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A Big Transition: Lessons Learned Pivoting to Digital Events

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Ali Rastiello, Senior Director of Global Marketing Operations and Digital at Cornerstone OnDemand, joins our guest host Camela Thompson in this Revenue Marketing Report episode. Ali shares Cornerstone OnDemand's lessons learned through pivoting from large in-person events to digital, the keys to keeping a degree of intimate interaction in your online events, and unexpected resource drains.

rastiello
Ali Rastiello

Based out of Austin, Ali Rastiello is the Senior Director of Global Marketing Operations and Digital at Cornerstone OnDemand.

Revenue Marketing Report

Full Podcast w/ Ali Rastiello

A Big Adjustment: In-Person to Digital Events

Every year, Cornerstone OnDemand throws two huge parties—called Convergence—in the form of user conferences. One takes place in EMEA, and the other in North America. Customers use the event as a way to welcome new employees to their team, network with other professionals in the learning space, and attend a stellar performance by a well-known rockstar.

When the pandemic first broke out in the United States, many companies still held onto the optimistic viewpoint that we would only be in lockdown for a few weeks. As time went on, Cornerstone OnDemand made the same adjustment many of us did around the April timeframe:

A mass migration to online events.

"We decided to go virtual, and we pushed the event to the fall, which is actually when it usually happened in EMEA. Then we started that process of how we really think about transforming that very personal and fun, engaging experience into digital. I think that we did well in certain areas, and there were other areas where we've learned some valuable lessons for this upcoming year."

Finding a Balance: Personal Interactions

With industries expediting their migration to digital formats, many of us have discovered that what worked in person doesn't always translate to a digital format.

"There are a lot of things that can happen at a live event that you cannot do virtually. You have to rethink how you even approach the event itself. One big component of Convergence was a group called Cornerstone University, which is dedicated to onboarding, training, and keeping our customers abreast of changes within the product. We held different small sessions throughout Convergence for Cornerstone University. The event team wanted to recreate that same experience virtually, and it ended up being far too much. This year we're pairing that off and not trying to recreate some of the breakout sessions."

Marketing event before and after digital

Ali and her team also found that repurposing budget that would have gone to a major band and instead spending the money on a compelling public speaker significantly impacted attendance and what people took away from the conference.

"We invited Viola Davis to speak, and our head of learning and development interviewed her. Her background is incredibly interesting. She overcame so many obstacles. Her story is incredible and very powerful. They were able to have an intimate conversation over Zoom. It felt like this private, compelling interaction that you were getting to watch. In the background, the chat was open for questions. Moderators fed the questions to the speakers. These touches kept the event interactive.

"Emmanuel Acho also spoke. He's an ex-football player and created Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. He spoke to corporate diversity and inclusion and brought new perspectives, not just about the technology or platform, but input into how the world is changing and how companies need to adapt their policies. This was in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, so it was very timely and relevant."

They were hosting profound conversations between two speakers while still allowing the audience to interact. Moderators were able to pose questions. Cornerstone OnDemand found the technique so successful, they even adopted it for their internal meetings. Next year they plan on taking it a step further with breakout discussions leveraging a webinar platform.

Numbers Don't Lie

Naturally, we were curious to know whether the event format changes positively or negatively impacted their bottom line. Keep in mind that Cornerstone OnDemand is in a niche that has moved from a nice-to-have to necessity with the high volume of employees onboarding remotely today. However, it's still impressive that their revenue from these online events was on par, if not better than in previous years.

When you consider this took place during a pandemic, which reduced many companies' propensity to spend, it's an impressive accomplishment.

"Instead of two events, one in North America and one in EMEA, we were able to host the event in three time zones. Each time zone had regionally specific presenters, and a bit of that region's flavor was incorporated into the agenda and topics they covered. We were able to layer on APJ, giving us more coverage. We've had just as much revenue if not more, come out of this event than we did in a live Convergence. I imagine our ROI was much better because these events were much more cost-effective."

It's Easy to Underestimate LOE

As we mentioned, hosting an online conference can't look the same as an in-person conference. It also requires different resources. If you haven't run a large-scale online event before, it's very easy to underestimate the level of effort!

"We had to pre-produce a lot of the videos. We pre-produced the keynotes from our CEO, our CMO, who is a strategy and marketing officer. She is really involved in a lot of the product strategy because she has a huge background in implementing HR systems and in HR in general. These keynotes were pre-produced and looked slick because we put them in a gorgeous Airbnb.

recipe for digital event success

"This required that we use a high-end camera and hire an actual production company to create the final videos. We mixed in sessions that looked like your typical Zoom conference call. It was a mix of polish and the intimate.

"The other thing to know is that these event platforms do not come with an easy way to skin them to look like what you need. There are a lot of heavy lifts on the graphics team. All of the different little modules where you can click and go do something—well, they all need a graphic. Everything within the platform is just a shell. So you have to introduce your brand and your images. Then there's also the backend pieces that you have to think about, which is where my team came in."

Don't Burn Out! Planning for Down Time

If you've never run a large scale event (or even if you have!), be sure to plan downtime for your team after the event.

"Because we didn't know all of these pitfalls and how much work it actually was, we took our marketing teams down. Our people were so exhausted after doing this that we said, stop all things. Everyone needs to take a break."

Simplifying into smaller events may offer people ways to interact with your company without losing focus. So many of us spend hours every day on Zoom. The last thing we want to do is take a couple of days and dedicate them exclusively to a web-based conference. Our attention spans aren't cut out for that level of concentration.

Automate what you can around data collection, hand-raises for demos, post-conference follow up, and analytics. Schedule plenty of time for pre-production, design, and content creation. Know that multiple people will be needed to help moderate events. And then allow people some time to disconnect.

Expect Higher Future Expectations for Online Events

Even when in-person events are allowed again, they'll look different than they did before COVID. Companies realize how much money could be saved by moving to a hybrid model that embraces a mix of large digital events and specialized small regional events.

"I think people do miss the gatherings. Cornerstone was known for throwing some epic parties. People looked forward to the event every year. Our customers would come and not just learn things, but it was a really good gathering for them to bring new people on their teams to bond and learn across the aisle and meet new people in their space.

"The attitude was, 'This event is still engaging….in these trying times.' There was a bit of sentiment that it was good for what it was, but I think there's going to be a need to go back to that human touch of some kind."

Today, we understand when someone's child needs attention, or a dog goes ballistic over a squirrel. But will we always be so understanding? At what point will we ask people to raise their engagement or find ways to cope with our new reality. If remote work is going to last beyond the pandemic, we can expect more unspoken digital engagement rules to evolve.

zoom expectations are evolving


Ali was very generous with her time and shared her lessons learned around webinar platforms, why operations should always be involved in a purchase decision, and the importance of investing in an analytics infrastructure. Be sure to check out the full episode!

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