B-to-B Dream Team Q&A: Heather Henderson Thomas of Cisco
Insights on event strategy, ROI, and Cisco’s collaborative culture
We recently caught up with B-to-B Dream Team member Heather Henderson Thomas of Cisco to explore her take on the brand experience industry, personalization, measurement, her dream job, and more. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: Hi Heather! To start, tell us how brand experience plays a role in your overall marketing efforts.
HHT: The brand experience we have built around Cisco Live is incredibly important and has a major impact on our marketing efforts. Our attendees are choosing to spend their money to come to our event, and the experience they have onsite greatly influences their decisions in the future. The attendee experience is so important to us that we have instituted a “director of vibe” to ensure consistency throughout the event. Even though we all work from the same event brand style guide, sometimes teams can work in silos — heads down, trying to get work done. The director of vibe works closely with everyone to ensure that doesn’t happen and to translate our theme and messaging in fun and unexpected ways throughout the event. For example, in San Diego, we drew our inspiration from the beautiful outdoor views adjacent to the convention center and used that in everything from the music, staff uniforms, and plants to signage, furniture, and frozen lemonade handed out to attendees.
Q: How important is personalization when planning your events? How do you personalize your events for your attendees?
HHT: Our attendees experience personalization in their daily lives. Everyone understands Amazon — we all want that experience, everywhere we go. It’s extremely important to be able to deliver on that at an event. I think Cisco Live is taking a lead in this area. We implemented a business intelligence system — a real game changer — that generates meaningful reports based on our massive amounts of data and gives us bite-sized chunks of information for us to use to fine-tune audience acquisition and onsite experience efforts. Our team is working on using this intelligence to serve up customized content based on what people have attended in the past. It is essentially unpacking over a thousand education sessions and experiences and serving it up in a way attendees can digest, offering them a curated selection of sessions to schedule with an alert to view more online (which also helps cut down on email overload). It makes the attendees’ lives easier. When people realize you are paying attention to their needs and their interests, it makes a huge difference.
Q: How do you approach event measurement or ROI? What do you measure and how?
HHT: Oh boy, this could be an hour-long session. To start, we invest heavily in strategy planning and measurement. Those are keys to our success. We spend a lot of time in strategy planning, focused on four key pillars for the event. This serves as our road map for the year and allows us to determine what fits, what needs to be adjusted, and what just doesn’t ultimately align to our priorities. For measurement, we do onsite surveys, but we are careful not to survey our audience to death. We conduct smaller customer insights groups. We keep an eye on seven to eight top-level KPIs that we are all working toward, all the time, with laser focus.
Q: What is it about Cisco’s culture that attracts and retains top talent?
HHT: Well, as a company, Cisco is really about changing the way the world works. We don’t lose sight of that core message, and we stay humble. We don’t have to be arrogant or boastful, we just have to be really good at what we do. For our team specifically, we are ALL about collaborative success. People who come to the Cisco Live team do not have egos — they just wouldn’t thrive in our environment. When we make a decision, we make it as a team. We lock arms. We are one voice. One team. You can ask every team member the same question and you will get the same response from each and every one of us. We all want each other to be successful and recognized for what we achieve … together. It’s an extremely cool team culture to be a part of, and I am blessed to work with this amazing group of rock stars.
Q: Where do you see the future of our industry heading?
HHT: The lines between traditional consumer events and B-to-B events are going to continue to blur. At Cisco, we take a lot of our inspiration from consumer events — from personalizing the experience, to creating moments of surprise and delight, to offering cutting-edge technology and world-class entertainment. At the end of the day, we want to create amazing experiences for humans because it’s the human experience that makes all the difference.
Q: What do you do for inspiration?
HHT: Well, if I need to get clarity or “solution-find” on things, I go for a killer trail run or a hike — just get out and be in nature, conquering a hill or something. I can clear my head that way and burn some calories at the same time. My best ideas tend to come when I am experiencing the beauty of the world around me or simply enjoying life with my family. I get energized making really complex things come together like “magic,” but I don’t let it overwhelm me or distract from what’s important. My kids are my real inspiration. No matter the stresses at work, they put everything in perspective and make me laugh every day!
Q: Okay, last question — if you didn’t work in marketing, what would you be doing?
HHT: My dream job would be to manage a Super Bowl halftime show! All those moving parts from load-in to load-out in 26 minutes. I’m an ops gal! I’d love to be on headset for that one. But in reality, I really love what I get to do every day. I look back on my crazy career and smile because it’s brought me here … right where I’m supposed to be. #thankful
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