From physical to digital: How the pandemic is transforming events

By and Kris lawas | 4 minute read | August 4, 2020

woman working on laptop

In-person events and customer interactions have come to an almost complete standstill as a result of the global pandemic. There are many uncertainties around how and when these types of activities will resume as we move beyond COVID-19. What is certain, is that these activities will not return to normal—rather new norms will emerge.

Over the course of the pandemic, IBM has been able to transform and improve the way we engage with customers, partners and other stakeholders using our own cloud and AI technologies. For IBM’s strategy, the success of these efforts heralds a long-term shift toward new forms of digital engagement moving forward.

A digital event and engagement platform in under 50 days

Just forty-seven days before IBM Think, our annual flagship event, we decided to make it an all-digital experience, featuring a wide range of speakers, client interviews, and lab intensives for developers and experts to dive deeper. And to make the event even more relevant to the challenges we’re facing in 2020, we also substantially revamped its content.

What started with modest expectations turned into a breakthrough success—IBM Think Digital 2020 had roughly 120,000 overall registrations and over 180,000 unique viewers. A key, behind-the-scenes part of its success was the robust delivery infrastructure it ran on. Beyond the sheer delivery of video, we also sought a new level of engagement and interactivity between participants. And of course, security—for the event platform and registration data—was a must.

The versatility and power of Cloud and AI

For our video streaming, we used IBM Enterprise Video Streaming technology, an offering from IBM Watson Media, and ran it on the public IBM Cloud. As a result, the event easily accommodated the surge in attendees without any last-minute changes or the need for additional, manually provisioned capacity.

Accessibility was another key requirement for our digital event. IBM Enterprise Video Streaming provided automatic captioning of all video content to meet accessibility guidelines and languages. Captions were also indexed for search and discovery within a video.

Another key strength of the delivery process was the use of an IBM content delivery network (CDN) alongside third party CDNs. By combining with software defined network switching, the system was able to respond to viewer feedback on buffering by automatically and dynamically scaling up as audience numbers increased. The system also enabled viewers to customize their agendas from a menu of speakers and client interviews featured on a custom event microsite we built using IBM Watson Media APIs.

Outcomes and benefits of IBM Think Digital 2020

As with registration and viewership numbers, the level of engagement far outpaced expectations. The fact that participants engaged in an average of 6.5 sessions—and watched the majority of them—attests to the quality of service and ease of navigation between sessions.

Even now, the library of on-demand IBM Think Digital 2020 content continues to attract new viewers, further extending the life of event programming content. What’s more, our sellers can repurpose this content to create customized emails and playlists—targeted to specific clients—based on clients’ Think interactions.

Let’s talk—digitizing event networking

The fact that we digitized the networking experience—using Watson Media tools like built-in chat, Q&A, Polling, and Player Call-to-Actions—meant that attendees could vigorously interact not only with subject matter experts, but also with fellow attendees. It also meant that sellers were also able to directly engage with clients, all of it unfolding simultaneously across multiple viewing channels.

Time-tested solution for large-scale convening

When it comes to large-scale crowd sourcing, IBM’s Innovation Jam solution follows an event-like approach to encourage focused, robust participation, and puts “conversation” at the heart of the user experience. In addition to starting their own threads on topics for exploration, Jam participants can join other threads, dive into any of the emerging or best ideas identified by Jam organizers, or join a real-time Chat for a deep dive exploration with an SME. Quick polls taken during the Jam can provide yet another means to gather insight.

To quickly distill event outcomes, the Jam solution is backed up by powerful AI analytics including Watson Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and IBM Research’s Project Debater, which provides computational argumentation analysis to construct the strongest argument for (or against) a statement based on the Jam content.

The Innovation Jam continues as a leading-edge solution for enterprise-wide collaboration and co-creation given its ability to scale and the embedded analytics used both during live events and post-Jam. It’s attracted over 100 clients—names like Merck, Barclays Bank, Prudential Financial, Boston University, and eBay—to explore their strategy, values, mission and purpose. In May 2020, the EU/NATO conducted its fifth Innovation Jam to better understand the implications of COVID-19 and its impact on future policy development. Additionally, in an internal Jam, IBMers explored return to work strategy and behaviors as we move beyond the pandemic.

There are still many uncertainties around what long-term effects the pandemic will have on how businesses convene and engage their customers and partners. With our cloud and AI technologies, IBM can help businesses ramp up a digital event in less than fifty days, crowd-source ideas from thousands, or anything in between.