As we kick off the ninth edition of P&G’s annual Signal event, it would be nice to report that, as event producers, we have an established playbook for how to organize a Signal event. And we do, mostly. But as with businesses everywhere, the usual playbook got thrown out the window in March this year. As the COVID pandemic hit, we had to hit the pause button, even going so far as to ask ourselves whether there even could be a Signal 2020 event – would 2020 become an asterisk in the conference’s storied history?

Since 2012, we have been bringing the best of a digital industry conference inside P&G, to both inspire and accelerate our own transition. Our model was the industry-leading Web 2.0 and Signal conferences produced by Signal host John Battelle. In six short weeks, Signal 2012 came together, with leading speakers such as Dick Costolo (then-CEO of Twitter). To our surprise and delight, the auditorium at P&G’s Cincinnati offices sold out, and Signal has grown every year since. Over the years we’ve featured a range of impressive speakers from industries and countries across the globe.

We’re often asked how we do it. Over the years, we have honed a process for producing a powerful and meaningful event for P&G attendees. Planning starts in late fall, when we gather ideas and sketch out a theme and narrative. This becomes our inspiration and organizing principle as we look far and wide for the right speakers. We explore the theme through conversations and research, and bring it to life by identifying speakers who best fit with the Signal experience and audience.

In early January, we begin to send out formal invitations to speakers, and develop the branding for the year. Then we set a plan for communication, logistics, and AV production. By May, we shift from planning into execution, when we send out the official “Save the Date” announcement. Interest to participate has increased so much over the years that for Signal 2019, we sold out within one hour after registration opened. While we like having a full house, selling out comes with its own complications.

This year, when February arrived, we had some early indications that there may be some challenges with running our normal Signal playbook. The coronavirus was no longer isolated to China, and was spreading across the globe, with some alarming reports coming out of Italy and Spain. Washington state was confronting COVID cases in some of its communities. We paused. With travel looking risky, it was not a time to ask speakers to travel to Cincinnati. What’s more, the original theme (“Leading Consumer Experience”) seemed to grow less and less relevant to today’s context. Yet people kept asking us what our plans were for Signal 2020.

By mid-April, we saw a new opportunity to re-invent Signal 2020 as a virtual event. Inspired by many stories of how others were dealing with the crisis, we wanted to create a Signal event that would show people a path forward, providing a positive catalyst to focus on what’s next. We also embraced the opportunities that a virtual event would allow us, newly untethered by place, and somewhat by time. We would not be bound to limited capacity in the auditorium. It would be easier for speakers to find time to join Signal. And we would make it a truly global event.

Our ambition is to make Signal 2020 our best one yet. A week away from the event, we are excited about the theme, the more than 35 speakers, and especially the many people (over 5,000!) who will join us live from all over the world. While the work to organize this year’s event far exceeds what we had anticipated (virtual does not mean less work, especially on a vastly abbreviated timeline!) we believe it will be a remarkable source of inspiration for all of us. No one knows what the future will hold. But we can learn how to best prepare for the challenges and possibilities ahead, Stepping Forward into them with confidence.

Stan Joosten & John Battelle,

Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G

PS. For all Signal 360 readers who have not yet registered for you are still welcome to join us for Signal 2020 on July 15-16. You can register here.