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Going Virtual

When In-Person Isn’t an Option

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The coronavirus has wiped out trade shows and in-person conferences. Flow and Steel Market Update are responding to the new environment with digital alternatives.

If this were a normal even-numbered year, makers of metal cutting equipment such as Flow would be putting the finishing touches on plans for the International Manufacturing Technology Show, held every other year in Chicago. Machinery would be getting loaded, and meetings with customers finalized as equipment makers prepared for the show that attracts thousands of visitors.

But that show became a casualty of the coronavirus. And while the other largest industry gathering, FABTECH, is still planning to go on as scheduled in November in Las Vegas, there’s no telling how many exhibitors or attendees will opt to make the trek to Vegas given the increase in COVID-19 cases at the start of the second half of the year. 

With these uncertainties, makers of processing equipment have to seek out new outlets to get their marketing messages across. And the obvious way to do that in a socially distanced world is through digital means.

Flow, the Kent, Wash.-based waterjet manufacturer has launched a series of Online Trade Show webinars. It’s an invaluable tool to fill the void left in a world where not just large gatherings are scrapped, but any face-to-face contact is frowned upon. 

Fortunately for the company, the idea was already in the works long before the pandemic swept the globe. 

Steve Rosenblum, Flow’s senior director of global marketing and corporate communications, says Flow’s push to the webinar model represents the convergence of three separate events. 

The first is the trend of their customers to become more self-guided in how they educate themselves about the industrial cutting business in general, and waterjets in particular. Customers and potential customers are much more comfortable starting their research and shopping online, doing their own research in the process.
 
“There’s a lot more shopping taking place online, including self-education in the digital space before going to trade shows, or perhaps instead of trade shows entirely. We realized we can’t put all of our eggs in the trade show basket when people are consuming other media,” he says.   

Running concurrently with that is the demographic shift taking place in the industry. As one generation is replaced by a younger cohort, the new group arrives with much more comfort in the digital buying space. 

“We take very seriously the institutional knowledge of the older generations. But there’s no two ways about it: the younger people coming into the business have spent more time in non-trade show media. We want to meet them where they are.”

These trends had the company exploring those ways, and COVID-19 pushed those plans into overdrive. The cancellation of IMTS and uncertain future of FABTECH eliminated a major source of sales and leads in a given year. An alternative had to be in place. 

“This did accelerate our shift, but fortunately we saw a lot of these forces coming into play a while ago and began moving things organically before the onset of COVID and the announcement of cancelation of some of these shows. We were able to pivot quickly.”

The company launched its first live webinar, “Considering Waterjet? Don’t Ignore These 10 Factors” in May. Flow followed up in July with episode 2: “Can’t Cut This? The Secret to Cutting Complex Materials.” The second session features guest Jason Marburger of Fireball Tool. A webinar later in the year will have a representative of Joe Gibbs Racing, a Flow customer. 

Each webinar is about an hour long, about as long as most customers are willing to sit for a digital production.   

The trick is to deliver the content digitally that would be available at a booth. “We want to fill the webinars with content that’s relevant and educational. We like to focus on the applications and benefits to the end users: Is this going to help your ROI? Is it going to help diversify your customer base? What can you do with a waterjet that you can’t do with another system that might augment your business?”

It can be a tricky path to navigate. At the trade show, Flow sales engineers can tailor the message to the person in front of them. An individual who has never owned or operated a waterjet is going to require different information than the company that owns multiple machines and is weighing whether to upgrade to the newest model. 

Flow recognizes that problem and tries to offer a little something for everyone in each webinar, while recognizing that some may be better suited to the newer customer than the waterjet veteran.  At a typical trade show, Flow sales engineers can more easily explore the needs of the person in front of them. An individual who has never owned or operated a waterjet versus one who owns multiple machines and is weighing whether to upgrade to expand existing capabilities, may have unique needs.  

“We can’t always go as broadly or deeply as we’d like in every webinar, and not every attendee is going to have the same background or experience or questions. In each individual webinar, we try to pick a topic that has broad relevance whether it’s because of an application or feature or particular benefit of the Flow systems. We also try to make it such that the discussion in that particular content starts with the basics, but drills down to a level so that the more advanced waterjet users will still be able to get something out of it.”

The webinar is not one-sided either. Live webinar participants can ask questions as they go, and the company sets aside time to answer them. And for those questions they don’t get to in the course of the hour, a Flow sales representative will follow up with each of the attendees. 

For those who miss the live webinar, each episode is archived at Flow’s website at www.flowcorp.com

The company has seven webinars planned, taking them into January 2021. Rosenblum says the company will tweak the format as necessary to address the desires of the audience. An automatic survey at the end of each session, plus the live chat feature during the sessions, should provide the feedback Flow seeks. 

Flow believes the webinars will be a boon to the entire waterjet industry, and takes some responsibility in delivering that message. 

“We feel as the category leader and industry leader, we’re in a good position to speak to best practices and the benefits you should be deriving no matter which waterjet you choose,” Rosenblum says, but adds. “And in no uncertain terms, we’re the industry leader for a reason.”  

Caption: Flow won’t be able to showcase its machinery, such as the Mach 500 4020, at IMTS, so it’s taking its message to webinars.  (Photo courtesy Flow Corp.)


Steel Summit Goes Virtual

It was August 2019 and Steel Market Update had just concluded the largest flat-rolled and plate-focused steel conference in the Western Hemisphere. Plans were already under way for 2020 and how SMU would improve upon the event. There was no doubt the 2020 conference would be a tremendous success, organizers believed. 

By late January, 95 percent of the speakers had been selected and had committed to the Aug. 24-26, 2020, gathering. SMU had commitments from David Burritt, president and CEO of U.S. Steel; Lourenco Goncalves, chairman, president & CEO of Cleveland-Cliffs/AK Steel; Michael Smerconish of CNN; and Dr. Alan Beaulieu of ITR Economics; along with another 20 industry and economic experts.

Then the pandemic hit.

There has not been a major steel industry conference in North America since March 2020. Most service centers have employees still working from home or on limited office duty. Most service center customers are limiting visits to their facilities and are restricting travel for their employees. Yet companies still have a need for information. Business must go on.

Steel Market Update and its parent company CRU immediately began researching and reviewing online options for their 2020 steel conference. Many months were dedicated to the project prior to the final decision that a live event would pose a threat to the health of attendees and staff and that they would need to produce a virtual conference. Many other organizations have come to the same realization and have scrambled to produce an online alternative.

So, what will SMU’s virtual conference look and feel like, and why should distributors attend such an event?

“A virtual event and a live event are radically different,” says John Packard, president and CEO of Steel Market Update. “A live event is much easier to program, and you can allow much more freedom to your speakers. A single live event segment can last up to an hour or more. Speakers frequently take more time than allotted. These things can be managed with a captive audience.

“A virtual event will be streamed to busy executives in their homes or offices, which means we need to have tighter controls on the schedule. Speakers have less time to make their points, which means the programs will be more focused, and we need to vary the programs in order to keep people’s attention.”

One of the factors SMU considered was “webinar fatigue” as many companies over the course of the pandemic have turned to Zoom, Skype, Go To Meeting and other live video platforms to communicate with their employees and customers.  

As Steel Market Update executives worked to select a conference platform, the organization did not want to just push out three days of webinars onto their audience. The structure of the platform had to have the “feel” of a live event and include a few key benefits for attendees: easy to navigate, access to other attendees in various formats, an exhibition area for sponsors, a theater where speakers can be viewed, an “on-demand” option so no program is missed, and the ability to blend seamlessly with daily work schedules. 

“The most important component of any Steel Market Update conference is the networking,” Packard says, “and the ability to interact easily with other attendees is critical for a successful virtual event. Attendees at this year’s virtual Steel Summit Conference will be excited to meet existing customers/suppliers and many other new people while inside the conference platform,” he adds.

SMU is looking at introducing “fun” into the virtual conference arena. Their platform supports “gamification,” which means attendees will be earning points for everything they do on the site. Once an attendee achieves specific point levels, he or she will be eligible for rewards from SMU and exhibitors. 

Attendees will be able to network with one another even prior to the conference. SMU will open the platform to registered executives so they can complete their profiles and search the list of registered users who will be coming to this year’s event. A live event calls for good eyesight as attendees try to read the nametag of someone walking by. If they are lucky, they are able to pick up the name and reach out to introduce themselves. 

During the SMU virtual conference, attendees will have access to the first and last name, company name, and title of the others in the site. They will be able to review their profile, which will list what the company does, and specific keywords that express their interests (such as hot rolled, cold rolled, galvanized, galvannealed, Galvalume, plate, consulting services, bank, toll processing, blanking, slitting, etc.). 

Just like a live event, attendees will be able to schedule one-on-one meetings as well as meeting with a group of people (up to 25 at once).

If a service center wants to meet with a customer and supplier via video, this will be possible within the SMU conference platform. Those in the theater watching a presentation will know who is in the theater with them and will have the ability to reach over and “tap them on the shoulder” and chat while the presentation is in process. SMU will move people into specific rooms for networking experiences and will assist in the networking process.

Packard believes Steel Market Update has replicated everything that can be done at a live conference while eliminating the risk of spreading COVID-19. “We have to embrace the technology and relearn how to network,” Packard said. “Our platform will open up new ways of doing business not yet explored by the steel community.”

SMU improved and expanded its program. “This year’s agenda will be the strongest we have ever produced during the 10 years we have been conducting our conference. We have six steel mill CEOs, economists and analysts galore, steel buyers and industry experts to discuss markets of importance to distributors. We will look at mill costing and the future of the industry. We have a strong youth-focused program and we have an expert who has written 30 books on elections and election ethics who will discuss the upcoming presidential and congressional contests,” Packard says.

With a virtual conference format, SMU realized it had the ability to provide more content through the “on-demand” process. There will be short vignettes and special programs that will be offered on-demand only as they will not be part of the daily schedule. This will include a special Steel 101 training piece conducted by Steel 101: Introduction to Steel Making & Market Fundamentals instructors.

As of mid-July, more than 400 industry executives had registered for this virtual conference experience, and Steel Market Update expects to double that number.  Packard noted the expense is about one-quarter the cost of attending a live event, as no hotel or airfare is required. 

For more information about the SMU Virtual Steel Summit Conference, scheduled for Aug. 24-26, visit: www.smusteelsummit.com or contact SMU at Events@SteelMarketUpdate.com. ?