Throughout 2020, Demand Gen Report has spoken with a variety of B2B marketing and sales practitioners and thought leaders about the effects of Covid-19 on the industry, as well as their own go-to-market strategies. A common topic of discussion revolved around events and the pivot to virtual experiences due to social distancing measures. There were a lot of questions, and many concerns about what the event of the future would look like. What has become clear is that events, as we know them, won’t be the same, with many experts predicting a “hybrid” model as the new normal.
Now the questions are:
- What does that ideal hybrid model look like?
- How do we take the best of both physical and virtual events and combine them into one stellar experience for audiences?
- What will it take to bridge the gap between IRL and URL?
Curious ourselves, we called on some big players in the B2B marketing space to hear their thoughts on the ideal event of the future. As speakers and event hosts themselves, these experts saw the best and the worst of virtual events in 2020. Below, they share their grand ideas on what companies should focus on when developing events in 2021 and beyond. You’ll hear from:
- Michael Brenner, keynote speaker, best-selling author and CEO, Marketing Insider Group;
- Tamsen Webster, keynote speaker, message strategist and Founder of The Red Thread;
- Sangram Vajre, author, speaker, podcast host and Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist at Terminus;
- Marlowe Fenne, speaker and Account-Based Marketing Senior Manager at FireEye, Inc.;
- Matt Heinz, speaker, author and President and Founder of Heinz Marketing;
- Randy Frisch, speaker, author and CMO and Co-Founder of Uberflip;
- Tessa Barron, VP of Marketing at ON24, a digital experience platform; and
- Michael Balyasny, Co-Founder & CEO of mobile event apps and online registration software Attendify.
Develop Events As An Ongoing Digital Strategy
The best events have always approached ongoing digital conversations prior to, and long after, the physical event took place. In fact, I always considered physical events simply an offline version of an effective digital content strategy. Events take place to share the latest news, tips and trends on a particular topic that is important to an audience. That learning opportunity is always apparent digitally before the event, online and in the physical space during the event, and digitally after the event.
Imagine how events would change if we thought of them as just one element in an ongoing digital content strategy. Event's websites would reflect that ongoing conversation with social conversations centered on a hashtag or podcast. Previous and future speakers would participate in regular "round-ups" like this one. The event host would publish amazing and helpful content as you do here on Demand Gen Report.
But what would this really look like during the event?
The best speakers (even celebrities) wouldn't all have to present live from the stage. Introverts could "network" on event apps. Games and prizes could be awarded from previously submitted works. As I've been saying all along during the pandemic: The things that are changing have been available to us for some time. They are just accelerating and becoming normalized. The same is true for the future of hybrid events.
I believe the ideal hybrid event is more sequential than parallel.
Here's what I mean: Rather than try to make live and virtual experiences the same, and at the same time, move the virtual focus to before and after the event.
For instance, use virtual get-togethers and previews so that the audience gets to know the speakers (and vice versa) ahead of time, and gets a sense of what content they're most excited about. Speakers could even use those pre-event virtual interactions to have the audience answer questions or do exercises in advance.
During the live event, make sure the sessions are filmed in a way that lets virtual attendees really feel like they're there (IMAG, tracking cameras, etc.) and encourage the speakers to speak directly to the camera occasionally. Have virtual discussions about sessions so that live and virtual attendees can interact with each other and with the speakers. After the event, move the focus back to virtual and have follow-up workshops and more intensive sessions that build on the content from the main event.
Hybrid events should prioritize and blend what’s best about in-person and digital experiences because they can enable omnichannel engagement throughout. So, what does this look like?
I imagine a world where the physical event is shorter, bigger and bolder, giving attendees the sizzle they expect from a live mainstage production. Attendees don’t gather in-person to see a panel they could have streamed on YouTube, or a keynote that could have been an article — especially with so many digital experiences already at their disposal. They come for connection and an experience. The in-person portion of the ideal hybrid event trims content and presentations and instead focuses on networking and social opportunities interspersed with mainstage content that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
The content from the in-person event then fuels digital content in the days, weeks and months after the gathering is complete. Companies can create supplemental or spin-off content — webinars, interactive videos, whitepapers, digital experiences and more — that lives digitally, indefinitely. This empowers event attendees to consume materials at their own pace and ensures companies can maximize the value of their event, even once attendees have dispersed.
Throughout, the ideal hybrid event blurs the lines between in-person and digital experiences by enabling constant omnichannel engagement. In-person attendees also have the option to engage digitally — with event apps or websites, digital experiences at booths, online surveys and more. This gives attendees greater flexibility and more channels for interaction, and arms event organizers with valuable data about prospects’ activities and interests. The digital content, in turn, enables attendees to engage with the company on their own time through capabilities like live experiences, Q&A sessions, chat or “request demo” buttons. More channels, more data and more engagement to ensure events drive maximum results.
Build Personal Connections Online & Offline
An ideal hybrid event would be one that can bridge the disconnect between face-to-face and digital experiences. What many people miss about physical events is building connections and personalization. From in-depth conversations with industry peers to deep-dive sessions in relevant event tracks, event attendees are seeking a similar feeling at hybrid events.
With digital events, much of that “made for me” feeling that keeps people in their seats has been lost — until now. The pandemic has forced marketers to shift their budgets and their interest to improve the “experience disconnect” at digital and hybrid events.
The ideal hybrid event will replicate the personalization of physical events, but more quickly, easily and at scale. How do we do that? We go beyond the surface level of <insert name here> personalization. My ideal hybrid event would be one that people sign up to “attend” versus sign up to receive the recording after the fact. This kind of event would take the content experience to the next level.
For example, if an event attendee can’t go to the in-person, fire-side chat session at a conference and get a signed copy of the speaker’s book, how do they still receive the same thrill, relevancy and personalization from a hybrid version?
They get it by receiving the same attention through a content destination that provides hyper-relevant content to enhance their experience. Attendees would be directed through a journey that gets them excited to actually “attend” the event from no matter where they are with a level of interactivity and intimacy making them feel like it’s not actually hybrid.
My ideal hybrid event will be much more personalized in the near future. Virtual or in person, let’s connect people with their peers and other leading experts in their fields of real interest. Qualify participants with both qualitative and quantitative intelligence that identifies what they’re passionate and curious about, not just their firmographics.
Let’s also make it contextual — based on what you and your peers have been consuming, let’s provide access to the content everyone else at the event has been reading (or wants to read), and then discuss possibilities that are a “mash-up” that’s greater than the sum of any individual parts. Let’s enable all the participants to learn from one another — not just one SME.
While context is a moving target, let’s make it as continually contextual as possible — meaning what we provide after the event is the perfect follow up to what we offer during the event, and our journey continues seamlessly, with the event as an important waypoint.
Let’s make it much more interactive. An outline or a few data points are fine, but PowerPoint — even with Q&A — has become a teaching tool for content that can be consumed asynchronously. Roundtables yield far more perspectives and unexpected learnings. Select a moderator who’s curious, not just an expert by proxy. In the right setting, curiosity is contagious.
Let’s also make it immersive. A life-sized telepresence virtual audience standing alongside those of us in the same room, so whether you’re remote or virtual, your participation has equal resonance with all the participants. Back to curiosity – we want to know how participants are responding in real-time – not through an evaluation at the end.
Finally, let’s make events agile. Just like musicians in a band, an aware facilitator and panel know if the audience is responding or not, and how to focus or change the energy in real-time to maximize engagement and value.
Make Hybrid Events Entertaining & Engaging
Reimagine an event that recognizes that a virtual event — in order to be successful — needs to have the 3 E's for events:
- Engagement; and
The event should leave people with high energy much like an in-person event. Whoever delivers this will make it memorable.
The event industry is shifting from a tactical to a strategic outlook with respect to the role of technology, and attendee engagement is at the heart of the transformation. Event planners have always cared about engagement, but today we’re entering a new era of measurability. We now have the ability to measure everything that happens at virtual or hybrid events, which means that traditional measures of success, like increasing attendance, will be replaced. Getting people in the door (physically or virtually) is no longer enough.
Unlocking event ROI for every stakeholder is all about engagement with content and networking experiences. The role of technology will be in helping marketers and planners understand attendee behavior at a deeper level than was previously possible. Those signals will be used for everything from personalizing experiences and identifying intent, to driving marketing and retention campaigns to grow events.
The key to making this happen is to capture data across the entire attendee journey, from registering for an event to actually experiencing it and then stitching that data together with other marketing touchpoints. In 2021, we’ll see the biggest transformation we’ve seen in more than a decade. Simply put, event technology will become part of the marketing stack.
The most successful events in 2021 will have the following attributes in common:
- Active engagement of the attendee community – with speakers and amongst each other.
- Treat the event as a component of a broader campaign – including pre-event and post-event engagement, content and value.
- VIP components to engage high-value targets with special access-only content, associated physical mailers and a VIP community component.
- A mix of professional content as well as higher-level, TED Talk-like topics to encourage deeper thinking, creativity and professional advancement.
- Something unique, buzzworthy and fun — a special speaker, concert, cooking class, for example.
- Carefully curated sessions and content that minimize selling and maximize learning.
- More intimate, interactive opportunities to engage with key speakers and influencers.
- Incentives to lean in and fully participate in the full event yet access to select content by the broader industry ecosystem.
- Event content strategies that operate as newsrooms, recapping key sessions and best practices.
- Post-event local communities helping “birds of a feather” attendees continue to engage, learn from and grow with each other.