COVID-19: A Catalyst for Expanding Event Offerings

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The event industry has been clobbered by the shelter-in-place instructions from our city and state governments. Airline travel is highly discouraged. Large gatherings are out of the question. Hotels? Restaurants? All sectors contributing to the events industry are suffering, and we’re all wondering what comes next. One thought is that this period could be a catalyst for expanding our event offerings.

Since our lives have switched from person-to-person to online, we are all considering digital solutions to replace or at least augment events. And yet, there is a gap in this recommendation that appears to suggest we replace one tactic with another. Do we simply “pivot to digital”? If so, how does that work?

The solution for our current situation is more than “pick a platform.” We need to go back to the basics of event strategy to remind ourselves of the role of events in our marketing mix. Launching an event program, whether live or digital, without a strategy is an exercise in futility. And at this point in time, futility is something we can’t afford.

A digital event strategy is essentially the same as a face-to-face event strategy. Yes, there are some variables. A successful event strategy needs to be platform-agnostic, and the questions we ask are consistent no matter what type of event we are planning. How do we get the target market to engage with our brand?

Strategy is Critical for Both Live and Digital Events.

What drives your event strategy? Strategy evolves from goals, so ask what you hope to build or reinforce with this event. How do we build loyalty, brand engagement, an experience? Do you want to educate? To launch a product? To reinforce a marketing message or position? What audience do you wish to reach? Once you understand and agree on your goal (or goals), you can build a strategy to achieve them.

Where do events fit in the total marketing mix? Face-to-face events need support from other channels: social media, content marketing, and advertising, for instance. If your event is digital, these factors need to be part of the program as well.

What Does Your Audience Expect?

How do you create content? Whether live or digital, content is critical for success and for attracting your target market. Do you issue a call for papers? Do you recruit speakers? How to you present relevant, anticipated content to your audience? For that matter, we have already seen a combination of live and streaming content at many conferences, something to remember when we are planning live meetings.

What does your target audience expect? If we look at the research from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) and other entities, the top expectations of attendees at events are networking and education. Secondary reasons such as fun and enhancing their personal reputations also play a role. We certainly have precedent for all of these in the face-to-face world, but how do we meet attendees’ expectations at a digital event?

Connecting on an Emotional Level: An Example

When Exhibitor Magazine held its awards program recently, the ceremony was held online because the entire show was postponed. The ceremony was skillfully executed and well-attended. Exhibitor used Facebook Live to stream the ceremony. Why? Because that was the platform most of their attendees could easily access, and Exhibitor could hope for a broad audience. (If you have a Facebook account, search for Exhibitor Magazine, and you’ll find the awards ceremony.)

Exhibitor provided a deeply satisfying brand experience, and this example gives rise to two more considerations: with which platform is most of your audience familiar? And how can you create an emotional connection with the audience? In this example, Exhibitor did both well.

Monetizing the Event

What role will sponsorships play? If you are operating in a digital space, can you develop promotional content? Or are there other avenues open to you? What digital options do exhibitors have?

The question of sponsorships prompts us to ask another question: is there a charge for the event—or is it free? If you charge for your event, how do you determine the value of the content and the entire event experience? Will your audience pay for it? Two examples: TED talks are available free online; Master Class, a new entry to online education, charges in the neighborhood of $100 for premium content. If that is a continuum, where does your content fall? If you are presenting must-have professional education, your audience should be willing to pay, particularly if that education is available nowhere else.

Networking: Challenging but Possible

Finally, let’s get back to the subject of networking since options for education appear to be less problematic. Networking gets trickier, and the size of the attendee base influences the possibilities. Many platforms offer chat features, and occasionally someone will post an email address and ask other attendees to contact them. If event attendance is large, attracting different subgroups, a digital event organizer can offer options for chat rooms off the main event platform. Can these be sponsored? What options are available to exhibitors? Virtual exhibit halls with specially designed virtual exhibits? Links to websites, probably a less desirable alternative? No matter the format, what drives attendees to events remains unchanged.

Whether your event is online or live, market fiercely. Build a timeline that takes into account the fact that your attendees have a much shorter time to make up their minds about the event. There is no travel or overnight stays involved. Whole teams or departments can attend at a fraction of the cost of a live event.

As we’re learning, sometimes live events are not possible, and having an alternative is always a good thing. But if nothing else, in the past few months, we have learned that nothing replaces human contact, If the current situation prompts us to augment our live event strategy with a digital component, we’ll have advanced our industry and our opportunities of connecting with our target markets.

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