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Reconsidering the Rich vs. Reach Continuum: Virtual Events

October 22, 2009 - 1 Comment

Is it time to reconsider the notion of “rich versus reach” with respect to the way we hold extended events?

For years, technologists have described the tradeoff between high quality, sophisticated products and those that are available to a very broad audience with the “rich vs. reach continuum.” Central to this concept, of course, is the fact that a product could only offer a rich experience to a very select group of users (often, ultimately, due to cost considerations).

As technology evolves, though, we find that the experiences previously only obtainable by the select few become more broadly accessible. Consider the growing availability and cost of Internet access, mobile phones and laptop computers for consumers around the world.

[Disclaimer: despite what I consider best efforts (for a non-journalist), I wasn’t able to find the original author of the “rich vs. reach” framework and the late, brilliant William Safire apparently never covered it. If anyone can reliably credit its source, please do so in the comments or email me so I can update my post.]

In some markets an interesting dynamic is beginning to occur. The continuum between rich and reach begins to evolve from a single dimension to two dimensions; we can mix and match attributes and price points. Selecting a rich experience ceases to dictate limited reach.

Consider, for example, the options now available for team collaboration and, in particular, extended events with dozens or hundreds of participants. Historically, these sessions were held in person, at great expense to organizers and participants (in terms of travel dollars and times) alike.

Increasingly, meeting organizers are relying on technology to deliver an equally rich (in some cases richer) participant experience at considerably lower cost. With the broad availability of high bandwidth Internet connectivity, emergence of feature-rich web-share conference infrastructure and rapid adoption of social media, virtual meetings can now help bring participants together from around the world, without requiring anyone to leave the comfort of their home or office.

Online, interactive events can offer participants the best of both worlds: they can consume presented content at their own pace and interact with colleagues and presenters in real-time. Many sessions at the 2009 Las Vegas Interop show, for example, were streamed over the Internet to participants around the world. Blogs and Tweets kept these remote participants abreast of the behind-the-scenes activities.

Industry analyst Sheila McGee-Smith commented in a recent No Jitter blog post: “Like watching a sporting event on television, seeing the address in my office on a high-quality monitor was almost better than being there. I could see and hear the speakers very well and easily see the details on their PowerPoint slides.”

Cisco has begun using a similar approach for our events. For example, a few years ago we moved an annual sales training event online, allowing participants to consume considerably more content (since they no longer had to choose between parallel tracks) and interact with subject matter experts through coordinated interactive video sessions offered at times that were convenient to team members around the world.

The results speak for themselves: we were able to increase the breadth of our content six-fold and received an “Excellent” overall satisfaction rating from 71% of participants (only 5% rated the event “Average” or below). These are drastic improvements over the historical in-person format, which severely impacted team productivity due to time lost in transit. Of course, we compromised in some of the after-hours “bonding” but were able to save 95% of our budget, which could be used for focused team building events at other times throughout the year.

Another benefit of this approach is the availability of content after the event. This is helpful for participants who are in different time zones or have conflicts during the time of the live event. Also, this makes the content persistent; they can add value long after the event has ended. Participants’ commentary can also be tied to the original content, allowing future consumers to benefit from the observations of their peers.

Sheila blogged about her experience participating in a virtual analyst conference that our company held in July of this year and her ability to “pause, back-up and listen again” when she wanted picked up something of interest (like DVR for meetings, it seems).

Of course in-person meetings are still highly relevant and, in many cases, necessary. Collaboration technologies are most effective for team members who have developed a personal relationship, which is best accomplished in person, perhaps over a meal, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Some of our most impactful experiences at conferences and meetings happen in the hallways between sessions and over breakfast, lunch or dinner.

With the addition of modern collaboration techniques, perhaps we can cut our in-person attendance at certain meetings by 50% or more. This strikes the right balance between dramatic cost savings, productivity improvement, and the human need to be in the room when forging new relationships or maintaining mature ones.

Undoubtedly, we’ll continue to balance the tension between in person and virtual meeting formats. As collaboration technologies evolve, though, we’re finding that there are fewer tradeoffs to be made and, in some cases, rich and reach might not actually be on the opposite ends of a continuum.

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  1. Great post. And I say so for selfish reasons - mainly because you validate the approaches we've been taking with virtual events and collaboration.Metanomics, for example, which we own, has evolved from a virtual world event in which the 'world' component was the main output. Now, we include live video streaming of the event to the Web and to multiple in-world locations and bridge the ways of viewing the show through text-based chat. Whether you're on the Web or in-world, you can still participate in the discussion.The archiving of the content as a single video on youTube and a Web site, posting of transcripts and, often, blog posts and other enduring materials help to achieve both richness and reach.This model has been successfully applied in enterprise with additional features including the ability to participate by conference call, viewing by iPhone, etc. What's intriguing is our data trends as yours does. We recently completed a study that we'll publish shortly in which we asked the question: OK, so you watched from the Web, but did seeing avatars actually HELP? And the response was incredibly positive - which suggests that even if you can't 'log-in', having a visual reference point increases much so that respondents indicated that they WOULD log in because they've seen the event on-line.This suggests not just richness AND reach but also a new orientation path - watch it on the Web, then decide that you want to actually BE there.Where this really gets interesting is when we're able to have variable participation levels in world"" - imagine being able to ""be there"" but not necessarily set up an account or have an avatar. Your path can look like this:- Watch on Web- Log in to the venue with no avatar - Log in with avatarWhat #2 looks like is still open at this point, although Google's Lively took a similar tack with their rooms. And we're starting to see early development of this type in openSim and Second Life.We've transposed a lot of this model to Immersive Workspaces. the work you guys have done and the data you've collected, combined with the 'proof of concept' of events like Metanomics, helps to address enterprise concerns about creating tangible materials, having different levels of access, and having clear paths to orientation.We're now able to reach thousands of viewers for each Metanomics episode - which, for most enterprise apps is a pretty robust number, and exceeds what they might typically expect of, say, a WebEx or podcast. And resistance to avatars has been on a steady decline this past year, with most of our clients understanding that it adds a richness to the experience that you just can't otherwise get.Thanks for a great post."