Lance Walter of Neo4j: “Know your audience”

Know your audience: The starting point for the success of a live virtual event is to know your audience. Keeping your audience engaged and leaving them feeling like their time wasn’t wasted is key to running a live virtual event. How to keep an audience engaged depends on the type of audience you’re dealing with. […]

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Know your audience: The starting point for the success of a live virtual event is to know your audience. Keeping your audience engaged and leaving them feeling like their time wasn’t wasted is key to running a live virtual event. How to keep an audience engaged depends on the type of audience you’re dealing with. A more technical audience may prefer seeing a product in action, while a business audience might want to see a deck on company growth. If your audience doesn’t feel like the event is catered to their needs and takes away no value from it, then the event is unsuccessful.

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 Lance Walter.

Lance Walter is the Chief Marketing Officer at Neo4j and has more than two decades of enterprise product management and marketing experience. Lance started his career in technical roles at Oracle supporting enterprise relational database deployments. Since then, Lance has worked at industry leaders like Siebel Systems and Business Objects, as well as successful startups including Onlink (acquired by Siebel Systems), Pentaho (acquired by Hitachi Data Systems), Aria Systems and Capriza. Lance’s first experience with alternative database platforms was at Arbor Software, the pioneer of the multi-dimensional database / OLAP market.

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”?

I grew up a computer geek on Commodore PETs in school and my Dad bought one of the early IBM PCs where I got hooked on games and BASIC programming. As a 13-year old gamer, I didn’t give much thought at the time to the fact that my Aunt, Marilyn Bohl, was leading Product and Engineering teams and writing dozens of programming books. It’s only later that I’ve come to appreciate what a tech pioneer she was, even being the first product manager for DB2 at IBM. So I appreciated her as my wonderful Aunt who could help me solve programming problems, but had no idea what a female tech pioneer she was, even more so considering women in tech in the 1980’s.

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

I studied engineering and computer science, which helped me get my first full-time job as a Support Engineer at Oracle — my first introduction to databases and enterprise software. I was very lucky at the time. It was the early 90’s, the job market was tough for new college grads, and Newsweek was running stories like “Bellboys with B.A.s” about all of the college grads who couldn’t find jobs. A college friend was at Oracle and put my name in a stack with dozens of other new college grads for two temporary jobs cleaning data in Excel, ironically at a database company. I remember the hiring manager asking if I had ever written Excel macros, and as a brash 21-year-old I thought “I got this” and explained how I had programmed in 5 languages and written an Assembly language compiler in Assembly language as a final project. He stared at me and mumbled, “Okay, so no on Excel macros”, as he scribbled on his sheet. My friend must have been a great salesperson because thankfully I got the job and it ultimately launched my career in enterprise software.

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?

I learned a hard lesson about managing people during my internship at Clorox as an Industrial Engineer. I was tasked to help their consumer call center reduce hold times and abandoned calls without adding staff. I came in with my linear programming, stats, and queueing theory in hand, looked at staff schedules, call routing, and “overflow” rules to optimize the system. I shared my plan at the staff meeting, and one of the senior reps asked, “Why would we change any of this?”. I said, “Because that’s my internship project,” and she asked the obvious follow up question: “And why do I care about that, exactly?”. I learned about “What’s in it for me” and incentives very quickly.

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?

I’m a huge fan of Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt — even more for the concept than the book. It explores incentives and behavior in systems, unintended consequences, separating correlation from causation, non-financial incentives like social pressure. It’s all fascinating and applies to everything from helping my daughters get good grades to recognizing top performers on my team using different incentives depending on individuals and what matters to them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I come back frequently to a quote my Dad shared with me from a young age when I was facing a particular setback. “Illegitimi Non Carborundum,” crudely translated as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It applies in many different contexts. For example, I frequently have to remind myself that the people I often see on the news don’t represent my neighbors, my friends, or my coworkers. They represent provocative viewpoints that move well on social media and get clicks, but don’t really reflect the mainstream of what we are as a people.

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?

I “grew up” in Product Management and Product Marketing roles, “working the booth” rather than managing it. I was fortunate to work with some amazing event professionals. I’d be giving the company pitch wearing a headset mic like I’m Brittany Spears, but I was always more interested in what the event team did. I watched how they engaged traffic, planned pre-event, optimized in-event, and maximized post-event, whether those were our company’s breakfast seminars or a giant tradeshow, like Dreamforce.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Planning virtual events in this environment is particularly challenging. I live in Northern California, and we’ve been in some form of shutdown or shelter-in-place for nearly a year. Early on, I was emceeing a webinar and it started glitching. I realized that I had 3 kids all doing live-video virtual school while I’m trying to broadcast. It was like we were trying to push an olympic pool full of content through a cocktail straw. Of course, my experience wasn’t unique. Neo4j has a global community and last year our virtual events drew attendees from 175 countries. The real “gold” in our event programs are the case studies and perspectives from our customers and community members. They have the same challenges — families, varying qualities of internet connections, etc.

What we’ve learned at Neo4j is that in a way, digital formats allow us to be more authentic, or at least more engaged with our audience. For example, if we feature a session from a data scientist based in Heidelberg, if her session is pre-recorded, she doesn’t have to worry about logistics, and the audience gets a smooth experience. On top of that, we can actually have the same data scientist engaged in live Q&A during her session, so the audience gets both a higher-quality production, and more direct interaction with the expert.

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?

Dreamforce 2020 was really cool and well organized. Salesforce has always set the standard for large scale events and they appear to have translated that very effectively to digital. I’m also very proud of what the Neo4j team has done. When international lockdowns started last year, we converted planned roadshows in Milan and Paris into digital events in the same time slots in less than a week, and launched a brand new digital event program called Connections that drew 5,000 registrations less than a month later. We knew that we owed it to our audience to keep sharing their amazing stories, lockdowns or not.

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 popular business quote this year had to have been “You’re on mute”. This is probably the most common and easily fixed mistake that occurs during a live virtual event. Presenters should make sure they’re unmuted before speaking, and additionally, should ask the audience if they can hear and see you okay, before presenting. Other common mistakes include not turning on “Do Not Disturb” and not locking their door or alerting those at home about their event. Many virtual events organizers also make the mistake of not thinking ahead about transitions between content. For a live virtual event to go smoothly, organizers should include pre-recorded transitions such as sizzle reels or exciting countdowns. Live virtual events are also sometimes difficult to join mid-stream and don’t consider networking online, as if it were a real event. Organizers should ensure they have an active social media presence around their event such as tweet chats and social tags, to draw people in and build up the energy.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Content is really the king — the platform is just the vehicle. If your team is comfortable with their technology stack and the participants have a good experience, the event will be successful on many platforms. Choosing a platform really depends on the event, as different platforms will be more effective for different needs.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

Virtual events, like live events, can have many moving parts and stakeholders. has helped us organize digital events that have served audiences in 175 countries with a globally-distributed team.

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?

It all comes down to the speakers. Compelling speakers engage with their audience and connect everyone in the session. Incorporating a Q&A/live chat is a great way for the audience to participate and engage in dialogue around a topic. The questions should be answered in real time by a set of people who are all on the same page about the answers.

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.)

Know your audience: The starting point for the success of a live virtual event is to know your audience. Keeping your audience engaged and leaving them feeling like their time wasn’t wasted is key to running a live virtual event. How to keep an audience engaged depends on the type of audience you’re dealing with. A more technical audience may prefer seeing a product in action, while a business audience might want to see a deck on company growth. If your audience doesn’t feel like the event is catered to their needs and takes away no value from it, then the event is unsuccessful.

Manage risk with a semi-live event: As mentioned, a truly successful live virtual event doesn’t need to be 100% live — in fact, it shouldn’t. To manage the risk of Zoom acting up or a speaker’s Wi-fi suddenly going out, the parts that need to run smoothly should be pre-recorded. Your audience doesn’t have the patience or attention span for logistical hiccups and can exit or leave to another event in 3 clicks. At the same time, a live virtual event does need the authenticity of being live and in real time. Your audience could go watch a YouTube video on a similar topic by a similar speaker, but they chose to attend your live virtual event to get the closest thing possible to an in-person event. Some things shouldn’t be scripted, to avoid an inauthentic, polished tone.

Practice, practice, practice: Live virtual events can now reach a much larger audience and will have a much larger, lasting impact. To ensure your audience has a great experience, you must make sure every part of the event is thoroughly practiced. There are no props or flashy lights to keep the audience’s attention, so it all comes down to the speaker.

Recalibrate your metrics: Measurement and goals are much different for digital events than in-person events. With a live virtual event, you have access to many more metrics than just seeing how many people showed up. You can see how long people are tuned in for, the attendance minute by minute, how many people engage with the Q&A, and you can even do a post-event survey in real time on the call. It’s a huge plus that digital events give you more visibility into what content the audience really reacted to.

Get creative with interactivity: Cisco’s recent acquisition of slid.o, a polling an interaction tool that we use at Neo4j, is an example of a platform provider recognizing the need to provide more interaction and engagement mechanisms in their event platforms. There are a plethora of tools you can use to engage with your audience, so prioritizing this during the event is crucial. Trade shows are historically popular for their emphasis on real-time engagement, so as event organizers, figuring out how to digitize that experience will lead to an event’s success.

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?

Picture yourself as a potential ideal attendee. What would compel you to surrender an hour of your precious and finite time to attend?

The first step is to put yourself in the shoes of the attendee. We have a saying in marketing: “If you’re marketing to everyone, then you’re marketing to no one.” You have to figure out what you’re giving your audience that they can’t get anywhere else. Give them what they can’t search for on YouTube. Additionally, time flows differently during a live virtual event than during an in-person event. An hour-long keynote on Zoom can leave the audience feeling much more fatigued than if it were in person, so make the event is time correctly, in terms of length.

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 inspire a larger open source movement. I’ve been an open source believer since my first commercial open source job in 2005 at Pentaho. I’ve seen more than a decade of community collaboration, knowledge sharing, and code contribution. Having said that, watching the Neo4j community react in the early days of Covid was breathtaking. There was a surge of positive energy that still gives me the chills. We saw projects spring up for contact tracing, real-time research correlation amidst an unfolding pandemic, drug repurposing evaluation, supply chain risk mitigation and so much more. It was humbling and inspiring to see.

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’d love to meet Satya Nadella. I’ve been fortunate in my career to get varying levels of exposure to legendary Silicon Valley leaders like Ray Lane at Oracle, Marc Benioff at Salesforce, and Sanjay Poonen at VMware. However, I’ve never worked at Microsoft or been close to them, and the way Nadella has engineered the parallel evolution of culture, strategy, and technology at Microsoft is something that feels unprecedented.

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