Conceptualizing, planning, and pulling off COGNITION 2020 was no small feat. Three days of sessions, panels, and workshops brought together the best minds in customer education and hundreds of attendees. And this being 2020, the whole thing took place virtually, rather than in-person.
COGNITION represented Thought Industries walking the walk: Staging our very own customer education event, and striving to give those customers the very best experience and content. For three days, our goals were identical to the goals of our users. We used the Thought Industries Platform for the whole thing.
To look back and get the inside scoop on COGNITION, we sat down with Cammie Brunelle, Event Manager here at Thought Industries. Cammie shared what it takes to stage a user conference that is accessible from anywhere around the globe: the challenges, the benefits, and the teachings.
Cammie, when did the concept of COGNITION first come about?
Customers have been asking for an event of this kind for as long as I can remember. And so in January of this year, we started developing the idea of an annual user conference. At the time this was meant to be a September event in Boston.
Unfortunately, a few months later, the pandemic hit. We had been aiming for a 100-person event in a physical space. Suddenly, we had to pivot.
That’s when we had a bit of a lightbulb moment. We were doing a bunch of webinars around how our customers can leverage the Thought Industries Platform to bring their learning experiences online. The leadership team realized: That’s us! We need to bring the learning experience that is COGNITION online. We realized this was an opportunity to showcase what our platform can do from a virtual standpoint, at real scale.
Was it daunting to flip from a physical conference to a virtual one? How confident were you about this transition?
All events pose interesting challenges. As an events person, you are always ready to pivot at any moment. A speaker drops out or gets stuck somewhere. A vendor falls through. These things happen, and in events, you always have to be ready with a Plan B through Z!
So honestly, switching to virtual was kind of exciting. I had never done a virtual conference before. Immediately, I was excited to be able to extend the COGNITION invitation beyond our original goal of 100 thought leaders and decision makers to a larger group of customers and prospects. We still wanted to maintain the curated, exclusive experience, but going online obviously opened up the possibilities.
This isn’t to say it wasn’t a challenge. We were competing with a lot of Zoom events, and people are experiencing some Zoom burnout. Luckily we have such a talented team, so we were able to create content across all our audience profiles.
What were the most challenging things to translate from a physical space into an online space?
Well, as great as virtual is, events are traditionally a physical operation. A big reason for this is personal connections, which are the currency of events. From meeting a prospect on the floor of a trade show, to getting to know our customers better – these personal moments are essential. Also, they are often impromptu and spontaneous. At events, people are unreserved and open to random encounters. This is harder to replicate in a virtual space.
Also, from a session standpoint, I think a lot of speakers feed off the energy of the room. You risk losing that when you're in a webinar. Things can feel a little more formal.
How have you overcome these challenges?
On the speakers, we’ve been really lucky, because all of our speakers were and are very charismatic. If someone has enough charisma, this will always shine through, even virtually
And then, this is where the Thought Industries Platform really shines. We used Zoom as the delivery platform for the sessions, but the whole attendee experience took place on our platform. And the platform really gave us the flexibility to create a feeling of community and ongoing engagement outside of the sessions. This effect was created both before and now as we work on post-event activities.
How did you pull this off? How did you give the event a life beyond just the sessions themselves?
We heavily leveraged community boards, badging, and gamification. This created a buzz prior to live sessions and enabled attendees to interact with attendees and panelists pre and post event. This meant that sessions weren’t just inert things that were spun up and then expired. They were continuous learning experiences with a lead-up and an afterlife.
Prior to the event, attendees could see a speaker's welcome remarks, read the abstract, and so on. From here, they could start a discussion with other attendees interested in that session. This was a great for collaboration because it allowed attendees to interact with each other and get familiar with the content. This meant that they arrived at sessions already engaged, with the speakers able to see what people were interested in.
What’s even more gratifying is that we are continuing to build engagement after the event. We’re encouraging users to have conversations, talk about what they learned, discuss the questions they still have. All of this lives in one area. It becomes a place where attendees can come back again and again, looking for the latest in customer education, peer communication and idea sharing. They can find out what is happening with Thought Industries and our product roadmap. They can look for opportunities to engage with other like-minded people.
Now that the COGNITION live event is done, what are the biggest things that you learned?
I learned that people really do still miss and crave personal connections. The small talk as they wait for soundchecks and preps to finish, catching people on the way to the restroom or lunch. The attendees miss those opportunities to build natural connections. As I said, we tried to solve this by enabling community boards and chats in between sessions. This definitely worked. However, as great as virtual is, that opportunity to naturally expand your network and establish personal connections is still hard to recreate.
Another thing that we learned: as much as I worried about Zoom burnout and the negativity around the Zoom platform, people loved COGNITION 2020! There was no Zoom complaining at all. Everyone enjoyed the content and felt the speakers’ charisma and character coming through the screen. For example, with Steve Gross, his demeanor and his candidness really came through. That went for a lot of speakers; it was like we were all in a room together.
This just says a great deal about who we are: our customers, and the people within this discipline of customer education. It goes to show how passionate people are about the way their brand is coming across within their customer education programs. It really shows how much work goes into the design: from prep, to planning, to building these frameworks, to actually delivering it. People are so committed to delivering excellence; it’s so energizing to witness it.
What will you do differently next year?
Well, I'm still holding out for an in-person event next year. However, assuming that we’ll still be virtual, I think one of the big things that I would do is make COGNITION even more accessible. I would love to create an event that caters to our customers and prospects around the world. Maybe allow the west coast, east coast, and Europe to all be tuned in to the bulk of the sessions. This year, because we had so much content, we started pretty early for California, and ended pretty late for others. So I think, going forward, we’ll be more mindful of who and where our audiences are.
I would also have loved to have a little bit more fun with the networking opportunities, something that wasn't so specifically topic-driven. We had two sessions that were a little bit separate from the whole customer education topic, on leading with optimism. This kind of broke up the day. I would love to make these general sessions; I think they would have been incredible.
Turning those community boards into actual live hangouts would also have been really cool, as well. Don’t get me wrong, the roundtables were fantastic. They were super engaging, and people had a lot to go back and forth on. But I think bringing that casual networking of chatting in between sessions into a more live environment would have been really great.
What was your favorite COGNITION moment?
Customer Day was really awesome. Being able to integrate COGNITION awards, for the first time ever, in 2020... it really gave us an opportunity to give back and show appreciation to our customers. That was such a great day.
But I think the best moment for myself was officially kicking off Day One. Barry's welcome remarks (free access for this) after that welcome video set the scene, not just for the event, but for our company as a whole. It set the tone for how we view customer education, learning, and the transformation of companies. It's something that we're going to continue to utilize in corporate branding and COGNITION. That was such a galvanizing moment.
But in all honesty, the full three days were just incredible. It says a lot about who Thought Industries is as a company, and the amount of internal and external support that we possess, that we were able to get to pull this off. It was just really fantastic.
What can we look forward to in the events program through the rest of 2020 and beyond?
That's something that I personally look forward to as an events person: how can I continue to elevate our program? COGNITION, in many ways, was a test for our platform, to see if we can deliver the experience that people would normally have in person. And I think that we proved that we absolutely can. Having the ability to begin to forge closer relationships with and among our customer base and the customer education community, enabling people to explore sessions, engage with speakers, and get their feedback is a great starting point and sets all of us up for greater success in 2021.
In terms of elevating the program, curating smaller groups is a great idea I’m going to look into. We could apply the roundtable discussions into smaller groups who are pre-signed and let them engage with the content beforehand. I believe we can elevate that type of format to be much more impactful. It will give people a little bit more of that personal connection, even through Zoom.