Features & opinions |

How Digital Transformation World Series reframed the possible in three months

August 10, 2022 | DTW news room

Who: TM Forum
What: Transforming its flagship Digital Transformation World expo and conference into a virtual event
How: To transform a physical three-day conference and expo into a live, digital TV show spanning two days for six weeks.
Digital Transformation World is TM Forum’s annual flagship event and has, in various guises, been a fixture in the global telecoms industry for more than 20 years. It was scheduled to take place on June 16-18, 2020 in Copenhagen, but in March, as the pandemic gathered pace, the Forum shifted it to October 7-9 at the same venue. In late June, as the crisis deepened, it became clear this would not be feasible either.

Being digital The obvious route was to turn Digital Transformation World into a virtual event. Having consulted the board, sponsors and other stakeholders, it quickly became evident that trying to replicate the event online would not work.

“Who in their right mind is going to sit and look at a screen for three solid days? And the logistics of broadcasting all that content in three days from across the planned six conference streams didn’t work either,” explains Charlotte Lewis, Vice President of Marketing at the Forum.

The original idea was to have a topic stream per week. As Lewis says, “This had a logic and a ring to it,” but on further reflection, the teams decided it would be better to have content from all six topic streams every week to maximize engagement.

On July 6, the Forum announced its flagship event would become a virtual ‘festival of collaboration’ across six weeks from October 5, and renamed it Digital Transformation World Series to reflect the format. The teams had watched other virtual events as all kinds of organizations scrambled to rescue their schedules, but as Morse notes, nothing stood out as the perfect recipe for a successful virtual event. In fact, many had felt flat, relying on recorded material.

The Forum turned to long-term events partner Jeremy Oldfield, Executive Producer, at Common Ground, and his team to help create a vision of what the virtual event should be plus a plan to deliver it. The team especially wanted to add an element of excitement and the look and feel of a live production although inevitably the digital event would have to rely on a mix of live and recorded material as speakers and attendees would be from around the globe.

As a result, the concept of hosting the event as a live TV show with interviews, conversations and genuine debate from a London studio was born. It would run mid-week for two days over the six weeks, with daily airtime varying between one and a half and three hours, and the sessions available on-demand as soon as possible.

Timing it right

Whether six weeks was the ‘right’ time span divides opinion, with Lewis noting a drop-off in excitement and engagement levels in the final two weeks, as well as the toll on staff. However, Tim Banham, Executive Vice President, Member Engagement & Sales at TM Forum, argues, “If we’d have gone for four weeks rather than six, we probably would have still seen a tail off, and maybe it would have happened sooner, so we’d have delivered fewer engagements to fewer individuals, and less value to sponsors.”

He adds, “It was a big drain on our staff, but that can be fixed by hiring more people to deliver the capabilities that we need in the future. Also, from an audience perspective, if you trim it by a third, they lose a third of the content”.

High production values

Common Ground worked with Anna Valley to deliver a high-quality broadcast experience, building a studio setup similar to a TV news program, rather than a Zoom-type experience, which paid huge dividends. Lewis says, “Attendees were blown away by the quality of the studio broadcasting” – and the professional look and feel, and unmistakable buzz of a live, interactive event, although some pre-recorded content was judiciously mixed in.

This was cemented by engaging a high-profile British radio and TV presenter, Sasha Twining, who frequently works for the BBC and Sky News, as the host anchor, and the confident performances of many TM Forum executives on camera, polished by hours of rehearsals.

Even so, as TM Forum’s CEO Nik Willetts says, “Every single week is like a different event and you’re learning as you go. The studio was an alien world to us; we’re used to stages and conference settings. “We relied heavily on the technical expertise and incredible production quality from the Anna Valley team and Common Ground who worked with us in the production of everything, from the enormous logistical challenge of recording so many speakers… to making sure we got the right feel and flow, and visual impression and the right experience for the audience.”

Behind the camera

A good example of technical innovation behind the scenes was developed for TM Forum’s CxO Summit, a series of three, 90-minute, invitation-only debates. The technical team in the studio integrated the broadcast with Zoom for what is believed to be the first time ever. This meant it was possible to have Willetts and Chief Analyst Mark Newman in the studio, talking to remote panellists and members of the online audience live – and seamlessly.

TM Forum’s UK-based senior management, presenters and key team members went to the studio every day during planning, rehearsals and the event itself. Due to the travel restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic US-based Morse and other core event team members, had to watch what was going on and communicate with teammates, technicians and others via webcam and Microsoft Teams. As audiences and speakers from Asia-Pacific and Europe, the Middle East and Africa prefer morning sessions, the events team was frequently online at 3am EST.

Says Morse, “We learned to run a live event from home. Anything’s possible and in the hardest of times, you can come up with the best innovation and we did it.”

In front of the camera

From when the decision to go digital was made, the Forum constantly communicated its plans and progress to all stakeholders, and as they developed, the levels of excitement and belief rose. A big element in this was the seniority and calibre of speakers the event attracted: Whereas it is often difficult to attract CxOs to speak at physical conferences because of the time and travel involved, the high-production value TV format and being able to take part remotely attracted “tens” of C-level speakers Lewis says.

Particular high points include keynotes from Stéfane Richard, Chair and CEO of Orange group, Mukesh Ambani, Chair and Managing Director, Reliance Industries, and founder of India’s highly disruptive mobile operator, Jio, plus Sigve Brekke, President and CEO, Telenor.

Lewis continues, “There was such a buzz around the headliner speakers, especially in the first three weeks, that people we didn’t even know forwarded and shared information about our event on social media, which helped increased registration and attendance but also expanded awareness of the Forum – and our contact database.”

About 3,000 people usually attend the annual physical event, but 13,000 people registered for Digital Transformation World Series, and 8,000 unique attendees turned up to 125 sessions, from 157 countries around the world. Further, there have been 16,672 on-demand views.

Lewis comments, “I think it’s definitely the new way to share content…people liked it because they could watch it from home, and they could watch it when they wanted if they missed it.” Or as Willetts puts it, “People can fit it into their professional lives.”

Delivering value

It is a terrific endorsement that 80% of the sponsors that had signed up for the physical conference and expo in Copenhagen supported the virtual event. As Banham, observes, “If we can’t deliver value, we can’t retain the investment,” and delivering value to stakeholders was always top of mind for the board, senior management and the teams. While the rise in attendance numbers were most impressive, perhaps more important was increased level of seniority of the audience, and most especially that 80% were from communication service providers (CSPs) which usually only account for about 30%.

Vendors and sponsors most want to meet CSP attendees at the event – and the more senior the better. The boom in registration was, in large part, due to a new approach to attracting attendees with the help of their employers. One outstanding example is an inaugural group of eight CSPs that partnered with the Forum for the event: Airtel, Axiata, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, STC, Telenor and Verizon.

The Forum worked with these companies to build tailored programs to help upskill their staff, based on each employee’s technical skills and responsibilities. To make this CSP partner customization possible, the Forum invested in specialist help, engaging an experienced manager to help the operator build individuals’ programs around personas.

Tailored content to address skills gaps

Banham says, “We went to the CSP partners with a proposition whereby their employees could attend for free and gain access to hundreds of hours’ professional and educational content over six weeks.” Each CSP partner frequently received data and analytics to see how their staff were interacting with content throughout the series, which enabled the operators to make informed decisions about what additional resources their employees required. “Our data helped the CSP ensure their teams were looking at solutions or challenges that sit at the very heart of their organization,” explains Banham.

Brand awareness

From a brand awareness perspective, the feedback from sponsors is that the event was an unparalleled success. Banham points to all the digital campaigns that ran in the build-up to the event and the long-tail post event, which delivered a lot of attention in the same way that it would at the physical event. “The advantage of a digital event is that you can tell sponsors and advertisers exactly how many people watched the series with tangible metrics, unlike at the physical event where CMOs just walk around, look up and see their brand on display thanks to banners and signage,” he says.

It is evident that people behave differently in a digital environment than a physical one, and it is not entirely clear how effective digital events are at generating sales leads in comparison to physical events. The TM Forum teams will be working with sponsors to advance their understanding of this crucial aspect and, where appropriate, to co-create new approaches. An example of this is that the Forum ran a dedicated Catalyst Digital Showcase from July to September, at which presentations lasted up to an hour.

More than 5,000 people registered to view them. The presentations proved less popular at DTWS, but the Forum scored a big hit with panel discussions between Catalyst teams that are addressing similar issues from different angles or challenges in the same area. She says, “Those panels were very successful with high attendance, and we ran them twice a day.” Morse thinks they could be complemented in future by short summaries of each project. As ever, the Catalyst Awards were a highlight of the event

Digital shyness

Another discovery is that people suffer from “digital shyness”. The website offered a means for attendees to contact each other and interact, but it was little used, rather visitors homed in only on what they had come to do rather than exploring what was available. Likewise, audiences generally did not use the ‘Chat’ channels to interact with speakers and each other during the conference sessions.

The three, 90-minute, invitation-only CxO Summits were notable exceptions, with highly interactive, lively debate using the Chat channel. The format was two studio-based anchors – CEO Willetts and Chief Analyst Mark Newman – one of whom interacted with the panellists while the other moderated the Chat channel and brought people into the discussion via Zoom. Attendees and panellists clearly enjoyed being with their peers, and the Forum intends to build on this, running quarterly CxO Summit.

Carefully created conversations

Carefully curated groups and conversations seem to be the secret of success. As Banham says, “We needed a very specific sort of delegate acquisition to bring particular target personas to the CxO Summit, roundtables, training sessions and workshops. Also, the [long-established, renamed] Executive Connect was successful, so anything where we were bringing a defined audience to a sponsor, whatever the format, seemed to be the things that worked best… and had the demonstrable ROI. If you’ve got a lot of senior execs on a virtual workshop, you know you’re getting traction.”

The Executive Connect team was careful not to over-commit, being unsure how the online experience would work, but the attendance rate was 92% – about the same as the physical event. Encouragingly, the VP level at Executive Connect meetings rose to 10%, up from 4% at the physical event last year, and similar for meetings at C-level too. As well as bringing people together in a targeted way, there would seem to be much potential in rethinking existing approaches, as the CSP partner program showed. So while Executive Connect is usually driven by vendors wanting meetings with certain people from within CSPs, there is no reason why it could not be driven from the other side too – by CSP executives who are searching for particular products and solutions, or partners.

Next steps

CEO Willetts sums up: “There’s been a lot of great surprises when it comes to running a digital event and one of those has to be the different environmental impact that a digital event has. There’s lots of other benefits too; the size of the audience…the ability to engage with people all around the world in different time zones , the ability to connect to people and deliver more content to them than they would have time for at a physical event, and for us to get a much more in-depth understanding of their interests and needs, as well as growing our database.”

Part and parcel of this is the challenge of maintaining and capitalizing on the extraordinary levels of engagement, and as Lewis observes, the production values and calibre of speakers this time set the bar high. Stakeholders will expect the Forum to equal or exceed that level. There was also an immense amount of good will from all parties given that the whole world is plunged into a crisis, with telecoms playing a huge role – the word purpose has probably never been so commonly used in a period of 12 days. Everyone accepted that this year’s event was unavoidably experimental and that everyone was learning as they went along. This will not be the case next year, when it is likely that sponsors and others will be more demanding.