A few months ago, Decibel published a post on Audience Response Systems, but spectacularly failed to profile Vistacom, a worldwide leader in audience response for nearing two decades. Scott Casey, owner of Vistacom, is an audience response guru and author of his own ARS software, VPOLL. We sat down to chat about Scott’s experience in the ARS industry, asking him what event managers can get from ARS, and what they need to know to ensure setup and install goes smoothly.
First, the basics. Tell me a little story about Vistacom: how did it get started?
I was actually working for another audience response company before venturing out to start my own enterprise; I was only six months into my marriage when I left, so it was kind of a hair-raising time. Fortunately, my wife was working and we were able to live off her salary as I spent the several months preparing a business plan and shopping it around to the banks to get the financing necessary to start the company. I also had an angel investor in the form of my father-in-law. Now that’s love!
You guys offer both hardware and software-based ARS – do you build your own hardware? Develop your own software in-house?
The industry has evolved quite a bit over the last 15+ years. When I founded Vistacom in 1997, there was really only one hardware manufacturer, and they had a reseller network that I was required to go through to purchase both hardware and software.
Today, in terms of hardware, I still represent those keypads which I find to be superior to the others in the market. Interestingly, as of just this week, there is a new reseller network of which I’m now a first tier reseller. It’s global in scope which allows me to serve my existing customers and/or try to build new relationships in other parts of the world where I don’t already have a presence of my own.
The software-based ARS, called VPOLL in my case, I’m happy to say is my own creation. Since it’s unique to my company, I have the flexibility to customize and develop according to my ideas and the feedback of my customers. I can have new features built to meet a need for an upcoming meeting, and since the product is mine, I’m not restricted by the whims of some other developer that may or may not share the same ideas as myself.
What’s the most interesting way you’ve seen your products used?
Audience Driven Meetings. We once supported a company meeting where the management (i.e., the speakers) asked the employees (i.e., attendees) what issues were most important to them. Attendees ranked the issues, and then the speakers addressed those issues in order of importance. So in a sense, the meeting was half-scripted and half-dependent on what the audience wanted to hear about and learn/discuss, which may have been different than the preconceived notions of management. I do think it takes a courageous management and meeting planning team to be able to adjust an agenda like that, but it demonstrated to the company’s employees how important their voice was to the future success and direction of the company and probably went a long way towards maintaining employee retention.
I know a lot of event producers could certainly use custom ARS for their event, but aren’t even sure what they can get: what are some examples of customized ARS software solutions you’ve created, and how were they used?
This is a wonderful question. Today’s software can already do so much that it isn’t necessarily a matter of having to customize software. Some examples:
Reveal later You can ask a question, get the responses, and not show the results until later on, which is great for panels. For example, you ask the audience and panelists a question, poll the audience and collect their responses, then allow the panelists to weigh in and provide their response. When they are finished talking, display the results from the audience and see if their answers agreed or disagreed with the panelists.
Custom Chart/Comparison If you have poll results from a previous meeting, you can ask the same question of your current attendees, insert that data into the result slide, and compare the results from the live audience from the previous period/meeting, showing how moods/attitudes/perceptions changed over time.
Elections I personally think this isn’t done nearly enough. ARS software can handle ballots with multiple seats for a position, weighted voting, simple and more complex majority voting, and much more. You get fast, accurate, confidential (if necessary) voting with real-time results. Why not use this for association committee meetings, shareholder meetings, and the like?
Tell us how your products work in terms of facilitating multi-location events
Multi-location events are handled much easier through mobile polling technology. All you need is an internet connection, and anybody can participate regardless of location. You can have the ARS technician operating from the host location. When it’s time for an ARS question, the tech simply pushes the question out and everybody who has logged into that session will get the question and be able to reply, whether they are located in the host location or anywhere else in the world.
Keeping in mind that many of our readers are event planners who need to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed, is there a checklist of things managers should verify to ensure that ARS deployment will go smoothly at their event?
As ARS providers we are pretty self-sufficient, but there are a few times in which we are dependent on others at the meeting site, particularly the AV vendor. So it’s often a good idea to allow the ARS vendor and AV vendor to get in touch and coordinate their needs, or at least relay those needs through the event planner. There are couple areas to focus on with the AV vendor:
Questions Probably the most important thing to consider are the questions that are to be asked. The sooner your tech can get them and program them in, the less chance for error of any kind, whether it’s typographical or worse, like overlooking the selection of a particular software feature in haste and then not showing the results in the manner in which it was desired. Also, the more thought that is given to question development the better the overall outcome of your meeting. Garbage in, garbage out. This is often a difficult task because the content developers are not necessarily the event planners, but if they can use their diplomacy and get questions sooner it makes for a much better experience overall. And don’t be afraid to enlist the help of your ARS vendor – we are eager to lend some advice based on our experience as to best practices.
Meeting logistics Please also provide additional meetings logistics so the techs are better prepared once on site. Things like the agenda, floor plans, shipping instructions for the equipment, rehearsal times, and contact information of onsite personnel.
WiFiAnd on the mobile polling side, in addition to the above, WiFi is the big issue. It’s imperative that WiFi is available first of all but also that it is adequate for the job. That means the proper amount of bandwidth and good network connections. Is the hotel’s system adequate? If not, can your ARS vendor be allowed to create their own wireless network in your meeting space? Not only WiFi but it would be recommended to have a dedicated hard line (i.e., not a shared line) running to the operator’s computer to guarantee a connection.
Video The ARS questions and slides need to be seen on the projection screen, so the computers running ARS need to connect to the projection system. Depending on whether the ARS system is a stand-alone system or a PowerPoint plug-in, you may or may not need to have a VGA switcher available that allows multiple inputs to a projector. In other words, you may need to switch from the computer running the PowerPoint presentation to the one running the ARS system.
Audio Similarly, if music is being played through the ARS system, then an audio line needs to be connected from the computer to the soundboard.
Power Please have a power strip available to plug in the laptops.
Tech Table Please, please, please remember to allot some space for us at the tech table, or wherever you would like us to be positioned, in the meeting room. All too often, that’s overlooked and we get a tiny corner of the table for two laptops and ancillary equipment.
When would a software solution be chosen over a hardware solution?
Assuming that both solutions can be provided at a meeting site (i.e., WiFi is available for a mobile solution) then this is a very subjective question and one left to the customer. But there a couple of situations in which a software solution out-ranks a hardware solution:
Quick turnaround time. If your meeting is one in a series of meetings run by other agencies, such as a satellite symposia, and you have 30 minutes between meetings then a mobile solution would be better. It much more difficult to set up and tear down say 500 keypads in 30 minutes than if you have a mobile solution and keypads are not needed.
Very large meetings. Keypad systems can handle some very large meetings, a few thousand attendees competently, but they do have size limitations. However, with mobile solutions you really have the ability to scale your meetings even more. Arena anybody?
Indoor vs. Outdoor Again, assuming connectivity is available, I would think that a mobile solution would be better suited to an outdoor event than a keypad system. Again, keypad distribution, and collection, is more difficult than not having to bother with keypads at all.
Multi-site meetings See my blurb on ARS and multi-location meetings above.
How far in advance of an event should someone contact you? Is there a comfortable planning window?
Wonderful question again if for no other reason than the planning window has continually shrunk over the years. I look at two things to consider in judging what a reasonable planning window would be.
Question development This may not necessarily apply to when to contact the ARS vendor but just a reminder to allow enough time to develop good audience response questions that will help meet your meeting objectives. Perhaps as a meeting planner you, or your client, are pretty knowledgeable about ARS features in general and can craft good questions. Well, you can start developing those before contracting with an ARS vendor. But if you would like some advice along the way it might be better to get your ARS vendor lined up sooner rather than later.
Price/Logistics This is really the crux of this question. In addition to the rental fee, the customer must pay for equipment shipping (if using keypads) and the travel expenses for the technician. Not that airfare is always logical, but if you contract with your ARS vendor early enough, you might realize some expense savings which could be significant.
Having said that, I would say a month out from the meeting date would be a nice, comfortable window. Enough time to book flights and handle logistics (remember, your meeting may not be the only one for the ARS vendor and they have to coordinate equipment and personnel to other events either right before, during, or immediately following your meeting).
Of course, at my company we are very flexible and are prepared for last-minute requests. In fact, as of this writing, I’m still waiting for an answer to use our services for a meeting one week from today. No joke. But I’m able to be flexible because I have resources in terms of personnel and a large inventory of keypads to meet most meeting requirements (or more precisely, the needs of several meetings at once).