In-person events are making a comeback. But have we learnt anything over the last two years? While it might be tempting to jump back in with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach, businesses need to firstly take stock of what makes a successful event before making any strategic marketing decisions.
In our latest episode of ‘Seeblue Smarts’, director Orla Murphy was joined by Julia Phillips – entrepreneur, event expert, and owner of Potting Shed Event Academy – to discuss the re-emergence of in-person events and how businesses are responding.
With over 30 years’ experience working in the events industry, across B2B, B2C and the Third sector, Julia also provided us with her expert insight into how the global pandemic may have forever changed the modern landscape of event marketing.
Event strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic
Sectors such as advertising and events are no stranger to tough times – traditionally though, these tough times have come during a recession.
Prior to any recession, there are generally signs that indicate what is to come. During this time, organisations begin considering a gentle ‘tightening of the belt’ as marketing budgets are squeezed. Decision-makers also start questioning where they’re putting their money in terms of their strategic investments.
The COVID-19 pandemic however, was the first real global experience where things literally “fell off a cliff”, according to Julia.
“We went from one week thinking that we were going to be running large events in the upcoming months to absolutely stopping dead – literally dead in the water, so to speak.”
Following this came a sudden rise in virtual event experiences, as businesses reacted to the new environment. Without any dedicated virtual strategy to refer to though, Julia believes this initial change was akin to applying a “sticking plaster” to the situation.
“…for the first 6 to 12 months of the pandemic, virtual events were essentially a little ‘do’. [Clients] just needed to get their message out there, and we just needed to find a way of adapting to the situation.”
Originally a reactive measure for most, the virtual world is here to stay. And it’s a key influencer in how brands and marketers approach their event strategy in this post-pandemic era.
Although the pandemic is generally seen as a ‘black swan event’, Julia sees some similarities with previous global recessions; “…we’ve seen this happen time and time again, where we almost hit the reset button.”
Reflecting on this point by looking back to the time just before the last recession, ‘bigger’ was seen as ‘better’ by many businesses when it came to their events. Across various industries, businesses looked to organise exclusive Expos with expensive gifts as an attempt to stand above the competition.
Immediately following the 2011 recession however, the events industry was forced ‘reset’ itself as these same businesses looked to limit their spending.
It’s this industry reset that has also presented an opportunity to embrace new ideas and new ways of working following the pandemic.
“Now, event marketeers get to look not only at this historic data, but at an almost clean, blank sheet of paper and say, “Okay, who is our ideal customer? How do they behave? How are we going to speak to them?” – and it may not be in the traditional event format.” remarked Julia.
A fresh start for event marketing?
Once one of the biggest challenges back at the beginning of the pandemic, the hosting of virtual events and conferences has now become far more flexible and user-friendly. Despite this, the potential for the dreaded ‘Zoom fatigue’ is still very much present. It can be a factor in why many businesses are rushing to go back to more traditional offline events.
As ‘in-person’ events return, is it a good idea for organisations to get back to ‘business as usual’ when it comes to their marketing strategies?
Instead of making the choice only between virtual or in-person events, Julia believes that things aren’t so simple.
“I think there is real desire to get back out there to begin networking and meeting up. I see that this is going to create a bit of a booming industry short term, but with a caveat; I think people now really question how they spend their time….it’s very unpredictable in terms of hosting an event.”
“There’s this really interesting moment now where it’s very unpredictable in terms of when you host an event.”
In the post-pandemic landscape, organisations need to understand that unpredictability and uncertainty remain a contender to battle. However, firms need to act strategically and integrate virtual and hybrid, large and small-form events into their core marketing strategy. Why? To give them a better chance of making the biggest impact and connection with their target audiences.
This more ‘holistic’ view not only improves efficiency but elevates the role of events within the customer buying journey
How can businesses better-adapt their strategies moving forward?
Despite the negative effects on businesses, the last two years have also forced a step change in how businesses manage their events. This change has provided a unique opportunity for new ideas and new ways of working.
According to Julia, to capitalise on these new opportunities, businesses should keep three key points in mind when adapting an end-to-end marketing strategy:
1. Be clear on your objectives
What are you trying to achieve by running an event? Whether it’s virtual, hybrid, or in-person, your series of events should always educate, communicate, and motivate – as long as it considers those three points, you know it has value. Don’t forget to plan for what happens afterwards, and always have a clear post-event follow-up plan.
2. See events as part of the solution
Remember that events should be part of the overall marketing strategy, and not as a siloed component. Think about the format of events for each of your target audiences. For example, a deeply technical audience will likely want to get hands-on with your product. However, a C-level will prefer a more exclusive, informal environment to learn from their peers and meet your company executives.
3. Be clear on measurements, and be honest about feedback
How are you going to measure what an event does? We’ve (hopefully) moved past the days of seeing events as an opportunity to scan badges. We’re also past running booth competitions to gather email addresses. No more clogging up our CRMs with rubbish data! Carefully planning and being proactive about who you want to inform, invite and engage with at events will give you the right starting point.
But let’s be honest, even with the best planning, the way that people want to spend their time has changed. With hybrid working, people will make personal decisions about whether they travel to an event or not. We’re not going to get everything right, but as we gather more data over the next 6-18 months, we will learn more about what people want and the event strategies that work.
Hear the full discussion with Julia Phillips live on our ‘Seeblue Smarts’ podcast series.
Seeblue Marketing is a specialist marketing consultancy for tech sector businesses. We are a team of specialists with over 40 years of direct experience driving growth in world-class blue-chip companies. We now apply our knowledge and deep understanding of B2B marketing to working with SME’s and scaling technology businesses.