As the economy forces companies to find ways to drive down operating costs without decreasing employee engagement, some are turning to virtual meetings as a solution. Some companies are finding, however, that what they seek initially as a cost-cutting measure actually becomes a mechanism to increase employee engagement.
Cisco knows this firsthand. Started as an economically driven initiative, the company presented its annual global sales meeting-Global Sales Experience (GSX)-in a virtual format this past August. It was a move that may have been viewed as a gamble, but turned out to be a new way to engage a greater number of employees.
In November 2008 Cisco announced it would make all internal programs virtual, not only to showcase the company's products to a larger audience, but also to shave costs. Angie Smith, manager of Global Sales Experience, global sales operations at Cisco, says transitioning to a virtual format was a huge undertaking. "We wanted to do something cool and innovative," Smith says.
The challenge was to turn the 20-year legacy of the GSX into something that would engage employees and keep them interested. "One of the things we found out was they were pretty cynical going in," Smith says. "They had this live event with glitz and glamour so it took us a while to find what the ideal format would be."
Cisco built its virtual world using inXpo's Virtual Event platform. Other key elements that went into creating the environment included Cisco's WebEx, Jabber, and Cisco TV. To ensure Cisco built the right environment, and to let employees know they had a stake in the new format, executives from each market segment and their direct communications teams first assembled focus groups in each theater-from Beijing to Toronto. "We said, 'This is what we're faced with, poke holes at it, and tell us what's great and we rolled up that information into the agenda," Smith explains.
One of the findings that came from the focus group was that Cisco needed to bring people to the virtual space before it even delivered the content. Chris Meyer, senior vice president and general manager at George P. Johnson, the lead on the virtual strategy and design implementation, says that Cisco wanted a robust engagement model. "How do you get 20,000 salespeople used to going to Vegas engaged?'" Meyer asks. The answer: by getting them to participate in a virtual reality treasure hunt a couple of weeks before the meeting. The employees were required to immerse themselves in the sales materials housed in the virtual meeting rooms to find the answers to the clues. The goal was to familiarize them with the format and the technology prior to the meeting to ensure ease of navigation during the actual event, as well as to maximize their time while there. Employees who participated in the games could earn points toward prizes like an iPod. The points were also used to measure salespeople's engagement.
The virtual environment emulated the company's executive briefing center to emphasize Cisco's brand experience. The environment also included such collaborative features as polling from mobile devices, discussion forums, and a video blog. Throughout the event, the top-10 point leaders, who earned points from participating in events in the treasure hunt and finding the answers to the clues, were tracked and shown to the audience in real time. The game-like approach resulted in collaborative behavior that enhanced participation and engagement.
Fostering deep engagement
Motivational messages from the executive team also increased participant engagement. On the first day a keynote from Cisco's Chairman and CEO John Chambers about Cisco's future kicked off the event, followed by a 30-minute speech by Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology officer, describing Cisco's innovations.
On the second day attendees in the virtual environment's "borderless network" divided into groups according to hardware, software, and services, and participated in "architectural plays" where they received in-depth information about the solutions they sell, as well as techniques about how to sell them to customers.
On the third day attendees could choose from 30 different power sessions, which contained prerecorded videos from executives and an interactive exercise. The videos summarized the information from the first two days and shared details that emerged from the architectural plays. Some employees attended eight to 10 sessions. "Many of them took advantage of being able to see more of what they would see live," Smith says.
The fourth day offered inspirational messaging and an opportunity to attend the solutions showcase, which featured 60 exhibitors.
After the meeting, the benefits were clear. Smith says that Cisco was able to invite 6,000 more people to the virtual event than to the physical meeting due to cost considerations, and in the end, 13,000 of the 19,000 people who registered were actively engaged, participating in interactive portions of the event. In addition, Smith says Cisco saved 90 percent on costs versus the live event, and most important, 5,000 people who took the exit survey said they are using the information and resources given to them during the event to enhance customer opportunities.
Smith says Cisco and Chambers believes the virtual environment is the new way to communicate, because they can engage more often. Smith adds that in the future Cisco will experiment with a hybrid approach to some meetings. Although such a format has yet to be determined, the model may include sending the top performers to a live GSX event, while everyone else attends the virtual event. "There are still people who say 'I just want to shake John Chambers' hand. I just want to walk across the stage and have an executive say my nameand everyone sees it.' It's a shift and takes some time to get used to things," she says. "We recognize that."
HP analyzes the engagement of virtual attendees
While Cisco is carefully building strategies for virtual meetings, HP is transforming to a format that will eventually produce 100 percent of its meetings virtually. In 2008 the company partnered with 6Connex to build a virtual technology infrastructure that allows HP to set up any type of meeting, whether a virtual tradeshow, seminar, or conference. HP now runs hundreds of meetings per year in a virtual environment because it's a lower-cost alternative to producing physical events, a faster time to market, and it's easier to measure engagement.
Paul Dodd, chief strategy officer of virtual meeting developer 6Connex, says HP is unlike most Fortune 500 companies-a best-in-class company that wanted better economies of scale. HP wanted a global enterprise solution that corporate marketing could manage centrally on a worldwide scale.
Prior to every event, 6Connex collaborates with HP to drive audience acquisition and determine the relevant experience to deliver to attendees. The two companies also work together to analyze traditional campaign metrics like who came to the event, as well as behavioral metrics. "We understand not only who is coming to the event, but also what they're doing when they're there, what types of content they are interested in, and how long are they engaged," he explains.
Across the board, average session attendance time in the meetings is high, according to Dodd. "It ranges from 50 minutes to three hours, he says. Benefits for such virtual meetings include a lower cost for attendee acquisition, and the number of leads generated far exceeds those collected in a physical environment. Dodd believes that as companies begin to see the ROI gains, adoption of the virtual environment will accelerate, adding, "Everyone is looking for more efficient marketing programs and virtual marketing is taking precedence."
T.J. Keitt, an analyst at Forrester Research, agrees, saying that virtual meetings-whether in 2D or 3D format-give companies the ability to involve employees who they normally wouldn't invite to live events. And employees get value because they can participate in the conference in their own time. "You get additional participation, more heads in the keynotes, more profiles being posted, and you go further in creating a network effect," Keitt says. "If you're thinking very bottom line, this speaks to that bottom line. It's a cost cutter, productivity enhancer, efficiency enhancer, and it's a way of ostensibly increasing innovation."