For Microsoft Build, Microsoft’s annual showcase event geared toward developers each May, the most tantalizing draw for attendees has always been the opportunity to connect in-person with industry leaders and peers. From shaking hands and touching screens, to demoing new tech and attending crowded after parties—for the roughly 6,000 people who travel to the conference from all over the world, Microsoft Build can be a life-changing experience.

But what happens when physical attendance is taken out of the equation? When COVID-19 crashes the party, what is a conference left with? Turns out, a lot. And in the case of Microsoft Build 2020, which took place in the early days of quarantine, a lot more—as in more than 190,000 online-only attendees, by far the biggest audience in the event’s 10-year history.

Suddenly, here we are one year later, partnering with Microsoft to prepare for Build 2021—which again will be online-only. For us here at Wunderman Thompson, it’s been an incredible 14 months of quick pivots, rapid transitions, mind-blowing learnings, and emotional celebrations. And not just because of Microsoft Build, because of our work on all of Microsoft’s flagship events that have gone online-only: Game Stack, Microsoft Ignite, Microsoft Inspire, and more.

And so, on the eve of the anniversary of Microsoft’s first online-only event, we wanted to take a look back at some of the game-changing things we’ve learned here at WT.

Typically, event marketing has a long arc that allows for carefully curated content. But the pivot to digital crushed everything. What used to take 4–6 months shrank to 4–6 weeks.

New Relationships, Tools, and Processes

Two things became abundantly clear in the early months of 2020: in-person events were a no-go, and the established ways of marketing and producing events were no longer relevant. And because the new digital version of Microsoft Build would also be free and open to all, everything needed to be rethought and retooled—from the registration flow to the content platform to the production format itself.

Getting all of that done in a reasonable timeline is near-miraculous. Doing it under intense pressure can feel impossible. But it was an opportunity we relished. Within days, we drafted and presented to Microsoft new processes and created a new customer journey that utilized a phased approach across the entire attendee experience—one that would ensure that online attendees would feel not just comfortable with the new digital venue (aka the website) during the event, but familiar with it, even before the event started.

Re-Thinking Event Content

At in-person events, the time in between keynotes and breakout sessions is still “event time,” since attendees don’t leave the venue. Networking and connecting—two major goals of any conference—can happen anywhere, even while waiting in line for food or for the bathroom. But when your audience is at home, how do you keep them engaged between online segments?

The answer to this was to bring a TV-production mindset of shorter blocks of programming with interstitial content, in order to tie things together through to the anchor desk. Yet for this to work, the event website, which Wunderman Thompson was primarily responsible for the design, had to be quickly reconfigured to accommodate “always-on” programming. And all associated marketing and messaging needed to match what was happening on the digital venue, too.

Making all of these changes in concert was challenging, but it brought much-needed continuity and flow to a content schedule that otherwise might have felt disjointed or disconnected.

The event websites had to rapidly evolve to not only be the main stage for the events themselves, but a training ground of sorts.

Messaging that Matches the Experience

When the switch was made to go digital-only, all of the pre-made demand gen materials had to be quickly revised to match the new look and feel of remote attendance and participation. All stock photography was quickly updated to instead show people meeting and presenting online—from their home offices, bedrooms, or kitchens—using Microsoft tools and services.

Additionally, short video content was also created, candidly shot from people behind the event, to help convey a strong sense of connection and authenticity—that we’re all in this together.

Compressed Go-to-Market Timeline

Typically, event marketing has a long arc that allows for carefully curated content. But the pivot to digital crushed everything. What used to take 4–6 months shrank to 4–6 weeks. Our challenge now was how to create high-quality content in ridiculously compressed timelines that was still helpful and engaging. The secret we quickly learned? Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

By adopting our new carefully planned phased approach, all attendee deliverables could be precisely defined for each moment in the event journey, including: landing demand gen and registration messaging; effectively communicating event features; preshow tools for attendees to customize their experience; engagement with the community; final prep for attendees prior to start; the live event itself; and finally, post-show follow-up and the availability of on-demand content for missed sessions or repeat viewing.

The secret we quickly learned? Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

The Website is Now the Venue (and the Learning Space)

Already the primary hub for registration and pre- and post-event content, the event websites had to rapidly evolve to not only be the main stage for the events themselves, but a training ground of sorts—to help people get ready for the experience of attending an online event, which, for many of the hundreds of thousands who registered, was a first.

We quickly worked to streamline the visual approach across all digital event properties, creating a universal visual ID and master style guide that could be applied to every facet of the dot-com user journey in order to provide consistency and familiarity. We also quickly pushed for a flexible, templated approach, with new website modules and components that were nimble and could be adjusted on the fly—and just as importantly, that could scale to match the real-time needs of real-time events.

Paving the Way for an Engaging Experience

All the preparation and content generation in the world won’t matter if viewers aren’t happy or comfortable with the format.

Knowing that, Wunderman Thompson and Microsoft put a great deal of thought and effort into setting expectations with attendees—giving them one opportunity after another to familiarize themselves with the new format prior to the live events. “Our digital venue also became a learning space,” noted Candina Weston, [Marketing, Sales and Operations Lead for Global Events at Microsoft]. “Attendees could familiarize themselves with the format ahead of time, to minimize the time needed to learn how to navigate the venue, and maximize the time viewing relevant content.”

This calculated hand holding throughout the various go-to-market phases proved critical early on to Microsoft Build’s overall success. And with each new event after Build, the team made continual optimizations to the user journey and digital venue, based on data and feedback, in order to present the best and most innovative experience possible.

Final Thoughts

It’s not easy to predict when or if in-person events will become the norm again. But with online event registration soaring in 2020 (and 2021), it seems clear that people are not only adjusting to remote attendance, but embracing it. “I want to see more of these kinds of conferences online,” noted one attendee after experiencing Microsoft Build 2020 from afar.

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We’ve had so much success partnering with Microsoft on redefining what an industry event is—and who can attend, and from where—that it’s hard to imagine ever looking back. The past year was incredibly challenging in so many ways, but also rewarding. The insights and new connections we’ve made have forever changed the way we approach events marketing, both now and in the future.

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