Company: Cognos, Inc.
Contact: Zeynep Marasli, Cognos global marketing programs manager
Location: Ottawa, Canada
Industry: Business software and services (B2B)
Annual revenue: $979,300,000
Number of employees: 3000

Quick Read:

Cognos, Inc.—which yesterday (Nov. 12) announced it had agreed to be acquired by IBM—produces enterprise planning and business intelligence software. It makes sense, then, that the company would attempt to constantly improve its own performance, including the execution of its Financial Forum conference events. Cognos regularly held at least 10 forum events a year, in different locations, aimed at staying in touch with current customers and generating new ones.

In 2007, Cognos experimented with a virtual conference format, which offered a complete 3-D simulation of a physical event, including a main stage with a keynote address, seminar rooms hosting five session tracks, a tradeshow lobby, and a resource center. As a result, the company was able to significantly cut conference costs, boost attendance, and consolidate several forum events into one while still retaining the two-way interaction associated with physical events.

The Challenge:

Cognos is Canada's largest software provider, specializing in business intelligence and performance management solutions. It regularly holds conferences that it dubs Financial Forums to stay in touch with customers and generate leads for new customers.

In past years, the Forums visited various cities across North America, with 10 stops in 2006, for example. The plan was the same for 2007 until the company considered virtual conferences, which were intriguing both as an exciting new technology and as a means to save costly expenditures associated with physical events. Still, Cognos was cautious at first.

It took the time to research the market and identify its goals, then set out to find a solution that would fulfill its needs. "We had a specific vision of what we wanted the conference and tradeshow to look like. We wrote down our goals, the features we wanted...then contacted [potential providers] with our list," recalled Zeynep Marasli, global marketing programs manager for Cognos.

The Campaign:

In January 2007, Cognos hired Unisfair, based in Menlo Park, California, as the provider to help put on its first virtual conference. It was planned for June 19, 2007, replacing seven of the face-to-face events scheduled for the Financial Forum tour.

Cognos announced the event to potential attendees in April, beginning with a "mark your calendar" postcard, followed by an online invitation with complete event details, then a last-minute reminder in June.

On the day of the event, registrants logged into a 3-D-styled online environment designed to closely represent the look and feel of a physical conference event. From the Main Hall where they entered, attendees could navigate their way through three areas:

  1. The Conference Hall featured a General Session Hall and Breakout Session Hall. The General Hall housed the main stage, where live keynote presentations were held, and the Breakout Hall provided access to five tracks of prerecorded sessions. Recordings were completed weeks in advance, and the speakers of the prerecorded presentations were made available on the day of the event for live Q&A sessions at the end of each track.
  2. The Exhibition Hall is where Cognos and 10 of its partners hosted virtual tradeshow booths. When attendees entered a specific booth environment, that booth's staff would receive a pop-up screen that allowed them to initiate chats with the participants. Compared with webinars and other live online events that the company had hosted before, "this was more interactive and more engaging," Marasli noted, because it provided a two-way chat capability throughout the event.
  3. The resource center offered downloads for a variety of whitepapers, case studies, and other useful information.

Registrants unable to attend the event on June 19, along with attendees interested in further information, could continue to access all the same areas and content until September 19 as if it were the actual day of the event.

The only difference was in the live-chat function: Maintaining fully staffed booths for the entire period was not practical, so participants were instead presented with links via which to email booth representatives directly.

Unisfair also provided a robust reporting component, which allowed Cognos to track—in real time—registrations, keynote and session attendance, tradeshow booth visits, resource center downloads, and the length of time visitors stayed engaged in the event.

The Results:

Reporting continued throughout the 90-day extension period (through Sept. 19), and by the end 1,232 unique visitors attended the virtual conference (680 on June 19, and another 562 afterward). The event had attracted more visitors than all 10 live 2006 events combined.

The tradeshow booths registered 2,300 unique visitors, and the resource center recorded close to 3,000 downloads, both reflecting that a number of attendees downloaded multiple files and/or visited more than one booth.

Interestingly, about half of the 1,300 original registrants attended on the actual day, which mirrored Cognos's usual 2:1 ratio of registrants to attendees for its physical events. On average, however, the face-to-face events attracted 100-150 registrants and 50-75 attendees, while the virtual conference had a 90% higher attendance rate and replaced seven face-to-face events for a quarter of the total cost that had been incurred for all 10 events in 2006. Expenses for food and beverage, travel and lodging, and facilities rental were spared, and the savings more than covered the cost of developing the virtual event.

As a result, Cognos's cost per lead for the one-day event in June was 33% less than the average for the four 2007 face-to-face events held prior in the year.

Attendee feedback was also very positive, and Marasli said the company definitely plans to use this technology again. "It is a new way to reach our prospects. We are scaling back on live events, and [virtual seminars] will be a part of our marketing mix moving forward," she said, adding that a related event would likely be held at the same time next year.

Lessons Learned:

  • Add convenience to increase participation: Cognos's Financial Forum events target busy executives who don't always have the time to spend an entire day out of the office. The online venue, however, afforded the same experience from anywhere, and the sessions and other content could be accessed during breaks or throughout the 90 days following the event. As a result, this single event attracted more attendees than all 10 2006 events combined and added another 562 unique visitors—almost doubling attendance—during the 90 days that followed.
  • Project management is still key: Although certain tasks were avoided, such as hiring caterers and reserving facilities, the virtual event required its own special arrangements (such as pre-recorded sessions) that necessitated just as much event and project management as a physical event.
  • Even online, give clients time to make plans: Marasli noted that for strong attendance results, it is important to start making announcements a good month-and-a-half to two months prior to the event, and to follow those up with frequent reminders.
  • Do your homework: Because Cognos was very thorough in defining its goals up front and ensured that the Unisfair program could effectively accommodate those goals before moving forward, the process was smooth and rewarding, becoming a strong addition to the company's marketing mix.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via