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Episode 79 / November 27, 2023

Harnessing AI in event management with Atlassian’s Josh Shepherd

In this episode, Josh Shepherd from Atlassian delves into the transformative impact of AI and digital innovation on enhancing attendee experiences.

In this episode, Josh Shepherd, the Head of Event Technology and Innovation at Atlassian, delves into the evolving landscape of event technology. With a rich background working for companies like Microsoft, BW Events Tech, and Swoogo, Shepherd discusses how technology — especially AI — is reshaping attendee experiences in both digital and in-person events. 

Shepherd shares insights from his role at Atlassian, highlighting how a robust event tech stack is crucial for creating fresh, engaging experiences. The conversation also explores the evolving nature of in-person and digital events post-COVID, underscoring the need to differentiate these experiences based on attendee needs and interactions.

Here’s what you’ll hear about in this conversation:

  • The significance of adopting a digital-first mindset in event planning
  • The innovative uses for AI in events, from content indexing to creating personalized engagement pathways for attendees
  • The need to focus on the attendee experience to craft events that resonate

Mentioned in This Episode


[00:00:10] Rachel Moore: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo, the podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events.

I’m Rachel Moore, your podcast host. 

Dust off your tech stack and ignite your AI tools for this insightful conversation with Josh Shepherd, Atlassian’s Head of Event Technology and Innovation! We’re about to dig into the importance of understanding the attendee experience, and how a digital-first approach to today’s events is crucial to success. Plus, AI is the talk of the events industry, which means it’s on Josh’s mind for today’s event concepts, content creation, and data analysis. There’s no way ChatGPT could think up what we’re about to learn on Event Experience.  

Exploring tech with Atlassian’s event expert

[00:01:02] Rachel Moore: Today we are talking about a topic that I’m sure is always front of mind for everyone listening to this podcast: tech. We have someone here who is the expert that we need for this particular topic in tech and digital. Our guest today has worked for Microsoft as the Event Tech Lead, VP of Technical Operations at TK Events, Event Tech Strategy at BW Events Tech. Are you noticing the theme here? And then finally, Head of Event Technology and Innovation at Atlassian. I am really pleased to welcome Josh Shepherd to our microphones for Bizzabo. Josh, welcome to the podcast today.

[00:01:40] Josh Shepherd: Thanks Rachel. I’m glad to be here. It’s always fun to talk.

[00:01:44] Rachel Moore: Could you share with us a bit what it’s like to be in your role as Head of Event Tech and Innovation at Atlassian?

[00:01:49] We’d love to hear all the things you have going on there. What’s happening?

[00:01:53] Josh Shepherd: It’s such a fascinating field to be able to play with technology and see how it can combine together. I’ve always said that the roles in technology and events is like you get to play with all these different solutions and it’s how you take little pieces and put them all together to create something wonderful.

Blending technology and innovation in events

[00:02:09] And one of the things that I’m fortunate about, and it happened a lot in my past life with agency, but now that I’m with Atlassian, I see even more is they almost have a risk tolerance that you’re able to explore and discover that new thing that’s really gonna engage with audiences. Part of my role is to build up that event tech stack, and be responsible for that and have my teams look after that.

[00:02:33] So it’s like, you know, you have a base platform that everything sort of runs in, and then you’ve got data connection layers, and then you’ve got experiential layers on top of that, those are the little things that change all the time with your audience ’cause they always wanna see something.

[00:02:47] What’s that new Wow Instagrammable thing that they want to talk about? And you’ve gotta be new and fresh with that. So you build that base platform, but then on top of that, you get to build these really cool engagements. And I’m lucky enough to be with a company that says we want to discover and we want to change.

Integrating AI into event experiences

[00:03:07] And it’s all about sort of be the change you seek. So we’re able to go and explore and say, you know what? We’ve never tried using AI to do this before. Let’s see how we can weave that into our event experience and give our attendees something really special.

[00:03:23] And that’s what makes it fun.

[00:03:24] I think I’m a little over, some of the people come up with these little creative things like we need a digital whatever, or because we did this in person, we have to do it digitally. And we’ve been really doing a lot of work to break that hybrid experience where we’ve got whatever happens in person, it has to be this parody online and we expect people to come and engage in that way. Like just because they engage, I don’t know, with a photo booth in person does not mean they’re gonna engage with a photo booth online and not to pick on photo booths, they’re wonderful, that’s not necessarily what we’re after, is just doing everything for the sake of doing them.

[00:03:59] So I think you really have to go into events with this lens of attendee journey and what’s that attendee journey gonna be from every different aspect. So if you’re looking at in-person events, it’s a very different lens than digital events, but you’ve got to build for digital events, do it properly so people engage.

Redefining content delivery for digital audiences

[00:04:17] And somewhere through this, you know, the missing years of COVID when everybody switched over to digital and then it became hybrid and there was all these different trends that everybody had. Yeah, everyone seemed to assume that we had to create these experiences that were, you know, digital versions of in-person events, and somehow we thought it was a wonderful idea for people to sit in front of a screen and watch a 90 minute keynote of somebody walking back and forth on a stage, which is one thing when you’re at an in-person event, you’ve got a captive audience. It’s a different experience in person. You’re there seeing that person, you’ve got a connection. It’s also rude to get up and walk away, so people don’t in general. 

[00:04:58] But when you’re in digital, I don’t even know if I have sat and watched online like a 90 minute keynote, unless it’s something that you’re really, really, really passionate about.

[00:05:07] You’re not gonna do that to hopefully find a nugget of information that you can take away. That’s not how people experience online. And I think that’s one of the things that we’ve discovered, that we have a misalignment between content delivery and expected delivery of those digital audiences.

[00:05:24] And nobody wants to give up the massive reach that we got with digital, like we went digital and suddenly, you know, a thousand person event that we ran in person has 50,000 people attending digitally. But for how long? Like if they come and attend for five minutes? Yeah, it counts on a marketing metric that, yeah, we got somebody, but did they really engage?

[00:05:45] So I think that’s a big thing we’re learning over the last couple years and for the next few years, is how do we make that alignment with that content discovery? I think people are trained a certain way to learn. How do you use the internet, right? You load your browser and you search for, how to feed a cat, and then you’re down this rabbit hole of, no, no, no.

[00:06:04] Oh, watch this for a few minutes and then move on. And then finally you happen upon the thing that you’re interested in. You wanna learn it in three or four minutes and then be onto something else. And that’s the discovery journey, not the 90 minute keynote that you’re hoping to get a piece out of.

[00:06:21] So we’re doing a lot of things to realign that content, which is I think, super exciting. You know, doing tools like Digital First, the idea of planning your in-person events and planning your onstage shows and breakouts and keynotes so that they’re prepped for digital so that you can immediately roll them out into that TED talk-esque size of, you know, nine minutes, three minutes, six minutes you know, really hyper targeted content on particular things. And even if that means in your keynote, filming it as if it’s like a reality show and, and stopping and saying, okay, we we’re just gonna cut for a second. We’re gonna realign this.

[00:07:02] You’re not hiding anything from the fact you’re off to your audience, that you’re recording for digital.

[00:07:08] Rachel Moore: Mm-Hmm.

[00:07:09] Josh Shepherd: And that’s kind of a neat way to think about things that we can very quickly then repurpose things, have them online, have them be digital and utilize those assets in a new way that’s properly packaged up.

Using AI for enhanced content indexing and engagement

[00:07:22] For digital, we’re using AI to index all the video content as well, so that you can find the exact sentence on the topic that you’re looking for, just like Google search results. But not just videos. Like you’d want to be able to search any event content, so white papers, PowerPoint presentations, everything that you have, and then search it in a way that people are familiar with, getting them right to the content that they want.

[00:07:47] And if they’re interested, they’ll stay and watch the longer keynote. But you’ve gotta get that initial hook. Those are some of the fun things that we’re playing with, of how to realign that content to expected delivery with digital.

[00:08:00] Rachel Moore: Do you feel like digital has become an afterthought, even after COVID and trying hybrid and stuff?

Digital versus in-person events: A dual strategy

[00:08:07] Josh Shepherd: I think that varies company to company and I can tell you sort of unequivocally that’s not true for us.

[00:08:12] We are a hundred percent investing in digital and it’s not that you plan your in-person event, digital’s an afterthought. It’s more these are two events. There may be similarities in content and there may be repurposing in content.

[00:08:24] But they are two events that you need to carefully think through that attendee journey in both of those scenarios and plan them each carefully with the respective audience. And I think you need to look at the purpose of events. They used to say that your content is king or queen, right?

[00:08:41] I think there’s a bit of a shift there that I think that’s true digitally. Because that’s why people engage digitally, is they want something, they wanna learn something. In person. It’s almost like connections are king or queen, right?

[00:08:52] That’s what you get from the in-person events, is that you’re getting these physical connections, especially when you’re in these remote meetings four or five days a week, and you are in a office at home, one of the things you’re missing is that connection piece, and I think in person events are serving almost as a means for people to get out and get socialized.

[00:09:12] Even if you don’t talk to anybody, even if you’re an introvert, you don’t end up going out to these events and, striking up conversations with 50 people. You are still getting that human connection. And I think that’s where people are using the in-person events for where the digital events are more about what is the content, what can I get out of it?

[00:09:29] So I think that’s why I keep going back to, we’ve gotta align what that content is, how we’re delivering it with how people expect that content to be given to them.

[00:09:39] Rachel Moore: I like that you’re pointing out too, I mean, underneath all of this, tech is the common factor, regardless of if you’re designing that in-person experience or you’re doing the more digital remote experience and trying to give that to the audience. But the tech’s gotta support the whole thing.

The role of tech in designing event experiences

[00:09:54] Josh Shepherd: There’s lots of tech networking people, there’s lots of players out there, right? That try to come up with ways to digitally recreate what it’s like to be at an event, whether it’s some sort of matchmaking or some sort of spontaneous conversation tool, that sort of thing.

[00:10:10] They were great for some audiences and not great for other audiences. Like it totally depends on your crowd, whether people are gonna engage with that. I think it’s probably a little bit more rare that you’re gonna get longer term connections out of those. But then again, maybe it’s rare you get long term connections outta have in-person meetings as well.

[00:10:28] But I think what we do is we also look at like, what is the purpose pre and post event like, like pre-event we’re talking about leads and networking opportunities and connections to customers and potentials. Getting them to the event, getting ’em excited, then getting ’em to engage with the content and, and how can tech support that.

[00:10:47] But post event, it’s almost like we have a shift. Like it’s no longer about the leads for us, it’s about brand and it’s about information and learning. Because why else would somebody come back? We can syndicate and push it out and promote it, and that’s gonna get brand out.

[00:11:02] So we reduce all barriers. In fact, we unlock a lot of our content, make it available to people, push it out there in as many ways as we can so that people see it and they interact with it. But then any other interactions with that content are gonna be people intentionally going to find something like they’re searching, they’re trying to learn that.

[00:11:21] So that’s what we need to provide it in that way. And it’s almost like the networking piece for the sake of networking falls down. So while those networking tools and detect tools for that I think are wonderful during the event, and they’re fun, right? That’s the experiential piece that you’re tacking on and you need to keep changing those up to find different ways to engage.

[00:11:42] But I don’t know that they have that much of a role post once we’re into how people are gonna reuse that content after the event’s over. So that’s kind of the exciting part of what can we do there? And that’s when you do get into neat things like, let’s bring AI into this picture and let’s create call to actions that vary as the video’s playing.

[00:12:03] So somebody’s watching a video on a certain thing and here’s three or four call to actions, but they’re based on what that person’s on stage in that video is speaking about at that instant.

[00:12:14] And not like we’ve always done, like recommendation engines. Like, watch a video, now you’re gonna watch another one.

[00:12:19] Like Netflix always serves up, here’s the next ones you should watch. And you know, they’re doing a lot with AI to try and make their recommendations to be so good that you’ll never search. 

[00:12:30] And it builds upon that trend that we’ve all searched for a T-shirt online. And suddenly, magically every ad for the next, for every website suddenly changes to T-shirt ads. And it’s along that content, but with the intention of rather than selling something, maybe indirectly, but I mean, the idea is to get to their next step in that discovery journey.

[00:12:53] And that’s where you have the opportunity to draw somebody in. That’s your networking connection. That they’re watching a video and there’s a sentence that they heard that they resonate with and they glance down and AI has served up, well do you know, you can now go to our community and engage with other people on this specific topic at that instant.

[00:13:13] And that’s gonna be constantly changing based on everything we know about the person. that facilitates the entire attendee journey by keeping sort of that flow going, that once you’ve engaged somebody, how do you keep them engaged and draw them into the areas that you can help them learn what they wanna learn?

[00:13:34] Rachel Moore: We were just interviewing Will Curran for another episode of this podcast where he talked about how maybe nobody could have predicted AI was going to take the center of the stage in 2023, and here we are. Can you dig into like, you know, we’re talking about AI.

[00:13:47] Where do you stand? How are you all starting to incorporate that or what are you kind of envisioning the ways that we’re able to use AI in events and designing experiences for attendees.

The future of AI in event design and experience

[00:13:58] Josh Shepherd: It’s a huge question, right? And we could talk for hours on ai. It’s so much fun. AI evolved fast, like incredibly fast, right? The ramp up time, the amount of users on, what is it like ChatGPT, has surpassed any kind of social media you know, user acquisition than any other platform.

[00:14:18] It’s just incredible how it’s exploded and I think people don’t know how to use it. I think the first, at least for me and, and people I know, the first exposure and the way they want to use it is write something for me right? When your kids come home and say, I need you to write me 500 words on, on this war because I need to submit a paper for school, right?

[00:14:40] They think, well, it can write, it can author things, which is, that’s sure, that’s one you use. But it hits limitations. And I think people start reading these things and go, that was written by ai, so then let’s figure out the next way to use it in a better way.

[00:14:53] So how can I, you know, Hey AI, write me a a 500 word paper on this war with the language level of a grade eight student making one to three mistakes every four paragraphs, right? Like you can craft exactly what you want and suddenly it’s now, you know, you can’t determine whether, how this is written and, and because you’re simulating the way that should be delivered.

[00:15:16] So it’s really interesting and I think as we learn more about what AI can do, like AI’s biggest, you know, power Superpower, I think is taking huge amounts of data. I. And assimilating them very quickly into a way that’s usable and then being able to act on those. And I think that’s the big power. And with events, we’ve got all this event data that, that we have churning in like I think digital came in during Covid and people went from being able to scan as people walked into sessions and people were, you know, using different ways to track where people moved during events and they got this sort of cursory level of data and were drawing all their conclusions from that.

[00:15:57] They went to Covid and had a mountain. They, they could literally track anything about anyone on digital events and nobody knew what to do with it. It was like, wow, we want all this. And then in fact, after Covid, when we went back to in person, everybody said, no, we can’t give that up. We have to have it.

[00:16:14] But I think nobody knew what to do with all that data. It was just so much. What can you draw to make your events better the next time? And that’s one of the areas that AI comes in, is it can take all this data and it can help you, you know, create models or create recommendations.

[00:16:32] Even what I was saying with that call to action like having AI generate what’s the next thing that this user should do? That’s something we could never do before. Like there’s no way we could take all our video content, having it all indexed, so it could bring up search results, indexing like all your websites, all your products, all your forums, your communities, everything like that.

[00:16:54] And having the AI be able to say, based on everything we know about you, here’s the things that you would be interested in next. And I know that’s like the direction that all the big search engines Google and that are trying to get to. It’s almost a beyond keyword search into the context search and really getting involved.

[00:17:13] And that’s something that I’m really excited about AI being able to do for us is keep those engagements rolling, that when somebody engages, they stay within your ecosystem and the only way to do it is not through something gimmicky or trickery. It’s about giving people what they want on the next step of their discovery journey.

[00:17:34] They’re there because they want to be there because they’re learning what they want to learn.

[00:17:39] And I think that’s a huge superpower for AI that we’re gonna have so much fun with. 

[00:17:43] Rachel Moore: You’ve really gotten to the heart of why we do all these things is the attendee. How do you make sure you’re always digging into what that audience or attendee wants, because it’s obviously very core to everything you design.

[00:17:57] Josh Shepherd: That’s a good question. I think there’s a blend of science and art in that if it was just a straight up answer, everybody would be doing it. But that’s why you have the experiential layer evolving. You’ve got your stable platforms and everything else, but then on the top layer you have this evolving experiential components that you’re always trying to find what is it, and I mean, data will take you so far, but realistically, you’re looking around the marketplace and seeing what new trends are out there and what people are engaging in, what they’re excited about, and bringing that forward.

[00:18:29] I can give you another example of one we’ve been playing with is like sentiment tracking where, you know, tracking like timestamps of when people clicked on these various things.

[00:18:38] So it’s one thing if you’re in a live stream. In events, we don’t usually do that in video on demand where you can see the reactions of other people like play back for you so that you know when other people are excited and it almost makes that a little bit tighter connection that you think, I’m not alone watching this five minute video. And there’s a lot of other benefits to doing things like that. So you can tell what points are resonating with people and where are they interested in, what are they interested in hearing?

[00:19:08] It’s almost like crowdsourcing a highlight reel, right? Because then you can go through these videos that you have and take the pieces that people engaged with. And now, you know, you can either create the highlight reels for social, but you can also hone in on what the audience wants to hear, and it allows us to help better author our content for the next event.

[00:19:31] It’s so exciting to dig into that content digitally and say, you know, AI, can you come and help us you know, guide people right to that content of what they need?

[00:19:42] And that’s super fun.

[00:19:43] Rachel Moore: Uh, We wanna let our audience get to know a little bit more about you in these last few minutes. Can you name an item that you forgot for a work event that caused you some panic?

[00:19:54] Josh Shepherd: A laptop.

[00:19:55] But it wasn’t that much of a panic because everything’s cloud-based right nowadays, and there’s very little stored actually on a physical laptop. But that was a good one. 

[00:20:02] Rachel Moore: Is there anything that you’re listening to, watching or reading these days that you can’t put down?

[00:20:08] Josh Shepherd: No and the reason is it’s sort of like overload. And I have a very short intention span, so , I think I’m sort of constantly moving from one to the next to the next and sort of craving that executive summary of things so that you can, because honestly, I think to sort of survive in the event world and especially in the event tech world, you need to be sort of a skill of all sort of trades, right? Like you need to know a little bit about a lot of things and it doesn’t mean you have to be expert in them all, but yeah, there isn’t really something I’m watching in particular.

[00:20:47] I actually have time booked on my calendar to go and absorb and read and learn something new.

[00:20:52] Rachel Moore: Once again, super relatable. ’cause I’m sure people are like, yeah, I can’t tell you anything. ’cause yeah, it just comes to me piecemeal or I clock out that time to do it.

[00:21:00] Josh Shepherd: If only there was an AI that would help organize that content for me in the way that I wanna observe it.

[00:21:04] Rachel Moore: Is there a particular social post, a piece of media or a hot take about events that you found interesting lately? 

[00:21:11] Josh Shepherd: I think it is a no answer to that. We’ve been running crazy for events and traveling and you know, trying to piece all these things together, work on our own strategy and honestly, I’ve been kind of heads down for a while.

[00:21:21] Rachel Moore: Josh, it’s just making you more relatable by the minute with our audience because many people are like, I don’t even know. Like, what, what is today? By the way? I don’t even know what day of the week it is. Where can our listeners find and follow you online?

[00:21:35] Josh Shepherd: Alright, well the best place would be LinkedIn is kind of where I reside most of the time. It’s a great way to reach out to me. 

[00:21:52] Rachel Moore:  SkillUp time! Josh is about to give some peace of mind to those of us who tend to wear too many hats as we design experiences.     

SkillUp with Josh Shepherd: Leveraging partners in events

[00:22:01] Josh Shepherd: If you’re running an event, you don’t necessarily need to be the expert in all things.

One of the interesting techniques that we’re using is we lean heavily and utilize our partners around us, and you find people who are experts in the various crafts and then weave them all together. There’s certain elements that need to be in-house, you know, those core elements that you need to know the inner workings of the company, or you need to be connected in certain ways in the company. 

But then you sort of have these contextual elements that necessarily need a full-time employee to be able to do these elements.

So let’s look around for fantastic partners that can integrate these elements for us. You cannot be experts in everything. Just like we bring in a company to help us with AV at an event, right?

You bring in a different group for food and beverage, whatever. We should be doing the same kind of thing, instead of trying to be all things tech, which I think is what a lot of people want to do, what you really need in-house is a vision and somebody who can say, this is what we want to do.

Now. Let’s go out and find the pieces and stitch them together and find companies that’ll help us build what we need to build and it really opens up your world of possibilities when you sort of separate, this is what we’re gonna do in house, but we don’t have to learn AI, we don’t have to learn all these different elements. We can, you know, go find different suppliers that’ll help us with that.

[00:23:18] ​ Rachel Moore:  Thanks again to Josh Shepherd for joining us on Event Experience, and thank YOU for listening. 

If you’re enjoying this show, we’d love to hear it!

Connect with us on social and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you’re listening. Also, don’t forget to share the show with your colleagues and friends. 

You can find transcripts of each episode and key takeaways on bizzabo.com/podcasts.

On behalf of the team, thank you. We’ll gather again soon for a new episode of Event Experience.

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