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An Interview with Jim Burns

In this interview, Jim discusses how Avitage! evolved, ROI, PowerPoint, and so much more.


Jim Burns Jim Burns is the CEO of Avitage! Communication Systems, a Wellesley, MA based entity that creates the Avitage! product.

Avitage! (pronounced ah-vi-tazh, derived from the phrase audio-video montage) is a marketing and sales communication system. By combining message management with real-time sales coaching, and all forms of electronic communications delivery, Avitage! turns the daily tactical communications of sales and marketing professionals into coordinated parts of a strategic communication initiative. Aviatge! works on a hosted web application and monthly subscription model. You can find more information at the Avitage! web site: Avitage!

Geetesh: Tell me how the Avitage! concept evolved.

Jim: Seven years ago we tried to sell a multimedia content management and assembly system. Companies didn't have much multimedia (still don't) and couldn't envision what we were talking about. But they were drowning in PowerPoint. All the issues with PowerPoint that we help resolve today — sharing, templates, updating, etc. — were major issues. So, we began to look at ways to help them manage PowerPoint and developed the first iteration of Avitage! as a result.

Co-incidently, at that time while customers couldn't see why they would want to manage multimedia, they did see the value of delivering multimedia to support their messages. So, we developed an application and service where we recorded subject expert narrations of PowerPoint shows in audio or video and synchronized the media to each slide. We developed an "engine" in Macromedia Director and delivered on CD-ROM. This often took tens of hours to produce, but the results were compelling. We knew that the use of multimedia would grow as an effective means of communication. We developed a strategy for how we could produce it more cost effectively, and so that organizations would use more of it.

As a result, we enhanced Avitage! to handle synchronized audio to PowerPoint and to assemble not only tailored PowerPoint shows, but audio-graphic programs as well. Five years ago, when Web Events and Web Conferencing began to emerge, we became a service bureau to support this type of communication. We noticed all the ways individuals wanted to use PowerPoint and now multimedia in those environments.

The more we observed how companies were using not only PowerPoint, but also the Web to communicate we realized the challenge was far bigger than just managing PowerPoint for desktop delivery.

Avitage! is unique in the ways it addresses ALL the purposes for which your organization creates and uses PowerPoint. While PowerPoint is the kernel of this activity, real solutions to the communication challenges of each group require additional functionality around the PowerPoint management function.
We primarily focus on the communications process that begins in marketing, flows through the sales channel and into the customer organization. We call the application of our principles and practices "Web-Assisted Selling".

Geetesh: How are you seeing the role of PowerPoint as a repository of corporate information/knowledge?

Jim: It has crept up on people I think. PowerPoint is ubiquitous. And, despite all the criticisms, it is an easy, cheap and convenient way to provide visual support to a conversation. We learned years ago that for most presentations it's "good enough". Today, because we are so overwhelmed with information, we don't want to read the full story in text, just the bullet version -- supported by audio explanations of course.

Major corporations we work with like HP and Unisys confirm that over 60% of the "hits" to their sales and marketing information systems (portals, intranets, etc.) are for PowerPoint content. But it probably represents less than 5% of the documents they manage. And they don't even manage or deploy PowerPoint the way users really need it!

There are consulting firms that use PowerPoint the way most of us use Word documents.

John Seeley Brown, formerly at Xerox Parc once said, "We don't think of knowledge as being IN the document, so much as surrounding the document in the conversations that documents foster." If we can capture using audio, the ideas, knowledge and intent of the experts who create PowerPoint slides, then we REALLY have a powerful and convenient knowledge repository.

Once companies see how they can manage PowerPoint and other mediated content at the SLIDE or modular level it opens huge opportunities for how they think about the content they build, and the knowledge they capture. This is the significant potential Avitage! brings to customers -- to change the way they think about building customer communication content using PowerPoint.

Geetesh: Please provide us a case study about Avitage! usage.

Jim: Avitage! is used by companies with five people and companies with 15,000 people, and every size in between.

Regardless of size these companies need to share PowerPoint, to narrate it to improve understanding and add impact, and to deliver as tailored PowerPoint shows, as streaming or downloaded audio-graphic programs, or as web meetings.

The larger companies tend to have an overwhelming number of products and solutions. They are constantly changing and evolving, as is the competitive landscape they sell into.

So larger companies have added challenges of

  1. managing the messages that are delivered to customers, channel partners, prospects, industry leaders, the press;
  2. training everyone on those messages and how to deliver them, and
  3. providing the ability to conveniently deliver those messages using the media and methods preferred by the intended audience.

The "problems" with PowerPoint that we hear and address are seemingly endless:

  • can't find what I need (no central repository),
  • spend too much time looking,
  • don't know if I have the "right presentation" or content (is it accurate or up-to-date),
  • I can't find what I need (not building the right "customer facing content")
  • how do I build the right presentation for my audience (difficulty tailoring presentations),
  • I have to spend hours cleaning the presentation up (inconsistent template use),
  • I don't understand what I'm looking at or how I should use it (no notes or coaching points)
  • I'm responsible to build and maintain presentation content, but if I just want to update a couple of slides, do you know what the workflow process is to re-submit it to all the places it's posted (no simple central way to manage and deploy)
  • I understand Jack did a great job with a similar presentation, how can I get a copy of his (no convenient way to share, or to get best practice material into a central library)
  • I'm embarrassed by how our presentations look (too much text, no clear graphic and creation guidelines)

Avitage! creates a Communication Ecosystem, especially for larger organizations, where PowerPoint is segmented into individual slides that are organized in a central library using a schema that is meaningful to customer organizations and their constituents.

Participants receive a Personal Library that allows them to upload PowerPoint they develop. They create folders and can save selected content from the Central Library in Personal Library folders to make it easier to find and use. Presentations are assembled in Avitage! using content from the Central and Personal Libraries, with copies saved in a folder in the Personal Library.

Those who create content can electronically "hand off" folders of content to colleagues including the manager of the Central Library. When they update and "replace" a slide, it is instantly recognized by all who have copies in their Personal Libraries.

Using the telephone, users can narrate slides. They have two options: a customer facing audio message and an internal, coaching message. Links to this audio are displayed on slide previews, and are used when assembling a synchronized audio-graphic program in Avitage!

Users can also conduct web meetings right out of Avitage! The built-in web conferencing system launches a meeting. Slides can be instantly brought into the web meeting from either the Personal or Central libraries.

Geetesh: How do Avitage! users justify the return on investment.

Jim: Two ways: hard returns and soft returns.

The soft returns are harder to measure but more important.

In the selling organization Avitage! shortens sales cycles as communication lags are shortened or eliminated. It means using audio to capture audience attention and communicate in a richer manner than just using static text. It means lower selling costs as customers use Avitage! to conduct "Web-assisted Selling" and provide sales support through phone and web conferencing.

In the marketing organization it means better ways to transfer knowledge and best practices. These include delivering better, more accurate messages to customers, partners or other constituents. Product launches are faster and less expensive. Just-in-time sales coaching using audio supplements or replaces traditional product training programs.

In many cases Avitage! is the difference between delivering a compelling, relevant tailored message, at the right time and in the right way; and not delivering a message at all!

The hard returns are based upon time spent finding, building and cleaning presentations -- often savings of one to two hours per presentation. It includes time saved avoiding redundant building of slides or presentations. Audio coaching provides a convenient alternative to traditional training methods and minimizes time out-of-field. Web-Assisted Selling leverages scarce sales support resources while reducing travel time and costs.

In every case the return is customer specific, but significant.

Geetesh: What opportunities does Avitage create for PowerPoint professionals?

Jim: When we suggest that customers organize their PowerPoint using a schema that is relevant to the selling organization, in almost every case it points out how in-appropriate the existing content is for the sales organization. There are huge opportunities to add value and build better content.

When customers move beyond a "presentations" mentality, to looking at PowerPoint as "visual support for a customer conversation ", it significantly enlarges the scope of the content they require.

When customers see the potential of PowerPoint with Avitage! new vistas of development opportunity open up.

Geetesh: Tell me where you see Avitage! as a product and a Company a year from now?

Jim: We have deliberately worked with small number of influential customers to develop a robust application. Now that we are there, we will be expanding our customer base and application areas. All that we do is focused on instantly building and delivering tailored shows and delivering using ALL the media and methods that are available and practical.

We have partnered with companies that are expert at helping customers develop the right messages. We will be working with them to deploy Avitage! with their customers.

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