Last week, itelligence UK ran four days of virtual sessions in its effort to turn the annual in-person event into something useful for customers and potential customers. Dubbed itelliFest, it worked out pretty well although, for me, the experience was exhausting.
Unlike my colleague Jon Reed, I've tended to eschew virtual events following the catastrophic cluster that was SAPPHIRENow 2020. At best, my attention span runs 90 minutes these days, hardly conducive to a vendor demanding my attention over a full day. But then ever it was so.
Even with in-person events, I stopped physically attending keynotes years ago as more firms live streamed. Why bother getting crushed or worse still shepherded to specific 'reserved' seating when I could get an aerial view from the flying cameras coupled to on the ground backchannel Tweet commentary while still enjoying a cuppa in my hotel room jammies? Attending a near non-stop set of virtual sessions was great for learning but ultimately overwhelming. For the future, I'd prefer to pace myself better. Unfortunately that's not easy with a firm that's an SAP implementation partner across the whole SAP portfolio.
It also meant I could usefully miss out on the almost inevitable drum band playing what was often supposed to be a warm-up for the main event - a male CEO (usually) telling the audience how (usually) gorgeous his firm is and how (usually) great their products are. The implication being that if you're in the room then you're one step away from getting your wallet felt. That's all gone but vendors still try it on and then wonder why they don't get too much by way of leads. So what made itelliFest 2020 different and why did I (mostly) enjoy it?
The company made what I consider the smart move of using the hopin platform. I say smart because field reports and my own experience suggest it is head and shoulders above the current crop of virtual event offerings.
I'll say right off the bat it wasn't perfect (what is?) but the key component of authentic interactivity which Reed has been so scathing about was there and worked on by the presenters in real-time. One thing it showed which I believe is critically important - don't be afraid of difficult questions. itelligence presenters didn't shy away from those and it showed. One area that wasn't apparent and which Reed has talked about in the past - the virtual equivalent of speed dating.
The format used went something like this: opening topic blurbs, pre-recorded customer interviews, discussion on the topic, which included incoming questions, and then a 30 minute Q&A session with the customer. This worked extremely well because it meant you could do something that's difficult in live events: follow up on a customer story almost immediately after it was delivered. What's more, with questions coming in, the sense of authenticity that is hard to replicate in real-world events was immediately apparent. An example makes the point. In the opening keynote, Andy Steer itelligence CTO and the compering face of itelliFest took this question for Michiel Verhoeven, SAP UK & Ireland MD:
AS: I'll start with an easy one says he with a smile on his face. In the last couple of years, SAP has talked about empathy a lot....you've said there's always room to do better with customers. Are there a few signposts you can put out there that people can look for over the next 12-18 months where things will shift in the SAP to customer relationship?
MV: I have four themes, one is of customer outcomes, two is industry cloud leadership, three is partner success and four is coming across as one SAP team rather than 25 different organizations in front of the same customer...let's be honest, do we believe those (great) NPS scores are what our customers are really saying about us?
In the interactive sessions, there were some remarkably frank comments. Dave Hayward, SAP platform architect at Yorkshire Water (not an itelligence customer) talked about a multiple SuccessFactors and S/4HANA transformation. He said:
We have many SuccessFactors modules licenced and a subset of those currently live. We have recruitment, onboarding and learning management live. And to be honest, they've not landed too well, that's partly to how they were delivered.
Asked to expand on that comment, he referred to the problems associated with mapping out processes before implementation coupled to adequate change management. It's a problem we see frequently and one where, in our view, the service providers need to do a better job in guiding customers.
The only problem I saw with the event format was a relative lack of questions from the crowd in the sessions I attended. At times this gave me a near monopoly to continue asking questions but that's OK. My sense is that a certain British reserve kept people's heads below the public parapet. Of course in my case, I have nothing to lose and can readily afford to ask questions that customers might find stupid or lacking in understanding. It goes with the territory.
Usually, we find that customer stories delivered at these events are polished so as to be 100% buzzword compliant but lacking depth. That wasn't the case for the stories I heard. It was clear that the project leads who ran the pre-recorded interviews knew where to lead their customers but the conversations were not overly produced. In an event post mortem, Steer, told me that yes, there had been some editing but it was minor and represented more of a tidying up operation than a deliberate attempt to shoehorm 'required' talking points. I could see that.
The main thing to come out of the sessions I attended was a broad validation of what we see as the challenges SAP customers face. Whether that's continuing to have difficulty with an S/4HANA business case justification - although that is slowly going away as customer realize that EOL is coming for ECC - whether that's making the brownfield/greenfield/bluefield transition decision, the choice of hyperscaler, the best order in which to implement technology or making the right choices today in a challenging environment, the themes are consistent.
It means that service providers like itelligence have to change the way they help customers. Today, it's a lot more than being technical implementers, it's about being a business model partner. In that context, Justin Brading, itelligence UK MD used the event to emphasize the choices of onshore, nearshore or offshore delivery and his firm's embrace of the hyperscalers even while itelligence operates global data centers. It's all part of the shifting landscape and it is good to see providsers working with rather than trying to shoehorn customers down routes that favor only one party.
After the event, I asked Steer for his impressions and he said he was glad they'd made the hopin choice but an analysis of what happened is needed before they can refine their approach in advance of the next set of events. This is one area where, in my opinon, the virtual event wins in comparison to the in-person event. Data is collected in real-time and one of th metrics itelligence is keen to understand is time in front of screen. How useful that data turns out to be is a question for another time but simply having that capability will inform itelligence about ways in which they can improve their event offering. One final nugget worth sharing. Steer said they had about 1,200 registrations and drop out of around 20%. At the in-person events, dropout is normally in the 30% plus range. Whether that is an effect of the pandemic or the relative convenience of not having to travel is perhaps an open question.
This is a developing market and we are in the early stages of understanding how the virtual event works for all stakeholders. Progress has been rapid since MArch but there is plenty to learn. We shall continue to follow these events to see how they shape up. In the meantime, I sense we can chalk this one up as a success for itelligence and its SAP customers.
As a postscript, Timo Elliott, who is a professional presenter for SAP - and is, himself one of the best presenters I know - rendered his verdict:
It doesn't get much better than that.