Edward McLain of Digital Motion Event Services: “Know your brand and your audience”

Know your brand and your audience — know what you and they want and how best to drive interactions. Each virtual event has a different “personality”, or “culture”, if you will. The faster you can identify the personality of your event, break the ice and establish a community within the virtual space, the better experience your attendees […]

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Know your brand and your audience — know what you and they want and how best to drive interactions.

Each virtual event has a different “personality”, or “culture”, if you will. The faster you can identify the personality of your event, break the ice and establish a community within the virtual space, the better experience your attendees will have, and the better networking and interaction there will be, which will lead to increased buy-in and support from your stakeholders.

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 Edward McLain.

Ed has had a passion for technology since a very young age, and started down what would be his professional track while still in high school. He was actively involved in helping his parents (both physicians) with the systems and software running their practices. Over the years, Ed has built, launched, operated, and scaled multiple large-scale internet software products. He has also designed, built, and operated data centers, and run software and operational teams for several companies. When asked in 2004 if he could help his parents run the A/V aspects of their growing medical conference, he jumped at the chance. That A/V work expanded, and eventually led to the formation of Digital Motion. Ed’s development and operational background, tied with his entrepreneurial mindset, has led to the continual improvement of the services provided by Digital Motion, and the company’s drive toward exceptional execution.

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 love knowing how things work and solving puzzles. When I was very young, I took apart a power drill and put it back together. And it still worked! Later, I took apart the family’s Macintosh 512K (nearly causing my dad a heart attack), and rebuilt it. When I was 15, I went to “work” (unpaid) for an IT business just to learn as much as I could. To this day, I spend my limited free tinkering on side projects, learning new coding languages, and overall just learning new things; for fun.

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

Growing up, I explored many different hobbies, but always kept coming back to computers and playing with stereos. It didn’t matter if I was fixing a friend’s computer or installing a new radio and subs in their car, I just seemed to have a natural understanding of how the pieces fit together and worked. As I got older and into the workforce, I naturally just started doing more of what I loved. At first I didn’t even care if I was being paid for it, I just wanted the experience, so I just kept finding people that would give me a chance. At 19, I started a computer consulting company with a few friends. While the business unfortunately closed after two great years, the experience gave me the entrepreneur bug. Shortly after that, I went to work for a local internet company and the owner just let me run with ideas and build new services and products to address client problems. There were days where I would stay up coding and building until 3 or 4 AM, then sleep until 11, when I would get up and do it all over again. That company was bought out by a larger group, and I was then handed the job of building out data centers and cloud networks. It was during this time that I really started to understand what it was that I loved doing — building solutions to solve complex problems. When my parents had to take over running a conference that my dad started in the early 80’s, they asked if I wanted to help with the A/V. Like any good tech-oriented son, I said yes. Working that conference allowed me to mix what I loved doing; working with technology, solving complex problems, and helping others, setting me down the path that I’m on today.

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?

Relatively early in my tech career, I went to an interview for an engineering position. I felt like the interview was going in the right direction. Then the woman interviewing me said “we expect all employees here at 8AM to start the morning”. I think I got a weird look on my face and said something like “I’m more of a 10AM person”. I didn’t get the job. Instead, I ended up at a different company in a more flexible position that was a much better fit. I probably worked 12–14 hours days, but it was on my preferred schedule. It also confirmed that real tech jobs don’t typically fit an 8–5 schedule. I make sure to give my employees as much flexibility as possible. Sometimes we’re working on an event at 4 AM, after working until midnight the night before, but on days when there isn’t anything scheduled, everyone works how and when they prefer. I think this type of flexible schedule is particularly important now, when so many more people are working from home, often with kids at the kitchen table, or squeezed for space in a small apartment with their spouse.

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 would say there are 2 books that had a major impact on me, the first is “Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive” by Patric Lencioni and the second is “The Phoenix Project” by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford.

The “Four Obsessions” has become the cornerstone of how I measure teams and how I run Digital Motion. The level of teamwork and coordination that can come out of having a healthy organization, with clarity at all levels, is just amazing.

“The Phoenix Project” is targeted at DevOps team leads in the IT world. However, the principles within can span any industry. For me, it was a great guide for how to identify choke points in processes and then navigate around them so that your team can work at its full potential.

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

“Do or do not, There is no try!”, Master Yoda. We have limited time in our lives, and accepting that it’s not possible to do everything to a satisfactory level really helps to put into perspective the things that are important and to ensure we are putting focus on them.

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?

My work in the event industry started in 2004 when my parents asked me to help them run their conference. The first year, I just helped out with a minimal A/V set-up in a single room. But the event grew quickly, and after a few conferences, I started working with the hotels more directly and helping plan out food & beverage, room layouts, schedules, etc. I formed Digital Motion Event Services in 2009 after I saw the opportunity to branch out and start working with other customers. From there we’ve worked on events all over North America and are just recently starting to take on a few international clients.

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

One aspect of live events where we really excelled prior to 2020 was the live streaming and recording of sessions and keynotes. In 2020, we pivoted hard into virtual events. My background in the IT industry and internet services made it easy for us to work with clients on custom integrations with virtual platforms, troubleshooting live streams, and providing unique solutions for their events. However, the planning has proven to be much more involved than with virtual events. This is partly due to the limited nature of online platforms, which make it difficult to improvise, and requires a much more rigid time schedule than on-site events. A single speaker having technical issues or going over their allotted time can really throw off an entire day. We have had both massive failures and amazing wins, but we learn from all of them, executing retrospectives after each event (both internally and with the customer) and using that feedback to ensure that we are constantly getting better and delivering the best experience possible for both our clients and the attendees.

Probably the best story we have is when we were producing a multi-day event that had a live on-site component. We were executing the on-site portion in a local office building that we had rented, and early one morning, I got a call from our COO stating that he had arrived to get things started but the building had no power! Needless to say, the rest of us got there quickly and started working on plan B, which included pulling power for cameras and equipment from inverters running in cars. Luckily, the building’s power was quickly restored, and we were able to move back into our studio area prior to starting the event, but that was definitely an interesting way to start the morning!

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?

Of the events I’ve attended, probably the best run was the AWS re:Invent 2020. In person, this event can have up to 40,000 attendees, with extensive networking opportunities. The way AWS was able to make it virtual but still get attendees involved with things like virtual games and events, in addition to working out ways to provide the usual free swag from vendors, was awesome. They also split the event up over a longer period of time and limited the amount of time per day spent on sessions. That really made attending the event easier from a family and work perspective.

Probably the most engaging events I’ve attended were in the music industry, with artist Lindsey Stirling leading the way. She put on several events in 2020, and each one pushed the technology aspect to the next level and all were amazing to watch. My number one takeaway from these events is that it’s useful for the audience to be able to play a role, usually by way of Zoom gallery views or something similar. This is something I’d really like to pull together and try to replicate in the normal conference space.

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 biggest mistake I’ve seen with virtual events is the major underestimation of the amount of time required to plan and execute them. In my experience, virtual events probably take 3–4 times the amount of up-front planning as a given on-site event.

Next, I would say another major mistake is when groups try to replicate an on-site event directly as a virtual one. Virtual events require an entirely different mindset, with a specific focus around scheduling and breaks, and how the audience can interact with the speaker(s) and each other.

Lastly, virtual events rely on the internet and on end-users to do their part to partake in the event. This can lead to a variety of problems, ranging from attendees being unable to log in to the event to stream stutters, to having speakers drop off calls mid-presentation. Having back-up plans in place and understanding that these things can happen (and planning ahead for them) can change both your mindset and the experience from your attendees’ perspective. This can convert a potentially negative experience into a positive one.

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

Of all the platforms I’ve played with, my favorite is Pheedloop.com. For a conference-type setting where you may have multiple sessions and exhibitors, it works great and is priced very well. While we’ve worked with several other virtual platforms, Digital Motion has used Pheedloop for many events and we are a proud partner. We have definitely found a niche in helping companies utilize and make the most of their virtual platform investment.

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

I would have to recommend “The Presenter” by Digital Motion, which is our proprietary event technology software. We wrote this software out of necessity — we were faced with the need to provide a way for multiple presenters in several different locations to have seamless experiences within our virtual conferences. It is something that we now offer all of our clients, and will soon be making available to a wider audience. In short, it gives you superior control over your event and helps you avoid the stress (and wasted time) of coordinating changes between presenters. “The Presenter” eliminates the need for screen sharing, and avoids all the starts and stops of transitioning between speakers. Information is dispensed quickly and efficiently, in an engaging way.

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.)

1.) Know your brand and your audience — know what you and they want and how best to drive interactions.

Each virtual event has a different “personality”, or “culture”, if you will. The faster you can identify the personality of your event, break the ice and establish a community within the virtual space, the better experience your attendees will have, and the better networking and interaction there will be, which will lead to increased buy-in and support from your stakeholders.

2.) Work in breaks and be flexible with time.

This is very important. You can’t run a virtual event like a live, on-site event. There is a ton of coordination and planning work that goes into virtual events. I would even recommend making a detailed minute-by-minute run-of-show schedule. But, regardless of how well you’ve planned, there will inevitably be unforeseen lags or mishaps that can affect the schedule. Building margins into your schedule will help absorb those unforeseen moments (or those times when a speaker just has to have an extra 5 minutes longer). Rather than hoping everything goes by the minute, we have found it is wiser to plan for breaks in order to diffuse the tension and get things back on track.

3.) Have a back-up plan for critical keynotes.

Some of our clients have planned on having live keynote sessions, which we believe is a great decision to keep the event exciting. However, it is always a good idea to have the sessions pre-recorded, just in case there is a problem with the live feed.

4.) Get creative with exhibitors and sponsors.

Virtual booths are a great way for exhibitors to have the opportunity to show off products and services and network with attendees. We have found, though, that to really make the most of that moment, considering gamification is a good move. Offering drawings for fun prizes, and bolstering competition goes a long way to spur attendees to visit each booth and engage with the exhibitors. In lieu of in-person networking, you almost have to have some kind of incentive for attendees to take the time to visit virtual booths. Anything you can do to promote excitement in the virtual space pays off in engaging your attendees and making your sponsors’ investment worthwhile.

5.) Work with a partner that’s done it.

Planning a live event can be stressful. There are simply a lot of factors to consider, and if you have never done one before, it will seem overwhelming. A smart route is to choose an experienced partner who can help you. Consider it an extension of your team, so you can get back to the work that you do best while you entrust the event management to the professionals. Of course, I’m a fan of the team we have at Digital Motion. We have an amazing team of detailed event planners, expert tech engineers, and event supervisors to make sure every detail is handled expertly.

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?

If you are thinking of a live virtual event, you should definitely go for it. Now’s the time to try it! First, you need to determine what the goals of the event would be and identify what would make the event a success for the stakeholders. After evaluating those objectives, think about a budget. Think about the investment that you will make and what you want to get out of it. Then you need a plan. That is when using an established company comes in handy. At Digital Motion, we have learned from executing numerous virtual events, and know many of the challenges and pitfalls that you will face — and how to avoid them. We have collected our best practices together into an “Event Success Plan”, which we use to guide our clients through the conception, planning and execution stages of the 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.

We currently have a client in the medical industry that is launching a series of virtual events to help educate medical professionals on the safety of the COVID vaccine. Since this pandemic is what has driven the virtual event business where it is today, we would be hard-pressed to find a more valuable way to use innovative event technology than to help educate the world on the benefits of the vaccine and stop the destruction being caused by the virus.

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.

Mark Cuban — I’ve been an avid Shark Tank watcher for years, and his honesty and love for tech always impresses me. If I ever get on Shark Tank, Mark’s the one I’d be targeting for a deal!

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

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