Stephanie is an experienced content creator/editor/strategist. She joined the content marketing Institute in 2016. Before that Stephanie has been to Content Marketing World as a consumer of content because she was running a content marketing group for UBM. As a General Manager of the Content Marketing Institute, her goal is to help educate brands about creative ways to engage customers and turn them into obsessed customers.
In this episode:
- How does one make the transition from in-person to the virtual event in the middle of a major crisis.
- How much time and effort does it take for a team to go through the transition.
- What are the biggest challenges of going virtual.
- How did the team decide on how to scale the#CMWorld tracks and what tracks to scale back.
- How to collect feedback from the attendees and use that guidance to adapt on-the-go.
- What to do with the sponsorship packages, and how to help sponsor with the adjustments.
- What should leaders do and how can they deal with their teams during the transition to minimize the team member’s frustration during the process of change.
- How to adapt and conduct regular team communications.
- How to create the sense of a community of the physical (and virtual) event.
Quotes from the episode:
“We did a lot of learning along the way, but honestly, the key was just regular communication.”
“We decided that we would prerecord the bulk of the content and have live sessions within. And the reason we did that is that it doesn’t matter how much planning and organizing we do, we are at the mercy of the internet.”
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I have a very, very special guest today. Stephanie Stahltahl General Manager of the Content Marketing Institute and Content Marketing World. And I have known her for several years, probably four or five years. And she is going to be with us and talk about the transition, the journey that she has gone through from doing physical events to virtual events.
So let’s get started. Hey, welcome, Stephanie. Glad to have you on my show.
Stephanie Stahl: I am so happy to be here, Pam, and yes, we have known each other now for five years, actually five years.
Pam Didner: I was like, you know why she has to be several years, but I’m not sure. Amazing! And I have to tell the audience that you look the same. You haven’t changed. What the hell? What kind of night cream are you using? (laughs)
Stephanie Stahl: (laughs) I think your camera needs to come into focus, but thank you! (both laugh).
Pam Didner: And so, um, did I miss anything? Do you want to tell our audience a little bit more about yourself?
Stephanie Stahl: I’ll tell you a little bit. So that’s the way we’ve known each other for five years because I joined the content marketing Institute in 2016. Before that, I had been to Content Marketing World as a content consumer because I was running a content marketing group for UBM. So I’d been to two previous Content Marketing World. So we knew each other before we knew each other, you know?
Pam Didner: Oh man, it was meant for us to meet in 2016.
Stephanie Stahl: I think so. Absolutely. So, but yeah, so I’ve been, um, you know, with the brand since then and had, it’s currently owned by a company called Informa. Uh, part of our, uh, global, uh, media and events company and, um, get to leverage lots of fun and great things from the company. And, um, you know, of course, we’ve got the most amazing CMI team. They’re just the best team ever.
Pam Didner: I love Content Marketing World. And I’ve been there. I’ve been speaking ever since the inception.
And it’s a true community. I mean, over some time now, I haven’t seen everybody. There are regular attendees. Some speakers talk about know-how on an annual basis, and they continue to bring new topics to the community.
So can you share with us, you know, how do you make that transition? And when you make that decision, like to a virtual event amid COVID? And how much of the time did you and your team kind of worked through to make that transition? It was actually, has been hard for everybody.
Stephanie Stahl: Yeah. It, it was very it’s you’re right. It’s been hard on everybody. Anybody in the events business has a struggling, uh, last year with changes and that sort of thing. And, you know, we did a lot of hand ringing back in the spring. You know, “is it gonna get better? Is it going to get worse?
Pam Didner: Everybody was guessing, me too. I was like, am I going to Cleveland, am I not?
Stephanie Stahl: I know it was a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety because there were so many unknowns. And you know, at that time are thinking, well, gosh, it’s not until October. It’s going to be better by then. Right. Well…
Pam Didner: Yeah, no kidding!
Stephanie Stahl: So we made the official decision in June. We’d already been doing some pre-work to try to figure out. Can it take to do this because a virtual event is very different from a physical event? As you said, the time and the resources, everything is different because in the physical world, you know, we’ve got an operations team that is just amazing, right?
Pam Didner: Amazing. You guys are like on target. Everybody knows exactly what need, what needs to be done and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
Stephanie Stahl: Everybody knows their roles and responsibilities.
They’ve all dealt with issues. They know what to do. If there’s an issue, there’s like a book that has, you know, contingency plans in it for this happens, you do- I mean, it’s just all very. Everyone knows what to expect in their roles and responsibilities. It’s completely different in the virtual world.
Pam Didner: So is that the biggest challenge of going virtual because he completely different set of Martech to do a virtual event?
Stephanie Stahl: You know, so, the technology sourcing was a big part of it. Um, figuring out the project team and who was to do what was also a big part cause process becomes a big part of it.
Pam Didner: I agree. Technology and process, especially when you work for 4,000 people, you know, it’s almost like you have to care about 4,000 people’s needs and not mention sponsors and everybody else.
So do you, can you tell us what technology that, uh, did you guys decide to use and how did I?
Stephanie Stahl: Sure. So we used a platform called Open Exchange, and the reason that we felt so comfortable with it from the get-go, which like we sort of had a head start.
It’s the same company that does our video on demand each year for Content Marketing World. If people want to watch all the sessions after the physical show, we use a platform to put all the videos. So they know us. They’ve worked with us. We know them for so many years of a relationship. So we didn’t have a huge hurdle to get over like many companies like many events do when they have to source their technology because we had an existing relationship.
We also have a group, a task force that’s a global task force within Informa. It’s a hybrid event, task force. And everyone has been sharing what tech they’re using, what they had, how did you solve them? What best practices do you have? So we have this really rich network of brands kind of helping everybody each other out.
Pam Didner: You probably have maybe industry events, right? And everybody’s doing the industry events on their own, but you guys got together, and you share a lot of inflammation, saying, “Hey, we use this technology? Nah, Not so much. We use that; hey, that works very well.” So there is that information sharing.
Stephanie Stahl: every week, a different event shares, you know, their experience, and so we hear firsthand, you know how well it went, uh, how did the technology perform? Uh, what was the feedback from attendees? What was the feedback from sponsors? What would you do differently? So all the events that haven’t happened yet, it’s such a great, great set of guidance, you know?
Pam Didner: So they don’t make the same mistakes like the previous witness did or tried to take care of anticipating some problems.
Stephanie Stahl: Exactly. Exactly.
Pam Didner: With that being said, um, I know when I was talking to Andrea, you guys have to decide to scale back on many attracts. When you guys did the physical events, I remember, um, you have over 200 sessions and various topics. How do you guys decide how to scale the tracks and what tracks to scale back?
Stephanie Stahl: Yeah, it was a pretty tough, tough decision. Uh, we knew there was no way we would be able to run that much content virtually.
Pam Didner: In three days. Yeah. Yeah.
Stephanie Stahl: And you know, part of it, it’s just a very simple, simple reason, right. There were certain tracks, for example, where we hadn’t filled them yet with speakers. We looked at the data from the past few years, which tracks the needs. You know, where are the needs? We want to make sure we do those. Um, in cases we consolidated some tracks where, you know, do we need this one and this one, probably not, as long as we can get the right set of speakers, we’ll be good.
So, I mean, you know, part of it just, it was easy because we’re still working on it, right? And part of it was just data-based.
We want to make sure that we are covering the topics that we know are most important.
And so that’s looking at last year’s data, that’s looking at research that we do, you know, to try to factor …
Pam Didner: … into it. So would that be said, can you share with us with 4,000 people event? It’s a huge event. And how many tracks and also sessions did you guys decide on it? I mean, you can give us a range. That’s fine.
Stephanie Stahl: We were about 20
Pam Didner: Oh, okay. Twenty sessions or 20 tracks?
Stephanie Stahl: Tracks. And then, um, what we do another place we did scale back though, are our workshops and industry forums.
Pam Didner: Yeah, that makes sense.
Stephanie Stahl: And that’s something we’re taking a close look at too. This year, to see how much consumption there is because our workshops and forums tend to be longer, all of our track sessions and keynotes 30 minutes.
We did some research beforehand, what do attendees feel is the right amount?
You know, the right amount of time. And without question, it was 30 minutes or less.
And so we decided track sessions would be 30 minutes. Keynotes will be 30 minutes. Workshops and forums, however, are anywhere from an hour to two hours. We wanna see how people feel about watching something that long. And so far, we see some pretty good results. Um, but that was one thing when we went into it, it’s like, “let’s, you know, let’s keep a close eye on that to see if people are willing to sit for an hour and a half or two,” when they know, they’ve got, Oh, and this other content.
Pam Didner: So you mentioned 20 tracks or audio 20 sessions. I mean, are they the same?
Stephanie Stahl: All the tracks have at least four sessions. Each track would have at least two hours of content.
Pam Didner: You know, I did- I wasn’t even manager full about five years, and I did one of all events virtually just for, uh, not necessarily to replace the physical events, but it’s kind of like a pilot. We did that about 10, 11 years ago, and a man that we had.
So many problems will cause virtual events glitches like the bandwidth not working right. And then people did not know where to go or the design of that virtual event – which is when you walk into it and see the virtual exhibit hall. Then, you know, all of that stuff – they tried to create that virtual event experience, um, we use the tool, but there were a lot of glitches. But that was about 15 years ago. And I think that things probably have improved tremendously.
So, and speaking with a personal experience in terms of when we were doing that, many of my team are seasoned, very experienced physical event managers. But when we, they were doing that physical event, we just like tripping over each other. It is just like not having clear roles and responsibilities, and also, the technology has a flaw.
How do you deal with the team that you are leading under your leadership?
They have to make that transition because when you take care of speakers on-site like Andrea states, you know, me on site, it’s different from taking care of me virtually. So how do you help the team to deal with their frustration?
Stephanie Stahl: Yeah. I got to tell you from the get-go. It was a “challenge accepted” by this team. I mean, just everybody. I was like…
Pam Didner: We gonna do this! Alright! We’re just gonna do this! (laughs)
Stephanie Stahl: We’re going to make it the best we can make it. We did a lot of learning alone way, of course, too. Um, but honestly, the key was just, and this will sound cliché’, but it’s just regular communication. You know, we started to see it. You know this is the best focus for Erica. This is the best focus for Laura. Andrea knows where her focus is with the speakers.
You know, like we started to find, you know, the right paths. And then we got, just keep connecting the dots, you know, and we would have regular calls, and we would have regular calls with, uh, the technology provider because, you know, we were testing, testing, testing. I mean, up to the minute.
Pam Didner: Close communication is critical, especially when working with a big team.
Stephanie Stahl: Absolutely. And then we tried to have, you know, um, a central point of contact too, between the CMI team and the production team. So that 20 of us weren’t asking questions and, you know, we are not sharing answers. And, you know, we, we, we use a team-based approach to, you know, like literally the technology teams, uh, so that we can track things.
And, uh, it worked. I mean, very few things slipped through the cracks. Um, we didn’t step on each other too much, you know, we just, I mean, we did some learning along the way. No question about it.
Pam Didner: When you say regular communications, how often did you guys meet once a week or so? We kind of like Agile 30 minutes every single day. How did that work?
Stephanie Stahl: Yeah, so for some of us, it was every single day.
Smaller groups met more frequently, and that little dial button on our team’s channel where you can just call somebody.
It got used a lot, let’s just say. (both laugh)
Pam Didner: “Hey, let me ask you this question? Can you answer right away, please?
Stephanie Stahl: I know! “I’m calling you now!” Um, we kind of joked internally a lot too. It’s like, “All right. Great. Thanks. Thanks, Andrea. Okay. Talk to you tomorrow? Oh, no, probably (laughs) okay.”
Pam Didner: With the internal team, you can do a lot of, how should I say it, regular communication. Nobody is going to be bothered by it because you guys are part of the team. What about sponsors? You know, how do they adjust, and how do you communicate with them? You probably cannot call them or have a daily call. They are all very busy.
So they also have to make adjustments. So how do you deal with that challenges? And also, in terms of packaging, obviously offline, you’ll have a sponsor package, and now you probably have to modify that. So can you share with us in terms of the sponsor package changes and how you communicate with them?
Stephanie Stahl: So it’s very hard to replicate what a sponsor can do in the physical world.
And so, you know, this is another place where we’re learning. We’re still learning. Right. Um, and you know, we saw high levels of engagement in certain places and not so much in other places. And so the idea of just having a virtual booth it’s pretty difficult. It’s pretty difficult to draw people in.
Pam Didner: I agree. We tried that at ten years old, 15 years ago, we created a virtual booth. You know, we have this avatar walking in all within the virtual space, and you can see everybody’s signs. But even with that back then, the engagement is still very, very low, even though you created that virtual booth.
Stephanie Stahl: It’s true. I mean, we, we want to create an advisory group with some of our sponsors and internal folks too, to kind of talk through it even more because we still haven’t found the right solution. We haven’t found the perfect solution. I should say. You know, we, we tried to build what we call “hubs,” You know, not, we didn’t want to try to replicate like the booth per se. Still, we tried to create hubs for sponsors where they could be there for drop-in, I mean, you know, you can just pop in into a zoom, open Zoom meeting, you know, during office hours and talk, you know, do a demo for me or something where you could set up. There was a calendar function where you could set up one-on-one meetings.
Sponsors offered up all sorts of assets with the same hub. So we try to make it rich with content.
And, you know, it’s still not the same as when somebody is walking past your booth, and you can just engage. You make that eye contact.
Pam Didner: I agree. You make eye contact and see each other. “Hi! How are you?” And of course, somebody has to respond, and then we’ll start a conversation, but you don’t have that layer or that, you know, that intimacy. So that’s been taken away.
Stephanie Stahl: We did create a tech showcase to where it was fast-paced, uh, where each of our sponsors had about, you know, 90 seconds or so, to like, talk about why their product is innovative or different or game game-changing or what it can do to help a customer. We tried, we, we sorta caught it like Shark Tank without the snarky investors.
Pam Didner: Or something like a buyer chat is very quick. Get to the point, tell the audience what you do, and if they are interested, they will be in touch with you.
Stephanie Stahl: Right. Exactly. Yeah. So we’re still looking at ways to help with that engagement for sponsors and to help them make meaningful connections within a virtual platform. And, um, as I say, we haven’t found the perfect solution yet, but we’re going to work hard on getting, getting to it.
Pam Didner: Content Marketing World is such a unique event for content marketers.
And many of them attended almost every single year. And I know some of them very, very well and dearly. Um, so there is a sense of community, like seeing each other and hugging each other.
And also you are, you know, dance party legendary. Legendary! (Stephanie laughs).
So guys, If we like to dance, come to the Content Marketing World. It’s very, very fun! So, how do you create the sense of a community of the physical event? I have a hard time imagining that. So talk to us, please.
Stephanie Stahl: Such a great question. So, we went about it in a couple of different ways. With pre-event thinking, time event, and post-event thinking.
We used to call that POP – Pre Onsite Post – but now the Onsite is missing. (Pam laughs) So we don’t have a good name for it right now. But, so, you know, pre-event, we created a private Facebook group for attendees only.
Pam Didner: Yeah, I joined.
Stephanie Stahl: Yes. I’ve seen you in there. So that was our pre-event to start, you know, getting people warmed up, introduce people to each other, the number of first-time attendees who came in there and said, “Oh, that’s my first Content Marketing World. I’m from such and such…” And just to see some of the ones who have been there for five, six, seven years or whatever, just warmly welcomed them right away. So it was so nice. I mean, it is a sign of the community, right?
So, during the event, of course, we had the group, the Facebook group running. We also had lots of activity on the Slack channel, our Twitter feed exploding with so much great stuff. Um, so we try to keep up those channels.
But then, within the platform itself, you know, we had six different “birds of a feather” sessions, small group discussions around certain topics.
Um, you know, we have live AMA; as you know, you were a part of “Ask Me Anything” that was live as a chance for people to ask questions directly for you.
And so we looked for ways on the platform, as well, when you bring a live aspect to things, it makes you feel like you’re part of a community. In hindsight, we wish we had done more “birds of a feather” sessions because they were very well received. And so that’s a note for us for next year.
So anybody who’s planning a virtual event and you’re thinking about doing, you know, “birds of a feather” sessions, do them. And do a lot of them. You know, give people lots of choices. And, uh, it’s just a great place to gather.
Pam Didner: Is that very similar to like, um, you know, I remember at events a lot of time, the event organizer will do kind of like a virtual round table during lunchtime. You know, they have specific topics like, and, uh, and, uh, you can see, “Oh, Content Marketing World is this-“Oh, I’m sorry. “Content marketing is this table. And the sales enablement is that table.” Is that very similar to a type of stuff?
Stephanie Stahl: Very similar. You, you pick a topic, you have a moderator.
Pam Didner: Wait, no! Let’s not do that (pretends to cry)! Look at my face! Look at my face! Please, I am crying. I am suffering. (Stephanie laughs) This will be tragic, okay, for 2021 (laughs).
Stephanie Stahl: We hope to be in-person, but at least we will do a hybrid, right. So we will offer virtual elements. So we’re going to keep in mind anybody who can’t travel or doesn’t want to travel or whatever is going on in the world.
Pam Didner: They have an opportunity.
Stephanie Stahl: Right. Exactly. And I think these kinds of, um, you know, small group “birds of a feather” sessions would be key to it.
Pam Didner: Very good. So the last question is, honestly, whenever I talked to event managers, um, in the past probably four or five months, I know that you guys went through hell. Everybody, somehow it’s called “The Good Place.” I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Know if you watch the show? Um, I love it.
Do you have one or two advice for people who are currently doing the virtual events or in the process of exploring doing a virtual event?
You know, if you have to give someone advice like one or two is like, “Oh my God, these are the things you have to have, have to do, what would that be?
Stephanie Stahl: Um, definitely start early. The preparations are key. We made our move to or decision for virtual in June for an October event.
Pam Didner: You think that’s enough time. I mean, now hindsight is 2020 where you made that decision a whole lot earlier?
Stephanie Stahl: I wish we had. Yeah, I, now we got it done, and I feel like that’s, that’s still a pretty significant amount of time, but in hindsight too, a little bit more time would have been great gust, you know, I mean-
Pam Didner: I, I, 100% agree I do.
Stephanie Stahl: The second thing is we decided that we would prerecord the bulk of the content and have live sessions within.
And the reason we did that is that it doesn’t matter how much planning and organizing we do. We are at the mercy of the internet.
Pam Didner: You are at the mercy of bandwidth.
Stephanie Stahl: Exactly. And if something, you know, a speaker’s bandwidth wasn’t good, you know, if there’s a Zoom outage, like there was back in September, you know, I mean, there are certain things that we can’t control. And we knew that, too. I mean, even with all of the live elements we did have, it was a risk, right. By prerecording, we had very few technical glitches during the week.
And, uh, so I would highly recommend that you know, just have a mix. Have a mix of prerecords just to play it safe. So those would be the two things. And I would say to you just, you know, if, if it’s a big event, like a big conference event, like we have to set some pretty firm and fair deadlines for content.
Pam Didner: “Shame on Pam! Pam did not meet the deadline!”
Stephanie Stahl: (Laughs) Pam met the deadline! You did, you did. Not everyone did (Pam laughs).
Pam Didner: I work very, very hard, to be honest with you. And I know Andrea is always on top of things.
Oh, by the way. If y’all listening, Andrea is the speakership manager, and then she has been doing that for Content Marketing World for a long time. And she’s fantastic. Always on top of things.
Stephanie Stahl: She is amazing.
Pam Didner: And to imagine that the peak of over 200, some 250 sessions and she has to manage – babysit, literally I use the word babysit – 250 speakers. I mean, I cannot do that. I would kill all of them seriously (Stephanie laughs), including myself. And she’s always so patient, and I always want to accommodate her deadlines whenever possible. But sometimes I can’t and that she and I was “I’m sorry, please don’t kill me! Please go kill me!”
Stephanie Stahl: No, you were, you were great. I mean, you know, even in the physical world, some speakers were walking with a thumb drive and say, “Okay, here’s my presentation.” So last minute.
Pam Didner: Don’t do that. Actually. I tried
Stephanie Stahl: It happens, you know?
Pam Didner: I understand the pain point. So thank you so much, Stephanie, and so happy to have you on the show, and you share a lot of good nuggets and, uh, for people who are interested and are exploring and, um, the virtual events. I appreciate it.
So I have one last question I want to ask you, and this is kind of like a silly question. What is your most useless talent that you have that you contribute to this society nothing, literally?
Stephanie Stahl: Goodness. Um, that is such a tough question. I’m going to stay, and people may think I will be a little weird. So I have a twin sister and-
Pam Didner: I didn’t know that!
Stephanie Stahl: You didn’t know that?
Pam Didner: I didn’t know! Next time, you have to bring a twin sister to the event and just have to show that in two different places.
Stephanie Stahl: Wouldn’t that be fun? That’d be fun. Yeah, and so we’re identical and, um, I’ll be thinking about something in the past, and for some reason, she’s doing the same thing, or something comes up in conversation, and we’re like, “Oh wait, were you thinking about that, too? That’s weird.
Pam Didner: Wow. So it is real. It is real!
Stephanie Stahl: And it’s useless to anybody and everybody, except for the two of us, maybe (both laugh).
Pam Didner: I love it! I love that answer. (laughs)