Managing the risks of virtual events

Australia is currently dealing with its second wave of COVID-19. And event organisers, many of who were hoping to ride things out until we return to normal, are facing the realisation that ’normal’ may be a long way away.   

Of course some have seen the current environment as an opportunity to explore alternatives. According to Eventbrite there has been a 2,000% year on year increase in online events. Yet others have been waiting on the sidelines, hoping it will all blow over. At a C-Suite level, the most common reason to avoid online events is the perception of risk. 

Following is a breakdown of the four key risks of online events and how we help clients overcome them.

The risk of attraction
The risk of attraction is the risk associated with marketing our event and getting people to attend. How can we promote and sell tickets to an event when it doesn’t have a track record? When we don’t have footage or testimonials from last year’s event? Or when deep down we’re not even sure ourselves how the event will look and feel online?

Attraction risk also extends to sponsors. How do you entice sponsors to support an event when you don’t know how many people will attend? How do you translate old branding opportunities such as a banner in the foyer into online space?*

*The value proposition of virtual events for both audience and sponsors is actually very attractive. We do a lot of work with clients to help them understand that proposition and articulate it. We often go so far as to produce promotional videos to market the event and hold education sessions with event sponsors. 

Although attraction risk is a very real short term problem, over the long term it’s the least significant risk. Over the long term, the answer to attracting both an audience and sponsorship is simple.

Deliver an event that’s amazing.

If you do that, your audience will rave about it and sponsors will come flocking. But the inverse is also true. If you deliver something average it’s incredibly easy for your audience and sponsors to go elsewhere. 

The risk of attention
Fundamental to delivering an amazing event is keeping people’s attention. The risk of attention doesn’t have the biggest consequence, but it definitely has the highest likelihood. Why? Because most seasoned event organisers aren’t yet familiar with the nuances of online events. 

Maintaining attention online isn’t easy. Every minute of your event you are competing with a world of fine-tuned distractions. There are emails to check, text messages going ding, YouTube videos to watch, and Zoom calls to attend.

We encourage event organisers to think of their event in terms of TV. TV programming has evolved over decades to capture and maintain our attention. But online events can be even better than TV. Unlike TV, online events provide an opportunity for your audience to contribute and shape the content. To do this, events need to be live, your audience needs to be engaged, and your programming needs to be spot on. 

The risk of execution
We often see this as the biggest risk. This is the technical risk associated with getting the event up and ensuring people can access it. Over the last few months we’ve all been exposed to webinars, Zoom calls, and other online events that didn’t go to plan. 

There is also execution risk when it comes to physical events. A power outage, a fire, a missed flight…or a pandemic can all wreck havoc with our event.

Understanding the underlying technology, how it works and how it connects is incredibly important. Not only to give you the reassurance that risk is manageable but also to ensure you have plans in place should something go wrong. 

The risk of inaction
“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.” – Helen Keller

All this talk of risk might have you thinking ‘Why bother? Let’s just wait for this to blow over’. But the biggest risk right now is the risk of inaction. 

Given the current roller coaster we are on, how sure are you that we will be back to ‘normal’ next year? Or in two years, or in seven? And how sure are you that within that unspecified time frame your audience and sponsors will wait for you? 

The risk of inaction is the result of two aligned forces. First, the longer this goes on the less likely people will want to go to the types of events they previously went to. They will be cautious about travel. They will be forced to wear masks. They will avoid networking and unnecessary social interactions. And second, online events will keep getting better. The technology will improve. New approaches to networking will be devised. Programming will get better. 

As I’ve previously written, inaction can turn operational risks into strategic ones. You might avoid the risks of attraction, attention and execution but in doing so you create a new risk — the risk of irrelevance.

Scaffolding Digital Projects

In my last post I talked about the legacy of Zoom and how, suddenly, most of our customers, suppliers and colleagues are feeling quite au fait with video conferencing. But, as I pointed out, Zoom is just one step in the journey of video. Once your organisation has mastered Zoom there are so many other, bigger, and more valuable video-driven opportunities to consider. But what are these opportunities and how do we get there?

Let’s look at this in two parts. First, I’d like to give you an example of a bigger opportunity. Second, we’ll talk a little about how we can build towards it.

So first, here’s a concrete example of a ‘sophisticated’ video project I was recently involved in.

A couple of weeks back I was involved in the delivery of an online event with the crew from Pirate TV (Dave and Mykel Dixon) for RCSA (the Recruitment and Casual Staffing Association of Australia and New Zealand). ‘ReForm’ was a live streamed online event that attracted nearly 500 (paid) attendees, 25 presenters and over five hours of live content (approximately 10% of the content was prerecorded). Although it’s challenging to quantify the value of marketing and promotion, it’s likely the event created more than $100,000 in value between ticket sales and sponsorship opportunities.

But how do you go from a Zoom call to delivering a $100,000 event? The answer is scaffolding.

In no particular order these are the other projects that the Pirate TV team have previously delivered to build the skills and knowledge required for the ReForm event.

  • Videoconferencing internally (Zoom)Videoconferencing with clients
  • Recording our own promotional videos
  • Recording promotional videos for clients
  • Setting up a personal studio
  • Setting up a studio for clients
  • Designing and running own events
  • Designing and running events for clients
  • Designing and running an online event
  • Designing and running own conference (physical)
  • Designing and running a conference for a client (physical)
  • Hosting our own events
  • Hosting events for clients
  • Speaking at client events
  • Live-streaming own physical events
  • Running a distributed online event for ourselves
  • Running a distributed online event for clients
  • Producing a TV show for ourselves
  • Running ReForm

A couple of things to note. First, I didn’t do all these projects myself, some were done by the other members of Pirate TV. Second, most of these were done before COVID. In fact, the only projects that we delivered entirely after COVID were the last four – running distributed online events for ourselves and others (where all the speakers and production crew are in different physical locations), producing a TV show for ourselves and then we ran ReForm.

In many cases, the next project was only incrementally more difficult than the one before. Even still, I imagine this list might feel a little overwhelming. But before you lose heart, the truth is, the ~$100,000 value of ReForm is DWARFED by the value that was generated in getting there. The power of scaffolding is that you don’t need to wait until the end to create value, you can create value along the way. In fact, the power of scaffolding is that you get paid to learn. Each project not only delivers value, it delivers learning and the learning then illuminates the path ahead.

If you want help in scaffolding your video projects in a way that can deliver immediate value, arrange a time to talk about the Digital Champions Club…and if you’d rather just jump to the end and want to deliver an extraordinary online event but without all the time and effort, please get in touch to discuss Pirate TV.

Zoom’s legacy

As social isolation restrictions start to ease across Australia, there are many who are looking forward to getting back to the office…or perhaps more accurately, getting out of the house. There has been much talk about the impact of Zoom (or Teams/Skype/Meet if your organisation is otherwise inclined) on how we work. Most recently, that talk has turned to Zoom fatigue. The feeling that we are all Zoomed out and looking forward to meeting people ‘face to face’ again…or perhaps more accurately ‘body to body’ (as Zoom does faces quite well).

But before we collectively throw away our webcams and relegate our virtual backgrounds to the bin (Mac) or recycling (Windows) let us pause for a moment and consider the legacy that Zoom will leave.
Over the last couple of months everyone has suddenly become very comfortable with videoconferencing. They’ve done it because COVID-19 required flexibility in terms of where people can work from, but its legacy will be much greater than that. Organisations are realising that apart from flexibility, videoconferencing can dramatically reduce travel cost. This is less evident when we talk about getting coworkers together when we could have used the meeting room down the hall but incredibly evident when we think about meeting with geographically dispersed customers or running training workshops for a sales team.

My live streaming studio

Zoom’s adoption might have been driven by a need for flexibility but its legacy for organisations will be reduced cost, better customer service, and more timely conversations (there is also the potential for a positive legacy for employees, the ability to work remotely and yet still maintain the ability to effectively communicate and collaborate has meant improved work life balance and greater autonomy).

So far, most organisations have been happy to deliver an MVP-Q (Minimum Viable Production Quality) when it comes to videoconferencing. This can be excused because of the operational scramble of the last few weeks, but don’t confuse a proof of concept with the final product. If your business wants to tap into the huge lead generation and cost saving opportunities that videoconferencing can deliver, they will need to lift their game. We have all been inundated with low quality Zoom webinars (I spoke to one colleague who is currently getting 20 invitations a week) and organisations are going to have to get good quickly if they want to stand out.

And if you want to get good at video quickly, you might be interested in the Digital Champions Club. We’ve helped a bunch of organisations get self sufficient in video building the in-house capability for high quality video conferencing, webinars, live training events and content marketing. If that sounds interesting you should get in touch.

A New Golden Age of Experimentation

Let’s all start by taking a deep breath.

[insert 20 second pause here]

Things have gotten a little crazy of late. Like many of you, a big chunk of my business has taken a nose dive. Last year I spoke at more than 20 conferences and was already booked to speak at another dozen or so this year. Now most of those events have been cancelled or postponed. And in my day job running the Digital Champions Club, many of my clients are in absolute turmoil, suddenly needing to re-imagine their products and services as digital first offerings. And layered on top of this there is the personal anxiety and uncertainty that Coronavirus has brought with it.

With all that’s going on, is it wrong that I feel super excited right now? I mean genuinely excited! Pumped! It feels like in every Zoom call (or even on my old school mobile phone) I end up turning into this bubbly fountain of energy and enthusiasm. 

And why so much excitement?

We are currently experiencing the greatest opportunity for experimentation, growth and learning most of us are likely to see in our lifetime.

Business as Usual (and even Life as Usual) is currently on a respirator in an overcrowded Italian hospital. The question is, do we really want it to recover? And if that seems a little cruel…if it does recover, are there some permanent changes we’d like to see?

For instance, now that we’ve had to trust so many people to work from home could we perhaps give them the opportunity to work from home more often? Or provide greater trust by default? Or, now that we’ve found great ways to connect with people over video conference, could we continue to do so and save a bucket load of time, money and emissions on unnecessary air travel? Or now that we’ve temporarily been invited into people’s homes, met their kids and their pets, perhaps we can allow people to be a little more human in the workplace?

For me though, the number one thing I’d like to change about Business as Usual is our approach to experimentation (and it’s good friend innovation). The ‘We’ve always done it that way’ mindset is an age old barrier to innovation. But right now this statement is almost meaningless. First, we can no longer do it the way we’ve always done it and second, we have ample new examples of how doing things different can have massive benefits.

But when this is all over BAU will come back to rule again. We will feel relieved and be desperate for some stability and normality (whatever that is) and want a break from all this change. So while we have the momentum let’s not waste it. Let’s experiment our little hearts out in the knowledge that right now it’s OK to do something different and try something new.

We are in a golden age of experimentation and discovery but who knows how long it will last.

Some things I’m working on

Helping clients to host epic online events
I’ve started a new venture called ‘& Now Events’ with the incredibly talented conference speaker and MC Mykel Dixon and his film maker brother Dave Dixon. It started as a way to help our existing clients create meaningful and genuinely engaging online events but then some other people found out about it and we’re now running events every week. If you’re thinking of taking your event online (or worse, thinking of postponing your event until next year) I’d be happy to spare a little time to run through the alternatives.

Delivering online keynotes that don’t suck
There are lots of keynote speakers who will tell you they can do online but it’s disappointing that most end up looking a lot like a webinar. I’m just putting the finishing touches to my home studio so I can deliver a virtual version of the same live mixed audio visual experience that I used to deliver in real life. In fact I’d argue that the virtual version offers some cool new opportunities that were hard in real life. In a keynote I did this week I had Mykel Dixon do a cameo performance half way through the event all without from his home studio in Geelong…insane!

Some guest appearances I’ve made

Ticker TV
I had the privilege of being the first guest on David Banger’s new Change Lab show on Ticker TV…and even my dog gets a gig doing some voice over work.

The Business of Experience Podcast
I joined customer experience guru Rodney Hobbs on his new podcast to explore the ‘experience of change’. This was recorded right as the Coronavirus pandemic was just about to hit.—Change-Experience-Digital-Transformation-with-Simon-Waller-ecd7vp

How small changes create big value

In 2008, UPS upgraded its routing software to discourage drivers from turning right across traffic (or left in the US). It was a small change that created massive savings in time, fuel, car accidents and money. In fact, UPS estimates this one change saves them more than $300 million per year.

You might not run a courier business or invest as much in technology as UPS but the same principles still apply. Using technology, small changes can create big improvements in efficiency and service quality.

Through the Digital Champions Club (DCC) we help growing businesses use a ‘small changes’ mindset to take their technology to the next level. And each quarter a small number of guests get to come and experience the program first hand. The next opportunity is on Friday, March 6 in Melbourne.

“The hardest part was making it think more like a driver and less like a computer.”

Jack Levis, UPS Senior Director of Process Management.

You do not have to be a technology expert to join the DCC. We support both business people to get technology and technology people to get business.

If 2020 is the year you want to move your business from an ad-hoc to systematised approach to technology please get in touch.

What fire can give (words from an optimist)

At times like this we become acutely aware of what fire can take away and how fragile our existence is. The current bushfires in Australia have devastated forests, destroyed property, taken life and choked our (and even New Zealand’s) skies with smoke.

But as these fire take away, they are also in the process of giving. The reduced tree canopy and nutrient rich ash provides the best possible conditions for new growth to emerge. Nature already knows this. Seeds from Eucalyptus, Acacias and Banksia require the intense heat of bushfires for their seeds to germinate and the presence of smoke improves the germination rate of some other Australian plants by 16,000%. Just two years after the bushfires that burnt 90% of Kinglake National Park in 2009, 60 previously unrecorded plant species were found in the park, many of their seeds having laid dormant in the soil for decades or more.

Photo credit: Greenfleet Australia via Flickr

I’ve been wondering what it would mean to apply the concept of fire to my work. If my work was to metaphorically catch fire what would be resilient enough to survive the blaze? What would I genuinely miss if it was gone? And what new and beautiful things might grow in the space that was created?

Being hundred of kilometres away from the bushfires I can’t truly understand the overwhelm and sense of loss that people in these fire ravaged communities are dealing with. As an optimist, all I can hope is that even clouds of smoke have a silver lining.  

And the 2020 Digital Champions Club Scholarship winners are…

Each year the Digital Champions Club offers three 12-month scholarships to amazing organisations doing wonderful things in the community. This years winners are…

…drum roll please…

FirstChance, a Newcastle based not-for-profit who provides early intervention and support for children with disabilities or developmental delay, and their families.


Campbell Page, a national not-for-profit who provides employment support and services to people struggling to find and keep long term jobs.

We are incredibly excited to have both these wonderful organisations join the program in 2020.

You might have picked up that there were three scholarships but only two winners. Although we hoped to award three scholarships we couldn’t. Unfortunately we didn’t have a third applicant that measured up to our expectations in terms of preparation and commitment. And it’s what you say no to that ultimately determines success.

Which leads us on to this week’s blog.

The value of doing one thing well.

A year or so ago we did a bit of DIY around our house, one of the jobs on the list was repainting our staircase. We went and got the undercoat, the paint, brushes, and drop sheets and one weekend we started painting. Like with most jobs you do the easy bits first. On the first day we started with the undercoat, we painted the treads and the uprights but didn’t get around to cutting in around fittings and the bits close to the wall.

On the second day, well actually, we haven’t got to the second day yet. Our half painted stairs have sat in the same state for the last 12 months. We haven’t found time to finish the undercoat and we found out that the top coat needs four days without use to fully cure. We keep meaning to do it right before we go away for a weekend but then we get busy and it gets postponed until next time.

But have we really not had the time? Since starting the staircase we’ve managed to complete a whole bunch of other jobs around the house. We’ve gardened, weeded, moved bedrooms around, moved other furniture around, washed walls, cleaned gutters, put up shelves, washed windows, and moved more furniture (yes there is a pattern).

The world is full of half completed and poorly implemented projects because we’d rather find new easy things to do than finish the hard things in front of us.

For members of the Digital Champions Club there is rarely a shortage of improvements they could make, but if we try to do them all at the same time we won’t do any of them well. We will eventually succumb to human nature and stop doing the hard work that’s needed to finish projects. And unlike my half painted stairs that are still usable (just not very attractive) a half completed technology project has very little use at all.

That’s why we teach Champions to only take on two projects at a time and push back if they want to start a new one before the old ones are complete. There is far more value in doing one thing well than doing multiple things badly…just as there’s value in being able to heed your own advice.

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The Paradox of Growth

Alongside profitability, growth is seen as a cornerstone of organisational success. Growth implies market fit — it indicates that the world wants more of what you do. Growth is generally seen as a desirable objective for CEOs and business leaders but there is an underlying paradox to business growth: the more you grow the harder it becomes to grow.

Initially, growth makes things easier. Organisations gain certain benefits as they scale (sometimes referred to as economies of scale). For example, materials can be bought cheaper, machinery and people can be better used, and overhead costs such as rent and utilities can be spread across greater output. All these factors serve to lower the cost of doing work, which in turn makes an organisation more competitive and, as a result, improves profitability.

These benefits generally kick in quickly but then slowly dissipate (you might get a 20% discount if you double an order but you don’t get a 40% discount if you quadruple it). On the other hand, the challenges of growth start slowly but then rise rapidly. These challenges (sometimes referred to as diseconomies of scale) include maintaining communication as an organisation grows, the problems of coordinating the work of more people, more layers of management and slower decision making, and the need for more reporting, checks and balances to ensure the right work is being done in the right way.

Research suggests that as organisations grow, they reach a tipping point where complexity starts growing faster than revenue which leads to decreasing productivity, falling profits, overworked employees, and growing frustration for business owners. Eventually, they reach a point where the cost is greater than what people will pay and there is no point in the organisation growing further.


…it can push out the point where things get harder. Obviously some organisations grow very big and very profitable, but they don’t achieve this using the same systems and processes they used when they were small. If an organisation wants to grow to its full potential it will eventually need to rethink how it does its work. Key to this renewal is bringing in the technology solutions that automate, simplify, and streamline work, allowing for further growth without increased headcount and the complexity and challenges it brings with it.

Ideally, this isn’t done when everything is already broken but done on a continual basis. Rather than identifying and fixing the things that are already broken, a continuous approach allows organisations to prepare in advance for the processes and tools they might need in the future. Perhaps the biggest challenges for growing organisations is finding the time and resources to do this proactively. This can be a real challenge when people are already feeling stretched, but committing the time up front is almost always less costly than dealing with the consequences later.

If your organisation is experiencing growing pains and you want to do something about it, consider the benefits of joining The Digital Champions Club, a community of practice that shows you all the tools you need to leverage growth through better technology use.

How complexity kills communication

The network effect is generally seen positively. It refers to the idea that as a network gets bigger it becomes more valuable.

The value of owning the first fax machine is effectively zero because there is no one to send a fax to. But add a second fax machine and there are two faxes that can now be sent (A to B and B to A).  Add a third and it goes up to six, add a fourth and it increases to 12. By the time you add a fifth fax machine there are 20 different faxing possibilities. Buying a fax machine when there is already a large network of fax machines is far more valuable than buying the first. The value of the network grows as it gets bigger.

But there is a flip side  to the network effect. As networks grow in size and complexity, maintaining communication and coordinating activity becomes harder. If we were to frame this in terms of business, by the time you reach the status of ‘medium sized business’ and hire your 20th member of staff, you have created the potential for 380 different one on one interactions within your organisation. This means that for every message that is sent there are 379 opportunities for another message to conflict with yours.

Complexity grows exponentially as your business grows and as complexity increases communication suffers. That’s why we end up spending so much time in email and (often pointless) meetings. Research by organisations such as McKinseys and Harvard Business School indicate that in larger organisations, less than 45% of the average employee’s time is spent doing the work that matters to customers.

The rule of three and 10

Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Japanese online retail giant Rakuten, came up with a rule that elegantly captures the challenge of growth. The rule of three and 10 simply stated is ‘Every time a company triples in size – Everything breaks’.

The processes and systems that work well for a sole operator won’t suit a team of three. What works for a team of three will be ultimately unsuitable for a team of 10, and if that team of 10 grows to 30 everything will break again.

Although the organisation only got three times bigger, at each point it becomes 10 times more complex and difficult to manage. This means that as the organisation grows, each member of staff spends more time managing (or being managed) and less time doing the work that matters.

The digital advantage

Thankfully, just as the industrial revolution created new ways to scale production, the digital revolution is creating solutions to address these information challenges.

The digital revolution is a broad shift away from people using predominantly analogue technologies such as pens, paper, typewriters and Australia Post to using Information Technologies such as apps, tablets, keyboards and email.

These Information Technologies, or I.T., have three distinct advantages over analogue technologies in terms of speed (information can be shared faster), cost (common processes can be automated), and accuracy (information is less likely to be misunderstood).

Put another way, digital is the antidote to things that are either slow, expensive or potentially wrong. All of which are considerable barriers to future growth.

If you represent a Not-for-Profit or values-driven business dealing with the challenges of growth, you might be interested in applying for the 2020 Digital Champions Club scholarships. The Digital Champions Club is where I help SMEs find and implement digital solutions to growth problems. If you don’t represent one of these types of organisations you might be interested in checking out the program anyway.

Altruism is dead. Long live altruism.

There’s not a lot I remember from my first year of university but one thing that stuck is our inability to prove altruism. Altruism is the idea we could do something that is completely selfless. Yet when we act selflessly there is almost always a potential benefit that flows back to us, whether it be reputation, respect or just the release of brain chemicals that make us feel good about ourselves.

I most recently experienced this at an event I was speaking at last week in Vietnam. The Genesys CX Leaders Council event had C Suite executives fly in from across the Asia Pacific region to share stories and ideas on how to create great customer experience. Yet the whole afternoon on the first day of the event was spent working on community based CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities. These activities had delegates either constructing play equipment and painting at a nearby children’s community centre or building bicycles to be donated to a local charity that supported children saved from human trafficking. Participating in these activities felt great and provided a nice change from the normal ‘action packed’ conferences I speak at.

Although their generosity is not to be understated, it is also true that Genesys doesn’t run these activities for completely altruistic reasons. These activities provide delegates the chance to talk and build relationships in a way that most conferences don’t provide. In doing so, they provide the opportunity for more open and valuable business conversations to take place, which in turn resulted in value to delegates. The value to delegates ultimately reflects well on Genesys who enabled all this to take place. Although perhaps not intended to be altruistic, Genesys’s approach highlights that we can do well by doing good.

A little closer to home, I have seen a similar pattern play out with the Digital Champions Club scholarships we launched last year. Initially intended as a way of providing help and support to Not-For-Profits and other values-driven organisations, the scholarships have also resulted in significant benefit to the rest of the digital champions community. I think the whole community has wanted to see the scholarships recipients succeed and in turn the recipients have sought to provide value and energy back to the community. Without a doubt, the energy and culture within the program is the best it’s ever been.

Applications for the 2020 scholarships open next week and I’d encourage you to help out deserving organisations by sharing this with your network. Not for altruistic reasons obviously, but because we are all selfish, self-centred scoundrels who only do things that benefit ourselves.

Now click share and feel that oxytocin hit kick in!

Get your copy of the 2020 Scholarship Information Pack by signing up at and learn more details to guide you through your application process.