By Patricia Yeager
The pandemic has exposed major flaws in B2B companies' events strategies. Marketers are not only leaving money on the table, they're also failing to cultivate relationships with the customers and prospects attending their events, a new study by Forrester and events company Cvent reveals. The research, titled "B2B Events Get a Long-Needed Digital Makeover," uncovers the challenges B2B companies face as they shift to a hybrid model for their events amid ongoing uncertainty due to COVID-19 and reductions in business-travel budgets.
The study, which took the pulse of 505 senior events and marketing executives, exposed a pivot in how marketers define their online events. According to the study, 83 percent of respondents reported that their organizations hosted "virtual events" prior to the pandemic, but 79 percent admitted that most or all of those events were webinars.
Another disconnect for B2B marketers: ROI was pegged as the second-most important KPI to report to stakeholders, yet 59 percent reported they were unable to track event ROI consistently or derive a value for it at all.
The online survey classified respondents' companies into three groups. These groups include "followers," "intermediates," and "leaders." The classifications are based on respondents' familiarity with event-management software, hosting virtual events, level of collaboration between event-planning and marketing teams, and ability to measure event ROI.
Based on that measure, "leaders" made up 21 percent of the respondents, followed by "intermediates" at 62 percent, and "followers" at 17 percent.
All told, the results show that B2B marketers need to step up their efforts to create a more robust hybrid-events strategy, nail down existing KPIs, and develop new ones for what's sure to be a rapidly changing events landscape.
A Period of Transition
Anticipating what attendees want out of marketing events is key to mounting a successful hybrid strategy, according to Patrick Smith, CMO at Cvent. Planning can ensure that work sessions lend themselves to "shorter, snappier content that resonates more in a virtual setting," he says. "Event planners and marketers should develop success metrics and KPIs around new priorities and expected outcomes."
Smith recommends that marketers adopt the following ideas for events: Source live in-person and virtual studio spaces and videographers to support both sets of programming, optimize and sync camera frames and virtual presentation cues for two unique audiences, and develop compelling interstitial content to keep the virtual audience engaged between sessions.
"Getting all these details right is essential to making both audiences feel included, interested, and engaged," Smith says. "This is where a focus on delivering 'one event, two experiences' can really pay off."
Amisha Gandhi, SVP of marketing at payments software company Tipalti, adds some valuable lessons for what's in store for the events sector.
After taking charge in January, Gandhi had just four weeks to convert the company's Elevate Finance Summit in Las Vegas — originally slated as a live event — into a virtual program. Job one was to ensure that all of the various elements of the events were highly interactive.
"Make sure your speakers are available in online chat or other people if it's live and not pre-recorded," she says. "In some cases, you can even be directly communicating with the audience." Gandhi stresses that it's beyond cultivating a digital-first strategy. "Think mobile-first because that's where your customers are online doing their research," she says.
She adds that with uncertainty regarding COVID-19 restrictions for an upcoming conference later this year, "there will be a lot more flexibility in a hybrid model and we're learning how to drive better results."
Gandhi also recommends creating a collection of video highlights garnered from in-person events, which can be sliced and diced for digital and social media channels and integrated with sales materials.
To make sure their hybrid events provide a seamless experience for attendees, it's crucial that brands supplement traditional event planning with digital-savvy talent.
"The skills required include extensive digital marketing expertise, yet the ownership frequently remains with the events-marketing or field-marketing teams, where these skills may not be as dominant," says Christy Uher Ferguson, VP and analyst at Gartner. "The ability to deliver an engaging, relevant virtual experience is often more challenging than in-person models."
Crunching the Numbers
How to achieve proper staffing and resources for a digital-first strategy may boil down to centralizing budgets, so everyone is operating with the same goals. While marketing and event-management teams executed events in tandem, a majority of respondents to the Cvent survey (72 percent) worked with different budgets and goals.
Smith says that budgets play an important part in making sure virtual- and live-events programming are in sync. But success is more often achieved when companies integrate projects across the organization and align event management and execution goals across digital marketing and IT departments.
Homing in on data that tracks attendees' events journey can also help businesses build a case for a unified strategy.
Indeed, examining attendee data can help drive an ROI strategy, says Sharon Crichton, EVP and global head of production at brand experience agency and ANA member company Jack Morton.
The agency, whose clients include Facebook, Google, and EY, has deployed apps that use facial recognition to track attendee engagement and apps to gather real-time feedback on live presentations.
Jack Morton has also conducted mobile feedback polls and collected feedback from social media sentiment to adjust event content accordingly. "It's no longer, 'You build it, and they will come,'" Crichton says. "It's a customer-first mindset, and then build your filter experience based on the value that they want."
Publish Once, Distribute Many
Leveraging customer insights to drive better ROI held great appeal among the respondents to the Cvent survey. The top response when asked what benefits they expected to see from modernizing their events was the ability to use attendee activity and feedback data to continuously improve event impact (51 percent).
Other top-ranking concerns were the ability to attribute event activity to pipeline and revenue (47 percent), more predictable attendee participation (44 percent), and the ability to make smarter investment choices across an event portfolio (43 percent).
Maximizing the data can help B2B companies lower costs — without sacrificing attendee value or experience — and generate higher lead conversion, according to Gartner's Uher Ferguson. "Virtual events are not inherently less resource-intensive in terms of budget and talent," she says.
Personalized content that is focused and targeted on smaller audiences may be best to communicate value in more targeted ways, such as a webinar, thus reducing technology costs.
Likewise, large-scale in-person conferences can be scaled back for niche audiences. Workshops, roundtable discussion, and keynote speeches may not be necessary for attendees to see the value of the conference; plenty of people attend for the networking opportunities.
The simple act of creating an event that showcases relevant dialogue may be sufficient enough to drive repeat attendees and boost ROI.
"People want to come and listen to those conversations," Gandhi says. To truly grab the audience and nurture long-term relationships, "don't create a company conference, create an industry conference."