Virtual Events:
Five Weeks on the Front Line

Example of Defense One Tech Summit imagery.

The year 2020 is not like any other, especially for B2B events. For five years, Government Executive Media Group (GEMG) held its annual Defense One Technology Summit showcasing the latest, most innovative defense industry technology. In April, COVID-19 made it clear that things would not return to normal soon; time was running out and alternative live location options were scarce. It was time for a strategic pivot. The GEMG team decided to hold its flagship event online, unleashing a torrent of activity, focused on reimagining the B2B virtual event experience. 

Decision Counsel and GEMG’s relationship spans over a decade, and the mutual trust built over that time was essential in facilitating the rapid decision making and parallel paths of execution required to pull off a fresh experience in just five weeks. The team made one key decision that created a foundation of success for the rest of the project — to not replicate the physical experience. Instead, we focused on creating a medium-specific experience that made the best use of our technology and production acumen to delight and engage the audience.

The Virtual Event Strategy

Content had to be easily accessible. The online interaction had to feel as natural and dynamic as being on an actual event floor. It had to be measurable, entertaining, and thought provoking. In short, it had to be amazing. Working closely with Anna Pettyjohn, Government Executive Media Group’s Director of Events, the team built a strategic framework to define the experience. 

Building within a cookie-cutter templated platform was not an option. Restrictions in design and functionality would have compromised quality and execution before we even got started. Together, we determined the best solution would be to design and implement a robust, custom, virtual event. One that would offer the thought leadership opportunities Defense One needed and give the event underwriters — manufacturers and contractors — the virtual space they required to share the next generation of defense products. 

“When you need a successful live event to be virtual, there aren’t a lot of platforms out there that can deliver that for you — unless you want one that’s clunky and rudimentary. We needed a custom designed virtual intersection where Government Executive Media Group leadership, event attendees, and sponsors could connect.”

– Constance Sayers, President of Government Executive

To guarantee a 4K quality viewing experience, the team partnered with Sherpa Digital Media. Sherpa provides digital event experiences for market leaders such as Apple, Disney, and Blackrock, and recently collaborated with Decision Counsel on several projects. The team utilized Sherpa’s SaaS video platform that concurrently manages on demand, live, and real-time breakout session streams. Additionally, we designed the experience to offer real-time interactivity windows for sharing comments, enabling attendees to connect individually across the three-day event.

The Experience, Data, and Results

From the beginning, the team focused on integrating the new event platform into the essential digital infrastructure that delivers audience experiences for GEMG. Decision Counsel leveraged GEMG’s CRM, marketing automation, registration, and content personalization tools so that digital event behavioral and content analytics seamlessly integrated into 360º audience experience tracking.  

Technical innovation was important, but even more impactful was the fresh approach to the content experience developed by the sales, marketing, and editorial teams. Instead of an 8-hour live cast, which would have lost audience interest and caused attendance to dwindle as time dragged on, we decided to do a run of show that would span three days, in 3-hour segments, and allow audiences to choose their content experience.

This was one of the most complex features of the event. Offering attendees a choice of what content they could consume required the ability to support simultaneous sessions at scale. Many live events and virtual streaming experiences present a linear approach — viewers are stuck waiting for the next speaker to present in a set order. The Defense One event framework enabled multiple streams to be hosted at the same time, giving users the option of choosing which session or topic they wanted to explore and for how long. Attendees were able to come and go as they pleased. This resulted in immeasurable insight for how to better market to attendees next year.

“While it’s a much more enjoyable experience for the viewer, it also gave us the most accurate read on what was most relevant to those in attendance.”

– Anna Pettyjohn, Director of Events, Government Executive Media Group

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, we also had to overcome the fact that GEMG had to integrate with the Defense Department, meaning that our tech stack had to be so rock solid that it didn’t get restricted by the Defense Department’s extremely vigilant IT security settings. In fact, Sherpa and Decision Counsel implemented a solution that eliminated the security flaw that has seen Zoom restricted from highly sensitive military projects. 

The team also embraced an important reality of virtual experiences. They are not constrained by place or time. All the panels, all the resources, and all the sponsor content could be accessed on demand, at all hours, on a global scale and the experience was architected with that in mind.  

“Every design decision we made, every technology tool we selected, every programming strategy was designed to serve users.”

– Sal Fuentes, CEO of Decision Counsel

But the best news was that all the hard work paid off — the results were solid. Over the three-day event, GEMG exceeded physical attendance by over 25 percent. The average attendee stayed engaged for at least two full days at the virtual event, and attendance was consistent over all three days, never wavering more than 5 percent. Financially, the event exceed all other physical events, with higher revenue and greater sponsor participation.  In short, it was a success for all parties involved. 

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