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Michael Kolowich of OpenExchange: “Your conference will generate a lot of data”

Your conference will generate a lot of data — use it! One of the unique characteristics of a virtual conference is that it generates a wealth of information about your content and your attendees — information that is simply not available in a physical conference. This data is remarkably useful for planning content for future conferences and for sorting […]

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Your conference will generate a lot of data — use it! One of the unique characteristics of a virtual conference is that it generates a wealth of information about your content and your attendees — information that is simply not available in a physical conference. This data is remarkably useful for planning content for future conferences and for sorting attendees based on interests. CMWorld offered sponsorships for many of its sessions and tracks. In return, these sponsors received valuable lists of attendees who engaged with the content, ultimately increasing the value of the sponsorship.


As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Kolowich.

A pioneer in online content and founder of six technology businesses, Michael Kolowich is Chief Content Officer of OpenExchange, which provides trusted video and virtual conference and meeting solutions to the financial services industry, public companies, and large organizations. A former Emmy-winning TV reporter in Boston, he’s been a partner at Bain and Company, chief marketing officer at Lotus, founding publisher of PC/Computing magazine and ZDNet for Ziff-Davis, president of AT&T New Media, CEO of Individual Incorporated, and co-founder of NewsEdge. The video platform company he most recently founded, KnowledgeVision, merged into OpenExchange in 2019. He holds dual degrees from Harvard University, including an MBA with distinction.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My passion for visual storytelling goes all the way back to my father who owned a 16mm film camera and documented everything in the family. Since 16mm film was very expensive and every frame precious, I learned to tell visual stories succinctly. Throughout elementary school I was always the “A/V guy”, and when Sony brought the first reel-to-reel VCR to market as entered high school, I thought I’d found heaven. Relative to film, videotape was inexpensive and reusable, so I captured anything that moved. While I was educated as an engineer, my heart was always in telling stories with video.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

Along with my interest in visual media, I was also a budding journalist and started a school newspaper in fifth grade. By college, I was news director of Harvard’s radio station and covered the 1972 political conventions for another Boston commercial station. An internship at WBZ-TV News was a perfect way to join my journalistic ambitions with my interest in visual media. Three years later, I was on the air as a TV news reporter in Boston. Despite a return to graduate school and stints as a management consultant and six-time tech company founder, the allure of visual storytelling kept pulling me back. I started (and still own) a digital media production company, DigiNovations, in 2001 out of which came the software for KnowledgeVision and, eventually, a merger into OpenExchange.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
 
 As a young TV reporter, I traveled with a camera crew to Boston’s north shore to cover a story about the looming threat of shellfish poisoning. On the way back to the studio, we stopped by a reputable roadside stand for fried clams. Within hours, I was in the emergency room with food poisoning. Lesson: there’s such a thing as getting too close to the story!

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
 
 In many ways, it was a predecessor to the modern podcast, but Paul Harvey’s daily radio program “The Rest of the Story” struck a particular chord with me. The series, which ran more than 3,000 episodes from 1976 until Harvey’s death in 2009, featured vignettes centered around little-known episodes in the lives of well-known personalities. Dramatic tension would build for three minutes and 45 seconds until the name of the personality would be revealed at the very end — after which Harvey would chuckle, “…and now you know the rest of the story.”

This taught me that no matter how well you may think you know someone, there’s always something more interesting to learn about them — if you only take the trouble to find out.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
 
I identify in particular with Reed Hastings’ description of starting a new company: “Starting a company is like jumping off a cliff, and then figuring out how to assemble an airplane on the way down.” Having started six companies now, I’ve come to realize that there’s no such thing as a perfect vision of how things will turn out. What matters is that you have the right people, an open mind and ears, and a sense of adventure and creativity.At the same time, you also need a disciplined process to adapt to what the market’s telling you, and a vision to weave it all together into a coherent whole. This brings to mind another memorable quote uttered by an AT&T colleague, Dalibor Vrsalovic: “There is big difference between 10,000 spare parts flying in close formation and a 747.”

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
 
For many years, I’ve worked with conference organizers to create on-demand video versions of their live events. I always regarded it as a lost opportunity for those who make the tremendous investment in programming for a conference to have the content die along with the last echoes in the hall and the last bit of applause. So, as the owner of a media production company, and later as founder of an online video platform company, I worked with many organizations — from professional show organizers to professional associations to companies holding customer conferences — to create durable video collections of the most important conferences. This created substantial ancillary revenue streams for these organizations, as well as material that could be used in marketing, training, and customer support for years after the show.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
 
In January of 2020, my video platform company, KnowledgeVision, had just merged into OpenExchange — the leader in video and virtual meeting solutions for the financial services industry. On the last day of January, a contact from one of the world’s largest investment banks called us urgently to ask whether we could help them. A travel ban had been imposed between the United States and China, preventing investors and bankers from traveling to one of the bank’s most important investor conferences of the year, scheduled for February 14th. Over the following two weeks, we mapped out an entirely new design for a virtual investor conference and successfully executed it.
 
OpenExchange’s reputation in financial services quickly spread, and we became the “go-to” partner for virtual investor conferences around the world. From a standing start in February, OpenExchange went on to host 389 virtual investor conferences in 2020. This involved more than 110,000 video presentations, sessions, and meetings with more than 15,000 public companies, and partnering with nearly every global investment bank and four exchanges.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
 
Despite our deep presence in financial services and investor conferences, one of the most impressive efforts at a virtual event that OpenExchange facilitated was a conference for marketing professionals called Content Marketing World (CMWorld). This 10-year-old annual event has always been a quirky and fun affair, bringing together a combination of rich and thought-provoking content, highly involved sponsors and exhibitors, and a multitude of networking opportunities.The virtual version of CMWorld was a roaring success. Here are a few reasons why it stood out:

A top-notch keynote track consisting of pre-recorded talks woven together by a charismatic host. It also featured live “Ask Me Anything” Q&A sessions with each keynote speaker which set the tone and offered a reason to tune-in live for the duration of each of the conference’s three days.

More than 150 30-minute multimedia breakout presentations were placed in a highly organized, searchable video showcase.

An extensive virtual exhibit hall enabled attendees to browse sponsor videos, drop-in for live video conversations with exhibitors, or formally schedule a video meeting time with them directly.

Networking opportunities abounded, supported by a private Slack channel for attendees, an active Twitter thread, eight “Birds of a Feather” meetups in Zoom rooms, a live trivia contest hosted by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (located near the usual venue for the live event), and even a virtual cocktail party for conference speakers and staff.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
 
The most common error that we see virtual conference organizers make is to try to adhere too closely to the model of a physical conference in the quest to create a virtual version. It’s important to recognize that virtual is an entirely different medium with its own strengths and weaknesses. Trying to follow the physical model too closely can blind an organizer to the new possibilities that virtualization can offer. This can be mitigated by choosing — and listening to — a production partner who is rooted firmly in the virtual event space with deep experience to draw upon, and someone who is not afraid to share that knowledge creatively to make a unique online event.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
 
We’ve designed OpenExchange’s OE Conference platform specifically to meet the needs of virtual conference organizers, speakers, attendees, and sponsors. We believe that paying attention to the needs of each of these key constituencies is critical to success.
 
As the pandemic took hold in February, we were fortunate to have our own technology, established working relationships with technology leaders such as Zoom and Amazon Web Services, and a small army of video specialists available to address not only the particular needs of investor conferences but also a wide variety of other conference formats as well.During 2020, we’ve tripled the size of our development team in order to bring new capabilities to market. This includes the launch of OE Passport, which manages individualized personal virtual meeting agendas, and OE Central, which helps organizers monitor and manage complex conference schedules and meetings.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
 
Depending on the type of conference, five types of software components must be deployed in tandem to successfully run a virtual conference:

A live-streaming video platform for carrying real-time events and interactive sessions.

A gallery or showcase capability for organizing both live and on-demand video content.

A meeting management application for setting up and coordinating individual one-on-one or small group meetings, along with personalized schedules for attendees.

Networking and communications software for larger group interactions.

An analytics engine for evaluating content performance and for providing valuable tracking information to sponsors.

The final essential tool is having people to manage, moderate and gate-keep sessions and meetings. It’s not unusual for OpenExchange to deploy dozens of video specialists to troubleshoot technical challenges and help attendees and speakers find their way around a complex virtual conference — and that has been key to our success in the format.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Hold your event live, but pre-record as much content as you can. Running an event in real-time is the best way to create a dynamic, shared experience for your audience that has the energy and feel of an in-person event. However, pre-recording material like keynote and plenary sessions in advance allows for higher production values and reduces the risk of a live performance. Don’t be afraid to shoot keynote talks in unusual places. At CMWorld, for example, keynote speaker Andrew Davis shot his keynote in a half-dozen different locations, each of which helped emphasize a point in his talk by changing context.

Use a host or “ringmaster” to set the stage and provide continuity. It’s helpful to have a credible host to articulate the themes of the event and to tie each of the plenary sessions together. CMWorld used content marketing guru Robert Rose to give the opening keynote and to provide introductions to each of the other main speakers over the course of a three-day event. He also summed up each day’s content and teased that of the next day.

Engage your audience with interactivity. Even if your content is pre-recorded, you can encourage your viewers to stay involved by offering live Q&A sessions or taking polls and reporting the results live. At CMWorld, while the keynotes were all pre-recorded, questions were encouraged and answered live after the plenary sessions.

Shorten your sessions. We’ve found that keynote talks and breakout sessions can be much more efficiently delivered online. At CMWorld, the typical 45- to 60-minute keynote and 50-minute breakouts were shortened to 30 minutes, and the entire conference was shortened by a day. Nobody missed a thing.

Your conference will generate a lot of data — use it! One of the unique characteristics of a virtual conference is that it generates a wealth of information about your content and your attendees — information that is simply not available in a physical conference. This data is remarkably useful for planning content for future conferences and for sorting attendees based on interests. CMWorld offered sponsorships for many of its sessions and tracks. In return, these sponsors received valuable lists of attendees who engaged with the content, ultimately increasing the value of the sponsorship.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

We’ve compiled a list of ten decisions every virtual event organizer needs to make early on in order to get on the right track. Armed with at least preliminary answers to these questions, you can have a highly productive conversation with an organization like OpenExchange about exactly how to approach the event. Here are five of those questions:

What is the agenda and the best mix of conference formats? (e.g. keynote sessions; fireside chats; panel discussions; pre-scheduled virtual meetings; open; unscheduled)

Will the entire conference be live, or will portions be pre-recorded and played as “simulated live” streams?

Will the conference content be available on-demand after the conference is complete, and for how long?

How will individual and small group meetings be scheduled, structured, and managed?

What analytics and reports do you want for yourself as a conference organizer, for your speakers, and for participating companies and sponsors?

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
 
I would like to see the teaching of the elements of engineering become a standard part of the K-12 curriculum — even at a very early age. Children are taught the scientific method as a way of creating experiments to advance science, but there is little emphasis on the engineering design process. This skill is vital to creative problem-solving — even outside the traditional areas of engineering discipline — and deserves a place in both public and private education.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
 
I would love to reconnect with Bill Gates. After our paths first crossed in college 48 years ago, common interests brought us briefly together during successive career stops at Lotus, Ziff-Davis, and AT&T. I have great admiration for the work Bill and Melinda have done with their foundation in a “second chapter” of their lives, and I would appreciate the opportunity to hear his insights on personal transformation, global health, and philanthropy.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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