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COVID-19: Unique local solutions to help other businesses

Whether it's creating new ways to host a virtual conference or applying an existing framework to keep remote workers notified as information changes rapidly, Madison companies are helping each other navigate these uncertain times.

As many Madison-area companies wrap up the first week of encouraged or mandated remote work in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, the struggle to find some sense of normalcy is still very much real.

Some local businesses are stepping into that void to provide new or enhanced services to those companies looking for ways to still host meetings and events, as well as stay connected with employees as the news on COVID-19 shifts by the minute.

Earlier this week, AmpliPhi Social Media Strategies unveiled its new Conference in a Cloud software solution to address the widespread cancellation of conferences and other in-person events. Founder Spencer X. Smith says the idea has been in the works for some time as a theoretical option but was expedited when his entire speaking schedule for spring was suddenly canceled over the last 10 business days.

“I do about 55 speaking gigs annually, and the abject frustration I heard from conference organizers when they canceled with me was so painful,” notes Smith. “They work all year on their events, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.”

Smith and his AmpliPhi team turned around Conference in a Cloud in one weekend, something the digital media company is uniquely prepared to do. AmpliPhi has both the systems and expertise to create focused websites very quickly, so the team was able to ideate on the solution on Saturday and build it on Sunday. “In the startup community, this is often called a ‘hackathon,’” says Smith. “Just do whatever it takes to get it out the door, you know?”

According to Smith, Conference in a Cloud is a portal dedicated to each portion of a conference: before, during and, most importantly, after.

“To this point, speaker presentations, videos, handouts, and other resources have resided in disparate locations — a conference registration website, a separate app for during the conference, and … nothing after the conference,” says Smith. “Our Learning Management System helps attendees find everything they need in one place, seamlessly. One website has everything organized by context, and as content is created, the website is dynamically updated.”

Smith notes Conference in a Cloud is much more than just a video conference platform because it offers a solution for organizing content and protecting that content for registered conference attendees. Conference organizers can use whatever video conferencing software they like, or AmpliPhi can recommend one to them. Organizers can also use pre-recorded videos.

“This is especially valuable for speakers who can record their presentations, upload them to the system, and have them ready when the conference starts,” explains Smith. “After the conference, we host the Q&A sessions with speakers or presenters, so the learning continues.”

While born out of necessity, Smith thinks Conference in a Cloud has staying power even when things return to normal.

“After this pandemic subsides, I believe that live, in-person conferences will become more popular than ever,” Smith says. “This forced isolation is helping us all appreciate how much we really need to be around other people.

“I do think, however, that these digital events will help us be better operators of the events themselves, especially post-conference,” continues Smith. “If most organizations return to a cadence of annual events, I can see digital events providing a wonderful adjunct for content propagation and concept reinforcement. Maybe a full-day or two-day in-person conference with one or two digital events between those in-person conferences could be worth considering.

“As a frequent speaker, I already do as many webinars for clients as in-person speeches. I see this as a great opportunity for people to brand themselves in the digital sense, and when we’re together in-person, we get to ‘perform’ the content people have experienced virtually.”

Another Madison company is helping businesses reach their remote workers with critical safety and operational updates.

Singlewire Software is the developer of InformaCast, a mass notification software that can reach large groups of people on their cellphones, via email, and even in collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex Teams.

“We’ve seen an influx of requests from companies over the past few weeks realizing they don’t have a good way to stay in touch with their employees if they are working from home,” says Chris Swietlik, content marketing manager for Singlewire. “They need a solution that allows them to share health and safety tips and operational updates.”

According to Paul Shain, president and CEO of Singlewire Software, InformaCast was created following another major event that ground the nation to a halt — the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“InformaCast was created by a team of software engineers working at [what was then] Berbee Information Networks,” explains Shain. “A government agency came to our team looking for a simple way to share an evacuation notification to help keep their people safe in the event of an emergency. Our team developed a patented method for delivering live audio to a large group of desk phones simultaneously to broadcast evacuation notices.”

CDW acquired Berbee in 2006 and a group of local investors bought InformaCast from CDW and started Singlewire in 2009, says Shain. Today, the same team that developed the original version of InformaCast still works for Singlewire, and the software has grown into a full-fledged mass notification solution that delivers text and audio alerts to all of an organization’s on-premises and mobile devices.

InformaCast alerts can include text, audio, and images. The system is configured via a web-based interface where administrators load in user information like cellphone numbers, email addresses, etc., and register devices they want to reach with mass notifications. They can build distribution lists and message templates within the platform for any number of situations.

During the COVID-19 crisis, this will likely be operational updates as people work from home, Shain explains. Once user information has been added, and messages and distribution lists have been built, mass notifications can be triggered via the web interface or the InformaCast Mobile app. The primary use case during the outbreak is delivering messages as SMS text messages, email, phone calls, push notifications, and desktop notifications to mobile devices and desktop computers. “Normally, we also see organizations use it to reach devices inside of their organization such as desk phones, IP speakers, paging systems, and digital signage with live or recorded audio and text.”

InformaCast is well-positioned to handle the influx of information presented by the continuously updating COVID-19 situation. The platform is used in more than 7,000 organizations in over 50 countries across a wide range of industries, including K–12 schools, higher education, health care, manufacturing, government, and retail.

As the COVID-19 situation has progressed, Shain says the company has seen a significant increase in interest in its offerings. Business leads generated from Singlewire’s website during the first quarter of 2020 are up 65 percent over the same period last year.

“While the typical buying cycle can sometimes last weeks or months, we’ve had companies signing purchase orders within 24 hours of seeing a demonstration during the outbreak,” admits Shain. “We’re seeing a wide range of companies and organizations coming to us for help because they realize they do not have a good way to effectively share information with their employees while they are remote. We have particularly seen interest from medium-sized companies that may not have considered this an issue or priority before, as well as current customers looking to add to what they already have to ensure they can reach everyone via mobile delivery methods.”

There are many more local companies sharing solutions for handling the COVID-19 outbreak with their business peers that local companies could benefit from. If your organization has a unique resource available, please email jason@ibmadison.com. Your solution may also be considered for our COVID-19 business resource page, IBMadison.com/COVID-19.

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