Forrester’s Lisa Riley Shares Her Perspective On The Future Of Events In B2B

Published: June 10, 2020

The COVID-19 health crisis was an unforeseen event with lasting, far-reaching consequences. The feeling of uncertainty is running high with the suspension of in-person B2B events. Marketers are wondering how they will acquire leads, and SDRs wonder if they can make the same impact without face-to-face meetings at live events.

According to new Forrester research, for B2B marketers, event spend is a large part of a marketer’s budget, about 12%. But in the age of social distancing, face-to-face events are temporarily on hold. As marketing organizations wrestle with how to supplement the leads and intelligence they have gathered from in-person events in the past, many are looking to virtual events as a potential replacement. One of the first major B2B events to successfully transition to virtual was Forrester’s 2020 SiriusDecisions Summit.

Demand Gen Report sat down with Lisa Riley, VP and Global Head of Events at Forrester, to hear her perspective on the move to virtual, as well as her insights about the future of B2B events and how marketers can pivot to digital experiences during these uncertain times.

1rileyDemand Gen Report: Can you share your perspective on the event space in general in B2B and what you’re hearing from customers or peers in terms of how the industry is pivoting at a higher level?

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Lisa Riley: I think there is a big unknown. The first half of the year was filled with big in-person events — all B2B. I think there are usually more events in the first half than there are in the second half of the year. The one consistent piece I’m hearing now is a high level of uncertainty. There is some feeling of paralysis, of not being sure what to do, in terms of what the future will look like.

There’s a lot of uncertainty with the second half of the year in terms of events, and especially for 2021. I think we’re all leaning in and trying to learn from others because there’s no playbook. We’re all trying to feel things out, and ultimately figure out how to plan for the future, which is going to look different for a while. Just based on some of the restrictions happening in other countries, the lack of any guidance in terms of large gatherings still has to play out. I think there’s still a lot more information out there that has to settle before the industry makes some longer-term decisions on what in-person events will look like.

DGR: The Forrester research showed an average of around 12% of program spending was on in-person events. I think I’ve heard higher — almost 20% for some companies. The hardest part for people was the realization of how fundamental events are to their overall strategy. Would you agree?

Riley: I agree 100%. There is a good proportion of marketing budgets that have been earmarked for in-person events. The data showed that a percentage of that budget was very small for virtual events before this pivot happens. These events were going to be one of the biggest demand generation opportunities to connect with customers’ ability to convert and retain. This is where I think that fear and uncertainty come in because right now, there isn’t a standard playbook. The question is, what can companies replace in-person events with right now?

DGR: What sort of adjustments did you make when moving the sessions online for Summit?

 Riley: First, Summit was a big unknown for us, but we knew the components that we wanted to deliver upon was the value proposition. Our summit has been known for thought leadership from our analysts and the sense of community and engagement on the marketplace show floor. When we went into it, and we transitioned into the digital space, we knew we had a few ideas on how to pivot those experiences from in-person to virtual. We did have to think differently. We shortened the duration of our sessions from 45 minutes to 20 minutes. Why? Because we knew that a shortened session was going to keep duration or viewership.

A higher rate of viewership is really important in virtual events because you want to make sure that you’re keeping your audience engaged. If you lose engagement, tune out. It’s not like they’re somewhere else in your event space, they’re likely in their living room or doing something else. What we found was that our 20-minute sessions, because we have the data, the average duration was roughly 19 minutes, 40 seconds. We nearly had 100% viewership for our sessions for our virtual events.

DGR: As you built the virtual experience for Summit, how important was the technology and platform you selected, versus the process and transition from physical to online?

Riley: It ends up being initially a technology challenge, but then it’s not down the line. There are a lot of platforms out there, but not many people know about virtual platforms because they were running in-person events. The number one difference from being successful and moving an in-person event to a virtual event comes down to the strategy being very specific. One, do you even have a strategy? What are the objectives you want to bring to your CEO so he/she will say, “Yes, let’s do this?”

We know there’s some risk involved, but we want our customers to go and do it. So, I think it’s more strategy-led. Although technology is the solution, a lot of conversations I’ve had with individuals are paralyzed when it comes to creating the strategy. They have trouble knowing what to do, and that has nothing to do with the technology. They just have to understand the objectives of the event.

DGR: Would you say success metrics for virtual events should be different than what you typically look at for physical events?

Riley: Typically, the metrics that we use for success in the virtual space are a little bit differentiated than for in-person events. We look at the duration of content and we look at the duration of the total event. We also look at engagement levels between individuals. We don’t measure that for in-person events per se.

One of the things that we do evaluate differently is our ability to meet the needs of our clients, and whether they are having great experiences. I think the playbook for in-person events has already been written. Right now, the playbook for virtual events is still going through the initial phases and is still being defined.

DGR: Are you already discussing how we can start to plan for physical events in 2021? I’m hearing some people say that they’re likely to move forward with hybrid events — physical and digital. Do you think this will be a component of virtual and digital work?

Riley: Moving forward, it just opens up bigger opportunities for us to offer digital products for events that we haven’t had the ability or maybe the need for. We now have a proven method of executing digital events so I think they’ll stay in our future. These digital events will allow us to reach new regions that we couldn’t, so I do suspect that they will be part of some of our offerings in the future.

I think this is a continuum. I think the current belief is that there’s going to be an elastic band that will spring back to the in-person events of 2019. But that may not be the right view. My perspective is that the market and the industry that we knew in terms of B2B in-person events have changed. I think how attendees consume events have changed. And I can say, based on the consumption of our sessions, the feedback from our clients has been very positive. I do believe that this is going to be a change, as there are always changes in certain industries. I believe that we’re going to learn a lot from this. It’s going to be a continuum. I believe we should take this moment and learn from it. We can’t just expect it to go back to normal. That mindset is going to be a leading strategy for many organizations.

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