Reconsidering the Rich vs. Reach Continuum: Virtual Events
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.