COVID fundamentally transformed the event industry. But it’s not too late for CEOs to create a new event engagement strategy for their businesses.
From one CEO to another, let’s get real for a moment—2020 tested all of us, and our businesses. As an event strategist, I saw one group particularly struggle: businesses whose marketing and sales budgets rely primarily on in-person events.
If you fall into that category, how did you respond? Did you sit and wait things out, or did you lean in and learn how to engage digitally?
As 2020 played out, I saw three distinct types of CEO response to the sudden impossibility of in-person events:
1. The Swifties
No, I don’t mean Taylor Swift groupies. Rather, these were CEOs who decided abruptly at the beginning of the pandemic to cancel all their in-person obligations for 2020 and 2021. The Swifties only participated in virtual events when obligated to (e.g., when a sponsorship or partnership was already paid for). They didn’t leverage the emerging virtual landscape, and used most of 2020 to figure out what they were going to do in 2021.
If you’re in this group, you likely missed some real opportunities to grow your business last year. But it isn’t too late to get on the bandwagon for the remainder of 2021. Read on for ideas on how to take the reins and engage proactively in virtual and smaller safe in-person events (this continues to be an evolving topic since vaccine distribution continues to grow steadily each week).
2. The Observers
These CEOs adopted a wait-and-see approach to events during COVID. They stood by until fall before doing any of their own virtual engagement—and often surprised themselves with the success they had. Even though their direction may have been a bit fuzzy at times, they still had a lot more success than failure. In 2021, the Observers are now trying to figure out how to get the same effect but often struggling to tell the story well and figuring out when is the right time to strike; they are still reacting to what the pandemic throws their way,.
Though the Observers fared better than the Swifties, they must also take initiative now to continue their momentum. It isn’t too late for the Observers to pull their digital programs together for the second half of 2021, but they cannot wait much longer.
3. The Innovators
As soon as COVID arrived, the Innovators leaned in, pivoting as fast as they could as soon to reimagine events in a virtual world. They invested just as much in digital engagement as they had planned to invest with in-person events. They weren’t perfect by any means; but they were willing to make mistakes and adapt. These innovators saw larger audiences in 2020 than ever before, and they’re definitely trying to figure out what they want to do next. They are convinced that digital is here to stay, and they’re committed to making the most of the future. (I’ll share a few ideas below on how to do that).
As CEOs, we all need to take control of the narrative around post-COVID changes. We can’t sit and wait for things to go back to where we were in 2019. We must leave that behind and expect that events—as well as all sales and marketing engagement—are forever changed.
Helping to build that new world of engagement right now will pay dividends later, even as more people get on planes to go to live events or drive to a regional smaller event. Events that used to reach hundreds of in-person attendees now have the opportunity to reach thousands virtually now that so many physical boundaries and monetary challenges have been removed. These new-style events also have the opportunity to produce fresh, valuable content that can be leveraged for marketing and social media campaigns.
Whether in-person, hybrid, or 100 percent digital, events are here to stay. Let’s look at a few best practices for executing, sponsoring, and supporting them going forward.
- Use event data to drive decisions. With the rise of virtual events, we now have more accurate data to use in decision making. We know how long an individual stays online for the event, how engaged they are with other attendees, whether they actually looked at the provided files, and much more. Do not waste this valuable data. If your marketing and events team is not collecting, reviewing, and acting on event data, stop what you’re doing and make this an initiative. We share here how to calculate if it is worthwhile for you to sponsor a virtual event.
- Do not skimp on event budgets. Invest in your virtual events just as you would in an in-person event. This is a critical chance to connect with new clientele, to reinforce your brand, and test what you can accomplish with virtual events. Our best clients understand the thought and resources that go into virtual events, and they usually have strong opinions on what they like and don’t like about them.
If this is your first-time budgeting for a virtual event, visit bit.ly/PricingDigitalEvents —you’ll see our first-hand experiences helping clients with this, plus the chance to download a detailed budget comparison with real data. (This is proprietary information, but we’re sharing it with you because it is important for all of us to be able to move beyond this together and having real data will help all of us.)
- Invest time in getting to know your new prospects. This is an obvious point, but I don’t see CEOs and their marketing teams investing enough of the necessary resources to do it right. Let’s say you just received 20 times the attendees at your virtual event than you did at your last in-person conference. What are you going to do with those new contacts? Are you just adding them to your e-newsletter distribution or CRM? That is not effective. There are so many social media platforms out there that you can use to get to know your new contacts, from Instagram to Clubhouse to Twitter to LinkedIn. Find out what they are passionate about and connect with them where they are.
If you are just now pivoting to virtual events, it’s not too late to get a lot out of it. But it will take investment—not just of finances but also of human resources. Attend a few virtual events so you can get a lay of the land and see what’s actually happening outside of your bubble. Soon you will start to understand what a good virtual event looks and feels like compared to a weak one. And if you have limited resources, lean on a trusted agency that knows events and can offer the support you need to engage in a new reality. And as the vaccine continues to grow in distribution in the US, we are predicting smaller regional events to take place later half this year, and then in 2022, larger conferences and trade shows will return with pent up demand.
The best time to pivot on virtual events was the spring of 2020. But the second-best time is now. Take control of the narrative around your events—and be prepared to weather another tumultuous, but opportunity-filled, year.