“Making History. Here’s one for the record books: last month more than 80 companies did live investor relations Webcasts over the four days of the Financial Relations Board’s Virtual CEO Summit.” That’s the way Investor Relations magazine described our first online conference. The December 1999 Virtual CEO Summit was the first large-scale online conference ever staged by an investor relations agency.
Reaching individual investors, who collectively exert a dynamic driving force on today’s stock market, is a difficult and costly proposition. Compounding this challenge was the hot debate that the SEC and others were embroiled in over in 1999 about selective disclosure and universal access to information. Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD), effective October 23rd 2000, now makes Webcasting almost required, so our early-adopting clients are far ahead of the learning curve.
Earlier success with one online slide presentation for one client--Wickes, Inc.- in May 1999, led us to realize that the concept could be expanded to the benefit of additional clients. The creative idea of sponsoring a multi-client conference began to surface. With total conviction that the innovative idea presented value in terms of visibility for clients, we offered all clients an opportunity to participate in the first Virtual CEO Summit.
We had no past experience in online conferences. Our selected Webcast vendors had no past experience.
Our clients had no past experience. Still we convinced the vendors and our clients to take the risk with us.
And we pulled it off with style.
We leveraged the Internet to present two major Virtual CEO Summits, December 1999 and May 2000. The two events combined resources with two and three vendors, respectively, to provide our publicly traded clients the chance to reach all investor types in a four-day tour de force. Eighty-seven and fifty-two clients participated in the conferences, December 1999 and May 2000, respectfully, which reached a potential Internet audience of more than 24 million investors. We limited the participation to 50 companies vs. 87 for the Spring 2000 Virtual CEO Summit to soften the logistic challenges we faced with the December 1999 Virtual CEO Summit. There were two by-products of the conferences. First, they introduced non-technology companies to the exciting opportunity the Internet presents as a complement to traditional investor relations programs. Secondly, many clients saw an increase in stock volume and price the day.
Our lofty aim was to reach the entire universe of professional and individual investors on behalf of our clients. We especially wanted to tap private investors, who were embracing the Internet for investing reasons at a fast clip. To extend our reach, each client participated in two “virtual” media interviews—one audio-only, the other streaming video—immediately following their Internet slide presentations in December 1999.
In lieu of the “virtual” interview for the May 2000 Virtual CEO Summit, we opted to invite another vendor with a different distribution base to broadcast the slide presentation to reach an even wider investor audience.
Mindful that both professional and retail investors alike were beginning to utilize the Internet to gather information about public companies and investment choices, we seized the opportunity to create a forum where all investors could learn about undiscovered micro-cap, small-cap, mid-cap, large-cap and non-technology companies. The Virtual CEO Summits allowed professional investors to meet and hear CEOs and view their company presentations without leaving the office or interrupting their busy schedules. Of prime importance, private investors were able to participate in a management meeting that, in the past, had been reserved for professional investors only.
Earlier success with just one online slide presentation for one client—Wickes, Inc—led us to realize that the concept could be expanded to the benefit of additional clients. The idea of sponsoring a multi-client conference began to surface. Without prior experience in Internet conference execution, but with total conviction that the idea presented value in terms of visibility for clients, we offered all clients an opportunity to participate in our first Virtual CEO Summit Held early December 1999. Based upon our success, we institutionalized the Virtual CEO Summit into a semi-annual event, late May-early December.
We began planning the December 1999 Virtual CEO Summit in late August. Our anticipated participation was 40-50 client presentations over two or three days. We recruited representatives from our six offices who served as internal salespersons for the December 1999 event. The process of narrowing down potential partners began in early September and was completed by the end of the month. At this September point, we also announced the December 1999 Virtual CEO Summit through an agency-wide staff conference call. The response was tremendous and it became apparent the participation level was going to exceed our initial projections. Ultimately, client demand caused us to extend the December 1999 Summit to four days to accommodate 87 companies.
To execute the summits, we needed to convince highly competitive vendors to work together and that alone was not an easy task. The most important element in our selection of Web partners was massive distribution. Our decision was to carry the presentations over two high profile vendor Websites for the December 1999 conference. Our partners included Vcall, which had a subscriber base in excess of 400,000 individual investors and 25,000 professional investors. Vcall’s marketing team placed announcements of the conference in various newsletters, which had the potential to reach an additional 750,000 investors. Our second partner was StreetFusion, a Web site aimed solely at institutional investors. StreetFusion had 4,500 professional investor institutional subscribers who utilize the site to gather information on public companies. StreetFusion arranged for advertisements of the conference and links to its own site on CBS Marketwatch and Silicon Investor. Vcall and StreetFusion also agreed to archive all presentations for 90 days, thus enabling investors to access the event in the future. To add more spice, interest and visibility for our clients, we also partnered with VBC 1 News, a business channel with high quality streaming video posted at the Microsoft Media Network site with 400,000 subscribers, and RadioWallStreet to conduct audio interviews with each participating CEO. The interviews also were archived for a 90-day period. To boot, VBC 1 News re-broadcast the entire series of interviews the week after the scheduled event. Following the December 1999 Summit’s goal to reach the greatest amount of investors, we invited another vendor, StreetEvents, along with Vcall and StreetFusion to be our May 2000 partners. The result was a distribution channel in excess of twenty four million potential viewers.
The next step in creating the Virtual CEO Summits was client participation. Our goal was a representative cross-section of clients from all industry classifications. To that end, we sent an invitation to all our clients via mail and e-mail explaining the concept and the high visibility of the Virtual CEO Summits with minimal expenses vs. the costs of airfare, meeting rooms, food, and hotels, not to mention the executive’s time spent away from the office. The mechanics of both events were similar: internal staff conference calls, conference calls to clients explaining the process and benefits of Webcasting, invites to investors and clients (letters, blast fax and e-mails), and confirmation packages to the participants. As clients signed-up for the inaugural conference, December 1999, a natural development of “virtual” industry rooms unfolded—high technology, healthcare, REITs, etc. In this way, the Internet audience had the choice to remain in an industry-specific room or to select presentations based on some other selection criteria. In May 2000, we did not designate industry-specific rooms because we wanted to provide investors even more flexibility with their schedules throughout the four-day event. Our results were the same with different formats: outstanding.
OBSTACLES AND CHALLENGES
The sheer magnitude of the first conference became a logistics challenge. For every participating client, both Vcall and StreetFusion needed a PowerPoint presentation in the December 1999 Summit and Vcall, StreetFusion, and StreetEvents required PowerPoint presentations in May 2000. In addition to the slide shows for the December 1999 conference, two media interviews via telephone were scheduled immediately after each slide presentation for each CEO with Radio Wall Street and VBC 1 News. Needless to say, this involved extreme coordination and precision timing. Most of the client participants, like us, never before used the Internet to deliver a presentation or conduct a media interview. That also meant we needed to subdue anxiety through “what to expect” conference calls for client participants as well as our own executive staff. Our executives played an important role of hosting and introducing the CEOs and CFOs before each slide presentation and our staff accepted e-mail questions from the Internet audience for response by CEOs. Adding to the complexity of our execution, management CEOs and CFOs presented their stories from numerous locations, including a hotel in Dubai and an airport. Compounding this, before both Virtual CEO Summits, our agency inadvertently experienced three-day computer shutdowns due to a virus immediately before the scheduled events. The December 1999 and May 2000 Virtual CEO Summits, despite these hair-raising obstacles, began on time and ran flawlessly for four days.
A consensus of participants and viewers alike was that there is a strong demand from both professional and retail investors for such a forum, as witnessed by the number of “hits’ or viewers. The Internet offers public companies a cost effective and time-efficient manner to broadcast their messages. Looking back, there were two by-products of the conferences. First, the Summits introduced non-technology companies to the exciting opportunity presented by the Internet. CEOs of “Old” Economy companies enjoyed the experience and ease of presenting their story to investors from the convenience of their offices, etc. and embraced the Internet as a tool to complement their traditional investor relations programs. Secondly, many clients saw an increase in stock volume and price after their presentations in December 1999 and May 2000.
MEASUREMENT OF SUCCESS
The total “hits” (both live and replay) for both events were in excess of 160,000. Most gratifying, we had no orphans for either event. Each participating company received attention from Internet investors. In December 1999, we received an average of 421 hits per company slideshow with 2006 being the highest number of hits for one company and 119 hits being the lowest number. In May 2000, the average number of hits to each slideshow rose to 532 per company with the highest number of hits being 1191 and the lowest number of hits for any one company being 298. That’s more investors than each participant could capture in a roadshow visiting five states, meeting face-to-face with analysts assuming an average of 25 attendees per analyst meeting. Our own estimate: $10.34 cost per online attendee vs. $458.00 cost per face-to-face meeting with 25 analysts in New York. Apart from expense savings, some clients also saw activity in their stock. For example, CLARCOR’s stock volume reached a record, and Metal Management’s stock price rose three points. Hits aside, the Virtual CEO Summits reached our overall goal. We created and successfully executed the first large-scale highly innovative, value-added event at low cost. The bottom line: Our clients could communicate via their desktop into cyberspace to reach and meet the large and rapidly growing number of individual and professional investors who now access the Internet. And we made history.