Coupling & Crosstalk: Replacing the Road

virtual meeting canstockphoto2552880 kamaga 300x223Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Fall 2020 edition on pages 9-10.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

Replacing the Road

Hello, fellow road warriors! Do you feel lost? Unappreciated? Unable to deliver your message or solve customer problems? I too am struggling with the current pandemic situation. And I suspect many of you are too – especially the dyed in the wool corporate marketing, sales, and business development road warriors. Truth be told, I had seven international business trips on the schedule for 2020. New suitcases bought in January remain untouched. As an optimist, I did not return them since they will get used… And this working from home bit? I’ve been working from home for almost fifteen years. What I am not used to is not leaving or more specifically not heading out to a customer site or conference somewhere. Can I really deliver results totally “hands-off” via virtual means? Will the absence of in-person meetings hamper business or future progress?

How well are we doing virtualizing in person business interactions? Business meetings are easy, right? We all just hop onto the company’s web conferencing platform with our web cameras & screen sharing and go! Far easier, more efficient, and definitely more socially distanced than gathering in the stuffy conference room. Not so fast there… Yes, the basics of “meeting” are covered. And yes the need for travel anywhere is eliminated. Or are they?

Like most tools, web conferencing works well for specific types of meetings within a specific range of constraints. One has to be careful that everything starts looking like a nail if all you have is a hammer. Beyond the technical issues like bandwidth, forced software downloads, and security there are a wide range of human factors and social issues to be considered. Issues from “what is the purpose of the meeting” to “Zoom fatigue”[1]. It is clearly a different dynamic if it is an established work team doing weekly status updates versus a vendor meeting a potential customer for the first time. The current tools are better for established relationships.

So, we really need to understand what happens as part of a business gathering beyond the information exchanged. First, humans are social creatures. When things settle as the “new normal” there will likely be an overwhelming demand for in-person events like conferences. Those in sales and marketing would argue that there is nothing as productive as a face-to-face meeting and research like Professor Bohn’s[2] has shown that in-person appeals are 34 times more successful than email.

At conferences and tradeshows, which are far more complex than a routine team meeting, the value to the attendees typically far exceeds the information that is presented on the “main screen”. And this value needs to be taken into consideration when shifting conferences from in-person to online. For some, the actual presentations are irrelevant beyond motivating attendance and gathering people who are interested in the topics being presented. Many professionals I know highly value the networking opportunities and random conversations through which they make connections and learn important details. And just like the lack of office “water cooler conversations” in each day’s fully scheduled set of web meetings, most virtual conferences do not deliver these impromptu and informal conversations.

As I’ve worked on the planning for MEPTEC, TestConX, and other events I see a worrisome trend of conference organizers and online platform providers who are trying to replicate a physical event. These attempts at direct virtualization work as well as a Rolex watch knock-off. They are flashy and from a distance look great. But once you look closer at the details there are lots of problems. Who really wants to spend 8+ hours per day in front of their computer for three days in-a-row to attend a virtual event? And the ambiance of a cavernous windowless exhibit hall with poor acoustics and thin carpet? So, why bring the bad and the ugly into the online world?

Event organizers must take the opportunity to innovate and try new approaches to improve their online versions. Yes, many years of best practices have informed us what works in terms of in-person events. However, these practices may not translate well into the virtual world. It is time to step back and look at the event goals and rethink every aspect as an online version is built. For example, online education has permitted a greater shift to the “Flipped Classroom” model[3]. Research has proven that when students are exposed to content prior to meeting with the instructor, they focus on higher levels of cognitive work during class time thereby increasing learning. And which is easier to follow and watch, a closeup of a well-known university lecturer presenting in a high-quality video recording or the same person appearing as a small dot at the bottom of a 500-person auditorium?

Online versions of events should also follow best practices for the mediums they are using. Why build a lousy user interface (UI) for a website while trying to emulate an in-person event? Websites should be designed for usability and user engagement and need not look like a physical event. A popular conference platform has virtual booths with a counters and fictitious booth occupants. Behind the booths  fake views of city skylines are included. When was the last time you saw floor to ceiling windows in an exhibit hall with high elevation city views? In this particular case, this design choice is not only confusing, it squanders precious computer screen real estate and is not mobile device friendly.

As virtual events are (re)designed, attention should be paid to analytics for organizers, sponsors, and exhibitors. Sponsors and exhibitors should identify what their goals are and collect data to appropriately measure results. Is your goal brand awareness (raw number of impressions) or sales lead of a certain quality or something else? Sometimes you will need to enlist the organizer’s support to collect meaningful data. With today’s platforms more aspects can be measured with greater specificity than at a physical event. There is no reason to have generic metrics such as lumping attendance from multiple adjacent shows all together. If these aspects are discussed up front, it is more likely the organizers can work through the details to support the collection of the desired data. And like any on-going process, having data to drive decisions about future events is critical.

As you are planning and packing your (virtual) suitcase for your next business meeting, spend the time to give some thoughts as to the business goals you are trying to achieve; which tools and mediums are the most appropriate; and how to measure the results. Winners will use the time to innovate in the virtual space while others spend their time attempting to replicate their existing and sometimes mediocre in-person experiences.

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments directly. Please contact me to discuss your thoughts or if I can be of any assistance.

[1] “How to Combat Zoom Fatigue”, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, Harvard Business Review, April 29, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue

[2] “A Face-to-Face Request Is 34 Times More Successful Than an Email”, Vanessa K. Bohns, Harvard Business Review, April 11, 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email

[3] “Flipping the Classroom”, Cynthia J. Brame, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/