Who better to ask about how to put on the ultimate virtual user conference than the experts at Zoom Video Communications.
Zoom’s pivot from in-person to virtual events seems like an obvious shift to an events strategy rooted in the company’s core competency. After all, this is the same organization facilitating the rest of the world’s pandemic-driven shift to virtual everything.
Team Shiloh spoke with Zoom’s Kristen Klein, Manager of Customer Marketing, about what it took at Zoom to reimagine their flagship user conference as an all-virtual event. Kristen has played a large role in Zoomtopia planning since the event’s inception, and we asked her to reflect on lessons learned from 2020 and the best practices Zoom will be following for Zoomtopia 2021.
Making the decision to to go virtual
Zoomtopia is an annual event held to celebrate and communicate with Zoom’s customers. Traditionally held in-person over two days, planning for Zoomtopia 2020 started over a year in advance with the intent of hosting 3500 – 4000 attendees. In spring of 2020, with less than six months to event day, Zoom not only decided to transition all in-person event plans to virtual, but also took on a bold reset of many event elements to tailor them to a virtual audience.
Zoom reevaluated who could attend, and registration ballooned from 5000 to 50,000. The mindset focused less on a single time zone and expanded to thinking regionally about who could attend in locations around the world. A new vision of a massively inclusive Zoom-driven event emerged. In the end over 26,000 people attended the two days of live content.
Budgeting for virtual versus in-person
While many virtual events don’t result in cost savings over their in-person alternatives, in Zoom’s case the events budget did shrink considerably. Kristen tells us “We were able to cut the budget for Zoomtopia in half for the 2020 event when it went virtual. We didn’t want to spend as much overall, but we did spend the money very differently.”
Zoomtopia.com was never a major line item in the in-person event budget, but to produce a world-class virtual experience, it needed to be. Zoom hired an outside design agency to make it a really beautiful place where people accessed all the content and experienced the event.
Another area of increased investment was bringing in lots of big-name speakers and celebrities. There were over a dozen 10-15 minute celebrity cameos. Andre Iguodala from the Golden State Warriors led a yoga session. Martha Stewart taught how to make a cocktail. Alicia Keys did a special session. The team from Home Edit gave tips on how to have an organized home office. Dave Matthews performed two songs and a fun teaser along with many others.
The biggest spend for Zoomtopia 2021 however, was on event technology and software development. Zoom took on stitching together multiple pieces of event tech to build their own event platform.
Zoom’s events team invested a lot of time looking for the right platform to achieve their vision. They attended myriad online events, noting what they did and didn’t like about the experiences. They also evaluated many of the out-of-box event platforms available at the time, but found nothing customizable enough to deliver the immersive theme experience Zoom envisioned.
Ultimately the team took it as a challenge to get creative and develop their own platform filled with 3D animations and graphics. Kristen says “Once we decided to build our own, we took six weeks to vet and pick a developer, then about 12 weeks to build it out. Creative started first and we had to bring them together with the developers to make it happen.”
Not everyone can or should attempt to build their own events platform. There are many good platforms out of the box and even a simple landing page works for many events. In Zoom’s case they did a lot of development purely to deliver attendees their signature Zoomtopia surprise and delight factor.
The good news for event planners who love Zoom’s event experience is it resulted in a brand new Zoom product offering called Zoom Events. The 2021 Zoomtopia event will be fully powered by the new all-in-one platform from Zoom that brings everyone the power to create engaging virtual experiences.
The new platform includes a branded event hub, ticketing and registration, a master admin dashboard, and attendee networking. Zoom Events supports a variety of events, from multi-day summits to multi-track conferences.
Planning the agenda and content
When it comes to content, Kristen says “An important goal with Zoomtopia has always been to surprise and delight attendees and we never want to lose that.” To accomplish this virtually, a goal was set to try and have at least two voices in every presentation to create energy. While the traditional Zoomtopia event has content running from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, the virtual event ended mid-afternoon so attendees weren’t asked to sit too long.
Breakout sessions were limited to 30 minutes to keep content crisp and breaks were scheduled between each session block. There were many more simultaneous sessions running since there was no space limitation. Many panel sessions were planned, and speakers were encouraged to use polling, surveys, and Q&A as part of their talks to boost attendee engagement.
The agenda offered live programming in three time zones including Americas, Asia Pacific, and Europe, Middle East, Africa regions. Live speakers and employees worldwide staffed the event around the clock to ensure engagement.
Virtual event production
90% of Zoomtopia 2020 was done live. Kristen says “We’re Zoom and we want people to know you can do this live. This was a huge lift, but it was worth it for the sense of intimacy and realness it generated with attendees.”
Zoom built out a production studio with a full stage for keynote speakers. This included a big screen monitor for CEO Eric Yuan to view the faces of his audience through a Zoom call while he spoke to them. The team felt this was a fun way to incorporate the audience and enable speakers to see audience reactions as they spoke.
The outside production crew was relatively small for the scale of event. Since everything was held in Zoom, the events team trained an army of internal experts as producers to host sessions, manage dry runs, and rehearsals.
In post event surveys, attendees said they loved the live aspect over watching a recorded speaker. Most were very forgiving as live speakers worked through an occasional muted mic or internet malfunction. Many attendees remarked that they appreciated the imperfections that popped up with the live content as it made the whole experience feel more authentic and less contrived.
Looking forward – Zoomtopia 2021 and beyond
The Zoom team started planning for a virtual 2021 event almost a year ago. With six months longer to prepare and the Zoom team’s takeaways from 2020, we’re expecting to see some exciting enhancements to the Zoomtopia 2021 attendee experience.
Kristen shared that one of the key areas Zoom wanted to enhance in 2021 is networking. She says “Networking, is an area where there really haven’t been great solutions in the market and we hope to make this better for both general attendees and our sponsors.”
Looking at the new Zoom Events platform, some of the things we wouldn’t be surprised to see here include hosted discussion groups, promoted to attendees pre event and accessible in the event lobby on arrival. Also, we expect to see Zoom make much more use out of Zoom meeting breakout groups to build in more discussion and interaction in small groups.
Registration for Zoomtopia 2021 is open to all through September 12, 2021. If you miss out on attending live, Zoom also makes most of its content available on demand post-event.