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The show must go on: There are practical approaches that enterprises can take to get business-critical virtual events up and running fast in the face of the COVID-19 crisis

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The Switch’s Robert Szabo-Rowe provides a practical guide to the best approach for delivering your business message while face-to-face is not an option

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing live events, both large and small, to shift from in-person to virtualized formats for organizations thinking, rightly, of the health and wellbeing of staff, partners, customers and other participants. While the attention has been on high-profile international conferences such as MWC (formerly Mobile World Conference) and sporting events such as the Olympics, thousands of smaller, focused events – from product launches and press conferences to customer seminars and town hall meetings – have either been cancelled or reorganized.

Many enterprises are now looking to connect to their audiences remotely, often using video as an enabler. There are numerous virtual alternatives but what is right for your enterprise event? Here is a practical guide, offering tips on the best options for getting your message out to the right audiences:

The small, closed group

Where the numbers of viewers are relatively small, or informal, then popular consumer-grade platforms, such as Zoom and Skype, have proven compelling. However, these are closed services that are not designed to broadcast to the masses. Services like YouTube Live offer that option but some organizations are uncomfortable with the fact they are not in full control of who can access their live streams – particularly if the session contains sensitive business information.

Reaching bigger audiences

In cases where potential audiences are measured in the dozens, hundreds or even thousands and organizations need to deliver higher quality live video, there is a need for scalability to manage a surge in viewers. Here, broadcast quality live production and streaming, combined with remote production techniques, provides a clear professional-grade option.

We are all already seeing the remote approach on our TVs every day in news reporting; in the current environment, the likes of CNN and the BBC must link to experts who are self-isolating at home via video link. The main issue is that the open internet is very much about “best effort” when it comes to delivering streaming video – you will also see on the news bad audio and drop-outs on your TV. Part of the problem is most home broadband connections are geared towards the downstream and not uplinks.

To counter this, a number of organizations are effectively moving to the use of video links where interviewees use Skype or other special video conferencing apps that feed, contribution style, into a production environment. This allows news production teams to create a typical presenter-led package that is near to broadcast quality.

At The Switch, we are doing these types of tasks through our Burbank studio, running a skeleton crew while acting as a central hub to manage these distributed productions. A single participant can still come into one or more of our studios in Burbank, Los Angeles, New York or London, while others join via Skype. Although the guests are still contributing via open internet, Burbank has dedicated connectivity that directly connects into key broadcast hubs and other distribution points, such as Amazon Web Services, and as low latency links into global platforms such as YouTube Live, Twitter and Facebook. This is still not seamless, but it is an order of magnitude more reliable than assuming that each guest’s broadband will remain stable during a live interview.

As we shift out of lockdown

At present, many organizations have simply postponed their live events. However, as the COVID-19 crisis abates, rescheduling events will lead to a time crunch. Video-based options will be the only way to meet key deadlines.

Planning to make the change from a live event to a video-based equivalent requires a level of professional experience and expertise to ensure the event is delivered to meet the expectations of the audience. The most challenging format is a live session – for example a product launch – where a presenter, potentially on a stage, will be delivering a speech along with video inserts and graphics – and even a Q&A.

At the current stage of lockdown, even a closed auditorium with a three-person video crew that reduces the potential for ‘social mingling’ is not advisable. However, it is likely that as the pandemic starts to diminish, a “behind closed doors” halfway house will emerge, where events that would traditionally have hundreds or even thousands in a live audience will switch to just key participants and minimal crews.

Tapping remote production

In this scenario, a viable option is to switch to more remote production methods, similar to those employed in the world of sports. This is where ghost studios, with the lights, camera and action remotely operated from a centralized production desk, have major advantages.

In terms of choosing a location, most of the major sporting arenas and many entertainment venues already have dedicated lease line connectivity into a broadcast services provider that can guarantee bandwidth. For events that are likely to have huge numbers of interested end-consumers, such as a major consumer electronics product launch, live video will need to get into a scalable cloud environment, such as AWS, so that it can act as a feeding point for distribution onto not just corporate websites but also social channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

Again, with consideration for these larger events, video streams will need to be mobile device friendly – with transcoding inside the cloud, the creation ABR/Dash streams are relatively straightforward.

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A key piece of practical advice is to test the workflow well ahead of the live event transmission. Having a run through a day or two ahead of the scheduled event, with stand-ins to deliver all the live feeds to closed testers, is well worth the extra effort. In most cases, working with service providers such as The Switch means that bandwidth can be scaled up quickly and a run-through can be used to gauge output quality and issues like latency, test the viability of processes such as Q&A sessions and the gallery timing for cutting in additional elements, such as video clips or graphics. For every largescale event, it might also be best to do an “as live” production test with live Q&A at the end to overcome any reliability or connectivity issues.

And finally….

There are many talented production companies and technology and service providers that are working in this space. The best advice for a marketer or event organizer who has been tasked with turning a live event into a videocast is to ask the hard questions around  previous experience, and potentially run a simulated event, using pre-created footage, to get a real-world understanding of what the final production is likely to look and sound like.  This helps set the expectation for senior executives to not overpromise and underdeliver.

Prior to the recent COVID-19 crisis, The Switch has delivered these types of project for the likes of Microsoft and Nintendo to support major product launches. In many cases, these were used to extend the reach of live events, connecting to global audiences with a consistent and high-quality video experience. Going forward, there are several projects in the coming months that will be virtual, which is seen as both a progressive and a corporately responsible position rather than a compromise.

Looking to the longer-term future, live events will return, but as organizations start to become more comfortable with the video-based equivalents, the ability to deliver remote, virtual launches, conferences and presentations has the potential to become a primary option rather than a fallback for many events – or at least an essential component of enterprise outreach around them. This is especially crucial as the ability to reach a global audience with a unified message becomes a key focus of the world’s leading international brands.

Robert Szabo-Rowe is Senior Vice President of Product Management at The Switch