IBM Think: How AI could make big virtual events better than in-person alternatives

Disclosure: Most of the vendors mentioned are clients of the author.

IBM Think, the firm’s iconic (and now-digital) annual customer event, took place this week and I was again reminded how firms like IBM with internal video competence and studios do these things better than those without. Everyone was rehearsed, even the top execs; the staging was TV-show quality, camera angles and sound conveyed a sense of competence.  The impression of competence from an event does seem to transfer to a company’s brand, positively affecting sales prospects and valuation. 

IBM spoke about two artifical intelliegnce (AI) initiatives that could address a recurring problem with these events, which has to do with personal engagement and optimizing a plan.  And it could help to drive people to content, both during and after the event, that isn’t happening now.

The initiatives are related to conversational AI and the Watson Assistant

The two large-event problems

There have been great demonstrations from firms like Nvidia using its graphics capability to construct and then deconstruct the stage for a CEO keynote, Dell showcasing a breadth of sessions on broad issues like work/life balance, and Microsoft and IBM using high-quality internal resources to produce an event. But there are also unsolved problems. 

The two problems that seem to recur are individual engagement, where people feel someone at the company cares about what they think, and agenda-setting. And, except for Nvidia’s event, there’s been a distinct lack of solutions. 

Admittedly, some companies have products that aren’t useful in putting on an event. Still, for companies that make workstations, media servers, conference room solutions, and graphics tools, their products could, and should, enhance their events. 

The AI tools IBM should have showcased are the ones I mentioned above, because if people use them successfully, they’re more likely to buy them in the future. 

Conversational AI

IBM has one of the most robust conversational AI platforms around. Most of us have speakers and microphones we use for our Teams, WebEx, and Zoom meetings, making it easier to opt into a process that allows — in this case, IBM — to use conversational AI to create a personalized event program. Both by experience and from the registration questionnaire, IBM knows a lot about attendees and could use that to prepopulate an initial agenda. Then the user could engage the conversational AI to deal with any conflicts, work around pre-existing calendar events, and even schedule post-event time to view content that might have been missed. 

This not only lets the user see how they might apply AI to their own customer interactions but how it, at scale, could allow them to engage with customers interpersonally without using a human. And press attendees and analysts, assuming the AI works well, would be able to speak about it from experience, which is vastly more powerful than just talking about it in the abstract. 

Watson Assistant

This technology came up when I talked on a panel about using Watson Assistant to help students during their careers.  One of the other panelists described his experience with Apple Siri and effectively called me an idiot during his closing remarks (which I found annoying).  But his impression of Digital Assistants, like most of us, stems from using Apple, Google, and Microsoft’s versions, not Watson, which is a whole different beast. 

I’d once hoped that the Apple/IBM alliance would result in a Watson back-end for Siri that would change Siri into an authentic digital assistant instead of an industry joke. Most of us use assistants that aren’t AIs; they are speech-to-text tools that tie into search engines with voice scripts. I use Amazon Echo myself a lot, but it isn’t in Watson’s class, either. Watson is a true AI that derives an answer from the information it was trained to parse, making it far more than a verbal front-end for web searching. 

One of the recurring problems, particularly for those who ask a lot of questions, is getting answers quickly. Sometimes I do get real-time answers; more often than not, I either get ignored, or by the time I get an answer, days or weeks later, I’ve lost interest in the question. Think about the audience: some are senior executives and decision-makers. Ignoring their questions, or not answering them promptly, will most certainly degrade the relationship with those execs. 

Wrapping up

Over time, large-venue digital events have improved a lot, but engagement still suffers. IBM has two technologies that could make its own events better, and they seem uniquely capable of improving the attendee experience. 

Conversational AI could be used to better engage with the audience, optimize their time, and assure they attend the sessions, during or after an event, of most relevance. Watson Assistant could take over the primary load of answering questions for those who don’t get an in-person response, assuring a more positive experience for the attendee.

In the end, IBM is one of the very few companies that could make virtual events far more helpful and productive than they now are — and substantially better than the massively expensive in-person events most of us would like to avoid in the future.