I can pretty vividly remember the first Pulse conference I attended back in 2013. Back then, I was still six months away from launching my own SaaS company, but I was already encumbered with the industry and curious about this up-and-coming category called “Customer Success.”
When my friend and colleague, Anthony Kennada, pinged me about attending his company’s first conference on the topic of Customer Success, I jumped at the opportunity to attend. After all, it wasn’t often that an entrepreneur in Phoenix, Arizona got to hear from the likes of SaaS all-stars such as Aaron Levie, Tien Tzuo, Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, Bill Binch, Bernie Kassar, Kia Puhm, Byron Deeter, Roger Lee…and some guy named Nick Mehta :). Plus, the keynote was Geoffrey Moore, the brilliant author of Crossing the Chasm, one of the first business books I’d ever read (and the only one I’ve re-read).
Gainsight hosted Pulse 2013 at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, California. Somewhere around 300 executives from 30 companies gathered that year to network and learn about what Moore described as “a fundamental shift occurring in the way businesses view and value their customers.” The result, as Moore explained, was that “Customer Success Management would soon ‘cross the chasm’ as a mainstream discipline across all businesses and industries.”
Little did we know then how Geoffrey Moore and Nick Mehta, who opened Pulse with an incredible keynote that introduced “The Three ‘R’s’ of Customer Success: Retention, Renewals, and References,” would be at the forefront of one of the fastest-growing categories, conferences, communities, and companies in the world over the next decade. And that they, too, would come full-circle nine years later at Pulse Everywhere 2021 – this time in front of more than 20,000 professionals. I guess you can say Customer Success did, in fact, Cross the Chasm.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Over the past nine years, the growth of Pulse has been symbolic not only of Gainsight, but of Customer Success as a whole – from an idea to a mission-critical best practice, from a business unit to a cross-functional and company-wide initiative, and from a small gathering of 300+ leading-edge executives to a flourishing global community of tens of thousands of leaders and practitioners across various disciplines.
Meanwhile, Pulse the conference graduated from a ballroom in 2013 to a full takeover of the Intercontinental Hotel in 2014, San Francisco’s Pier 48 in 2015, the Oakland Convention Center in 2016 and 2017, the San Mateo County Events Center in 2018, and finally to the venue it was truly meant to call home, San Francisco’s Moscone Center, in 2019.
As Customer Success blossomed and grew into one of the fastest-growing professions in the world, you could only imagine how the industry and its best practices evolved and matured alongside it. Luckily, Pulse remained a constant – a literal career companion – that brought folks together each and every year to meet and network, share best practices and experience Gainsight’s unique flavor of childlike joy.
Pulse 2020 – Back to Moscone (Or So We Thought)
2019 was a banner year for Pulse. Our flagship conference in San Francisco welcomed more than 6,000 Customer Success and Product professionals into the Moscone Center for three full days of education and networking, capped by an amazing gala in the city’s historic City Hall.
Later that summer, Pulse CXO Summit assembled more than 100 customer-centric executives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to dig into the topics that were most important to their businesses. And in the fall we took Pulse on the road as Pulse World Tour visited New York, Boston, Atlanta, and Seattle. We put an exclamation point on the year with more than 3,000 Gainsight customers and community members joining us in London for our 5th annual Pulse Europe.
With so much momentum, you could only imagine how excited we were to be heading back to Moscone in May 2020. By the time we kicked off our new fiscal year in February, planning for Pulse 2020 was well underway. The venue was booked. Hotel blocks were reserved. Speakers were being recruited. Sponsors were getting locked in. But little could we imagine the roller-coaster ride ahead as news of a pandemic started to circulate.
Fast-forward to March and the world as we knew it had changed. As we kept a close eye on the industry, one large tech event after another was announcing its cancellation or postponement. Soon enough, we accepted the inevitable. But instead of cancelling or postponing Pulse, we made the call to take it digital. And just nine weeks later, we transformed our much-loved conference into an online experience for more than 20,000 Customer Success and Product professionals from 50+ countries.
As the year progressed, so did our knowledge, understanding and confidence for transforming our events into engaging digital experiences. By the fall, we transformed Pulse CXO Summit into an online experience. Then in November, we launched Pulse for Product as a completely digital event for more than 6,000 Product professionals. And in February 2021, we hosted our first fully digital Gainsight Sales Kickoff.
Suddenly we had to ask… Was this the new normal? Would events ever go back to normal? And what would this all mean for Pulse 2021? Pulse 2022? And beyond.
Big Decisions and Big Unknowns in 2021
The success of virtual events such as Pulse resulted in some very unique and complex questions that businesses and their marketing teams had to answer. For example:
- Was the exponentially broader reach of a virtual audience actually more valuable and effective than the in-person experience itself?
- Did the cost-saving benefits of going virtual outweigh the additional costs of hosting, housing, entertaining and catering to live attendees?
- What would be the long-term ROI of virtual events when it came to brand awareness, pipeline and bookings?
- Would it ever truly be possible to replace the in-person networking and face-to-face experiences of a live event in a virtual-only setting?
- How could we combine the best of both worlds?
It was that last question that we found ourselves having to answer as the world began to emerge from the grips of the COVID pandemic in early 2021. In states and cities across the US, life was slowly returning to a resemblance of pre-pandemic days. Kids were returning to school. Quarantines and mask mandates were being lifted. Restaurants, offices, sporting events, and other venues for public gatherings were slowly starting to reopen. And travel restrictions were coming to an end.
After a year of virtual everything, was the business community – and our community in particular – ready to return in person? On the other hand, were they ready to attend another virtual conference after 18 months of staring at Zoom meetings, webinars, Facetime calls, and virtual events? One, after another, after another, after another…
The answer? Yes. And YES.
Making the Call to Go Hybrid
One thing that I truly love about Pulse and our team is how we set the bar higher each and every year – and not just in terms of registration and attendance numbers. Every Pulse has an even more creative theme, a more enticing speaker lineup, a more fun and engaging experience, and a more amazing series of keynotes and Gainsight product announcements. The same held true when we decided to go virtual in 2020. And we challenged ourselves to do it again in 2021. But how?
We asked ourselves that very question in early March. And after a few intense discussions amongst our leadership, legal and HR teams, and of course our customers, we decided that we’d do it by going hybrid – combining the game-changing reach of going digital with the unparalleled human-first experience of a live, in-person experience with a few dozen close friends and customers.
Here’s What We Learned
The choice to go hybrid is a big one. There is a long list of important decisions and factors to consider when blending a virtual experience with a live one. To help make your venture into the hybrid events world a successful one, I partnered with Gainsight’s amazing Senior Director of Events, Lauren Olerich, to compile the following list of more than TWENTY key learnings, tips and best practices:
1. Choose Your Virtual Events Platform Wisely
Make no mistake, your platform is extremely important and there are certain features that are key. We used 11 criteria in our vendor evaluation and asked for plenty of references. We made a Virtual Event Platform Evaluation template for you to use as a starting point.
2. Your AV and Event Agency are Just as Important…If Not More
You can’t just pick an amazing virtual event platform and easily coast to your event. We were lucky to continue our partnership with Simply Better Events, an award-winning, creative engagement agency, and ETS, a world-class A/V technology services team. They became an extension of our team and helped us develop a clear hybrid strategy.
3. Surround Yourself with Great Events People
The people are the most important piece of the whole puzzle. In addition to the vendors we collaborated with, the 17 sponsors, the 148 speakers, the designers, the content creators, and the engaged community, we were blessed with an internal team of Gainsters that poured their hearts into bringing this event to life. One of our company values is Beginner’s Mind and we saw that in practice with several new teammates who embraced our goals wholeheartedly and brought exciting ideas to the table. Likewise, the veterans on the team helped execute the strategy and hybrid vision at unparalleled speed. Our cross-functional weekly planning call was a true highlight for me–it brought our growing Marketing team even closer together!
4. Creative Themes Help Drive Engagement
A theme really helped – and we leveraged it across everything. After 18 months of heightened binge-watching due to the stay-at-home orders, it was a blast to brainstorm how to make our “subscription-video-on-demand” theme (think: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+) come to life across email, social media, communications, session titles, website branding, virtual platform, PPT decks, stage design, videos, and so much more! Inspiration strikes from anywhere, so don’t be afraid to embrace a concept from pop culture or the zeitgeist of a more obscure time period.
5. Showcase Your Company Values…and Have Fun
We wholeheartedly embrace our company values at Gainsight and one in particular always shines during Pulse: Childlike Joy. We brought the “inner child in us” to Pulse via the infamous DJ Skemaddox, whose live sets before keynotes and between sessions got everyone fired up. We also created a suite of parody videos with the help of an amazing team over at Hed Hi. One of my personal favorites is our rendition of a song from Schitt’s Creek that we altered to become A Little Customer Obsessed. The puppy cams, chairside yoga, virtual photo booth, and clever sessions (like this) made Pulse a true experience for attendees and reflected Gainsight’s brand.
6. Offer Both Free and Paid Ticketing Options
When people switched to a virtual format in 2020, many events became free to attend. This year, we decided to offer both a free and paid ticket option. With the free ticket, you had access to all of the sessions, booths, networking, and keynotes. The paid VIP experience unlocked perks such as a swag store voucher, access to a VIP fireside chat with author Geoffrey Moore, a 2-hour product strategy workshop with Gibson Biddle, and endless content on our Pulse+ platform. Leading up to the event, our Sales and Customer Success teams could leverage a handful of VIP passes with key customers and prospects. Looking towards the future, we see a big opportunity to deliver a supreme VIP in-person experience while still being able to capture thousands virtually.
7. Send No Less than 1 Million Emails
I’m joking here, but also fairly serious. Your communication and engagement plan has to be rock solid – before, during and after your event. While it’s true that we sent 1.28 million invites out through our marketing automation system, we also leveraged a sales engagement platform that helped us reach another 28k target contacts. Plus, a flurry of social media posts (170+ from Gainsight’s account and 730+ from Gainsters, sponsors, speakers, and attendees) amplified our Pulse promotions. Our biggest learnings are to TARGET specific messages to specific audiences and enable every speaker and sponsor with ways to share their participation.
8. Take Advantage of Your Highest Viewership with Captivating Keynotes
The data shows that morning keynotes will be your most-watched sessions with the highest engagement. That being said, you need to make them count. We found the best way to keep things interesting is to have multiple guests on stage in quick succession. That way you keep the energy high and cover a wide range of topics. It also helps to have Mindy Kaling as a featured keynote speaker. 🙂 This year, we upgraded the keynote setting from a Zoom-esque home office to an epic music hall in the heart of SF. Combining the unique setting, guest speakers, and compelling topics is a recipe for success. You can catch up on all three keynotes here.
9. ♫ 99 Sessions for Pulse on the Agenda… ♫ 99 Sessions for Pulse ♫
There were 99 sessions on our Pulse Everywhere agenda, featuring 148 speakers across 11 unique tracks in a 3-day span. We made sure each session matched a specific persona and delivered a targeted and relevant message. On Day 1 and Day 2 we alternated between the presentation and panel formats to add variety. We also experimented with shorter 15-minute sessions on Day 3 that were well received; people loved the bite-size content and human-first focus. We made sure there was something for everyone at Pulse Everywhere!
10. Networking Virtually is Challenging
One area we want to continue to improve upon is giving attendees a way to network in a virtual setting. You really have to think outside of the box, and it might be worth looking at technology to power matchmaking or mentoring. For Pulse Everywhere, we used Hopin’s “session” feature in an area called “Pulse Unplugged.” These Unplugged rooms allowed for more casual group discussions and attendees could even opt to join the conversation “on stage.” Hopin also offers a speed networking feature that mimics the spur of the moment conversations that happen at in-person events. We had a lot of fun with these features and can’t wait to see how this space evolves.
11. Take Advantage of Ancillary Events
Why yes, Pulse Everywhere was live between 8 am – 1 pm PT, but the fun didn’t stop when the live feed ended. We made sure to surround Pulse with regional virtual field events across our major Sales territories, several virtual happy hours with our CEO Nick Mehta, a virtual casino night for our Vista family, and in-person dinners and happy hours for our onsite team to reconnect after many months apart. The regional events proved to be a great way to support our Sales team, with early figures showing the influence on over $5M ARR and over $1M pipeline accelerated to late-stage in just 2 weeks.
12. Use Content and Social Media to Differentiate Your Hybrid Event
I already shared how we had 900+ social media posts before and after Pulse Everywhere… but our content plan was also off the charts! To make this feel different from a gigantic webinar series, our Demand Generation and Content teams launched 2 press releases, 9 blog articles, 3 daily recaps, and so much more. We now have 99 recordings and 8 parody videos on our Pulse Everywhere 2021 On Demand site that we’re leveraging for future campaigns. Make sure your event doesn’t exist in a vacuum and prepare your content strategy and social media plan in advance so notable announcements match your event comms’ calendar.
13. Leverage In-App Engagements to Make Your Event Feel More Personal
My colleague Julie Pinto wrote an incredible article on how we leveraged Gainsight PX to make Pulse more engaging for virtual attendees. Hurry and read her post to see the power of in-app engagements. From a warm welcome message, to a new user feature walkthrough, to answering common questions (yes, all sessions are being recorded!) 🙂 – PX was a total gamechanger for capturing feedback and alerting attendees to important announcements. Julie’s post is a must-read!
14. Expand Sponsorship Opportunities Beyond the Booth
When you host a hybrid or fully virtual event, it’s critical to create sponsorship opportunities that stretch beyond the “virtual booth.” This year, Pulse sponsors could lead a session in the Lightning Talk track, develop content for Pulse+, run a networking session, broadcast short commercials, participate in the Pulse Scavenger Hunt, and all the other bells and whistles tied to running a virtual booth. Even more opportunities await next year as we plan to include sponsors in a hybrid format – live at Moscone and digitally for at-home attendees.
15. Choose a Venue and Setting that Feels Authentic
Your first few hybrid events will feel a lot different from the mega-events we’re used to. Be sure to craft an authentic in-person experience that matches the scale of your hybrid event. In lieu of special effects, confetti cannons, and wild lasers, we opted for a small theater with a ton of character; August Hall in San Francisco transformed into a unique, intimate setting that translated to our digital audience.
16. You Need a “Virtual Resolution Room”
Most of our Marketing team was onsite during Pulse at August Hall in San Francisco. It was imperative to have a command center for our team to finalize the daily recap articles, test and perfect attendee emails, collaborate on social media posts, and more. When scouting the next location for your hybrid event, be sure to prioritize the “back of house” space and set it up with fast wifi. Another important lesson is to prepare a virtual resolution room. For us, that meant a Zoom room with representatives from Gainsight, Simply Better Events, and ETS. The majority of our virtual success is due to the efficient communication between teams and a comprehensive triage document that outlined the best responses to copy-paste when attendees, speakers, or sponsors encountered issues.
17. Soak-Up the Data
Hybrid gives you such a different look into the data behind your event, including who is watching what, when, and how. What percentage of people leverage the networking features? What tracks had the best (and worst) attendance? How are sponsors successfully connecting with attendees? What are key customers and prospects consuming? There’s a wealth of knowledge and insights you’ll get access to after an event on Hopin so be sure to carve out time to pull insights that you’ll take with you as you plan your next event.
18. Start an Internal Slack Channel
This might seem like a no-brainer, but the power of Slack can’t be underestimated. With SlackConnect, we could instantly connect with our external vendors. On the internal front, we had several planning channels for speaker prep, keynote development, onsite updates, and more. We also worked with our IT team to automatically put all Gainsight employees into a #pulse-everywhere channel. They acted as our eyes and ears, alerting us to issues when we simply couldn’t be in 5 places at once, which led to speedy resolution times. It was also a great place to share laughs and see event highlights through the lens of other Gainsters.
20. Get Your Content On-Demand ASAP
If there’s one constant across all types of events it is this: people want the recordings, and they want them yesterday. Our dev team started building the On Demand page weeks before our event. We leveraged the session titles and abstracts to build a shell, collected beautiful banner images from our design team, and had a team ready to process the recordings and push them live overnight. We used PX in-app messages to let people know where they could find the On Demand page from within Hopin, we pinned messages to the global event chat, and we emailed about the session recordings daily. In our post-event survey, people were so appreciative of the timeliness and availability of every Pulse session, especially since we had concurrent tracks during most of the event.
21. Survey Your Attendees ASAP
While the event is fresh, deploy a short survey to attendees. We asked a typical NPS question (“Would you recommend Pulse Everywhere to a friend or colleague”) and two free-text questions on the best part of Pulse and how we can improve Pulse. Your event NPS will give you a great indicator of your event’s success, but the real gold is in the free-text responses. Don’t stop at surveying attendees! We sent a separate survey to Gainsight employees with more questions to discover their thoughts on the content and platform. We also surveyed sponsors with a unique set of questions. There are so many areas to improve upon the hybrid format and what better way than to listen to your customers’ desired outcomes!
Is the Future Really Hybrid? It Depends…
Pulse 2022 will be back at Moscone next August. But given that this year’s hybrid experience resulted in the event’s highest-ever attendance and NPS, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be back to combining a virtual and in-person experience next year. And based on the innovation from platforms such as Hopin, Cvent, Bizzabo and others, I’m guessing we won’t be alone.
Is hybrid the future? Is it financially viable? Can it match the experience and ambience of being in-person? Well, that’s for communities and audiences around the world to decide. So that marketers like can continue to listen, evolve and deliver.