July 9, 2020

Raising the Bar with Virtual Events

If you’re looking for an example of a high-quality virtual event, you’ve got to check out Skillsoft’s Perspectives 2020. Drew did, and he was absolutely blown away by the online summit. In fact, it was so engaging that he just had to interview their CMO, Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek (Michelle BB for short) to learn more about the work that went on behind the scenes to create a global experience that rivals pre-COVID physical events.  

In this episode, Michelle generously shares the details behind the making of the event, as well as other tips, like how they’re measuring its success and how they plan to use the momentum to generate demand. We’ve also got a special Q&A session with a live audience of CMOs: Gabi Zijderveld from Affectiva, Ian Howells from Sage Intacct, Holly Rollo from RSA Security, and Mark Floisand from Coveo. Check it out!

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • How Skillsoft pivoted from a physical to a virtual event
  • Michelle BB’s tips for planning and executing virtual summits
  • Highlights and successes from Skillsoft’s Perspectives 2020

Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 195 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

Time Stamped Highlights

  • [0:28] Virtual Events Don’t Have to Be Boring
  • [3:05] Why Skillsoft’s CMO Became Their Emcee
  • [5:44] Perspectives 2020’s Successful Kickoff
  • [7:59] How to Prepare for Unexpected Challenges
  • [11:18] Why Michelle’s Daughter Interviewed Tara Westover
  • [15:37] Pivoting from a Physical to a Virtual Event
  • [17:25] Perspectives 2020’s Platform
  • [18:54] The Team, Registrants, and Attendees
  • [20:51] Why Perspectives 2020 Was a Free Event
  • [22:29] How Skillsoft Kept the Audience Fully Engaged
  • [25:43] Planning Post-Event Actions
  • [28:25] How to Generate Demand with Net New Leads
  • [31:01] Measuring Virtual KPIs
  • [34:33] Great Content: Physical vs. Virtual Events
  • [38:18] Skillsoft’s Agile Shop
  • [43:05] Choosing the Right Platform for Your Event
  • [45:30] Michelle BB’s Call To Action

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek

[0:28] Virtual Events Don’t Have to Be Boring

“If you told me four months ago that I'd actually be excited about doing a show on virtual events, I would have said that you are out of your virtual mind.” @drewneisser on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! If you told me four months ago that I’d actually be excited about doing a show on virtual events, I would have said that you are out of your virtual mind. Now, let me explain. Part one of this is I love real events. It doesn’t matter if I attend as a speaker, a podcaster, a writer, a networker—I love the opportunity to learn stuff. I love the networking opportunity. I’ve also been to some great events where they have amazing talent, great presenters, incredible tchotchkes, and of course, don’t forget about the hotel shampoo. I love hotel shampoo. It’s just a weird thing.

The notion that a virtual event could in any way replace a physical event to me is an anathema. Frankly, I saw a couple of the rush-to-market virtual events by some big companies that I respect, like IBM and Adobe, and I didn’t think that they did anything to change my mind about virtual events, but live and learn.

I recently had the pleasure of attending part of Skillsoft’s Perspectives 2020 virtual summit. I was kind of blown away. It just seemed a step above the other ones that I’d seen. The registration experience was easy, and it made it easy to add sessions to my calendar. The production quality was consistently good; it wasn’t all just side-by-side Zoom interviews. They figured out how to address a global audience by essentially going on a 24-hour clock. And the two speakers that I saw were terrific.

In this episode, we’re going to learn the details behind this event and what it takes to raise the bar with virtual events. To help do that, our guest today is Michelle BB, the CMO of Skillsoft. And because this is a topic of great interest to CMOs, we have a live audience of CMOs who will join me with questions and, right now, with applause to welcome Michelle BB to the show.


Michelle BB: Thank you. It is an absolute pleasure to be here and I’m excited to talk about Perspectives 2020. You know, Drew, it’s great to see other CMOs on the line and I look forward to answering any questions they may have as well.

[3:05] Why Skillsoft’s CMO Became Their Emcee

“When it came down to who should host this segment, I think everybody on the team raised my hand for me.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: When I first joined the summit, I saw this picture and it was like 8:30 in the morning. There you are all dressed up and excited to go and there’s this crazy man in an ostrich suit. Talk a little bit about that.

Michelle BB: Yes. Jez Rose is one of my absolute new favorite people. He is a broadcaster. He is an educator. He is a behavioralist and a beekeeper. I interviewed Jez as part of our pre-Perspectives warm-up, getting people excited about it. When I tell you that we probably giggled more than we talked, it would be true.

The funny thing was is that I had seen Jez on Facebook doing something, I think it was his birthday, and he had this headdress on. During our podcast together, I said, “Jez, nothing would make me happier than if you were to put on the Cher-like headdress.” Well, Jez went to social media and he said, “What do you think? Should I wear the headdress or not?” I think you can tell which won.

Drew Neisser: Amazing. So, Jez was helping with emcee duty for the European shift, but you chose to do that for the US shift. I’m just curious about that choice. I mean, you put a lot of extra pressure on yourself to be the emcee as well.

Michelle BB: You know, it’s really funny. I did. I think that when we were looking at this and, if you kind of go through the process, no one knew the content or the format better than I did. I was really immersed, probably too immersed, one would say. When it came down to who should host this segment, I think everybody on the team raised my hand for me. Now, I’ve also had presentation training. A long, long, long time ago I was a theater major, so I’m sure some of that might have played into the reason that I was selected, but yes, my hand was raised very high for me.

[5:44] Perspectives 2020’s Successful Kickoff

“We knew the content was probably going to be good, but if you build it, do they come?” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: It must have been an incredibly long day. You started very early and just kept going. What were you most nervous about the day of the event?

Michelle BB: I started at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, May 12th, which was 9:00 am Australian Standard Time. We kicked off this event in Brisbane with Michelle Ockers, so I actually went on the night before. For me, it wasn’t about being in front of the camera, it wasn’t about the safety—the measures that the team took to ensure our safety, as well as their own, were incredible. What concerned me the most was, really, were we going to be able to pull this off? Were people going to come? Were they going to stay? Were they going to engage?

We had a feeling that the content was good. We were incredibly impressed, whether it was the business continuity panels that were so topical and timely, the head-to-head debates that were really contentious if you looked at them, or the keynote speakers who were there to inspire. We knew the content was probably going to be good, but if you build it, do they come?

Starting in Australia, the minute that we went live and I had my first break, somebody came to me and said, “You would not believe the chatter in the main stage chat session. It’s going crazy.” That was the moment that I breathed a sigh of relief because we had actually gotten people there. As you know, it ramped up as we went along and we saw our largest audiences when we hit the United States the next day.

[7:59] How to Prepare for Unexpected Challenges

“The best guidance I got was to record every rehearsal and prepare for unexpected challenges, which we did.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: One of the things that we talked about in the prep-call before you had actually done the event is that you actually reached out to some folks at Adobe to figure out what it is that you needed to do better. What was your takeaway from that? What did you learn that enabled you to push it a little bit forward?

Michelle BB: I learned a lot from—and I spoke with folks there—but also at other places that had done these events. There were so many other conferences that had come before us, and the best guidance I got was to record every rehearsal and prepare for unexpected challenges, which we did.

We had designs on this thing. If you think about it, when we originally looked at doing this, we were going to have people in live studios in five different regions and the panels were going to be there together. At the time, back in early mid-March, we thought quarantine was going to be over in the April timeframe. As we got closer, we recognized that wasn’t going to be possible, so we had to continually re-evaluate our approach and change a lot of the decisions and setups that we had.

We had to build in redundancy and fail-safes. Our tech platform and production squad probably did the heaviest lifting in the last month and a half as we got closer to the date because we had to turn sessions that were going to be hosted live and in-studio into absolutely remote, participation-only events as well as record them ahead of time in the event that they didn’t go live just to make sure that we had the content to put out there.

Drew Neisser: Nice bit of redundancy there. It’s smart. Prepare for the unexpected—it’s great advice for anybody in any situation, but that’s great for this.

Michelle BB: The other piece of advice I got was from the man himself, Jez Rose. He’s obviously a broadcaster and presenter, so he offered some guidance. He said, “Guess what? Something’s going to happen and you’re going to be sitting there on camera live and you’re not going to know what to do. Something’s going to go wrong.” I said, “Okay, what do I do?” He said, “You’ve got to have a story. You’ve got to figure out a break to go to. You’ve got to be able to go and talk.”

I’d never done broadcasting before, and don’t you know that the second time I interviewed Shawn Achor, who joined us and is just an absolute wonderful author of Big Potential, his microphone wasn’t working. I sat there and thought, what would Jez do? At that moment, I had my story ready, and then when the production team signaled that they were ready, we kicked right to a yoga break. I was so grateful for that guidance because I actually think I would have frozen otherwise.

[11:18] Why Michelle’s Daughter Interviewed Tara Westover

“There are not many moments that you recall in your professional career that are truly highlights both professionally and personally. This was absolutely one.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Petra Bajdek interviews Tara Westover at Perspectives 2020

Drew Neisser: Your daughter, Petra, joined you for the interview. I thought it was so cute and I’ve been trying to get my daughter to join me on the podcast for a while.

First of all, you had a studio. You were in Boston. Your daughter Petra is on the left, you are on the right, and then there’s the screen in the middle. If you look at most virtual conferences right now, that’s not the way they are. They’re just side-by-side Zooms. How fun was this to do with your daughter?

Michelle BB: There are not many moments that you recall in your professional career that are truly highlights both professionally and personally. This was absolutely one. She rose to an occasion that I can’t even imagine. I mean, we had 14,000 people. She’s never been in front of the camera before and did an amazing job. The questions she asked were hard-hitting.

If you think about the number of people who’ve interviewed Tara Westover, you’ve got Ellen, you’ve got Oprah, you’ve got Bill Gates and then Petra Bajdek. There was a real valid reason for bringing Petra in—Tara Westover didn’t actually go to a real classroom until she was 17 years old when she entered college. She found a way to get herself into BYU and then went on to Harvard and Oxford. She really had to figure out a learning path of her own and I think that there’s this interesting parallel that’s happening right now with our own students who are having to figure out how to learn in an environment that is vastly different.

If you think about the institutions that have been afforded them., they’ve been told when to go to class and what to learn and what they have to do almost minute by minute. Now they’ve been thrust into a new environment where, yes, they may have some Zoom calls or Google Meetings, but for the most part they’re having to really educate themselves with the support of their teachers. Please, make no bones, the teachers are incredibly important, but I found the parallel there so fascinating and I think it gave us a great opportunity to ask Tara questions that are relevant to the students Petra’s age and even younger.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, it was a great interview. I was jealous the entire time thinking, “Oh, how fun was that?” Not just because you had your daughter there, but also because Tara Westover, if you haven’t read the book Educated, it’s one of the great and just most shocking memoirs that you will ever read.

[15:37] Pivoting From a Physical to a Virtual Event

“Was it enough time? Probably not. Was it the perfect amount of time? Yes, because if we had had any more time, we would have overthought the plan, we would have considered it far too ambitious.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite Share on X

Drew Neisser: We mentioned at the very beginning of this show, we have a live audience of CMOs who are so eager to ask questions and can’t wait to get at this, but they’re just going to have to wait for just a little bit more as we go through a rapid-fire about the that the details of this event. How long was the planning cycle from the day you decided to go virtual to execution?

Michelle BB: It’s really interesting because I just looked back on this and we realized early in March that we had to do something different. We held an update meeting on March 2nd, and over the course of that two-hour update meeting, you could see our faces shift as we realized that an in-person event was not going to work.

People were already making decisions about travel. They were already questioning whether or not we were going to hold the event. We weren’t clear on shutdowns which happened just a week and a half later. Between March 9th and 10th, we spent 28 hours over the course of two days in a design thinking workshop reimagining Perspectives because it just couldn’t be a simple broadcast version.

Drew Neisser: Exactly two months and a few days later, you held this event. Was that enough time?

Michelle BB: Was it enough time? Probably not. Was it the perfect amount of time? Yes, because if we had had any more time, we would have overthought the plan, we would have considered it far too ambitious and likely gone in a different direction. Time served as a great forcing mechanism. We were bold and we made quick decisions without that mindset of “Oh my god, what have we gone and done?”

[17:25] Perspectives 2020’s Platform

“@IntradoDigital was so robust in terms of its virtual, trade show type capabilities—the fact that you can have a mainstage and then you could have breakouts and chat rooms.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: What platform did you use for this?

Michelle BB: We used a platform called Intrado and I think it’s from a company formerly called West. Like with any technology, we planned for challenges, but because it was so robust in terms of its virtual, trade show type capabilities—the fact that you can have a mainstage and then you could have breakouts and chat rooms—we wanted to build that engagement layer in and to have multiple tracks as if you were able to attend a live event in person.

Drew Neisser: Were there any glitches in the technology or anything that you wanted it to do that it couldn’t do?

Michelle BB: I don’t think that there were necessarily glitches in the technology. As I said before, the biggest challenges that we had were really in the original design and where we ended up. It forced a lot more onto the tech team, almost too much, because now we had to go and record extra sessions when we thought we were just going to be doing live studio broadcasts. The redundancy and the fail-safes put a big strain on all technical teams. Again, the tech platform and production squad were just amazing, they did so much heavy lifting in terms of getting that content uploaded because otherwise, I don’t think that we would have been successful.

[18:54] The Team, Registrants, and Attendees

“Our original target was 20,000. I'm excited to share with you that we more than doubled that. We had 41,000 registrants.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: How many people did you have actually working on this event in total?

Michelle BB: We had seven agile squads, and in those squads, we had a team of probably what I’d call 35 to 50 core, but when I look at the Perspectives team, it was 138 individuals and I know that because I went and thanked every single one of them.

Drew Neisser: Good for you. 138 people. That gives us a sense of scale. Let’s talk about how many people registered for the event.

Michelle BB: We started off with incredibly high expectations for an event that would have drawn a thousand people had it been in person. Our original target—and let me tell you, people looked at me like I was nuts, I mean, completely crazy—our original target was 20,000. I’m excited to share with you that we more than doubled that. We had 41,000 registrants. Every time we hit a number, we had to do something a little bit fun and I can tell you that my head of marketing operations in the pink unicorn costume was probably my favorite.

Drew Neisser: We have 41,000 registrants. What about the percentage? Can you share how many attended?

Michelle BB: We had roughly 34%. We saw about 14,000 attendees during that 24-hour period with the bulk joining us during the US segment. As you can imagine, it peaked very, very high during the Tara Westover section but I will tell you that there were some other elements that really drew people in. Special Olympics, and particularly when you looked at Kiera Byland and Ben Hack, the response to their participation was so overwhelmingly positive. Having them there and having CEO Mary Davis was unbelievable.

[20:51] Why Perspectives 2020 Was a Free Event

“I firmly believe, as does our company, that we have to make learning radically accessible to all, wherever you are, whatever you need.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: For your regular event, would it have been free? Your normal conference?

Michelle BB: No. We would have charged. Absolutely.

Drew Neisser: But you made this event free, as most marketers did. The only one that I know that’s charging was Sirius Decisions, but you made it free. Was there any debate about that?

Michelle BB: There was a lot of debate about that. Ultimately, we felt like it was important to make it free because, number one, it was an opportunity for us to live our new brand. If you’ve seen Skillsoft over the past six to eight months, we’ve really undergone a rebrand. Our vision is to democratize learning, so what better way to do that than to open up an event that focused on the entire person professionally and personally? I firmly believe, as does our company, that we have to make learning radically accessible to all, wherever you are, whatever you need.

I will also say that the second piece about this is that it felt like it was the right thing to do at this time, giving people the opportunity to come in and learn something. The fact that we had 17,000 pieces of content on our platform consumed at the same time and 619 digital badges earned during Perspectives tells me that people were craving this kind of content.

[22:29] How Skillsoft Kept the Audience Fully Engaged

“When we saw what was happening in Australia, we actually had to add additional moderators overnight.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: One of the challenges with a virtual summit is that we tune in and then we look at email. You built in this point system that came with the platform that you used to encourage attendees to do more than just, say, sit in on one session. How did that work?

Michelle BB: I think it worked pretty well. I was surprised that we didn’t have as many people playing as I would’ve expected. If you imagine, we had 14,000 attendees, but we had only about 800 who played. Yes, you could win prizes, but the challenges were designed around engagement in specific areas of content, so you had to be in those areas. We had 800 people who said, “I’m going to go in. I’m going to get that code that’s required for me and then go access and acknowledge or unlock that challenge,” so that was great.

The trivia side, because we also had a trivia game going at the same time, asked more general questions about learning and career development and Skillsoft. We had about 2500 people play that which was really incredible. We think it really appealed to people’s competitive nature to get at the top of that leader board, and it was a fun break during some of these sessions because there was a lot of content that we called sprinkles.

Don’t ask me where that came from but for whatever reason, we called them sprinkles, probably because we tried to sprinkle things throughout that would give people a break from the very heady content that we had in the event. I think that and the yoga breaks as well as some of the just the fun teaser commercials were a way for us to give people a little bit of time away.

Drew Neisser: Did people take advantage of those things? I was there at the end and saw the band playing, and they were great, but I didn’t attend the yoga session. I’m just curious, did people take advantage of the sprinkles?

Michelle BB: Yes, they loved the sprinkles and we got so much feedback. First of all, the group you mentioned, Black Violin, were unbelievable. I mean, the genre mixing between classical violin and hip hop. These gentlemen from Brooklyn, they were so amazing. The way that we really gauged the level of engagement was in looking at the chat. We have this studio feed that’s coming in and just the overwhelmingly positive feedback that we got, I couldn’t believe how many people were engaging in the chat. Just so you know, when we saw what was happening in Australia, we actually had to add additional moderators, so overnight we went and called a bunch of people from the company and said, “Hey, would you like to moderate some chat tomorrow?”

Drew Neisser: Which is a great last-minute thing, but it’s also a wonderful problem to have. I think a lot of folks doing virtual summits would be thrilled to have that.

[25:43] Planning Post-Event Actions

“What we realized as we got a lot closer to the event is that this can serve as our primary demand gen engine for at least the next quarter or more.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: As marketers, we rarely pause and pat ourselves on the back and say, “Great job.” What we have a tendency to do is ask, “What would we do differently next time?” I mean, you’ve barely closed the curtain and you’re already thinking about it. I’m sure you’ve done that, and you probably have a shortlist of things that you would do differently.

Michelle BB: Yes. And the list grows as I go back and look at it because it’s easy to become hypercritical of yourself. First and foremost, I want to acknowledge the 138 people who put forth so much effort over the course of eight weeks to bring this to bear. This event by all means was a success because of them. But yes, we’ve done our retrospective on the entire thing. We hold weekly retros, but we also went back and did a massive retro.

When we look back at it, there are some things that we would do differently. I think the sessions, some of them were too long. Especially in a digital environment, I think people are looking for smaller bite-sized content, so we’ll package it that way. The other piece of guidance that I got that I thought was just wonderful was this notion of “chapterizing” the content so that you can move from one to the other. They just build on each other like on Netflix’s “Coming up next.” You just continue to go. I think that will make it far more consumable.

Then, to be candid, I think we were so focused on that day that while we had really strong post-Perspectives plans in place, we really didn’t think enough about what was going to happen beyond it. What we realized as we got a lot closer to the event is that this can serve as our primary demand gen engine for at least the next quarter or more and we’re now pivoting to determine how we augment this content with encore replay sessions replete with what we’re calling pop up video inserts, which I think will be a lot of fun.

We’ll also have a chapter two, where we go back and revisit, meet with some of these speakers, and do a retrospective in a month or two to say what has changed, particularly when you look at our business continuity panels or some of the keynote speakers like Neelam Dhawan, who is the head of IBM’s India Advisory Board. Those kinds of things are what we’re gearing up for. It would have been very difficult to take that on ahead of the event but now that we’re after it, it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got to move faster.”

[28:25] How to Generate Demand with Net New Leads

“About 79% of the people who came to Perspectives were net new to us, meaning that they weren't in our database.”@MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: You actually made a lot of the learning programs free after the event for attendees. That’s a pretty big value that you offered to them. It seems to fit very much with your notion of democratizing learning. I mean, you really put your money where your mouth is. Not only did you give this summit away, but you gave the family jewels.

Michelle BB: Yes. When talking about metrics, we looked at a number of things. I want to touch on this because we had a global audience of buyers. We had a lot of learners. We had prospects. We had customers. But one of the things, Drew, that’s really interesting is that about 79% of the people who came to Perspectives were net new to us, meaning that they weren’t in our database.

We drove a lot of real-time engagement and we drove a lot of interest from people who hadn’t yet attended, but what we recognized is that we needed to keep these folks engaged, not just with marketing content, but with the product that we have, because we gave them access during Perspectives and we said, “To get the real value out of it, to go learn some new skills and to be able to gain it, we needed to extend that out.”

We’ve offered 60-day free access—there’s no credit card, you don’t put anything in. It’s 60 days for free that you get into Percipio, which is our intelligent learning experience platform, and you have access to all of the content there. Additionally, for university students, we elected to extend that to 90 days, knowing that, especially for those who are graduating right now, this is a really tough time. We wanted to make sure that they could go in and gain some certifications, learn some new skills, and hopefully be able to find jobs when they do open up.

Drew Neisser: What a great way of being able to, again, put your money where your mouth is and say, “We’re into democratizing,” and recognizing the moment, which is so profound.

[31:01] Measuring Virtual KPIs

“There were 1.4 million moments of content consumed over the course of 24 hours.” @MichelleBB shares @Skillsoft’s #virtualsummit metrics on the #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Gabi Zijderveld (Affectiva): In terms of your goals and KPIs for the event, how were they different than the goals you would typically set for your in-person events?

Michelle BB: Typically, when we look at an in-person event, some of the value of having an in-person event is that you’ve brought people to a place, you know they’re going to be engaged somewhat. Yes, they might walk out, but for the most part, they’re a captive audience. That’s not the case when you’re in a digital environment, so we had to look at things very differently.

Certainly, registration was our first benchmark—are we going to be able to surpass that? Attendance was really important to us because you can register all day long, but actually coming and attending is different. We wanted to look more closely at consumption. We are a content company in and of ourselves, so looking at content consumed is really important—how many sessions did people engage in and to what degree? And then, how many minutes were consumed? Just so you know, there were 1.4 million moments of content consumed over the course of 24 hours.

Then, obviously, we wanted to look at the audience. We’re doing so much with the analytics right now, looking at who are existing customers, who are potential prospects at enterprise size, so just breaking all of that data down. But really, the consumption metrics, Gabi, are something that we probably wouldn’t have set for ourselves necessarily in an in-person environment.

Gabi Zijderveld (Affectiva): Were there any other engagement type metrics that you were able to derive from the online activities?

Michelle BB: The number that we’re working on right now—and I don’t want to give you an exact figure because we’re still trying to make sure that it is accurate—is the number of minutes consumed per attendee. Right now, we believe that number is exceptionally high. I think even when we normalize it—because there’s some normalization that has to go on—it’s still going to be higher than, say, the average 8 to 12 or 15 minutes that we’re seeing because we had this mainstage experience that just went on and was hosted in the sense that you never really had an opportunity to drop out. I think it kept people engaged. They were interested to see what was coming up next. I want to normalize those figures, but the number of minutes consumed per attendees is huge. We were really impressed by that.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. I have to tell you, from a production standpoint, there were all sorts of little things that would go on, like a countdown clock before the next speaker. There were things that just made it harder to walk away. It was sticky.

[34:33] Great Content: Physical vs. Virtual Events

“During that 28-hour period of design thinking, we took a lot of inspiration from some of the most unexpected places.” @MichelleBB shares @Skillsoft’s #virtualsummit inspiration on the #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Ian Howells (Sage Intacct): You mentioned that we need good content. For me, it’s that you have great content for a live event that may not be good content for a virtual event. How do you distinguish what good content means for a virtual event? Also, did you allow competitors to come and look at the great content?

Michelle BB: If you came in with a competitive email, we asked you not to attend, but we know competitors attend, which is fine. I didn’t have too much of an issue with that. We did have a product innovation roadmap session that we had only for customers, so you had to have special access to that because we wanted to obviously be very mindful of our IP.

Now, that said, when we looked at the event, we recognized early on that you can’t just take something that you would do in person and plop it into a virtual environment. During that 28-hour period of design thinking, we took a lot of inspiration from some of the most unexpected places and you probably won’t believe me, but really the best in class of what we call digital experiences like the Super Bowl, which is a tune-in moment. Even if you are watching on television, it’s live. Why do people attend live? Because it’s happening in the moment, you don’t want to see it after.

From a digital experience perspective, it’s how Apple does their product launches. Peleton—really, really great at driving community and getting people engaged and participating with each other and competing. The Bachelor, believe it or not, for their social—what they do in terms of social and getting people engaged in that moment. That’s where a lot of the work that we did around chat came in. Then, I’m going to date myself here and hopefully, some of you will at least acknowledge it, but the Jerry Lewis Telethon, this idea that you’re constantly going for 24 hours, it served as tremendous inspiration for those of us who are old enough to remember, but it’s this mindfulness that you are in a shared experience for a long period of time.

Now, from the perspective of the actual content itself, Ian, and not just the experience—we knew that we had to do some things differently rather than just get up, stand, and present, that people probably were going to tune out, especially with our customer presenters. We took a very different model and we looked at that HBR-style case study where we had a written case study for our customers and then a 10 to 12-minute TED-style talk with the presenter and a Q&A. Just standing up there with PowerPoint and going through it for 45 minutes wasn’t going to work in this environment.

We actually have found that the engagement with the customers was really, really well received and we’re probably going to use that as a model going forward. We’ll probably even test this at some point when we go back to an in-person event because it was incredibly compelling. You had to be far more concise and you had to really get your points across in a short period of time. They did an amazing, amazing job at that.

[38:18] Skillsoft’s Agile Shop

“We are an entirely agile shop. Our marketing is all agile. We had seven squads.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Holly Rollo (RSA Security): Can you talk a little bit about the roles on your team? You had to pivot. There are new skills involved—event logistics is very different than live and video production. Could you be more specific in terms of the 138 people involved? Of the core event team, what were the skills that needed to be adjusted and how fast did that happen?

Michelle BB: Well, it happened very quickly. Drew knows this, and it’s probably a discussion for an entirely separate day, but we are an entirely agile shop. Our marketing is all agile. We had seven squads. Mainstage programming, our executive advisory board, was a separate squad. We had marketing and communications. We had tech. We had on-demand programming, which was our product sessions. If you think about those squads and the people they comprise, we had to have everyone from our account teams who knew our customers to help us engage with them and bring them to the fore.

I actually was the product owner for the main stage squads, and so we had to have people who knew how to build these kinds of panel sessions. I engaged some of our SMEs internally—the heads of our businesses, actually. We have a leadership and business unit, we have a tech and dev unit, and we have a compliance unit, so we brought them in to help craft some of this content. We actually had to leverage our PMO quite extensively, particularly for the tech and platform pieces.

Then, because there was the Percipio angle, which is our intelligent learning experience platform, we needed to make sure that people could get in, that we could provision all of the licenses—about 42,000—so we brought in three or four people from our Pacific team. I want to give a shout out to Heidi and Inga in particular, who ensured that experience was absolutely seamless. When you look at the way that people came into Percipio during the event itself, it’s really, really clear that they found value.

We had our events team and I spoke with our head of events yesterday who came to me openly and honestly and said, “Look, this is the first time I’m doing this.” And I said, “Guess what? This is the first time I’m doing this, too. We’ll do it together.” She said to me yesterday that she had gained so many new skills and I think it goes to the production team.

I don’t also want to diminish the role of partners. We had our primary agency that played a critical role in helping us with a lot of the content, and believe it or not, the scripting. There was a lot of scripting involved in this. Then we actually had our event agency team that actually produced this, local to Boston called Cramer, which is actually where we hosted the Global Studio. Again, we did it incredibly safely with a very, very, very small staff and we were all socially distanced.

Then we had some other folks who came in to help us out. I think that probably the biggest partner impact came from a company called People Matters. They are a media and HR tech company in the APAC region. I’m so grateful to Ester Martinez and People Matters because we had to create content that was appropriate for each of the regions in which we served. There is no way that we could have addressed both APAC and India unless we had People Matters. They brought valuable content to bear. When you looked at our head-to-head debate, that debate had to be focused in India on topics at hand like, who owns the skilling agenda? Is it a government or is it the private sector? That was topical and germane to that region.

We also had Neelam Dhawan keynote on designing the future organization. Having the regional partners as well as the regional hosts, whether it was Michelle Ockers or Jez Rose or Lucy Adams who came in and presented in AMEA, it was really important that we brought to bear content that was going to resonate with the audiences in each of those regions.

[43:05] Choosing the Right Platform for Your Event

“I believe that we're going to see far more of these kinds of companies pop up with capabilities that are far more robust.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Mark Floisand (Coveo): I’d be curious about any insights about the criteria they had for platform selection, for delivery. How much was your own product used? What third parties did you evaluate?

Michelle BB: Initially when we got together, people thought, “Well, we’ll just use our own platform.” Our platform is an intelligent learning platform and it does an amazing job at doing what it is, but it is not a social engagement platform. It is not a trade show environment platform and it’s not designed to do what it is that we needed to do, which was to bring all of these people together in a mainstage environment and not necessarily create the feeling of an in-person event, but give us options. None of the traditional webinar platforms did that.

We had to look for something that was really robust and Cramer, to their credit, brought Intrado to bear. It’s a virtual tradeshow environment and I believe that we’re going to see far more of these kinds of companies pop up with capabilities that are far more robust. We pushed this platform to its very edge and probably everybody on this experience to the very edge because we wanted to do more.

We wanted specific chat rooms by track. We had tracks that we had set, and we wanted you to be able to go in and do that. We needed to have a separate experience for our EAB. We had very specific branding. That branding needed to be not only available in the platform itself, but in our own solution. It was a really great experience. I think it was a growing and learning experience for us all, but what I will tell you is, I don’t see us going back to in-person events anytime soon.

I just don’t know when and how and I think this pivot that we’re all making is a good one and it’s the right one, but the technology needs to grow and extend and I think that the one great thing that’s going to come out of this is that we are going to see these platforms become far more robust in their capabilities.

[45:30] Michelle BB’s Call To Action

“I think that's what the CMOs role is—to take that feedback in and then get better over time.” @MichelleBB on #RenegadeThinkersUnite #podcast Share on X

Drew Neisser: This has been amazing. First of all, I want to thank the CMOs who were able to join us for this session. Michelle BB, thank you for your honesty and sharing that. If we could give Michelle another round of applause.

Michelle BB: Thank you. I’m watching all the virtual applause. It’s great.

Drew Neisser: There it is. There’s just so much here that I feel like I’m going to have to go back and take more notes on it. I really appreciate all the insights. Any last word as you as you look forward? Any advice that you’d like to impart to the rest of the Renegade Thinkers audience?

Michelle BB: Well, I would be remiss as a marketer if I didn’t tell you that all of this content is now available on-demand at skillsoft.com/perspectives. I encourage you to go take a look at it. I’ve been back several times to watch sessions that I could never see in person, so if you have the opportunity, please check it out.

Also, any feedback would also be great, and I truly mean this—on LinkedIn, I’m Michelle BB. I appreciate any and all feedback because it only makes us better marketers when our peers are there to say, “Hey, have you thought about this?” or “Maybe if you had done this…” Go take a look and then share it with me. I think that’s what our role is—it’s to take that feedback in and then get better over time.

Drew Neisser: Well, there you have it. We have the URL. I went there. I did it. It was great. Again, thanks, Michelle, thank you to the CMOs in the audience, and to the listeners, as always, and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.