Benefitfocus and ON24: Transitioning to Virtual Customer Events

    Given that we can’t have physical events anymore and I was one of several analysts who used to teach how to put on events, I’ve been interested in seeing how this transition to virtual events is going. ON24 is arguably the premier provider of virtual events at scale, and they should know more than most how to put one on. However, virtual events before the COVID-19 shutdown were rare, and most of the ones I attended sucked. As a result, I was intrigued when Benefitfocus contacted me to set up an interview on their virtual event, which turned out to be, for them, a huge success.

    Let’s walk you through what happened.

    Fast Pivot

    Like a lot of companies, Benefitfocus had planned an event before the COVID-19 outbreak that had to be canceled. Scheduled as the three-day event from March 17-19, it included mixers, dinners, and both main tent talks and breakouts tracks for those that needed to focus in other areas. It also included a reception on the evening of the 16th and a ton of specialized training for customers.

    It had an in-person analyst day so that analysts covering the company could come up to speed, and segments designed to give young startups visibility. As with most events of this type, I expect planning and content development was all but complete. I’m aware that a lot of executives wait until the last minute, and many of those likely gave a massive sigh of relief when the event got canceled.

    That relief was short-lived because, in 7 days, they turned the event into a virtual one with the help of ON24, and they went live with a one-day virtual event on March 16th.

    The Cuts

    To go from a three-day physical event to a one-day virtual event means you are going to have to cut content significantly, and the analyst program was one of the early casualties. While they likely could have had a partial-day event, given the short turnaround timeframe, something had to be sacrificed. Given the analyst event could occur anytime and was only co-located to reduce travel cost, given there was no travel cost, doing it later took off a lot of pressure and allowed Benefitfocus to focus on the customers more tightly.

    Much of the content was taped in advance. This change allowed for forced rehearsal. You see, a lot of executives don’t like to rehearse and suck on stage, but when you tape them, you can do multiple takes and even weave a presentation together from segments. These retakes allow you to improve the quality of the content, along with the quality of the presentation. Done right, you can approach a far more professional level of production and things like on-stage demo failures to become a thing of the past because you can re-tape them.

    The result was a much tighter program with parallel tracks that people could watch during the event window or later if needed. Q&A was done live but, given the speakers were taped, the questions could come in during the talk, and the speakers could respond timelier. In physical events, even getting Q&A to work, let alone allowing for questions during the presentation, has proven elusive.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of the Benefitfocus Virtual Event

    Advantages included twice the attendees that they usually would have handled with an event, and they had around 50% active participation. That is arguably better engagement than they would have had with a physical activity given some attendees just go to chat with peers, do email, and eat the food. The cost was undoubtedly far lower, and the executives are far less stressed out. So, the advantages included more customers participating, much lower price, much less stress for the speakers during the event, a more efficient schedule, no travel, and the game itself was less disruptive since folks could attend and participate from home. Oh, and they created a ton of content that could be reused and repurposed as needed.

    Disadvantages included the loss of the analyst program, the inability to give startups the visibility they otherwise would have had at the physical event, and lower sales engagement. As noted, the analyst program will be rescheduled, and they could work back in the Startups in a separate event or during a future virtual keynote. Sales engagement remains problematic because it is tough to replace dinners and mixers as effective prospecting and customer engagement tools. This shortcoming makes closing business more difficult in that the firm must switch from in-person sales to targeted telemarketing, and that is a very different skillset and one that works better for things like supplies than it does for services.

    Now for any other company, I’d argue that, given the economic crash, even getting people to go to a physical event regardless of COVID-19 would have been closing and challenging business during the crisis almost impossible. But benefits, given the furloughs, are in play right now, and, I expect, Benefitfocus is in high demand. But, when that happens, the sales process may work just fine if you just point out that our company has the perfect tool for the vast benefit changes going on now.

    As a result, while I’d expect sales to take a hit because of the economic collapse, I think this event set up sales better than would have been the case had they not held the event. This outcome is because companies are focused on benefit-related problems they are struggling to solve.

    Wrapping Up: Getting Virtual Right

    One of the things I found interesting was that even though Benefitfocus had taped prior physical events, they never really used the resulting content. Going virtual reminded them of the value of this content, and they indicated that even if they went back to physical events sharing that taped content was going to become policy.

    By going virtual, they cut costs, cut executive stress, cut travel, and cut waste. However, an expected reduction in sales still makes it hard to pivot to a digital event permanently. If we can just figure out how to improve sales engagement and close rates, the days of the physical conference are limited. I believe this problem can be overcome, and once it is, physical meetings will be a thing of the past. Until then, expect companies to pivot back to physical conferences after COVID-19 has passed, but use the taped content for broader reach and engagement after the physical event concludes.

    I’m looking for a firm that solves the sales problem when I find them; I’ll post an update. Stay safe and healthy out there.


    Rob Enderle
    Rob Enderle
    As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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