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Microsoft lays out how its hugely successful virtual events became a model for future gatherings

Microsoft lays out how its hugely successful virtual events became a model for future gatherings

Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella

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The coronavirus pandemic struck the US just weeks before Microsoft’s 10th annual Build conference for developers.

The tech giant had to make a quick decision.

“Senior management told us, ‘Drop all live events and look into what it means to do digital. This is an all-hands, and we’ll give you a bucket,'” Bob Bejan, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of global events, said.

After the Build event in May, the company reorganized its events team, cutting jobs and retraining staff to focus on virtual events in a shift Bejan called “painful and hard for everyone.”

The biggest change was spending more time and money producing digital content, from keynote speeches to short videos that would live online for others to access after the initial livestreams, he said.

Microsoft also used its networking tools to get attendees chatting in groups between events, Bejan said.

Today, as many brands prepare for live events to return, Microsoft is planning only virtual gatherings. The company saw no need to rush back into live events after virtual attendance soared because of the accessibility of online events, Bejan said. All of its summer sales conferences will be online, and every event will have a major digital component even when in-person gatherings return.

Attendance at Microsoft Build increased to 179,000 in 2020 from its previous high of 6,200 people in 2019. About 250,000 people attended March’s all-virtual Microsoft Ignite for IT professionals, more than half of whom were new to Microsoft events, Bejan said.

Geographic diversity of attendees also increased. For example, 6,442 people from Africa attended last year’s Build, up from 28 who came to the in-person conference in 2019, Bejan said.

The primary purpose of Build and Ignite is certifying people to use Microsoft’s cloud-computing technologies, and Bejan said the company issued more certifications over the past 12 months than in several years before the pandemic thanks, in part, to more students and tech newbies signing up.

The success of its online events helped Microsoft win a contract to produce the first virtual CES conference in January, Bejan said.

“In my opinion, it’s so much more interesting to say, ‘What does the new world look like?’ than, ‘How long until we get back to what we used to be in?'” he said. “Especially if you’re a global brand.”

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