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Episode 06 / July 17, 2019

06 | Colleen Bisconti, IBM: Data-driven Events, Global Teams, and Space Jam

Colleen Bisconti (Vice President of Global Conferences and Events at IBM) shares her perspectives on how the events team at IBM has become more data-driven and agile over the years, leading a team of 350 event marketers, event design, and personalization.

Colleen Bisconti (Vice President of Global Conferences and Events at IBM) shares her perspectives on how the events team at IBM has become more data-driven and agile, leading a team of 350 event marketers, event design, and personalization.


Brandon Rafalson: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to In Person, where we explore the world’s most daring events and the people who make them happen. In case we haven’t already met, I’m Brandon Rafalson. In this episode, we speak with Colleen Bisconti, Vice President of Global Conferences and Events at IBM. IBM itself needs a little introduction.

But I’m going to give them one anyhow. IBM has been a major player in tech ever since they first started leasing punch card-operated machines to organizations in 1911. Since then, IBM has continued to make a name for itself. Under the helm of Thomas J. Watson, known for his motto, ‘Think,’ the company started making a run for electric typewriters in the 1920s.

And then later moved into hardware, software, and accompanying services. Today, IBM is known less for its punch card-operated machines and more for its cloud platform and cognitive solutions, including the AI assistant Watson. Sound familiar? The company has over three hundred and eighty thousand employees and serves clients in one hundred and seventy countries.

The story of IBM is very much the story of a long-lasting company that has adapted and changed with the times. Having been with the company for over twenty years, Colleen Bisconti has witnessed this change herself. Colleen first started working with IBM as an intern. Since then, she has worked with several different departments in different roles, ultimately leading to the senior role that she plays in directing the company’s events program today.

In this episode, Colleen shares her perspective on how the events team at IBM has become more data-driven and agile. Along the way, we discussed how Watson is powering personalized event experiences, how Colleen leads a team of three hundred and fifty event marketers, and what it means to have a design-thinking approach to events and space jams.

Okay, let’s get to it.

All right. I’m so excited. We have Colleen Bisconti with us today, the Vice President of Global Conferences and Events at IBM. Thank you so much for being with us here today, Colleen.

Colleen Bisconti: [00:02:28] Happy to be here.

Overview of IBM’s Events

Brandon Rafalson: I have a lot of questions. I mean, IBM is a huge company. I understand you’re running around 5,000 events a year.

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah, 5,000 events a year across the world. 

Brandon Rafalson: Wow. I’m not too good at math, but if I were to do some simple calculations here, that’s like, what, 13 events a day?

Colleen Bisconti: At least, yeah.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:02:45] So that’s, that’s crazy. So, I’m really curious to learn a lot about how you are scaling out your global team, your strategy, and how you’re measuring all these different events. But, for starters, could you just give us a brief overview of your responsibilities as vice president? 

Colleen Bisconti: Absolutely. So I think probably that the biggest responsibility is really to set the strategy to really understand what events play in terms of the overall marketing mix and provide guidance to our geographies and our local markets in terms of how they should be showing up. When should they be showing up? I’m also responsible for ensuring that we’ve got the right processes and tools in place to make everybody successful. So that’s everything that you might use to plan an event, everything that happens on site, everything that happens after the event.

And then how do we integrate those systems into the broader IBM? And then anything that’s really considered across IBM face-to-face experience could be our big global conference called Think that could be taking Think on the road in terms of road shows. It could be how we show up at big third-party events, or it could be how we pop up places, unexpected places.

And so any of those sort of activities that we need to be one IBM, then my team also manages that as well. 

Brandon Rafalson: [00:03:51] Wow, so, a lot. 

Colleen Bisconti: A lot, but it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s a fast-changing industry, not just IBM, but the event industry overall. And so it’s really important to me that we stay in the forefront of that, especially when it comes to technology conferences.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:04:05] Sure. So you mentioned it’s, there’s a lot of trends. There’s a lot to be on top of. What are some big trends that you are thinking about right now?

Colleen Bisconti: Well, I think the attendees, it doesn’t matter what event attendees are expecting more. They’re giving us their time and they’re choosing between multiple different events, sometimes vendor events, sometimes industry events, and they expect to come and experience what they want the way they want it. And as event marketers, that really changes how we plan events and how we think about our attendees. And I think that’s probably the big, big trend. The other one that I see is just data, right? And we’ve always captured data and sometimes we’ve been good at using it, but never really, really good at analyzing and using the data to really transform the attendee experience.

And so I think because of the tools out there, we now have a much better way to do that and drive data-driven decisions as we think about everything from the first time somebody hears about an event all the way through to after they attend. 

Brandon Rafalson: [00:04:58] Okay, so I definitely want to hear more about this, but before we dive in and to data and the attendee experience, I want to recognize the fact that you’ve been at IBM for 25 years, which is a very long time to be with one company.

And over the time that you have been with IBM, you’ve had a bunch of different roles, from Marketing Manager, Marketing Program Director to Director of Events and Communication and many others. So I have a couple of questions for you. One is, how did you first end up at IBM? And the other is, once you got to IBM, how did you end up where you are today?

Colleen Bisconti: It’s a great question. 25 years is definitely a really long time. So I actually started with IBM as an intern when I was in college and really got a sense of what IBM was, what IBM did, and what a fantastic company it really is. And so when I graduated, I knew I wanted to work for IBM and I was very fortunate that they hired me on, actually in sales.

So I started in sales and had a variety of different sales roles, and while I liked it, it wasn’t what I was passionate about. So I ended up leaving IBM. I did a stint as a mom, right, and a stay-at-home mom. And then, when I wanted to go back to work, I knew I wanted to go back to marketing. And I wasn’t sure how to get back into IBM in marketing because I wasn’t sure that they did it well.

So I went to a small company. I really learned marketing, sort of end to end, and then plopped myself right back at IBM. And then, in every job I had within marketing, what I found was I was gravitating towards the event part of that job. So that would be my favorite part of the job. And after many years, after many different jobs, always gravitating toward events, I was like, ‘That’s it.’

I’m an event marketer, right? And then began to sort of craft my own job at IBM. The job I’m in today didn’t exist. And so really finding ways that we could gain efficiencies and effectiveness and really change our event’s sort of contribution to the overall business results if we were centralized and so really worked hard to build this centralized organization. And we are, we’re seeing that the events are still the primary driver of marketing results. And events touch almost every single opportunity that progresses and ultimately closes, so it’s a great place to be and it’s a great way to lean in and to provide business results, and that’s why I love it so much.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:07:03] That’s such a fascinating story and being at IBM, taking a break, coming back, raising a family, all of that. And then once you’re back in IBM, the fact that you were able to work your way towards what you’re really passionate about. What was it like speaking with other managers and stakeholders within the company to create this role?

Colleen Bisconti: I think a lot of people understand events, right? We’ve all go to events. I don’t think people understand the complexity of planning events. And it’s not just one single event. It’s how do events fit into our overall marketing mix? Where do we do events? When do we do events? Who are we targeting?

It’s an incredibly complex thing. And I think the more that people began to understand events, the more they said, ‘I don’t like it.’ Right, and so what I’m finding, even on my own team, is you have people that love and that just are passionate about this incredibly fast-paced environment that we work in and events, and you have others that don’t. And there’s not very much in the middle. And so, I think what I found, especially with other managers and then senior managers across the team, is they wanted this function. They wanted to have a really strong event team. They wanted an engine that could punch out this number of events and the right team to do that.

And so I was fortunate that I was in the right place at the right time for that. 

Evaluating Event Success

Brandon Rafalson: [00:08:18] Very cool. So we have IBM and a bunch of different events that IBM is staging at any given time. We understand clearly that they have a lot of value. So now that you’re in this role, how are you principally evaluating the success of these different types of events?

Colleen Bisconti: So at the very top level, if you think about the events that we do, of the 5,000, about half are third party and about half are proprietary, and of those events, we invest about 20 percent of our budget in thought leadership events. And then the other—

Brandon Rafalson: Is that 20 percent of the marketing budget and events budget?

Colleen Bisconti: The total event spent overall. And so for those events, the thought leadership events, we measure very differently. So we measure success based on whether we can place our senior speakers at that event. Are we driving brand health? Are we driving NPS scores higher? Are we getting social influencers back into the IBM fold? Are we seeing social mentions?

And so, we have a bunch of different KPIs that really are around, did we move the needle in terms of how people understand and view IBM? The rest of the spend is on Demand Gen Events. And those we measure through typical things: how many people did we see there? How do we funnel them back into other nurture streams?

How much revenue did we create? How much revenue did we progress? How long did it take to actually close? So a lot of that kind of very, very strong measurable KPIs. But then we also look at the same sort of thing. Did we change people’s opinion of IBM? Did spending this day, these two days, these three days with us, you walk away with a better understanding of not just the technology that IBM has, but the company that IBM is? And then how do you take that back to your company? And how do you use your relationship with IBM to better your business? 

Brandon Rafalson: [00:09:59] Okay, that totally makes sense. You have these different types of events that have other overarching business goals, and with these different goals, you have different ways that you’re measuring them.

Now, it’s a lot of events, and they’re happening globally. What does that look like from an infrastructure standpoint? I know you mentioned you’re very much involved with technology. How can you, at scale, report on all of these different events that are going on? Or what does that reporting look like?

Maintaining Brand Consistency Across Different Events

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah, so a couple of things, and I’m gonna answer it a little bit differently than you asked it, but one of the things that I am incredibly passionate about is how IBM shows up. And then what’s the attendee experience within whatever event it is? What I was found that IBM is so big and complex, when one business unit was showing up, it looked one way.

And when another business unit was showing up, it looked a different way. And I started taking pictures of how we were showing up and showing the inconsistencies. And we have this unbelievable, powerful brand with IBM, right? And IBM stands for something, and yet we weren’t showing up consistently that way.

And so the way I talked about it internally is I want to walk into any third party show and I want to be able to identify the IBM booth without ever seeing the logo, right? That we’ve got such consistency of brand telling up the really powerful story. And we can tell it in different ways based on the technology or based on the audience that we’re talking to.

So developing what we call a toolkit where it’s got these fixed fundamental things that say, when we’re IBM when we show up at a face-to-face experience, it will be this. And then there’s this flexible element that says, Oh, but what are the right messages for your market? What are the right messages for that audience?

[00:11:39] And so it’s fixed and flexible, but it now assures that at every one of our 5,000 events, we show up on the brand. It is a very, very powerful way to represent IBM in the best way possible.

So I think that, for me, that was sort of the base of how we roll out and how we have the ability to do this number of events, making sure that we’ve trained our agency partners, the partners that help us in the market to actually build and execute these events. They understand the toolkit, making sure that we’re providing consistent, what we call activations, experiential experiences.

So it doesn’t matter if it’s in San Francisco or Rome, right? The experience is the same in terms of how we showcase the technology. I think, too, and I know a lot of companies struggle with this, is what are the tools and processes by which we use? And so standardizing on those tools and standardizing on the processes by which we engage.

And then how does the back end fit into the IBM system? We’re not a silo, right? We fit into the bigger IBM picture. So I think it’s that consistency. And the other thing, too, and we’ve got 350 event marketers around the world, and I don’t care if it was 50 or 5,000, you still need to build a community, right?

And so in terms of rolling out worldwide, this idea of we are the event discipline in IBM Marketing, and we are a community, and we learn together and we share together and best practices or things to avoid. We take pride in the work that we do. We celebrate the wins. And we fix the things that fell short of our expectations.

And so I think this idea of being proud within your discipline is really important to me, and I think that’s what has people stay so connected. And we’ve moved to a much more agile way of working. And so some of the tools that we use have us I can be in contact with all 350 in one slack channel and share information real-time versus waiting for a monthly call or versus some of the other ways that we used to communicate.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:13:25] Okay, so a lot to unpack there. You talked about your approach to maintaining brand consistency across all these different events. The idea of having a toolkit and would you say this is similar to what some others who are listening would call a playbook, or is it, would you say there’s a difference?

Colleen Bisconti: I do think there’s a difference, and then a playbook is always important, right? But I think what the toolkit gave us and what it helped us elevate the event marketers to do is don’t worry about the materials that your booth is built out of. Don’t worry about the color of the carpet. Don’t worry about the images.

We’ve got a huge image library. So you spend your time worried about the attendee, right? And what experience are we trying to create for that attendee? What journey are we trying to create for the attendees? So you take the conversation up from whether we are going to have coffee or not to a totally different level.

And I think the toolkit outlines that so clearly. And again, provides that sort of fixed foundation, and then where you’re spending your time as an event marketer is in that flexible part. It’s the messaging. It’s the journey. It’s the experience. 

Brandon Rafalson: [00:14:26] Okay, so totally taking care of the more day-to-day tasks, the things that would otherwise require some processing power to figure out.

And you have that all already set up, ready to more or less plug and play. And then whoever is owning that event can focus on the—

Colleen Bisconti: Content experience, exactly, and that’s how we guarantee that we are when I say on brand’s not just on brand. It’s the IBM brand, and I think anybody in any company, you know, your company has a personality. Your company stands for something, and how we show up at face-to-face events needs to represent that and have people be really clear about who and what we are.

Design-Focused Approach to Events

Brandon Rafalson: [00:15:00] Another thing you touched on was your agile team, so I definitely want to come back to that. But since we’re talking about the attendee experience and the on-brand experience, I know that you have a design-focused approach to events. Could you tell us a little bit more about what it means to be design-focused? 

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah, sure. So I think, a lot of people are taking this design approach, right?

In terms of not just marketing but across the business in terms of how we do things, design and design thinking became really important at IBM across all of the different parts of the company, not just marketing. But as marketers, we embraced it. And probably the best example I can give is we used to have multiple what we called global conferences. At one time, we had nine, and we knew the strategy moving forward was to get us closer to a single IBM conference as our big flagship event.

And so, I think it was two and a half years ago, a brand new CMO, Michelle Peluso, who’s amazing and such an amazing leader, came in and really said, ‘Okay, let’s do it now.’ And so all of a sudden, we were faced with 11 months and needing to take three very large conferences down to one conference for 30,000 people.

And it was important to me that we didn’t mush it all together. We didn’t say, okay, we’ll just take all this stuff and do. And so we actually did a jam. We did a jam with 8,000 of our clients and our business partners and IBMers, and over three days in a jam setting, we discovered what would the best experience be we put it into different chapters, and we really asked people like, what do you expect out of a conference?

[00:16:26] If IBM had one conference, what would it look like? What experience are you trying to gain? What kind of sessions? What kind of experiences? What kind of networking would you like to see? And we came out of that jam with tons and tons of ideas. And then, we did a design thinking workshop. So we locked ourselves in a room.

We brought in people on my team. We brought in people who don’t do events at all to get a different perspective. We brought in vendors. We brought in vendors that work on other shows besides IBM. And we just, did this design thinking workshop, very facilitated in terms of crafting okay, what is this event?

And that’s where Think came from. One flagship IBM conference. And I will tell you that there were ideas, there were approaches, there were things that we brought to life at Think that never would have happened had we not done the jam, had we not done the design thinking workshop. And then so that was important to me that we take that sort of that philosophy, that approach all the way down into the markets, even for the smaller events.

Don’t think you know how to do it because you did it last year. Don’t think you know how to do it because you did it last month, right? But really rethink and push ourselves to continue to transform that attendee experience and what that means. And I think the design thinking and bringing on, quite frankly, really, really good designers who we never had before really helped us do that.

And I’m super proud of how the toolkit comes to life, at how Think comes to life. And it’s because we partner so well now with the design team to really make that happen. 

Brandon Rafalson: [00:17:42] So I do have a question, and I’m sorry if this comes across as a little elementary, but what is a jam, and how did you convince other members of your organization that this is something that needed to happen?

Colleen Bisconti: There are a lot of different ways to do the GM. IBM actually has a platform, a digital platform, that allows us to do this. So it is, essentially, think of it as a war room online. And in that war room, you can separate it into different sections. You can do it whole, and you just invite people and it’s open 24 hours.

And we had facilitators online 24 hours so that we got everybody around the world, and the facilitators would pose questions or people would give their ideas. And so it’s this ongoing digital dialogue and people can pop in and pop out. We saw some people that spent 10 minutes and some people that spent 20 hours across the three days I think it’s interesting because it’s not just this purpose, but we do manager jams at IBM. It’s just a way to facilitate a conversation across multiple different organizations.

And I see the local teams doing mini jams all the time, and it’s really great. 

Brandon Rafalson: Ever any space jams? 

Colleen Bisconti: No, but that’s a good idea. 

Delivering Personalized Event Experiences

Brandon Rafalson: [00:18:43] Okay. So we’re talking about how you’re getting feedback from different members of your organization and how this has led to this sort of design-focused approach and the advent of Think. I know that with these events, you are also very passionate about delivering personalized experiences to the attendees. Like you said, making sure that they’re not only satisfied but also surprised and delighted in ways that they didn’t even expect. Could you tell us a little bit more about your approach to crafting personalized experiences? 

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah, absolutely. So this is a passion area of mine, and it’s fundamentally, it’s using data and finding out how to use data in the right way.

And I’ll give you some examples. So when somebody, again, they’re giving us their time, and if you’re going to a huge conference, it’s really difficult to, like, okay, there are 5,000 sessions, there’s this, and there’s that, and there are these people to meet and those meetings to have, and it’s really hard to navigate, and I heard so many times that people would leave, not just our conference, but conferences in general, thinking, ‘I’m not sure I got enough out of that,’ or ‘I didn’t get what I expected out of it,’ or ‘I didn’t get what I needed out of it.’

And so, this idea of, again, creating exceptional attendee experiences, for me, starts with, what the attendee is trying to accomplish. Why are they coming? What are they here for? And so, for me, in the way that we’re using data at IBM, we know a lot about our attendees. I’m talking proprietary events now, not as much third-party, but proprietary events; we know a lot about our attendees.

[00:20:11] They register where they’re from. We know their industry, we know their job title, we know how big their company is. We know, through our systems, we know what products they use of IBM. Do we know they have open opportunities? Are they looking at other solutions? And then, once they get on-site, we know what they’re doing.

And so, we know what they’ve added to their agenda in the app before they get there. We know what sessions they’re starting to go to. We know what meetings they have scheduled. And all of that is an attempt to make a better experience for that attendee. And so, one of the things that we’re seeing now, one of the things that we’re doing is using artificial intelligence, and for us, that’s IBM Watson, but using artificial intelligence to help guide an attendee.

So Watson will recommend, ‘Hey, I see that you’re in this industry, or I see that you’re interested in these topics,’ or ‘I see that you’ve gone to this thing.’ ‘Here are some other things you might want to do,’ and provide sort of recommendations. ‘Here are some people you might want to meet. They have similar interest areas of yours.’

And so, using the app, data, and artificial intelligence to craft a unique experience. And the way I describe it—it was 30,000 people in San Francisco last year—is we created 30,000 attendee experiences versus one experience for 30,000 attendees. And I think the second we start thinking about that way, and the second we start to really put ourselves in the place of the attendee, we make better decisions.

And the data helps us to do that. 

Brandon Rafalson: [00:21:34] That’s huge, and I know that having data-driven personalization like this is a huge topic in the industry right now, but it’s what really amazes me is that’s something that your team is already implementing. I think it helps that you have a company with a history of innovation and you now have an amazing AI tool like Watson to pull from.

So, are you leaning on internal tech specialists to work with the events team in order to create these experiences? 

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah, oftentimes definitely some internal, but also our business partners. We have partners that are, that they want to partner with us. I’ve had partners at different events saying, ‘Hey, I’m using your app. I think I could help you.’

And so really looking at our business partners or what we call our IBM champions and having them help us with the technology and changing how we engage our attendees. The example I gave is really for a very large conference, but it can be true at very small conferences as well, right?

And looking at tools, and like looking at, I know there’s lots of talk in the industry right now between RFID and Beacon, and what are the ways we do attendee tracking? But I think once you figure out why you’re doing it, then you understand the data that you’re capturing; and then you decide what to do with that data.

To capture it is meaningless, but to capture it and have a plan on what to do with it and use it as a follow-up after the event and to say, ‘Look, you were, it was great, you were here for us for a day, we know that you’re really interested in a hybrid cloud for transportation. Here are five other things that IBM has that you might want to take a look at, a white paper, a video, whatever it is.’

We have to think about the attendee experience from the very first time that we talk to a potential attendee all the way through months and months and months after they’ve left the event.

Surprising Insights from Event Data

Brandon Rafalson: [00:23:10] Again, I know this is something that’s trending, but it’s something that you’re actually implementing.

Could you share maybe a surprising insight that you gathered from either Think or another event using this data-collecting approach? 

Colleen Bisconti: I can, and I saw this pervasive across many events, not just Think, but I’ll use Think as the example. It used to be that we would say during registration, what IBM technologies are you interested in?

And people would answer, I’m interested in this, I’m interested, like security or whatever the case is. And we would use that data to drive decisions around. Well, how many security sessions do we need? We have X percent of our registered attendees tell us that that’s our primary interest. So we were making what we thought.

Were data-driven decisions based on what the attendees were telling us they cared about? It was how many executives do we need? How many SMEs do we need? What distinguished engineers should we bring? How many sessions should we have? And we were so proud of ourselves for using the data. And what we found is what people said they wanted is not what they did.

And so, it could be because they just click the first thing on the form. It could be because they saw something that interested them later, whatever the case was. But it was fascinating. It was a huge percentage of people that did not engage in content or with people around what they told us it was, but rather something else.

So all of a sudden, that changes. Well, I’m not gonna ask that question anymore, right? How can I better figure out what that person is interested in? Oh, they have an open opportunity for this solution. Oh, they… So now, using other data versus a self-selected interest area that we know will drive the right data-driven decisions in terms of the event experience.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:24:45] That’s amazing.

Colleen Bisconti: Fascinating. 

Brandon Rafalson: Yeah. Yeah. 

Colleen Bisconti: It makes me pay more attention when I sign up for events. Like, I really pay attention. What questions are they asking, and why might they be asking me this?

Brandon Rafalson: Somebody’s going to be looking at this and trying to draw some sort of connection. 

Colleen Bisconti: Exactly.

Brandon Rafalson: I have to make sure. Is this in line with my intent?

Colleen Bisconti: Exactly.

The Future of Event Personalization

Brandon Rafalson: [00:25:02] Okay. So, along the lines of personalization, what are some ways that you see it improving and evolving over the years? 

Colleen Bisconti: I definitely think, again, back to data; the more data we have from a proprietary event perspective, the more personalized we can make that experience on the third-party side. It’s a little bit tougher because you’re putting a booth up.

Let’s say CES, for example. You have a booth at CES. I know the demographics of who goes to CES. I don’t know who’s going to come to our booth. So that becomes more of a how do you create a journey across whatever you’re doing, whether it’s sessions that you have, IBM is speaking at, or it’s your booth, or maybe it’s some other surround activities.

How do you craft a journey so that you can capture real-time capturing data and help influence that journey? And so it’s a little bit tough on the third-party side, but that’s where I, that’s the next big sort of nut I want to crack with the teams in terms of really being able to personalize every single face-to-face experience.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:25:57] Great. Okay, so I’d like to pivot to team and leadership. Earlier, you mentioned how the events team is comprised of 350 event marketers, and they’re all situated in these agile teams and local markets. Could you share with us a little bit more about this agile structure and what it looks like? 

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah, so like I said, it was a big effort across all of IBM to really adopt an agile methodology and how we work, and marketing was no different than the rest of the company.

And so every single event marketer, every single marketer, I should say, not just event marketers, across all the disciplines went through agile training. The same exact agile training. We took our teams across every market and those that sit worldwide, and we created what are called diamond teams, diamond teams are a group of people that work on a specific area of the business. On a diamond team, there would be a campaign manager, a content lead, a digital lead, a social strategist, and an event marketer.

So you bring these functions together on these diamond teams, and they work very quickly. They are empowered to make decisions, to put things into the market quickly, and to work as a team after one common goal, which is the business results for whatever that diamond team is focused on. In order for that to work, you need a management structure and a management approach that delegates and offers the teams the authority to make the decisions they need to make.

[00:27:27] You allow people to take risks. In terms of ‘Let’s try it. Let’s try it. Let’s try it. Let’s try it. Didn’t work? Oh, well, let’s try something different.’ And without this fear of retribution of ‘I’m going to get rated poorly’ or ‘I’m going to get fired.’ No. The whole idea is that you work in this team.

And I think that was a shift in terms of leadership within marketing to allow the teams to have that ability to work like that. The second big piece is the tools and making available tools that allow us to do that. We had an instant messaging product called Same Time that we used for years and years and years and years.

We’ve moved to a different tool suite. So Slack, for example, is now just a standard way that we all communicate in real-time. As I mentioned, we’ve got many Slack channels that support the event discipline, but there’s an events general one that I’m on all day long, where I’ll answer any real-time questions.

People can post questions and ideas here. I read this article, and I see that the usage of that is way higher than when you email things around, right? I can respond immediately where I can’t when something hits my email. So I think the use, and that’s true about the whole team, not just me. But so I think the use of Slack, the use of box shared folders, we can real-time things; we’ve moved away from conference call.

We actually killed all of our conference call lines, and we only use Webex. And so now you’re real-time, and you’re seeing people. So I might be talking to somebody wherever across the world, but we’re all looking at each other on a Webex. And I think those tools have allowed us to really adopt the methodology and to be much faster, not sloppy, but faster, and much more quality work because of the approach.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:29:04] Everything you’re describing to me, it seems like IBM has really, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the organization has learned a lot from the tech companies that are out there, particularly startups, this whole entire idea of these agile teams, this free to fail environment. Even Slack is not perhaps something that someone would think that IBM is using Slack, or some members of the team there.

So it’s just very cool to see how IBM is incorporating different aspects from different companies out there right now.

Colleen Bisconti: A lot of that, for sure. And looking at what are the best practices, right? Across companies in terms of how people work. And I want to go back to the tools for a second because we couldn’t have done all this if we didn’t have the tools to support the way we work; it would have failed, right?

And that goes for reporting tools as well. We’ve got dashboards that we’ve never had before, in terms of looking at the actual results. It used to be results came out once a week, and then you had to dig into, okay, what did that mean? And tools are at our fingertips now, right? And so that puts information into the hands of the diamond teams, puts information in the hands, for me, of the event marketers that, that allow them to make data-driven real-time decisions.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:30:12] So you mentioned that each of these agile teams has a business result or a business goal that they are directed towards. It sounds like that’s the main metric or measure for success, but I was wondering if you could share a little bit more about how, specifically on the events team, these different agile teams are measured.

Colleen Bisconti: So it would depend on the event in terms of the measurement, but ultimately, we’re here to drive business, right? We’re here to contribute to the overall IBM business, whether that is in identifying opportunities, progressing opportunities, or closing opportunities. And so those are the measurements that we hold our event marketers accountable for.

We also look at things like ROI. Are we maximizing every single dollar that we spend on events? And if we’re not, why not? And then what do we have to shift or what do we have to change to make sure that we’re doing that? Net new contacts into the IBM database. Face-to-face events are a great way for us to attract new contacts to market to that we don’t currently know today.

Especially if we’re at a third-party event or if we’re targeting white space for maybe a single-day event around the world. So, measuring the number of net new individuals and the number of net new companies allows us to bring them into the IBM marketing fold. A lot of the social sentiment in terms of drove up our NPS scores, which is a critical measurement for us as a marketing organization and as an organization overall.

So did our efforts, did what we did at this event, and did that drive up the NPS score? Are we impacting the brand’s health? Can you draw any correlation between where we’re doing events and where we’re seeing brand health increase? So I think it’s all of those things, and then there are more internal measurements just in terms of how fast you upload attendees and how fast you follow up with attendees. The quality of our communications, for example, the way that we engage, and then ultimately, the survey results that we get, right? What are our attendees telling us about how well we did?

Brandon Rafalson: [00:32:03] Okay. Are these agile teams working on multiple event types, or do you have some teams dedicated strictly toward one type of event?

Colleen Bisconti: Most of the diamond teams would be running multiple kinds of events at the same time. You might be working on content for Think. Or you might be working on if you’re sitting in Italy, you might be working on a drive to plan. How we’re gonna get our Italian customers and business partners to register for Think at the same time that you’re doing a third-party event, at the same time that you’re doing a closing event for your sales guys.

So, the diamond teams in their area of expertise might be working on multiple events at any given time. The team that I manage directly at Worldwide, the Thinks, the big cross-IBM events that we do, we don’t work on a diamond team. My direct team sits above the diamond teams. And so we have to understand how you work with them, but a whole different set of measurements and a different set of ways that we work and we integrate across the different parts of the business.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:32:57] Okay. So this sounds really, really cool. And I have to say, I’m a little curious about maybe working at IBM on one of these diamond teams. So I guess what sort of qualities would you say look for in someone who wants to work as an event marketer under you?

Colleen Bisconti: Yeah. So, my very first quality is I want to feel in our conversation that you are passionate about events.

I very much care about our culture. I very much care about obviously what we deliver to the business, but more importantly, how we do it. And so a culture of passion, of innovation, of collaboration, none of us can do this alone. So, how well do we work across the team? And then a desire to grow your skills.

And I say all the time, an event marketer that goes back and does the same thing time and time again because it worked. That’s failure. Unless we’re constantly transforming the way that we think about and plan and execute events, then we’re not marketers. We’re not passionate event marketers.

And where do I see that and where do I feel that in terms of people wanting to work here? And like I said earlier, I find, and this is true as I talk to other people in other companies as well, you love events or you hate events. There’s no gray. And so I want people who love it, that see the fruits of their labor in a customer’s face at an event.

My favorite thing is when I can hear a customer say, ‘I didn’t know IBM did this.’ Or ‘Wow, this is IBM.’ Like hearing that kind of stuff when you’re on-site, those are the things that, for me, make me feel like we’ve done our job. 

Challenges in Managing a Global Event Team

Brandon Rafalson: [00:34:23] I just read this article in the Atlantic that was about how the Navy is now hiring individuals who are able to perform multiple jobs instead of specializing in one. When you are looking for members for your diamond team, are you looking for more specialists or people who might perform multiple functions on these diamond teams?

Colleen Bisconti: So I’m gonna give you purely my personal perspective.

Brandon Rafalson: Sure.

Colleen Bisconti: So, 25 years at IBM. So, I grew up in a time when I felt that in order to advance your career, you had to know a little bit of everything.

So, I very methodically mapped out my career that said I needed a campaign job. I need a geo job. I need a business partner channel ecosystem job. I need, and I check the boxes, thinking in order for me to get to where I wanted to go, I needed to show I did this, I’ve done this, I’ve done this.

I don’t believe that’s the case anymore. I do think that there are some people that really want to be a generalist. That, really, is the way their brain sort of functions or how they find their passion by understanding all the different piece parts. That’s great. Go do that. And I have people that come in and out of the discipline.

‘I want to do an event job for two years.’ Great. There are other people, though, who feel like the value that they can add is in the depth of their expertise. And so, as a discipline leader, we have done enablement, and we’ve done career pathing that says, Do you want to be a generalist or do you want to be a specialist?

And if you want to be a specialist, here are the five levels of skills that will get you up to the top. And so I think it really depends on the individual person. I certainly don’t want somebody who says, I don’t really like events, but I’ll do it for two years. I mean, that’s not the intention, right? But I do think there’s value in both kinds of approaches.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:36:02] Okay, so it’s time for a few more questions. One of them is, when it comes to managing this giant global team, what are some challenges you face, and how are you overcoming these challenges? You mentioned that technology has been a great boon in terms of enabling cross-team collaboration, but what are, I want to hear the secrets, like how do you make it all happen.

Colleen Bisconti: Oh, I wish there was some magic secret. I do think the technology has helped, and I can’t overemphasize how connected and how much we feel like a true community. I think without the technology tools, just based on language time zones, that wouldn’t be possible. So I think that has absolutely helped us.

I think things like the toolkit, things like the suite of tools. When we deliver things that help event marketers do their job better, I think they feel a better part of our community. And so I think that making those things happen is pulling us together. So it doesn’t matter that there’s 350, there’s 350 people that are passionate about the same thing.

And I think that definitely helps us. I wish I could get out to more markets more often because I do think that face-to-face, even from a planning perspective and a teaming perspective, is really important. So I try to get as many places as I can, but that’s probably the biggest challenge is not being able to be face to face and local with as many teams as I want.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:37:23] You’ve had a long, very successful career here at IBM. If you could go back a little bit earlier in your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Colleen Bisconti: It’s funny, I think if you asked me that yesterday, it would be a different answer. Tomorrow, it would probably be a different answer as well.

For now, I would have said to find my passion earlier. I was so focused on how to get ahead that I don’t think I took time to enjoy or to really find those things that I was passionate about and enjoy them instead of just constantly looking at the net. What’s the next thing? What’s an end?

I’ve got so many younger people on my team where I’m watching them do the same things and I so badly want to just say just relax. Your career will progress. I just learned to be a sponge and learn as much as I can, and I think I was looking one step ahead, and that’s what I would tell myself not to do.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:38:11] Got it.

You mentioned that the CMO at IBM is great and is a great partner to be working with. What is another executive in the events or marketing space that has been an influence on you? 

Colleen Bisconti: So Michelle Paluzzo, who is our CMO, by far has had the biggest influence in my entire career, and she’s only been here for a few years, and I have learned so much from her every single day, and I feel very privileged to get to work with her, actually.

There are other leaders, and there are other people who have taught me or that I learned from. All the time. Another big leader at IBM is a woman named Ann Rubin, who actually runs the whole brand organization, and she really takes the time to understand what we’re doing in the event space, gives us a ton of freedom to do that, but also I learned a ton about advertising. I learned a ton about branding. I learned a ton about entrepreneurship and a lot of different things. So, another really solid female leader at IBM for sure. And there’s a host of others, and I really do try, and I have for most of my career, is to just learn as much as I can from really powerful people, and women specifically, that I have a ton of respect for, but also learn what not to do.

So when you engage with somebody or different leaders across my career, where I didn’t think it was a good working environment, or I didn’t find collaboration and some of the other things that are important to me, so really learning what not to do was just as important to me as learning what to do.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:39:40] And the final question I have for you is, how do you stay inspired and keep your creative instincts fresh?

Colleen Bisconti: Oh, the team, for sure. Recognizing that we come to work every day to deliver something incredibly powerful for IBM. Oftentimes, the marketing and face-to-face events are a huge face of IBM, and I take a tremendous amount of pride and really pride in this team. And the fact that the team shows up every day ready to deliver on that. And I think watching people, watching attendees at our things when you see somebody engaged the way you hoped they would. I mean, that is incredibly inspiring. And I think I don’t care what company you work for.

If you’re an event marketer, there is this euphoria when an event ends and watching all of this hard work come and see exactly what the attendees got to experience and end. For us, it’s how we change the view of IBM, and that is inspiring every single day.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:40:38] Lovely. All right. Well, thank you so much, Colleen.

It’s been so great having you on the show and hearing about how you are managing this global team, adopting this agile work style, different tools you are using, and leveraging data. It’s all very, very exciting, and thank you again for sharing.

Colleen Bisconti: Oh, thank you for having me. It was a great, great conversation.

Brandon Rafalson: [00:41:00] A huge thanks to Colleen for joining us today. It is truly impressive to see how such a large events program can be run. If you found this conversation to be insightful, you can help us spread the word by sharing it with your colleagues and friends. You can also help us spread the word by subscribing and leaving a heartwarming review on iTunes.

If you have any feedback or suggestions, please drop us a line at [email protected]. Similarly, if you’d like to see someone featured on the show, let us know by using the guest submission form at inpersonpodcast.com. 

Until next time, I’m Brandon Rafalson, and this has been In Person.

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