3 things the conferencing industry could (should) change to improve engagement
If you could ask your conferencing vendor for anything you want to help you engage more effectively, what would you ask for? If your answer is, “I don’t know, but I know cool stuff when I see it,” you’re not alone.
The word “engagement” is so broadly used it risks becoming meaningless. The general assumption when using it, however, usually follows a logic flow like this:
“If I can be more engaging in my marketing webinar/virtual class/online meeting or sales presentation, then I’ll be more effective in accomplishing my goals.”
So, if many people have an idea of what they want and they can’t necessarily articulate what that looks like, then what?
I had coffee with Scott Driscoll, VP of Products at Rally Labs, conferencing industry old-timer, and longtime business partner (investor in my company, 1080 Group, LLC) to think out loud for a bit on the question, “What’s going on in the world, and how might that inform what the conferencing industry should be thinking about?”
What follows are my reflections from the discussion.
Why: Four trends are converging to reshape behavior and attitude
Much of the technology that enables real time communication hasn’t changed much recently; some of it hasn’t changed much in a long damn time. And I’d argue that what’s going on in the world is (re-)shaping user expectations at a rate faster than vendors are keeping up.
At its foundation, mobility is a shift in accessibility, but the broader trend is attitudinal. Expectations are being (re-)shaped that anything is possible anytime.
Socialization and generational diversity
Digital relationships are (re-)shaping us into new neighborhoods of psychographic, not demographic affinity. To be sure, the world uniquely straddles a line between those who find this natural and those who do not, and often that division is age related, but increasingly this isn’t because connecting with technology is hard, it’s just because it’s different.
The consumerization of app use increasingly means that we expect apps to be instantly usable, instantly available, interoperable, and disposable. If it disappoints, there are many more like it. If it’s too hard, they delete. People install, use, and move on.
Data-information-knowledge-wisdom is not new, but again, expectations are rapidly shifting. We have apps that give us stats about anything, aggregate data from multiple sources, and/or apply algorithms for the sake of rendering us something that delivers, hypothetically, more actionable insight than we had before.
Paradoxically and consequently, the conferencing industry is experiencing what Clayton Christensen described in Seeing What’s Next: product features have outstripped the market’s adoption of them. There’s a general pressure on maintaining margin and retaining customers.
What: UC (including video, web, and audio conferencing) is struggling
UC and the discussion around it often still misses the point
Innovation happens when we break down barriers to technologically-enabled communication so that multi-point engagement is better facilitated. I’ll avoid the “Does tech shape communications or communications shape tech?” philosophical rant, but as an industry we still talk a lot about features. That’s a problem.
Adoption and retention isn’t (entirely) a technical problem
Users need to get work done. If it’s reasonably easy to use and does the job, they don’t need to switch. If your product requires training, it still needs design work. If your market doesn’t get it, they need skills training, not product training.
UX should guide usage and discovery
To say that this is only a skills problem would be erroneous. Just like the tacit-explicit relationship in knowledge, technology is a way of doing things, an operating system if you will. But users don’t know what they don’t know. At some level, workflow should guide success. More importantly, a brilliant taxonomy or schema of that usage may start with immediate and simple, but ideally it enables discover and usage of advanced features in a natural way.
How: Engagement should be natural and frictionless
Synchronous versus asynchronous
If you’re a conferencing vendor and want to better enable collaboration, facilitation, presentation, segmentation, conversation, or whatever angle you serve, consider what we do in person:
We walk to a meeting, we stop by the printer, we have a conversation at a water cooler, and all this is informal. Then we enter a room with a formal meeting, trade business cards, and sing kum-bah-yah. Then we exit and the formal fades back to informal.
Online, however, there’s still a rather hard stop between synchronous and asynchronous technologies. Social collaboration is solving a lot of asynch problems, but if we’re going to enable people to engage more naturally, their life flow will need fewer speed bumps.
Right tools, right time
Take the great divide of basic online meetings with advanced, specific use cases (virtual classes, or events). Different products for different use cases. In one sense this isn’t wrong – different use cases integrate different things into the work flow.
Meeting-oriented conferencing is the most prevalent because meetings are more frequent and less specialized than other use cases. But the vast majority of the market still years later doesn’t get why they need your virtual classroom product versus a basic meeting product. Or your webinar product versus your basic meeting product that simply accommodates more concurrent sessions. Or heck, why your few-seat meeting product that also happens to broadcast out an entirely passive view stream to solve your scale problem is a problem.
As mentioned earlier, many people don’t have skills to even know what they should be doing, so they don’t value the more advanced features as you’d hope they would. But therein lies the problem: it’s all the same damn tech.
What users don’t find is the ability to discover stuff as they grow into it. Most of the time they don’t need registration pages or breakout rooms, but instead of thinking “my conferencing vendor must have another product that better accommodates my ability to engage my audience,” they just work around it (and complain about how it’s a sub-par experience to doings stuff in person). Or they sit in their marketing or training department and complain about what they have received from the IT department who doesn’t know any better in what they are buying.
Theoretically one setup page or process could provide every user a progressively revealed set of features that enable simple configurations for their most common usage and the ability to go, “Oh, what’s this?” along the way.
Bonus: a clever vendor would also see that this perfectly maps to understanding user/usage metrics in a way that helps determine which features people value in a way that helps determine what should be free, premium, or somewhere in between. And it’d no longer a product marketing marketecturing swag so much as a data-driven analysis.
One big advantage of anything happening on the web is that it’s trackable and reportable, right?
Oh, except when it comes to the synchronous communications. As a sales manager I can see how many meetings my team had, but not what the content of those meetings were. As a marketing manager I can see who communicated formally on a registration page or in a poll, but not informally at the sentiment-of-communication level (the digital equivalent of walking around a room and listening to what people are talking about). As an individual communicator I have nothing but an audio recording that would waste a lot of time to analyze (if I wanted to analyze the real time meeting posthumously), but I also don’t have a connection to the getting a “read” on the room before I walk on stage or gauge them during my presentation. Outside of my ability to see a few people on webcam, I feel cut off relative to if I was doing the same thing in person.
But, as one friend of mine said, “What if you could know what your wife was thinking before she said something?”
That kind of stuff exists everywhere except in RTC (real time communications). Yes, I know about your attention meter and that you track drop-off rates and integrate Twitter streams, etc. But take it from a guy who presents virtually for a living and teaches others to do so: most people don’t know how to hork together their own solution or have the skills to what to do if they did (I teach both).
But that’s the opportunity for the industry to help users engage. Your UX probably sucks because they have to go hunting for the tools that enable engagement, and that’s if they know what they’re looking for.
The opposite would be not only exposing those tools to the users, but doing so in a way that helps them discover what they didn’t know they needed.
The bottom line
In a professional context, engagement serves the purpose of gaining attention, shaping meaning, and building trust. Unlike doing so in-person, using technology further enables capture and analysis to improve both present and future discussions.
There are plenty of examples in the world where technology has become nearly transparent in the process of serving a purpose. In time I trust the world of conferencing will become more so, too, as some leader somewhere figures out how to make it a more natural, integrated, and intelligent part of remote communication.
Or maybe it won’t. Just don’t be surprised when your shelf ware-as-a-service doesn’t bring in the renewal dollars you’d hoped.