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RADIO 2020: How to Create Meaningful Engagement in a Virtual World

COVID-19 has forced the tech world onto center stage. Suddenly conferences were given the choice between going virtual or being cancelled. This year, our annual internal R&D Innovation Offsite (RADIO), organized by VMware’s Office of the CTO, shifted to an all-virtual event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception in 2001, RADIO has brought together the best VMware technologists in the spirit of collaboration. While VMware prides itself on being an agile, digitally enabled company, part of RADIO’s “magic” has always been those impromptu attendee interactions that breakdown silos and foster co-innovation. Reinventing this experience into an entirely new format was no easy task; however, echoing the words of our CEO, Pat Gelsinger, “Every challenge brings new opportunities to move faster to the future.” In this post, we’ll take a peek behind the curtain and share how our team pivoted to a virtual RADIO 2020. Perhaps these insights will help you to also seize those new opportunities the next time you are faced with a similar challenge.

Expanding our Reach: Leveraging Virtual to Showcase Innovation to Everyone

One of the first steps is to find any new perks that can come from the complications. Transitioning to a virtual event created the perfect scenario to expand the RADIO brand beyond our conventional R&D audience. No longer confined by the costs of travel, meals, and physical space, we decided to open RADIO to all employees and interns globally. Building upon our newfound ability to scale at large, we also invited 500 technical leaders from Dell Technologies (VMware’s parent company) to help further create synergies across our own Dell Technologies Solutions team. As a result, we hosted more than 12,000+ attendees from 190 cities across 66 countries. This creative thinking resulted in six times more employees than we reached than last year and the number of touch points continues to grow though on-demand replays. This was the first clear demonstration of opportunities being created in the midst of a challenge.

Delivering a Wide Variety of Rich Content at Different Technical Levels

RADIO 2020 showcased over 250+ pieces of unique content. Attendees virtually networked with over 800 contributors to discuss novel ideas and technologies that covered a wide range of topics, from Kubernetes, machine learning, intrinsic security, and everything in between.

Additionally, while the core of RADIO content is technical, we infused an array of non-technical sessions as a means of providing very timely information to our audience. This content ranged from “Mentorship and Sponsorship in a Time of Distance” to “Making Remote Work: How to Master the New Normal” with GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph. We accommodated our audience with varying technical knowledge and expertise and created two new content categories to virtually connect our RADIO attendees. These categories included RADIO Stations to connect fellow innovators, and Global POD Sessions in our Power of Difference (POD) affinity groups.

A full breakdown of our content is illustrated in the image below.


Best Practices for Making Your Conference Virtual

In a virtual world, attendees are always just one click or distraction away from leaving your event. Here are some best practices we discovered during the creation of RADIO 2020:

  1. Prepare in Advance: To avoid attendance issues, allow attendees to preview the agenda early and encourage your audience to register and build out their schedule ahead of time. If it’s a company conference, ensure employees are able to set aside time to attend the event.
  1. Plan for the Audience: If your event is global, develop aspects of your schedule that accommodate attendees in different time zones by having some early/late sessions.
  1. Be a Virtual Guide: Prepare a “Know Before You Go” guide to help attendees better understand how to navigate and make the most out of their virtual experience. Be sure to also include FAQs and contact information if additional help/assistance is needed.
  1. Create Consumable and Interactive Content: In a virtual setting, we recommend to shortening the duration of your sessions as much as possible (ideally 20-30 minutes maximum). To make the content interactive, instead of just awarding points by clicking on the page, develop hidden links or banners to assessments that require attendees to pay attention and engage.
  1. Curate the Content: Too much content is a real thing and can backfire in a big way. In a virtual format, you may need to reduce your catalog of content in order to avoid overwhelming attendees. Additionally, to curb online fatigue, we also recommend a maximum of 3-days for virtual events. to curb online fatigue.
  1. Keep Your Audience Engaged: Gamify content to increase engagement. Keep your audience entertained with your content with a scavenger hunt or trivia. These should be easily accessible to attendees, ideally 1-2 clicks from the home screen. Leverage chat or web-conference tools that employees are familiar with.
  1. Continuously Communicate: Ensure you’re continuously communicating with attendees across internal/external your social channels throughout your event. Since our event was internal, we leveraged several of our Slack channels along with our VMware Social platform. This is a great way to inform attendees about live and upcoming sessions.
  1. Personalize Their Experience: Develop a mechanism for attendees to post self-curated content around their virtual experience as it encourages participation and authentic conversations. For RADIO, we created daily themed challenges that varied from asking attendees to posting their favorite RADIO T-shirt, to showing how they were enjoying RADIO from home.
  1. Develop a Support System: Have a robust event support plan in place to address attendee questions or issues. One of the most difficult things about the shift to virtual is there are many variables that are out of your event planning team control (i.e. Wi-Fi connections, attendee hardware and browser options, etc.). With attendees being able to exit your event with one click, it’s important to resolve issues and questions as quickly as they come in.

Celebrating Success & Bringing Innovative Ideas to Fruition

In closing, RADIO is one of VMware’s most impactful catalysts for innovation. While our event has come to an end, the innovation journey continues, and we encourage all innovators to continue building upon the connections and discussions made during the event. As part of the RADIO program, we’ll also be shepherding hundreds of research papers to bring these ideas forward and make a direct impact on VMware’s future. The possibilities are endless with our wide array of innovation programs.

Jasmine Bennett is a Program Manager for the Strategic Programs and Analytics group within the Office of the CTO. She is currently managing overall program management and communications for the RADIO Program and is based out of VMware’s Atlanta office. Jasmine has over five years of experience in spearheading large scale, global initiatives from conception to completion. Through her passion for people and innovation, Jasmine has become well-versed in navigating fluctuating business priorities, which now includes successfully pivoting RADIO 2020 from an in-person event to a virtual one.