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Interview: Google’s Sofia Altuna on virtual events

Google’s Sofia Altuna offers insight on how the search giant pivoted to virtual

Sofia Altuna joined Google’s New York office seven years ago and works in the global product partnerships team for Google Assistant, the AI-powered virtual ‘helper’ available in more than a billion mobile and smart home devices.


For the past two years, Altuna’s focus has been on how to voicify the mobile experience and grow the adoption of Assistant by working with select partners to create unique, helpful and engaging experiences for users. Events play a major role in the development and launch of these products.


What are your flagship events?

Around 5,000 people flock to California every year for our biggest event – Google I/O. It is an annual developer conference where we announce new products. Another major event is Made By Google, which is our platform for launching new hardware devices.


Google I/O was cancelled in May last year because of Coronavirus and Made By Google was held digitally in October. We had to think of new and creative ways to stay engaged with the community.


In the absence of Google’s in-person events, what did you do?

Events are really important for our team to launch new products and get our messages out so we had to get creative. Google I/O has a portion dedicated to Google Assistant so, as it was cancelled, we held an Assistant-only event virtually instead called Google Assistant Developer Day. Its purpose is to announce new features and tools and showcase partners who are investing in voice.


You launched VOICE Talks virtually. What was the format?

Because many top global events were cancelled, such as Mobile World Congress, I began organizing and hosting an hour-long monthly livestream called VOICE Talks, which discusses the latest developments in voice technology and features the world’s foremost leaders on the subject.


This was our way to stay connected to the voice developer ecosystem, to learn from them and keep them updated on the progress of this technology. The program doesn’t always have to feature Google – it is platform independent and can feature people and products from Apple or Amazon, for instance.


There are four segments to the show: a keynote who talks about the latest advances in this technology; a product section that teaches the audience how to develop a product; a partner slot where someone from companies such as Nike, Netflix or Spotify present something they have developed; and lastly a section dedicated to other leaders or products in the voice tech community. For example, we have featured a company that has been developing a technology to detect Covid via voice.

What have been the big learnings for you on virtual event delivery?

Normally for IO, we're getting partner approvals and finalizing demos and scripts right up to the last day. What we didn't realize is that when you pre-record an event for virtual delivery, the producers need four to five weeks to edit and stitch it together. We had to adopt the mindset of a movie director. We filmed speakers in a studio with a green screen and created a really cool virtual stage for them. We didn’t do any live elements, apart from chat and Q&A.


How do you tackle audience engagement online for VOICE Talks?

We reveal the show’s content about two weeks in advance and invite the audience to send in content with the opportunity to win a device and for their videos or quotes to be featured. The people who submit something stay tuned to the end.


At the beginning of a session, I like to pose a question to the audience and I read some of the answers at the end and those selected win a t-shirt. We started some VOICE Talks with a game where the audience had to collect clues and it kept them guessing throughout, which kept participants engaged and excited.


Have you succeeded in creating an effective networking environment online?

I don't think we've found a way to do it successfully yet. For the pre-recorded keynotes, the speakers tune in to the episode so people can ask questions and they can answer live.


What are your plans for 2021?

All our events for the first half of 2021 will be virtual and it is likely this will continue for the rest of the year. VOICE Talks will continue and we'll explore how to enhance networking and new ways of engaging our audience.


How do you foresee the event industry evolving?

Virtual event technology will evolve a lot and the hybrid element will be integrated. There's so much content now that people have less capacity to stay fully engaged. Amazon, for example, held an event across three weeks and I think this is partly because there is a greater likelihood of people turning up to your event if it’s split into a few hours each day.

Virtual events will not go away. This year the industry realized the importance of them. You can do so much more and reach a far wider audience when you do it virtually.

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