5 Lessons We Learned From Transforming Adobe Summit Into a Digital Experience

March 31, 2020, was supposed to be the day Adobe kicked off our annual Adobe Summit. As we do for each conference, our teams across the entire organization started planning for Summit 2020 the year before. By the time COVID-19 became a global health crisis, we already had speakers and sessions in place, celebrity talks booked, and more than 13,000 attendees registered for the event. In 2019 we brought in almost 18,000 attendees from all over the world to learn and get inspired about the future of digital experiences. In 2020, we expected that number to grow to almost 23,000.

With the global situation, teams across the company were forced to act quickly to completely reimagine the Adobe Summit experience not just once, but twice, and within four weeks. When the crisis first hit, we created Plan B: turn Summit into a live, online experience and stream from Adobe offices. Two weeks into planning for that, we had to shift again as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic required sheltering in place. Our Plan C was to launch the Summit Online experience as an on-demand set of keynotes and breakout sessions recorded in executives’ and speakers’ homes. Given the change in strategy and extremely short runway to bring Summit online, the results of Adobe Summit 2020 have been tremendous. We had more than 100,000 registrants and to date 450,000 views from more than 199 countries.

Beyond the success, our teams also benefitted from the many lessons learned along the way in creating a digital event experience. These are lessons that will shape our future event strategies and are ones that all brands can learn from as we transform in-person events into digital experiences.

1. Personalize the customer journey online

When we announced the cancellation of our in-person event in Las Vegas, we were preparing keynotes and had already populated a session catalog with more than 400 sessions and labs that Adobe Summit attendees could register for. With four weeks until launch, we knew we couldn’t move all 400 sessions online because we simply didn’t have enough time. We had to ask ourselves, “Which sessions do we keep?”

Naturally, we turned to the data. We picked sessions based on importance to the business, the number of registrants to date, speaker availability, and overall popularity. These criteria helped us narrow the catalog to 120 sessions and keynotes. Sessions aligned with the Innovation Keynotes so customers could create their own journey by key topic areas of interest. Keynotes featured in marquee positions, featured at the top of the page, accounted for the majority of views. And while content recommendations were served up based on real-time video engagement, we learned that getting more viewership of breakout sessions requires more promotion and merchandizing, as well as adding more filters online to easily find sessions based on products, audience type, speakers, industry, and skill level.

2. Optimize your content for digital – shorter videos make the cut

Adobe Summit in-person keynotes typically run as long as two-and-a-half hours, and breakout sessions range anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the topic. With an in-person event, you are providing an immersive experience to a captive audience; online, however, you have to account for shorter attention spans and distractions. With this in mind, we knew we had to cut both keynotes and breakout sessions down to 20-25 minutes or less. This decision worked in our favor because we learned that video consumption of 8-10 minutes was fairly common. We also learned that the most effective way to structure online programming was to create short, high impact videos; for longer videos, we found that offering chaptered content, or inserting chapter markers, allowed viewers to tune in to their key interests. And, having the option to add a live Q&A after on-demand sessions drives engagement.

Once shelter in place orders went into effect around the world, and we realized our speakers—from within Adobe and externally—would need to record their sessions at home, the next step was to make that process as easy as possible. We looked at available technologies and decided on a two-pronged approach.

For keynotes, we sent recording kits to executives’ homes; the kits included an Ultra HD webcam and a “ring light” to produce a professional look for filming. Our production team also shared best practices when choosing filming locations to ensure the best background, lighting, and sound quality. A key learning here was to plan for more rehearsal time so speakers could become more comfortable speaking to the camera. Once executives recorded and submitted their videos, our video editors were hard at work in post-production merging slides into the recordings and making edits to the footage. Given the current moment, what could have been perceived as low production value—our executives filming at home—was instead met with curiosity and warmth. Viewers appreciated the authenticity behind these self-recorded videos as well as our executives’ commitment to making sure the show would go on.

The breakout sessions, which made up the bulk of the Summit Online experience, were recorded webinar-style using a vendor, Intrado. Their turnkey solution included a producer who worked with all of our speakers to help troubleshoot issues while they were recording within the Intrado tool. This process allowed us to streamline the recording of sessions.

3. Increase audience engagement with live interaction

Ideally, we were looking to create an environment where online attendees could connect with speakers, partners, and each other in real time via chat, messaging, or social media.

Unfortunately, once we moved from plan B to plan C due to shelter in place, the experience was limited to pre-recorded, on-demand videos that didn’t allow for live online interaction. Yet, in sacrificing the livestream, we eliminated the risk of a network failure that could disrupt the broadcast (from a home network). Even though circumstances prevented us from implementing real time interactions, some audience engagement was available through chatbots that enabled attendees navigate the site, receive content recommendations, and connect with a product evangelist or sales rep. Throughout the experience, our communities engaged with each other across a variety of social media platforms. Given more time, adding a live Q&A, moderated chats, office hours with experts, virtual coffee breaks, chat lounges, Braindate, and polling tools to the experience would have offered more engagement and networking opportunities for attendees.

4. Invest in digital marketing strategies pre-/during/post-event

With the lead up to Summit, we switched the focus from paid in-person registrations to free online registrations. With larger audience goals, and a short timeframe, leveraging and investing in digital channels were critical to getting in market quickly and building audience and engagement. The top marketing vehicles for marketing promotion included email, display, search, social, and in-product. Personalized emails to specific audience segments/demographics garnered the most registrations. We experienced success with a LinkedIn Live Event post-Summit and are excited to see the possibilities with Twitter Events and Instagram Events given their promising reach and ability to cultivate strong community engagement.

5. Break silos and incorporate new skillsets

As we always say, it takes a village to produce Summit, but taking Summit online required even more villagers. Since this was the first time Adobe Summit was built on Adobe.com, the team not only included Adobe speakers, experiential marketing, demand generation, PR, executive communications, social, creative, BU product and marketing experts, but also the Web team, engineering, analytics, and UX designers.

To execute our vision of Summit online, we learned that decisions can be made quickly when timelines are short. We held daily standups across all of the teams that were involved in an effort to stay aligned. In addition, we had leadership meetings two to three times a week where the team would provide status updates and share any key decisions that had been made. Of course, we all had our fair share of spreadsheets, emails, and slack messages.

From a leadership standpoint, we learned that we can give our teams more autonomy to make decisions. That was critical to our agility in bringing this massive event online. Everyone executed with the belief that they were doing what was right for the program and bravely moved forward.

Silos were broken, and everyone worked together to make Summit happen, even though we were all working from home. Summit is where we bring together the digital experience community, and people look forward to it every year to learn, share, and get inspired. We wanted to bring Summit to our audience however we could, and COVID-19 pushed us to a new level of collaboration. We needed all hands on deck to get this done in under four weeks—and that’s exactly what the team did.

As we navigate the COVID-19 environment, we will continue to bring communities together through virtual events. I think we will see creativity flourish and each of us will find new ways to enable our audiences to engage and learn. I’m looking forward to exploring what’s possible as new tools to support digital events continue to emerge. And, when physical events come back, I’m excited to see how the digital extension of events will play a larger role in event strategies.