Chris Wickson of Integrate: “Picking the right event tech ”

Picking the right event tech — Once you’re clear on your objectives for your virtual events, only then should you pick your event tech partner. There are so many options out there now, hugely accelerated in the last 12 months. To help guide, I always recommend mapping out the different considerations and journey, pre, during and post-event. […]

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Picking the right event tech — Once you’re clear on your objectives for your virtual events, only then should you pick your event tech partner. There are so many options out there now, hugely accelerated in the last 12 months. To help guide, I always recommend mapping out the different considerations and journey, pre, during and post-event. What are your must-have features? Pre-event attendee registration? Speaker management? Networking options? Production and recording capabilities? Post-event reporting? Integrations? Alongside the technical considerations, ensure you have a good understanding of the customer support options, particularly if you’re using a platform for the first time.

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 Chris Wickson, GM, EMEA & Event Solutions at Integrate.

Chris wears a couple of different hats in his role at Integrate, the B2B MarTech platform that enables Marketers to scale demand and drive revenue. Chris leads the expansion of Integrate in EMEA and heads up the software provider’s event solutions. Prior to Integrate, Chris was CEO and Co-Founder of Akkroo, a B2B SaaS Event Tech solution which he scaled up over a 6 year period before the business was acquired by Integrate in April 2019 for 34M dollars.

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 in a sleepy, rural part of England with a very active, outdoor childhood and after finishing high school at 18, I then spent 10 months backpacking around Australia and New Zealand. It’s hard to comprehend now thinking back, but this was the time before the entire world owned a cell phone, so every couple of weeks I’d find an internet café and email home to let my parents know I was still alive! Different times. I then returned to the UK to start a Business Management degree at Loughborough University in 2003 and it is here my path into business and entrepreneurialism began.

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

My 4-year degree course included a 1-year internship (known as a “work placement” here in the UK) and I spent 12 months working at IBM where I had a very mixed experience. It turns out I wasn’t alone and upon returning to University for my final year, together with 3 friends we launched a student review website, (think Glassdoor for interns — but we launched before they did!). To cut a long story short, the website took off, we won a couple of business awards and grants to generate some initial funding, and I’m proud to say that business is still going strong 14 years later.

My second entrepreneurial venture began in 2010, as tablets, smartphones and mobile apps were starting to take off. Our RateMyPlacement team was attending hundreds of student recruitment events and we needed a more efficient way to collect all of the student data we were receiving from paper forms. Our team then developed a very basic data capture app to replace using paper forms at student recruitment events. That simple app turned into my next startup, a SaaS company called Akkroo, which we spun out in 2013. We had a lot of fun experimenting with early product market fit before focusing on the world of B2B marketing and events, and quickly scaled up the business to several million dollars in ARR, raising funding along the way, before we were approached by Integrate in late 2018 and were acquired for 34M dollars in April 2019.

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?

When I was an intern at IBM, I incorrectly input a quote for a customer into our internal system that ended up costing them, and subsequently IBM, tens of thousands of dollars. I like to think my then-boss learnt a valuable lesson to always double check the work of the intern! But more seriously, that was probably the start of my path to a much higher attention to the right details, which is certainly something I pride myself on nowadays.

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?

From a business perspective, I’d say content by Jason Lemkin, CEO at SaaStr, had a significant impact. When we started Akkroo, I knew approximately nothing about B2B SaaS, but stumbled across one of Jason’s early blogs and I quickly became hooked on his content. He seemed to have an uncanny knack of writing an article that so often resonated with a particular problem or challenge we were facing at the time and one of the things I love about SaaS is that there is always a playbook or lesson people are willing to share; there is such a great SaaS community that has blown up over the last 10 years or so. We’ve made several trips over to the US for the SaaStr Annual Event which were invaluable learning experiences as we were scaling up Akkroo.

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?

As an event tech vendor, I’ve had the benefit of working with many B2B event marketers over the years. From those that organize one or two events a year, to companies like IBM involved in thousands of events per year. So my experience has given me a perspective across events of all shapes and sizes. Alongside that, both at Akkroo and now as part of Integrate, we organize and participate in many trade shows, field events and webinars over the years to practice what we preach.

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

Over these past 12 months since COVID hit, I’ve been involved in virtual events as an attendee, a speaker, a sponsor, and a host. First, it’s important to recognize that when we say ‘virtual events,” it is a catch-all term for a wide range of formats. Ranging from small, invite only roundtable discussion via Zoom or Teams to a full-on 2-day virtual conference via a vendor like Bizzabo or Hopin, and everything in between. Each of these have their own considerations, challenges and strengths. Whether you’re on organizer, vendor, sponsor, speaker or attendee, everyone has had to go on this journey of discovery over the past 12 months and I’d argue we’ll still on that journey to understand the different options, and what does and does not work when it comes to virtual events. From an event tech perspective, I think we’re still only really scratching the surface of what can be achieved.

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?

I’m going to give 2 quite different examples if I may. The first was Bizzabo’s “(Almost) Hybrid” event they did at the back end of last year. It was a half-day event with a strong mix of pre-recorded and live presentations, fireside chats, and panel discussions with a very active community, strong networking element running alongside a purposely created Slack workspace. I think they did a great job of keeping the content engaging, mixing it up with a live DJ and magician in between sessions, and crucially, kept the sessions and event overall to a sensible length.

The other example was a small, invite-only intimate event we ran here at Integrate for the recent Super Bowl. Our CEO at Integrate, Jeremy Bloom, is an ex-NFL player and together with another former footballer, Tyler Polumbus, we hosted a pre-game virtual “huddle” event with a number of key stakeholders from our customers, partners and target accounts. Each attendee received a gift box in advance and were able to participate in a lively pre-game discussion on both the hot topics in B2B Marketing as well as big game itself with Jeremy and Tyler. It was a truly memorable experience to connect with and drive advocacy amongst an important group of customers, prospects and partners.

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?

We’re living in a world now where our buyers hold all the power; B2B selling has never been more complex and our buyers are progressing further and further down the journey to purchase before they are willing to actively speak with a vendor. So, when it comes to virtual events, for me it is vital that Marketers are clear on the ultimate purpose of their events and how they align with the broader strategy.

Are you looking to raise awareness and drive net-new prospects? Are you looking to help guide already-engaged buyers through the consideration stage of their journey? Or, like our Super Bowl event, are you looking to foster strong relationships with a small group of key stakeholders? Each stage and scenario requires a different approach to virtual events and only once you have that alignment between your overall strategy and the role virtual events can play, should you then move into execution mode.

I think we saw lots of examples last year where organizers and marketers panicked, felt they had to quickly “pivot to virtual” and threw together poorly thought-out events and webinars. We have a fantastic opportunity to get creative and rethink our approach in this new world, so taking the time to get this right is vital. Focus on quality over quantity has never been more important in B2B event marketing than today.

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

Jason Lemkin is going to get a second mention here! He recently Tweeted this which I completely agree with:

“It’s January 2021 and there still is no great digital events software, despite torrid demand post-Covid. Still, what we have is much better than January 2020”

The reality is that the virtual event software category is still in its infancy but already crowded, often confusing and evolving fast. You’ve got startups like Hopin raising huge sums and making acquisitions, to established event tech vendors like Cvent, Bizzabo, and ON24 making plays into the space, to vendors like Zoom and Teams operating here. In terms of what’s most effective, it all comes to back to what is the objective and most appropriate format to meet that objective. For example, an intimate, short virtual experience can be achieved easily via Zoom, webinars via the likes of ON24, BrightTalk and GoToWebinar, whereas a 2-day virtual conference with multiple tracks, networking options, and virtual exhibitors, you’d need to look at vendors such as INXPO, Bizzabo or Hopin.

Don’t let the tail wag the dog — by this I mean don’t pick a platform and then decide what types of virtual events you want to do on it. Be clear on your strategy and objectives, and then pick the platform that best fits.

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.)

My answers here are all through the lens of a B2B Marketer:

  1. Alignment with your objectives — As a B2B Marketer, your primary goal is likely to be sourcing key buyer personas at Ideal Customer Profile target accounts, and then accelerating those buyers through their journey to purchase and into an active sales opportunity. Your event strategy should work backwards from this. To illustrate with an example, a large B2B Tech company we work with were facing a conversion challenge. They were driving lots of net new leads in through broad topic webinars, but struggling to convert those viewers into meaningful connections. They switched their virtual event strategy in the last few months of 2020 and started delivering shorter, much more focused “Meet the Expert” mini-virtual events with a highly targeted audience and have seem some fantastic results. Fewer, higher quality targeted events have seen a significant acceleration in their pipeline activity.
  2. We live in a buyers’ world — In B2B today, there is no doubt that we now live in a buyers’ world. Digital first, remote and multi-channel, buyers’ are in control of the process. They want to gather their own information via different channels at times that are right for them. As event marketers, we have to be able to adapt accordingly to meet the changing demands of our buyers. One of the benefits of virtual events is that we can both reach wider audiences who wouldn’t have otherwise participated in-person and also repackage event content and make it available on-demand. We have to shift out of the mindset of an event being a one-off occasion towards an event as an ongoing part of a broader campaign. A recent study by ON24 tells us virtual event registration is now much more spontaneous (75% registering in the 7 days before) and just over half are attending live, with the percentage viewing on-demand at a later date steadily increasing. Buyers today want (and expect) the flexibility to consume content on their own terms, so ensure you have a clear on-demand plan too.
  3. Picking the right event tech — Once you’re clear on your objectives for your virtual events, only then should you pick your event tech partner. There are so many options out there now, hugely accelerated in the last 12 months. To help guide, I always recommend mapping out the different considerations and journey, pre, during and post-event. What are your must-have features? Pre-event attendee registration? Speaker management? Networking options? Production and recording capabilities? Post-event reporting? Integrations? Alongside the technical considerations, ensure you have a good understanding of the customer support options, particularly if you’re using a platform for the first time.
  4. Throw out the rule book — creating memorable experiences — We can do so much better than having a speaker present yet another PowerPoint. Take the time to design a memorable experience that will go a long way to creating a lasting connection with your target audience. Encourage active participation through polls, live chat and Q&A. For larger events, consider creating a Slack workspace that runs alongside the event and enables peer-to-peer discussion before, during and after. For smaller, intimate events, consider shipping out a giftbox in advance to your attendees. And remember that your content doesn’t have to be always be work-related. We’ve seen DJs, magicians, sessions on mental health and mindfulness all be used effectively alongside the primary content focus of virtual events.
  5. Measure the impact — Event ROI…. for so long, the elephant in the CMO’s room. Thankfully, even before COVID hit, we were on a path to putting this right. By ensuring you have clear objectives and an understanding of what success looks like, plus the connected technology in place to both measure and demonstrate the impact, you’ll be well placed here. Putting the time in before the event to ensure you have the correct workflows in place behind the scenes with your Marketing Automation and CRM systems is vital. Partner with your Marketing Operations team in advance and avoid the post-event spreadsheet scramble! When compared to in-person events, it is taking longer for the impact to be seen, so bear that in mind. Multiple buyers require >20 marketing touches on a journey to purchase, so ensure that your tracking is setup to demonstrate the impact of your virtual events.

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?

Be very clear on your why — why do you want to run this virtual event? What are you looking to achieve? Then think about the experience you want your attendees, sponsors, speakers etc. to have and based on that, what is the most appropriate format and tech to use? And finally, you can’t just have a “build it and they will come” mentality. How are you going to identify, target and attract the right attendees to your event?

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.

Great question! Well on the basis that world’s leading scientists and medical professionals are tackling COVID, my movement would have to be focused on tackling climate change. I’m certainly no expert but from everything I read, watch and listen to, it does feel like we’re at a crucial ”make-or-break” moment in time that will literally impact every single person on the planet both now and in the future. I have 2 young kids and often wonder what the world will look like as they and their kids grow up; thankfully I do think the world is starting to wake up and take action before it is too late. Hopefully the global collaboration to tackle COVID can transfer into a continued global effort to tackle climate change.

If that is too big a movement, then my non-serious answer would be to banish the world of those little sachets of condiments. They drive me mad, just give me a bottle.

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.

Based on my answers above, I probably should say Jason Lemkin! Outside of business, I’d head into the sports world and pick Mauricio Pochettino, who for those that don’t know is a football (soccer) manager. Currently boss of Paris Saint-Germain, but previously was in charge of my team, Spurs. We had 5 amazing years with him at the helm and I’d love to reminisce on some great memories, as well as persuade him to make a return!

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

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