thINK Ahead 2020 Live Virtual Event

Metrics for a pandemic user conference



Jim Hamilton


After any kind of event, the organizers will normally assess its success with metrics such as the number of paid or total attendees, exhibitor reports of sales, the rate at which sponsors signed up for the next event, as well as post-event surveys or live interviews with attendees and sponsors. Now that COVID-19 has pushed almost all of this year’s events into the virtual realm, how can anyone know if their event was a success? The recent thINK Ahead 2020 Live Virtual Event for Canon Solutions America inkjet customers is an interesting case to consider. This event had originally been scheduled for late August/early September near the Canon Solutions America headquarters in Boca Raton, but the organizers had conceded that an in-person conference was out of the question by April of this year. A special one-day virtual conference was ultimately held on September 2, 2020.



Conference Highlights

In a follow-up thank you message to conference participants, Bob Radzis (the thINK Board President and Chief Customer Officer of SG360°) noted that 1,185 people had registered for the event and that there were a total of 6,185 views of the sessions and demonstrations. Scheduled events included 50 educational sessions, a live tour of the Canon Solutions America demo center, as well as interactive chat and video networking capabilities. A result of 6,000+ views is quite impressive with an average of 110 attendees per session/demonstration, but these figures are actually a bit of an understatement.


In addition to the main conference, thINK organized 68 customer sites in which a Canon Solutions America salesperson or designated inkjet customer led the site’s attendees through the day, setting up one or a number of conference rooms as needed to maintain social distancing. On the day of the event, the designated person projected the virtual event in the conference room. As a result, the attendee-per- session average is actually higher as many more attendees were viewing the virtual event at these additional locations.


At some other portions of the event, attendance was also likely much higher than average. Not surprisingly, the keynotes garnered the largest share of viewers on the day of the event. These included a Canon Solutions America corporate presentation as well as a closing keynote by Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber whose free-solo (i.e., rope-less) ascent of El Capitan was depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary, “Free Solo.”


Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Sessions

After the 2019 event, a press release put out by the thINK board declared that conference a success based on the 600+ attendees, the 75 presenters, and a seven-track program consisting of more than 30 educational sessions. After the 2020 event, the organizers reported that they had more than doubled the attendance from prior year and that the use of a virtual event platform had enabled them to reach a record number of attendees. They also were able to increase the number of sessions. Another important factor is that the record attendance figure—approximately 3 times the 2019 figure when including the customer sites—was accomplished with half of the normal event staff.


The session I moderated was called “Today’s In-Plants: Adapting to Change” and featured a great panel including Ravinder Birdi of GPO, Jeremy Johnson of Globe Life, and David Roberts of Pride Enterprises. We recorded our session about a month before the actual event, so we were primarily observers on the day of presentation although we were on hand to answer any questions that came up during or immediately following the session. I must admit that it’s a bit unsettling to hear your pre-recorded voice speaking to a virtual room of people. As speakers, we had no idea of how many people were attending at the time. Our only indication that anyone was listening was through the chat feature, which was used for questions to be submitted and answered. In a live speaking situation, you receive pretty immediate feedback about how well you are doing. You can count the number of attendees in the room and use visual cues to gauge their level of interest. If you are really bombing, you can tell by their facial expressions. Of course, we had none of this during our virtual session. We did receive a few questions via the chat feature, and we typed out our answers to the best of our ability, but it was nothing like a live Q&A. As presenters, we also had no view into the responses at the additional sites where discussions and questions were handled by the on-site representative.


Although this Q&A session certainly had its disadvantages, there were also some advantages. For instance, in situations such as the designated additional sites, there was ample opportunity for questions and discussions to take place within that sub-group. In addition, the recording of the session lives on in an archive and lends itself to multiple uses. In the case of the session I moderated, the speakers reunited for an Inkjet 101 event that took place a week later. In addition, the thINK Ahead 2020 Live Virtual Event sessions will be made available to thINK members through the end of December on the member website. thINK has already reported that the number of post-event views is significantly increasing.


Another advantage of a virtual event is that everyone can attend—including people who are out of the office, unwilling to cover travel expenses, or facing or other factors like mobility issues. Although a virtual event like this might have travel implications for North American attendees, it suddenly opens up opportunities for international attendees who merely have to deal with the time difference to be able to benefit from the educational sessions on the day of the event. Or, if they prefer, they can listen to the recording at their leisure afterwards.


Other Virtual Events

Within the printing industry, the next big test for gauging the success of a virtual event will be Printing United. Originally scheduled to take place October 21-23, 2020 in Atlanta, this event has also gone virtual. This year, it is being called the “Printing United Digital Experience” and will run from October 26th to November 12th. In a recent press release, the organizers stated that major global product launches are expected to be a key part of the event. We will see if this turns out to be a big incentive in driving attendance. The length of the event is another interesting aspect of going virtual—the largest in-person trade shows typically run for a week or so. Will virtual attendees (and exhibitors) go along with a longer event duration? Perhaps they will if the content is targeted to segments that pique attendees’ interest. For comparison, the 6th annual thINK Forum would have taken place over three days had it been held in person. The virtual version was held in a single day.


Another bellwether of printing industry event activity will be the reception of an in-person drupa, which is currently scheduled to take place from Tuesday, April 20 to Wednesday, April 28 2021 in Düsseldorf, Germany. Multiple major exhibitors have already dropped out (including Heidelberg, traditionally one of the biggest exhibitors), and it seems clear that drupa 2021 will at best be an event that is mainly of interest to European attendees. If this proves to be the case, the words of the famous drupa song (“drupa, drupa, International Printing and Paper Fair”) will need to be altered a bit for 2021.


Given the difficulties associated with pulling together a virtual event for the very first time, I believe the thINK Forum organizers performed admirably. Based on the metrics that have been publicly provided, the outcome appears to be quite solid. Even so, the thINK organizers are among the first to admit that virtual events cannot replace live, in-person events. In a post-event press release, Bob Radzis stated:

“There is no doubt that the thINK Ahead Live Virtual Event was a complete success. This community rallied in the face of many challenges and devised a unique way to come together for the 6th annual thINK Ahead conference. I think that speaks to the value we all have for the community we built together. Yet we are all acutely aware that, with all of its advantages of being able to reach more attendees across the world, no virtual event will ever take the place of being together in-person. Deep friendships have developed over the past 6 years, and I believe that is due to physically being together as we learn, share, and grow. When you do that, you just can’t help but to engage at a deeper level. Nothing can replace that, and we are looking forward to seeing everyone at thINK Ahead in 2021.”


The Bottom Line

At this time, thINK Ahead 2021 is scheduled to take place as an in-person event in Florida. I’m quite sure that many folks are praying that a successful COVID-19 vaccine is in place by then, and that business travelers will once again feel comfortable with attending an event like this in person.