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Microsoft Build: A Showcase of Best Virtual Event Practices

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I’ve now attended several virtual events, and with few exceptions, the event quality has improved dramatically. That was the case with Microsoft Build, which showcased TV-network-level quality and execution this week. Given most companies are struggling with virtual events, I thought it would be interesting to cover what Microsoft did right with Build 2020.

Here are some of the best practices that made the Microsoft Build Event shine.

Professional production

My old friend Ray Wang has said, “every tech company is now a digital media property. Yes, even enterprise software companies take virtual events.” While I think he is a bit ahead of where most tech firms are, he was spot on when it comes to Microsoft. Microsoft has its own studio and train anchors who double as programmers. They were practiced, professional, kept the program moving, and had a believable banter like any professional team.

I’m qualified to comment because I not only formally trained as a news anchor, but also spent several years reporting tech news. It makes a huge difference having a professional staff. There is an advantage to having this skill in-house because there are no hidden agendas, and the anchors understand the material. The result is far more natural than using an outside resource.  

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The staging was outstanding, given they were blending video feeds coming from remote locations. They had screens that showed guests behind the anchors—something I’ve seen CNN do from time to time—which allowed the anchors to easily talk to the guests when they had more than two on at the same time. In contrast, I only saw five people on the screens. You could do this with larger panels of people if you wanted to, but it created a far more compelling group event.  

Using Microsoft products

At events like this, vendors annoyingly seem to refuse to use their tools and solutions. Vendor events, by nature, are long commercials that promote tools, software, hardware, and complete solutions. But these things can be used in a way to not only showcase them, but showcase the confidence the vendor has in them.  

Microsoft aggressively used Surface Book laptops and Surface Hub conferencing systems, the analyst segment was done over Microsoft Teams, and even the primary web experience was created with Microsoft tools.  

In my opinion, Microsoft should’ve had a session about how they were able to put this virtual event on so that others can do the same, but I expect that will be addressed in the next conference. Still, Build was an ongoing showcase of just how well some of these tools worked at an impressive scale.  

Many also used the Microsoft Surface headphones, and some showcased impressive competency with Microsoft Teams.   

Engagement

The larger the event—remote or in person—the harder it is to engage individually with the related audience. At this scale, verbal questions are non-starters, but you can have people write in questions.  With a ton of attendees, the question feed is high speed. Much of the content is non-actionable, meaning they weren’t questions but greetings, offhand remarks, and non-content-related comments.  

Microsoft deployed a blended solution that combined technology that curated the questions with adequate staffing for answers. When I asked a question, I almost always got an answer, regardless of noise level. This approach provided a greater level of individual engagement, and I expect the rest of the audience focused on the content.  

I should add they also answered some of the questions live on the video stream, but it was a small subset of the ones submitted.  

Web page layout

Each session had not only the video of the session, but also information about the speakers and related content on the page. I noticed they didn’t always have the session links being talked about, nor did they have all of the speakers’ names. They seemed to consistently miss non-Microsoft executives, for instance, but it was still a lot better than I typically see. They flashed the speaker’s name when initially speaking, but would rapidly remove it to assist those writing up the event. In my opinion, they should have used the news network approach and left the name on the screen if anyone wanted to contact the speaker.  

They also had a calendar on the same page showcasing the sessions you signed up for, so it was as easy as a click to connect to them. However, that meant I had to manage two calendars, and I missed a meeting that wasn’t on the conference calendar but my calendar had forgotten. It would have been helpful if I could add important, relevant portions of my existing calendar into this tool so I would remember to attend events that weren’t apart of Build.  

During the live steam, you could pause and go back to pick up what you missed, which was unbelievably handy.  

Wrapping up: Fixes

As usual, every person speaking was well-rehearsed, mostly stuck within their time envelope, and had decent energy—all critical to any successful performance. As noted, this was the best event I’ve attended, but I could see some areas where improvements could be made.  

For instance, as noted above, not all speakers appeared in the detailed information below the stream. Some speakers were working off a prompter but hadn’t been trained, so it was very obvious where their eyes really were. When the speaker mentioned a break-out session, they thought that to attend, you should be able to click on a short-term link to add the event to your calendar rather than having to search for the event. While there were links to related material below the streamed talk, there often wasn’t the sessions the speakers mentioned onstage.  

Finally, one of the big improvements in Microsoft Office 365 is the ability to pull content from a web page to rapidly populate a document. This capability would have been huge if you’d been able to do that with the content from this event.  Blending in either the script the speaker was using or a speech-to-text utility coupled with embedded slides designed to be cut and pasted into an autoformatted document would have been unique. It would have not only promoted the feature, but would have also created advocates and trained attendees in how to use the feature properly.

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