We just finished our first big 100% online national career event. It was a bigger success than expected, and we also learned a lot! This is a writeup of the things I observed and learned as marketeer and organizer of our event.
Every year Cognizant Digital Business Benelux organizes the Digithon career event. It's the event where young professionals and graduates can get to know us, learn what we do and how we do it. We also talk about our graduate program, which is -from what we've hear- still pretty unique in our industry.
Of course, this is also the opportunity for participants to show what they have to offer, so we can perhaps talk about their future at Cognizant and Mirabeau. Not to mention, participants could win prizes by presenting the best solution to one out of four challenges we prepared for them.
Change of course, for the better?
Around the end of February, in the midst of our preparations that started October 2019, Covid-19 became relevant for our organization. We realized that it might be smarter to create an online career event for the participants. Finally, we had to decide that we had to go full online, for both the participants, but also us as organization.
This felt kind of awkward, because specifically our wonderful Digital Studio is our pride and joy and the axis of collaboration and inspiration for many colleagues and clients. The Digital Studio is housed in the Kauwgomballenfabriek in Amsterdam and breathes innovation, collaboration and creativity. All base values that best expresses our work, method and people.
So, our question was: now that we're going online, how can we fulfill on the promise of getting to know people and for people to get to know us by collaborating with us and each other? We had to design our event from the ground up, while maintaining our core values and succeeding in our goals.
Inspire, Experience and Challenge
From previous events we defined three core principles for our career events: inspire, experience and challenge.
We like to inspire people with our work and our view on the world, we like them to experience it firsthand through collaborative workshops and finally show what they've got to offer us by giving them a challenge.
Doing this physically is tricky, but with an online event we're missing a couple of things that we had to recreate from the ground up: a conductive, creative environment, a high fidelity 'ether' to maintain an open dialogue and finally the tooling to quickly collaborate and share.
I really missed looking people in the eyes when we presented, or when we did a workshop.
In a digital company we quickly started fixing our problems by selecting tools to replace the things that were not available anymore. The real challenge however was a bit more complex and as we expected couldn't be fixed by just choosing some snazzy tooling. We had to reinvent our organization, information to the participants and materials alike.
Taking care of the people: clarity and empowerment
There were two things we needed: a general and personal agenda of the day, ways to collaborate and make sure people can find their way online.
Because the experience is paramount of this event, we need to take care of the people first. Not only the participants, but also presenters, coaches, jury and organization.
To make sure everybody flowed into a good rhythm, we created a recurring line of meetings for everyone involved. Step by step we made sure everybody was empowered to build on the experience blueprint we'd set for ourselves.
We also wanted to ease participants into the event, so we made sure that after signing up through Eventbrite they'd get frequent tips and tricks and before the event day also the opportunity to get to know the group they'll be spending time with.
Finally, we also created a detailed planning for each of the participants, coaches and experts so they'd know where to be (in our case Webex-rooms).
But there's the challenge: in previous years our spaces were physical, and it was easy to see if somebody couldn't find their way and help them along. With a digital event our spaces and rooms and the journey of the participants, experts and coaches where 'invisible'. We decided to tackle that challenge as well.
Plan everything and a back channel
To make sure everything would run smoothly we paid a lot of attention to the program. Where in the past years we could rely on quick -on our feet- thinking and having an overview of where people are physically, we now had to preplan all flows so we didn't have to do any on the spot thinking.
So, we preplanned 'milling around time', so people could find their way to the next phase of the day. Also: we needed to preplan bathroom breaks and coffee breaks, so people wouldn't have to be glued to the screen for a solid 7 hours.
Finally, we needed a backbone to rely on, when something would go different than planned and to reach out to every member of our team. Mind you, we had 55 participants, twelve coaches, ten experts, eight jury members, six organizers and two people solely responsible for recruitment and our graduate program!
Whatsapp to the rescue! We created a 'back channel', or Whatsapp group for each of the disciplines (experts, coaches, jury, etc) and we encouraged each team to do so too. We needed each of them and to be frank: it worked perfectly.
Dealing with tech
So, rather than relying on physical spaces and means of communication, we were now fully relying on technology like Webex for presentations and collaboration, Whatsapp for impromptu questions and quick problem fixing and MURAL.co for the collaboration and to execute on the challenges.
To make this work we chose technology we knew would probably work. Either because we have loads of experience with it, already have access to it in our organization, or because we had ready to go alternatives.
One of the biggest unknowns was the connection and means to participate of the participants, coaches and experts. So, we made sure we checked their setup two days in advance, gave them tips and tricks and if things really didn't work, we offered ways to hook up after the event.
Benefits and draw backs of pure online
Like many firsts, not everything goes as planned. You end up improvising to fix mistakes and praying everything falls into place. Most importantly, you learn a lot. Here is an overview of the things we learned.
Test your tooling with a similar amount of people that you expect to be at the event. This will give you a good indication on how your tools will perform. We found that Mural for example had some limitations due to connectivity and the number of participants.
Make sure your conference/ collaboration tool can do the things you think it can. As most of these tools are cloud based, we expect them to be able to everything, but we found that some licensing can be limited. You don't want to find out on the day of.
Give your participants enough breaks during the event. Sitting behind a laptop and receiving lots of information and having to be proactive for a long period of time is difficult. It’s important to schedule in small breaks for people to recuperate.
Working and communicating with people online that you have never met before can be difficult. Physical interaction thus far is more effective than online communication and we don’t know how to pull that up to the same level yet. If anyone has any advice, we would be very interested!
This is what we found are the benefits of an online event:
Travel time is no more an issue. People from all over the Benelux and beyond joined our event, which was quite wonderful.
We can change things way faster, because we just have to push the button to set up something new. Preparation is still very helpful though.
Hiding errors. It's way easier to hide little errors by just routing people to other places, or even skipping a part of your program that doesn't work or doesn't fit.
And, of course there are always some challenges during an event. We had to deal with the following drawbacks:
Despite all our information means, we found out that visibility of people and logistics is a lot harder to do. There is no 'one glance', or 'central hall' equivalence for participants and organization.
Seeing eye to eye, reading the room and being quick on your feet about it is nearly impossible. Most of our presenting people and coaches found that for example webex doesn't make it easy to gage the engagement of people. This is something we do naturally, but very hard through some tools. We're looking into that.
Partying, socializing and celebrating together was also a bit harder than we thought. People like to mill around and start little impromptu chats while enjoying a drink and each other. We wanted to play some music, but Webex is very much unsuitable to share music without making it impossible to have any other interaction. Next time we'll use more suitable platforms for that. We've seen for example the Borrel.App of Q42, a VR party chat application where physical distance translates to a lower volume like in the real world. That works quite nicely.
Organizing this career event was wonderful, stressful and kind of a hassle at the same time. We learned a lot about our own organization and skills, but also about the limitations in the current online tooling.
Our next step is to prepare our next online event and improve based on our learnings and look for better, perhaps even more human ways to engage with people and create an experience everybody can enjoy.
Should you have firsthand tips, or have questions. Please drop me a line. We're more than happy to share and improve.