Most SaaS companies use their own products internally, a practice that’s informally called eating your own dog food in business-speak. At Zoho, we’re big fans of this approach. We’re happy to say our suite of 50+ software applications makes it possible to run our entire business—sales and marketing, finance, HR, email and collaboration, and even IT management—completely on Zoho. As we like to say, #ZohoRunsOnZoho.
Over the years, this practice has benefited us in numerous ways. Quoting from a previous article on dogfooding and Zoho:
“Using our own products every day drives their rapid and tireless innovation for the sound reason that we are also the first to reap their benefits. Countless new features have been added to our products since Zoho first needed these capabilities.”
It took us quite a while to get here—25 years to be exact—and many of the products in our portfolio were created because we needed them. A little-known fact here is that a lot of these products (and their features) have also been used internally in their early or beta states and undergone many iterations before being made available for the general public. You can call it a Zoho test that we do to ensure they’re reliable before shipping them to our customers.
This was pretty much the case with Zoho Backstage, our end-to-end software solution for event professionals and corporates. It was created primarily to host Zoho’s events. Almost all of the Zoholics events that happened in early 2018 were organized with Zoho Backstage before its official release on July 31, 2018. Since then, every single event hosted by Zoho has been powered by Backstage.
In the last year, a lot of things have happened. Backstage evolved from being just event management software to an all-in-one solution that powers all types of events, end-to-end. The Zoho Events team pivoted to virtual events and then went hybrid this year. Through all of these changes and more, we also found a way to work together to stay with the times and get work done.
This is an inside look at how three of the most notable events at Zoho were organized and conducted with Zoho Backstage.
The Optimization Summit: A virtual event for marketers by Zoho PageSense
It was sometime in late 2019 that the team at Zoho PageSense decided to host a virtual event on Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) and related topics so marketers from all over the world could join the event and learn from industry experts. Partnering with CXL, they hosted Zoho's first ever virtual event using a combination of Zoho Backstage (to manage the event) and Zoho ShowTime (to live stream sessions). Held on November 13, 2019, the event consisted of 12 sessions and 11 international speakers, and one speaker from Zoho. More than 150 attendees showed up for the event.
For most of us at Zoho Backstage, virtual events were a new concept, and a real-world experience such as this was very beneficial—especially because three months later, we had to switch tracks and create a virtual events solution owing to COVID-19 and nationwide lockdowns that made in-person gatherings a strict no-go.
All of the backend work done specifically for The Optimization Summit came in handy here. We were able to support virtual events as early as March 2020 by giving event planners an option to connect their webcasting or video-conferencing software with Zoho Backstage—the first of the many iterations we went through before releasing OnAir, a purpose-built virtual events solution in July 2020.
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ZohoDay 2021: A virtual event for industry analysts
While the previous event marked the beginning of our journey into building a virtual events solution, this one marks our highest point so far, where some of the most influential people in the software industry got to see and experience the latest version of Zoho Backstage OnAir in action.
The virtual rendition of ZohoDay 2021 was a success in more ways than one—not only did attendees love the Zoho way of things and the event, they also enjoyed the OnAir experience. Diginomica called ZohoDay 2021 an analyst event that "shows the art of the possible,” further stating that the virtual experience was “delightfully interactive” and the live chat experience a lot better than industry norms.
ZohoDay 2021 was a five-hour virtual event that happened over two days (February 24 and 25, 2021) and had a mixture of keynote sessions, executive huddles, and breakouts between Zoho’s employees, customers, and industry analysts. As this was Zoho’s first official virtual event with Zoho Backstage, the stakes were pretty high.
Also, it focused more on interaction than education (unlike the previous event), so we had a whole different set of requirements to address before the event. After numerous very long meetings with the Analyst Relations and Events teams to understand their requirements, we built the second version of Backstage OnAir, one that allowed for a more intuitive and interactive virtual experience.
ZohoDay 2021 showed us how far we came since the early days of the pandemic, but it also helped us understand where virtual events are headed next—attendee-to-attendee networking. Now that we’ve mostly perfected the “on-stage” experience, we’ll be focusing on building networking features into Zoho Backstage. We believe the breakout rooms that we did for ZohoDay 2021, made possible through our integration with Zoho Meeting, are a good starting point.
Zoholics Dubai 2021: A hybrid event for Zoho users in the MEA
If ZohoDay 2021 made our priorities for the present clear (a.k.a virtual events), Zoholics Dubai showed us where our future lies (I.e. hybrid events). It was decided in February that Zoholics events would return in 2021 and they'd be hybrid instead of just in-person.
There were a lot of reasons behind this choice: on the one side, people were tired of screens and craved in-person connections, now possible as countries were finally opening up to allow small-scale in-person gatherings. On the other side were people who either couldn’t make it to the venue for one reason or another or preferred the convenience of virtual events.
This started another round of discussions with the Events team to dig deeper into their requirements and come up with a hybrid events solution in under two months. The solution we came up with was rudimentary at best—only the most essential features, no gimmicks. But it did the job, which was a two-day hybrid event with around 30 onsite sessions, a virtual keynote by our CEO, Sridhar Vembu, from Tenkasi, India, and seven virtual sessions from Chennai, India.
Producing a hybrid event, we realized, was a lot more complicated than producing a strictly virtual or onsite event because you’re dealing with in-person and online people at the same time. At Zoholics Dubai, we had eight virtual speakers and 17 onsite speakers interacting with 357 attendees, 93 of them attending virtually. It was this “interaction” aspect that we sought to solve with Zoho Backstage—connecting the onsite speaker with their virtual audience and the virtual speaker with their onsite audience, respectively.
The first thing we did was show a live feed of the session hall to the speaker so onsite attendees could ask them questions directly. At the same time, we also projected the virtual speaker’s session to onsite attendees on a large screen on stage. Similarly, when the speaker was onsite, we showed a live feed of the speaker to virtual attendees. If there was a presentation, then the presentation was shown at the center of the screen and the video feed of the speaker moved to the side to replicate in-person sessions.
Our CEO, Sridhar Vembu, addressing a hybrid audience virtually from Tenkasi, India
This meant heavily compressing and optimizing the raw footage that we got from the A/V team before streaming the video feed so it happened in real-time without any lag. While, for this event, we did not focus on networking between onsite and online attendees, it’s something we’re actively working on.
Through the course of the event, the Events team also documented each step of the process, along with the event tech capabilities required for each one, evaluating where Zoho Backstage fulfilled their requirements and where it didn’t—something we found very useful when preparing our roadmap for hybrid events.
SPECIAL MENTION: ITCON Digital | Africa 2021 by ManageEngine
It’s not just the big, once-a-year events either. Even the smaller ones like this two-and-a-half-hour event—ITCON Digital | Africa 2021—also provide us with valuable insight into how our features are used. In the case of ITCON Digital, it was our expo management module that was tested rigorously to understand real-world use cases so we can address them better.
One of the notable things about this event, in particular, was that we didn’t have a team to organize it. Rather, it was one person, a marketer in fact, who took care of everything from start to finish. This experiment showed us Backstage’s potential in making event management more accessible for smaller marketing teams looking to engage their community through events, and that’s something we’ll be focusing on in the coming months—making Backstage a one-stop solution for year-long community engagement through events, both virtual and in-person.
Over the years, many of us from Zoho Backstage—software developers, product managers, and customer support—have gotten an up-close look at the myriad things that happen behind the scenes at events. Because we’re given a chance to do this, we understand events better and are inspired to design software that helps event professionals host them with greater impact and efficiency.
If, like us, you're more of a social person, let's connect on Twitter (@ZohoBackstage) and we'll keep you up-to-date with all the latest event news.