within a company. An enterprise grade system is inherently designed to facilitate this function, replicating in online space what used to require either travel or difficult conference calls to achieve.
Conferencing systems require proprietary devices to be installed at each point of connection within the network. As the vast majority of conferencing activity occurs from boardroom to boardroom within the company’s network, this is where the hardware is installed. Outside users can still access the conference via the internet with a web interface to join a scheduled meeting but, from a scalability perspective, the conferencing platform may not be the ideal choice. Delivering presentations and supporting content to large groups requires a higher degree of admin effort to approximate what a webcast does intrinsically well. However, for grassroots communication working sessions between groups, the conferencing solution is outstanding. So much so, that some of our trusted AV partners use conferencing systems to create inter-location video connectivity between broadcast centers during events, at a cost that’s vastly more affordable than satellite or LTN link-ups, but that’s the basis for another article unto itself.
In a webcast on the other hand, an organization can deliver a high-quality live or on-demand package of multimedia and/or video content accompanied by presenters, all wrapped in a branded interface. Generally speaking, accessibility to a webcast is very high, as all you need to be an audience member is a laptop or a mobile device and a decent internet connection. As a channel though, what you gain in scalable and accessible reach with a webcast is offset by lower levels of interactivity, usually limited to chat, comment or polling features. That said, there are always some creative ways to create two-way dialogue between locations or to create experiences that link multiple locations or events together. And because webcasts are generally scheduled broadcasts with all the rituals associated with an event (invite, teaser, registration, launch time, etc.), the intrinsic nature of the experience can be made more engaging by incorporating outboard tactics through social media channels or by layering interactive activations over top of the interface.
Here’s the dirty little secret of every webcast experience: no matter how great the content is, no matter how great the presenters are, if the majority of the audience is remote there’s no simple way to know whether the audience is actually engaged. The number of registered logins only shows you how many devices are connected to the show, they say nothing about whether the people using those devices are actively engaged during a broadcast. There’s a lot of pressure on employees these days to answer competing priorities in real time so, if they are connected remotely to a webcast, they might be watching with one eye and answering emails or addressing a customer concern with the other. Research shows that about one quarter of your audience is likely to become distracted during a broadcast. Multi-tasking (or what might be more correctly understood as task-jumping) is part of the zeitgeist of the always-on era we live in, so the challenge is to maximize impact and limit distractions using tactics that keep people engaged.
Activities like polling, comments, quizzes, and surveys are standard in many platforms and fairly easy to enable. These features provide a more meaningful metric for whether your people are actually involved with the broadcast. The caveat here is that, turning a feature on doesn’t mean your audience will use it. That’s where the agenda design bridges the gap, deploying features in time-released intervals of activity that help elevate the content and keep your participants engaged in the experience.
Keep in mind that, in webcast scenarios with audiences over a 1000+ employees, getting value out of the metrics derived from conventional platform features won’t necessarily show a clear picture of engagement between activation periods. Developing a custom solution with a lower barrier to participation can provide more fluid engagement measures across the whole timeline of the show.
Here’s an example: To create a low-friction activity, Livewire’s digital team designed a widget feature that layers over top of the webcast interface and allows remote participants to offer real-time emoji impressions of the content. The activity is lightweight from a bandwidth usage standpoint, requires nothing more than a click and it can be used repeatedly during a meeting. At a recent 30-minute event with several thousand viewers, using this one technique captured 14,000 impressions that revealed the emotional reaction of participants to specific parts of the broadcast content. All this was done without needing to interrupt the broadcast to insert a more conventional engagement activation.
To further extend the impact of the event and keep engagement levels high around all the broadcast experiential touchpoints, consider what tools already exist in your company’s digital lexicon. For instance, perhaps you can amplify the online conversation in an intranet forum using Yammer or other internal social tools. Using this approach enables participants to have a peer-to-peer dialogue about the event content as they articulate and challenge concepts. Active moderation within these conversations provides more insight into subjective metrics like ‘opinion’ and ‘tonality’ while at the same time allowing stakeholders to course correct any misunderstanding around the event content.
Finally, an important strategic element in a virtual event context is being deliberate about linking communication objectives to a clear call to action with a measurable outcome. Giving the audience a simple tactic, such as an affirmational post on a social media channel at the end of a virtual meeting, provides another metric that will help understand how the audience is receiving and acting upon what they experienced during the meeting. It can also be used as the opening salvo in your post event sustainment strategy.
Assuming you’ve determined a webcast is the right channel to take the place of a live event, you need to ensure that your organization’s IT infrastructure is ready to go before the rubber hits the virtual road. Even though webcasting is generally network efficient, it generates system load as each user’s viewing experience eats up a certain amount of your organization’s available bandwidth. Advanced technologies like Hive Streaming have made webcasting a viable solution, particularly in large multi-national enterprises where audience numbers can range from hundreds to thousands.
Still, in our digital age, a large enough webcast audience may have a negative effect on critical systems that affect your company’s ability to operate and deliver products and services effectively. Make sure your IT folks are a part of the discussion and that the following points are reviewed:
Once these parameters are set, it’s vital to do a deeper dive into how any potential webcast platform is going to be tested before and monitored during an event. There are myriad complications in the webcasting world that can create barriers to a good user experience, particularly as the audience scales up in size. Comprehensive pre-flight technical rehearsals with a representative sample audience, and in-show monitoring from both a user experience and network operations perspective, will help ensure a smooth show delivery.
Live events are being cancelled or postponed in response to a global emergency. While it’s vital to act quickly in response, it’s equally important to not take a “just insert virtual meeting here” approach to replace the live experience.
The reality is that a ‘new normal’ may emerge out of the current crisis as other factors like carbon reduction or cost of consumption influence decision-making about holding live events in a post COVID-19 world. Regardless of the end game, as communicators and leaders, we must ensure that we deliver an impactful and effective experience for our audiences.
We’re all in this together. Sharing knowledge, information and resources is the best way through any crisis, so if you’ve got any questions or concerns this article is designed to provide some foundational tools to navigate through the current uncertainty. Ask questions, lean on your partners, make sure you make a choice that gives you confidence.