Are you a fan of those “before” and “after” makeover photos in decorating magazines? Looking at them gives me inspiration and a sense of wide-open possibilities.
In that same spirit, I tuned in to the two-part CEMA webinar series, “Planning an Annual Conference in 2021, The Before & After.” In the first episode, global software company Workiva’s Valerie Strehle, director of marketing, and Diana Cam, senior director of partner marketing, reviewed what worked — and what didn’t — at their recent virtual events for finance, accounting, risk, and compliance professionals. The events they outlined were the Amplify Event Series, a digital content-driven event; Amplify Local, a user-group program; and the Amplify annual conference, a historically in-person event with content and expo. They also gave participants a peek into what they were working on for their upcoming Amplify virtual annual conference, which was held Sept. 20-23.
Part 2 was the big reveal — Strehle and Cam shared how the event actually performed, what risks paid off, and where there’s continued room for improvement.
Here are takeaways.
When the pandemic forced in-person events to shift to virtual, Workiva had some experience to fall back on. The company has a long history of producing webinars and online programs. In 2020 and throughout this year, their Amplify Event Series digital events offered continuing education credits for finance and accounting professionals which have been content-driven, meaning no expo, no networking. The pre-recorded sessions have been 60 minutes long with 30-minute breaks, and air at different times for different regions. On-demand viewing for registrants was available for 30 days.
The Amplify Local program, last held in person, launched in 2019, was a series of half-day programs in 20 different cities to keep users connected. Workiva shifted these smaller group events over to digital in 2020 and 2021 to “increase the number of raving fans we have,” Strehle said, “so they can help our platform become more sticky within their organizations.”
Since attendee participation in virtual expo halls has become unpredictable, Workiva focused its annual Amplify conference on providing opportunities for their sponsors to showcase their experience via thought leadership sessions, as well as sessions from industry experts and internal Workiva experts.
When Workiva pivoted the Amplify Local customer events to virtual, the biggest challenge with its webinars was to create more networking opportunities. The team is still testing new capabilities to improve those opportunities.
The marquee event, the Amplify conference, is meant to celebrate the successes of customers and provide participants with tangible takeaways to bring back to their teams. For Workiva, the goal is to accelerate bookings and expand awareness of new products and releases. At the face-to-face Amplify, the expo hall gave the company’s research & development teams the opportunity to talk to customers. That has not been something Workiva has been able to replicate in terms of engagement online.
When the Amplify conference went digital in 2020, the event was free and the number of attendees — especially global participants — and prospects increased. “Virtual blew up our stats,” Strehle said. The virtual event attracted 6,262 participants, three-and-a-half times the number of attendees at the in-person event in 2019 (1,818). In their pivot to digital, Strehle and Cam said, they learned:
Your virtual event is providing value. Only one sponsor canceled its agreement when the 2020 in-person event was moved online. The virtual event is an opportunity to provide thought leadership and lead generation. The decision to make the event free vs. fee was to broaden Workiva’s audience and build relationships.
Leverage your network. A virtual conference is “nothing like” a webinar, Cam said. Strehle said that they relied heavily on a partnership with their technical team to choose the virtual platform that would work best for the 2020 event. They learned that the biggest shift in planning a virtual vs. in-person event is the amount of production time required upfront, since Workiva opted to prerecord all the presentations.
The decision to keep Amplify 2021 online was made in September 2020, at which time the team didn’t feel confident it could meet its attrition and contract requirements. “It turned out to be a great decision for us,” Strehle said.
For Amplify 2021, the team, recognizing Zoom fatigue among its audience, shifted to providing “nuggets of education” or “lightning sessions” of 30 minutes or less, as well as in-depth breakouts, and masterclass formats, and chose Cvent as the host platform.
Strehle and Cam shared good news about the results of Amplify 2021 in the second webinar recorded on Oct. 13, just a few weeks after the event wrapped up. Amplify 2021 ended up being the largest event in Workiva’s history, attracting nearly 15,000 registrants, nearly 10,000 attendees (a 59-percent increase over the 2020 virtual event), and 3,700 companies, representing a 41-percent year-over-year increase.
Registration was pacing behind three weeks prior to the event, Strehle said, but then they saw it pick up — 2,000 people per week — thanks to a strong multichannel communications campaign that included emails, social, and calendar reminders.
A big risk that paid off was hiring actor Matthew McConaughey to present the keynote session. This was a departure for Workiva, since it had never invested in a celebrity speaker for its events. McConaughey ended up being a big draw: 70 percent of attendees put his keynote on their schedule and 59 percent attended his session live. The actor was chosen because his message in his book Greenlights resonated with Amplify’s overall “dare to simplify” theme.
In addition, professional development speakers were added to the program and they were very well received.
Another addition made to this year’s digital event was live entertainment: At the end of the first day of the program, a Beatles cover band played for the virtual audience. Although only 15 percent of attendees tuned in, those who did had very positive feedback.
The lightning sessions of 30 minutes or less were very popular — attendance was much higher than expected.
Cam said they also took something of a risk with partners by putting more of an onus on them to develop content and elevate their story, and it was mandated that they bring customers to their sessions.
All of the sessions at Amplify were prerecorded to reduce risk, but most of the presenters were available in the chat for questions during the sessions to give it a “live feel.” The Workiva team did multiple rounds of editing on 100 pieces of prerecorded content and made the sponsors “a partner in the journey” of that editing process, Cam said.
There was more of an emphasis on high-production values to fight the Zoom fatigue everyone has been experiencing over the last year. For example, every breakout session had a looping content reel that started five minutes prior to the session, calling out speakers, social, and product announcements. There were also animated intros and outros, lower thirds, and fun, upbeat music played between sessions.
“The goal of more thought-leadership sessions being led by non-Workiva staff is to showcase real-life applications and the customers, partners and industry experts who have been instrumental in deploying the Workiva platform as a critical component in digital transformations across global enterprises,” Strehle said.
Strehle and Cam recommended that you invest in your tech platform to provide a high-level experience. Tech equals the F&B at an in-person event, Cam said. “If the food is bad, everyone is going to talk about it. The same thing with technology.”
Amplify 2022 is being planned as a hybrid event, which will mean adding resources, including hiring an additional staff member. Workiva Amplify 2022 will offer three different registration types: in-person attendees can earn 15 educational credits; those who purchase a virtual pass will be limited to earning five credits; and a streamed option will be offered of the general sessions only, which will be free.
Both Cam and Strehle agreed — they “can’t wait” to be working on an in-person Amplify again.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.