THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
WEB CAST STRATEGIES: TAKE THEM ON A CASE IH-BY-CASE IH BASIS
by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
Web-based News Conferences Can Be A Unique Alternative To Hectic Travel
When you look at the idea of doing a Web cast news conference, you've got to look at the situation on a Case IH-by-Case IH basis. OK, I said it right away. Now, on with the story.
There are some cynics who might argue that doing a new product introduction on the Internet is "trendy," but not necessarily useful or effective. Having participated in a number of Web casts myself, I'm more inclined to agree with Willie Vogt, technology▄editor for Farm Progress Publications, Carol Stream, Ill. Vogt was one of almost 30 media members who took part in a Case IH Web cast, which introduced hay and forage equipment and skid steers to the market last fall.
"Let's face it," Vogt explains. "Travel budgets are tight. And I personally had a conflict the week of the Web cast. So, I sat in my hotel room in Reno and participated before going to another meeting. Two meetings at once - it was efficient for me."
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
These tight times in agriculture demand efficiency. While companies like Racine, Wis.-based Case IH look for the best way to capture the time of editors, yet quench their thirst for "kicking the tires," sometimes variety is the spice of life.
"We had several major media events during 2001, including a planter launch and cotton picker launch," says Claudia Garber, manager of communications and brand promotion for Case IH. "With all of us competing for the time and attention of our customers - in our case the media - we talked about managing the media's demands for information."
Another factor was the products. A number of more vertical publications in the hay and forage markets were important to the company and holding an in-field event might have prevented some from attending because of budget constraints.
Wisely deciding early in 2001 that a cotton picker and planter introduction were best delivered with "live" news conferences in the field. Garber and her agency, Morgan&Myers, Milwaukee, investigated the possibility of doing the hay and skid steer product event using the Web cast format.
"We made some calls to a number of media before we decided to do it," Garber explains. "In general, we got positive reactions. Many thought it was a great idea; some had never been involved in one. We basically decided it was a no lose situation. We were trying something different."
Garber also got the support of her boss, Jim Irwin, VP of sales and marketing, North America. "Jim's the kind of person who wants things done to serve the customer," she says. "In this case the media was the customer. Once we explained the rationale behind it, he was supportive."
Ellen LaRose, senior associate of Morgan&Myers, says the introduction required a series of four steps leading up to the event to keep the media aware and involved.
These steps were:
* An e-mail message alerting the media of a soon-to-be-delivered e-mail with attachment.
* The invitation e-mail, which included an interactive Flash piece with event details that allowed recipients to RSVP through e-mail, link to a browser that checked their systems to ensure they could participate in the event, and log-in to the event itself. "The Flash piece was unique in that it did not require any specialized software to launch, and the file was small enough to send via e-mail," LaRose says.
* A confirmation e-mail told participants that their RSVP had been received and provided an event link.
* A reminder e-mail shortly before the event.
LaRose says an e-mail version of the press kit was provided before the event, and then a hard copy with the new product information was mailed immediately following the Web cast.
SETTING THE STAGE
If you're the media participating in a Web cast, you settle into your chair, keep an eye on your computer monitor, listen by phone as the experts provide the information, then get your questions ready following the presentations. It is a more comfortable format, compared to trains, planes, automobiles, hotel rooms and the other hassles of travel.
If you're on the Case IH side of the fence, you do your best to simulate an in-the-field event for the presenters. Now don't think Garber and LaRose set up a conference room, brought in dirt, alfalfa, equipment, fans to simulate wind and a hose to sprinkle rain on the event. But they did put extra people in the room so it appeared the presenters were speaking to a group, not just over the telephone and the Internet.
Garber also says it's important to do a dry run the day before the event. Garber had decided early on to have the media on the Internet and the phone simultaneously to, as she says, "provide a human element to the presentation."
Garber and LaRose also anticipated that this strategy would get the media to ask questions through the phone. It mostly didn't turn out that way. "Most of the media opted to use e-mail," Garber says. "There was a nervous pause when we first asked for questions, then they came flying in. We sorted them quickly, then handed them off to the appropriate person in the company."
Vogt liked the option of e-mail or voice questions. "The phone quality was fine, but it was easier to ask questions on the chat line," he says. "It also was easier for me to direct my questions specifically to one of the presenters."
Vogt added that this method made the event feel "more inclusive," and gave the presentation more energy. "It was exciting. It seemed like a lot of people were involved in the event."
Morgan&Myers produced the event for Case IH and utilized technology provider Intercall. "Presentonline.com is the interactive Web cast product supplied by Intercall that includes real-time polling, chat features, white boarding, and other interactive functions," LaRose says. "Intercall also provided the telephony, or the audio, via a conference call-in number.
"When you do an event like this, you really only need telephone lines," Garber explains, breaking it down to its simplest terms.
LaRose says another challenge in this event was making sure the speakers kept it conversational in nature, even though the media weren't in the room. "The technology we used gave us a chance to personalize the event somewhat," she says. "For example, we used its polling feature and, at certain breaks, we'd send out a question to everyone. It was an opportunity for them to respond back and we'd immediately tally the results."
Garber and LaRose admitted this might be construed as "gimmicky," but it also showed them and the media the difference between an Internet presentation and a conference call.
The event "exceeded our expectations," Garber says. "We hit all the key books, including the regional magazines." LaRose says because the introduction involved a whole new line of products, the company "touched some audiences we don't normally touch, especially in some hay and forage regions."
Some radio broadcasters were involved in the Web cast, but the timing of the event - 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. central - wasn't conducive to great participation by broadcast media. "We interfered with their daily broadcast on-air time - chalk that up to a lesson learned," Garber says. The company followed up with a presence at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters (NAFB) convention in November to get additional radio time for the new products.
On a scale of one to 10, the event graded an eight, Garber says. "There's no replacement for meeting people face-to-face in public relations," she explains. "You get a nice chance to pitch stories, meet one-on-one with editors and see what they're seeing in the industry. But a Web cast is something that can work once in a while."
"We had plenty of opportunities to meet with the media during the summer with the other events," LaRose adds. "There's only so much time."
Since the event, LaRose says there have been more than 20 hits on the Case IH Web cast archive. Garber says a Web cast is just "one tool to draw upon" in a public relations toolbox. "Our research later indicated the media would do this again, but not all the time. The message is what drove us to do this. You still have to provide information that's interesting and compelling to people." AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.