Events Need to Be Transformed
Welcome to 2040’s thought leadership series, with insights on the changing digital marketplace. We have relied on live events for decades to bring our stakeholders together, strengthen our communities, extend our networks, build our brands and drive revenues by connecting buyers with sellers. The pandemic turned a tired model on its head. Why do we say tired? Because many organizations have depended on staging annual meetings, conferences and conventions the same way, year after year … without an effective strategy to make events increasingly relevant to more individuals.
Organizations think they are responding to attendees’ set expectations of a dependable, wide-ranging and exciting experience. But honestly, events compete with many instantly accessible offerings from media, education and entertainment platforms. It’s also fatiguing for some attendees who are faced with endless educational offerings, networking and social opportunities and aisles of sponsor/exhibitor booths, that when aggregated, look like an overwhelming and exhausting sea of sameness.
In fact, 2040 research reveals that on average, 12% of any organization’s members attend a physical conference or convention. By transforming your event to a hybrid model, an organization has an opportunity to double or perhaps even triple the percentage of members that register and attend the event. As a result, there is greater member engagement, and the organization delivers its value proposition even more deeply to the 88% who typically do not attend.
Bluntly speaking, traditional events fall short of recognizing how digital and technology have created alternative ways to achieve learning and networking goals. Covid has caused individuals to reassess and question their formerly over-committed and over-scheduled days. Now individuals are re-evaluating how to gain what they really need and are seeking experiences that really matter.
In our conversations with clients, we help them understand that although Covid has helped many organizations rethink their events business, most pivoted without a strategy or the recognition of what their audiences really want and need. Strategy is key as in-person, online and hybrid events require different thinking and tactics to deliver value to those attending physically, virtually or via on-demand streaming.
Organizations are facing a new reality post-Covid and are under increasing pressure to perform and evolve in a dynamically changing environment. Most organizations experienced event losses in 2020. Financial risks are exacerbated by committed attendees questioning the value of in-person events when virtual is so convenient and accessible. The answer is hybrid events. We know what we are talking about! We were pioneers in developing hybrid events in 2008 and have been advocates of this model for over 23 years.
The argument for a hybrid strategy is compelling. Even before the pandemic, formerly dedicated attendees or prospects found themselves with less and less time and more and more to do — and were already becoming indecisive about committing to a multi-day or week-long conference. Hybrid events can and do deliver a convenient source of information and knowledge, offering choice for all stakeholders.
Trust Not Transaction
We are living in a transitional time. Organizations must address how individual preferences, behaviors and concepts of what is comfortable and what may create anxiety have changed. Remember, your customers and members that comprise your potential event audience want a relationship of trust (not transaction) with your organization. The organization therefore has a responsibility to deliver and serve audience needs.
It’s too soon to know what changes will stick, but we can say with some confidence that convenience may play a stronger role going forward as well as a diminished need to travel to a traditional in-person event that lacks personalization, imagination and creativity in delivering extraordinary educational experiences to both attendees and sponsors.
The New Event Space
What are the factors we believe will stick after Covid and influence how events are structured in the future?
- Hybrid events: Engaging on-site and off-site experiences.
- Social distancing: Networking in a more structured and socially distanced manner.
- Sanitization: Ensuring there are ample hand sanitizers, masks (if desired), open spaces to adequately support the expected number of physical attendees and disinfection protocols.
- Virtual engagement: Experimentation with more online engagement with the presenter and other attendees.
- Timing: More conferences during warm weather or in warmer climates to reduce the requirement to be indoors.
- Expanded opportunities for the trade: More sponsorships for virtual attendee experiences, more online demos, more advertising space.
- More planning and testing: Meetings must be set up to support the in-person and online experience through design and testing.
- Extended timing: Online delivery means that in-person and online attendees can still experience the event for an extended period — after the event is over.
- Post-event follow-up: Use of online presents the opportunity for a post-event follow-up session.
- Decentralized events: The online experience can be coupled with a local networking event or other gathering to enrich the overall experience for people who choose not to attend in person. This could create opportunities for local chapters, sections and components.
Hybrid Model Engagement
Presenting a hybrid event requires an engagement strategy. Digital-savvy individuals want online relationships with organizations, businesses and groups who maintain authority and credibility. When neither of those are present, they move along. They want to align in a relationship of trust and the need for meaning. In today’s Covid environment, individuals are now very conscious of how they are spending their time in physical spaces with a constant assessment of risk. The resulting anxiety can and will often impact and mitigate the need to get out and about again.
In considering virtual events, Marsha Flanigan, VP Learning Experiences, IAEE says there are real benefits to hybrid or fully online formats that allow for embedded analytics that provide the ability to cite specific data points, capture a wealth of information and set year-over-year benchmarks.
Online engagement is measurable:
- Event evaluation can be made more relevant when using data from all users, not just a biased subset from post-event surveys from attendees at each session.
- Data can be used as a guide to reveal how session formats affect engagement.
- Online data, like physical beacon-based data, shows when learners attend sessions and how long an attendee stays at a session, all of which can be used as a proxy for engagement and satisfaction ratings.
- Organizers can also effectively use non-attendee feedback to improve the content, networking and expo aspects of future events.
What we have learned from our clients during the pandemic is that a renaissance of events has been made possible by bringing together amazing presenters online who were too expensive or too unavailable to present at live events. So, for content, an on-screen event has been a plus for everyone who couldn’t physically attend an event — even before Covid.
The convenience of online has made the experience more accessible to more members and individuals who have limited budgets and time. There is also another factor to consider: An aging demographic has been the major historical source of attendance and revenue for physical events. Next-gens don’t always see the critical need to meet at a large event (they love smaller, niche, experiential events) and therefore there is a precipice facing the future of events that demands a change in strategy to deliver impact, value and revenue.
For sponsors/exhibitors, it’s a challenge for event producers to design engaging networking and exhibition experiences. Technology can play a more prominent role in delivering what attendees really want: personalization and more direct value. Instead of trolling exhibition halls, attendees can find solutions they need using match-up technology that is a more effective and actionable than the exhibition floor. What you lose in discovery you gain in relevance for time-strapped customers.
Enhancing Post-Covid Events
Companies that exhibit and sponsor know what data can be captured and they are demanding the data to justify their spend and expense. Freeman’s 2019 Market Research Study reports that 78% of respondents who exhibit say relationship-building across current and prospect customers remains a major goal. The quantification and qualification of leads that exhibitors and sponsors seek has become more complex. The norm now is catching the right fish, not any fish, because companies know data can be leveraged to identify the right prospects and establish the right relationships. Organizations must step up to the plate and serve exhibiting and sponsoring companies’ needs and demands.
For attendees who look forward to annual reconnection with peers, it’s been a lonely vigil. Technology can provide some viable solutions with interactive meet-ups, customized for each person. Shoptalk and GroceryShop, pioneers in the retail industry meeting space, developed their own software to facilitate one-on-ones and roundtable conversations – all online. At first glance, it might seem a shallow substitute for in-person meetings (no social hours or beach parties), but online match-ups are affordable, safe and promote ongoing conversations after the on-screen event.
We have become more flexible by necessity in our online behaviors as they have become embedded in our daily lives. And since time is our currency, the benefit and value of online solutions are hard to deny. There is another benefit to online and hybrid events; on-demand content is convenient for attendees, and it can integrate exhibitors in the content to make their solutions dynamic and accessible.
For event organizers, hybrid models can be a cost-efficient solution. The challenge is changing up the revenue model. As creative alternatives, annual memberships can include registration in online events with exclusive access long after the on-screen live experience through on-demand streaming. Or attendees can pay what they wish, giving them the choice to vote for the value of the content with their wallets. Sponsors who connect directly with qualified customers online can be charged a premium. It’s hard, but it’s time to rethink sources of revenue that pay off in new ways.
For marketing, smart communications personalized to each prospective attendee makes the relevance and value of an event come alive. Use your organization’s influencers (most passionate stakeholders) judiciously to enhance and customize communications. For registrants, personalized communications reinforce their investment with you. In both cases, avoid pulling the trigger on canned communications written for a hypothetical attendee; your customers have become very sophisticated in sniffing out disingenuous messaging. Respect their trust in your brand.
Lastly, live events are not going away, but there is some controversy over whether big, impersonal stages with bright lights, overly loud canned music and rented stage sets will still resonate with some in a post-Covid culture. We have shifted, post-pandemic, to wanting authenticity, immediacy and intimacy. Huge rooms with jumbo video screens, teleprompter speeches and drama lack spontaneity and meaning to some. And these traditional theatrical devices may work against you with jaded, cynical younger audiences. The answer? Savvy meeting and event planners need to experiment with ways to bring people together in an interactive and personally engaging manner whether they are there in person or not.
At 2040, clients come to us to help them build original events that resonate with all stakeholders. Virtual is here to stay, coupled with smaller, genuine, in-person events with a fresh approach that will gradually re-emerge. We have proven the value of hybrid events, know the strategies that are effective, and know how to construct high engagement and high value regardless of what channel an attendee participates.
We’ve been in your shoes and understand balancing art and science to strategize and operationalize your events business. We are never short of ideas, innovations and smart strategies that match your business needs and transform the practice of producing tired, predictable events into surprising, memorable experiences. We look forward to connecting with you to elevate your events and produce memorable experiences that matter.
Onward and upward!
The 2040 Team
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2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues. We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.
Onward and upward from the 2040 Team