Four Ways Our New Normal May Change Business Events Forever

The new normal for events is digital. For companies that were already well down the path of their digital transformation, adapting quickly was within reach. For others, such as O’Reilly Media, it was time to get out of events and cut losses. Those events that were able to pivot showed remarkable agility, and in just one month, they’ve shown us a path forward.

Four shifts in their planning and execution made the difference:

1. They repackaged content to meet their viewers’ new perspective.

Imagine sitting in your home office watching an hour-long panel — not fun. In just 10 days, Salesforce transformed its Sydney World Tour, an in-person event for 10,000, into a virtual event. It engaged more than 1.5 million viewers and maintained engagement by shifting major aspects to suit participants’ new circumstances: cutting session times from an hour to 30 minutes and filling dead time on the screen between sessions by hiring an emcee/commentator to keep the conversation stimulating.

2. They reconfigured the breadth of coverage and/or length of the event.

Week-long events were compressed into a day or two, and multi-track mega events were streamlined into single-track experiences for a few reasons. First, only a certain amount of content can be adapted from live to virtual in a limited amount of time — and it’s too expensive to livestream every session — so a narrower focus was crucial. Second, this focus was appropriate for audience members who are likely still maintaining their regular workload (or more) from home. They are more likely to make time for a single track of relevant content.

On the flip side, conferences such as Social Media Week slimmed down content only somewhat, hoping that spreading out sessions over a month’s time would give more people the opportunity to participate. “We imagine attendees will be multitasking and scheduling #SMWONE sessions around their daily schedule,” said Toby Daniels, CEO of Social Media Week.

3. They brought the event experience directly to audiences in new ways.

Pre-COVID, Google was organizing “extended events” for its large conferences. These extensions basically worked like streaming parties for people who couldn’t attend the live event. This practice was quickly adopted by other events during our new normal, giving the option for an attendee within a company to be the point person for setting up a Zoom-like group focused on certain sessions, based on business vertical, industry, product line, or audience type.

Several businesses have also begun sending direct mail reminders of upcoming events, with tips on how to get more out of the newly formatted event. Mail freshens the experience. Nick Runyon, CMO of PFL, a tactile automation company, told me:

4. They proactively assign staff to spark conversation or guide attendees

Events are for networking, and when your attendees can’t do the legwork, successful event planners trained staff and assigned them to ensure that attendees would connect with like-minded peers. On a larger scale, virtual events used chat, sprinkled with conversation starters by staff members — as well as statistics and other information — to enhance what’s happening during and between each session. (The same concept is happening in group viewing sessions of popular TV shows, for example.)

Imagining the Path to Next Normal

We don’t have a clear picture of what the future will look like, but large live events are costly, and if audiences become accustomed to attending online, justifying the expense of a physical event will become increasingly difficult. We also know that budgets will be suppressed from all sides for some time, and travel, both domestic and international, will be one of the last sectors to return to the level of activity seen pre-COVID. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that we can expect fewer events in the near term.

That said, not all events are going to be affected the same way. I expect a greater contraction in brand events, like MozCon and Adobe Experience, because these are marketing events designed to drive revenue. In a contracted market, brands are likely to put marketing dollars where they serve goals best, and if that isn’t an event, it won’t happen.

To avoid shuttering an event altogether, some may merge. There was a lot of overlap in the marketplace anyway, and joining forces might be the best way to maintain continuity. Longer term, I expect the number of events to gradually build to the prior state, as businesses begin to open up spending and travel, but this will likely take years, not months.

Four Things That We’ll Likely See in the Next Normal

  1. Hybrid Events and Multi-Tiered Pricing Models

Events in the future will more often be a hybrid: an in-person experience with a digital twin. Many brands would already be offering this option, but the time and cost of producing the concurrent digital event was prohibitive. Now that they’ve been forced to do it, they’ll only develop their innovations further.

Hybrid events will also open up hybrid pricing, offering different levels of value. Many events have been doing this for a while, but I expect it to be standard in the next normal, with in-person events becoming exclusive (attendees may even need to apply for spots) and digital events being open to all. Thus we can expect an in-person price, a digital-only price, and a price to access recordings post-event. We may even see a syndication network that allows events to stream their digital content directly to learning networks, creating a “Netflix” of event content and keynote addresses.

2. Distributed & Deconstructed Events

Just as people expect to see an increase in working from home in the next normal, I expect that many more brands will produce distributed events that deliver sessions as “viewing parties.” For events that are third-party and industry-specific, I expect that they, too, will be deconstructed into smaller bite-size events, held more frequently over a longer period of time, like Social Media Week is doing now. These smaller events can be more targeted to the needs of attendees and thus provide greater value to them and to sponsors, while their increased frequency provides a more sustainable revenue stream. (When physical events return, these digital revenue streams could remain, creating significant secondary revenue.)

3. New Ways To Make Connections

In the next normal, event emcees and chat streaming will become more sophisticated in distributed events, and technology will likely play a greater role in helping attendees make important connections. I’ve been watching Braindate for a while and love the way it helps people easily find and connect with others interested in the same specific topics or issues.

I also expect more connections to happen pre- and post-event. Event producers like TechCrunch have been using tools like Brella.io to help connect attendees more efficiently by informing attendees who else will be there and even helping to schedule meetings in advance of the event. For many attendees and sponsors, a single meeting at an event can make it worth the price tag, and tools like these help ensure those connections happen.

Connecting sponsors with events will also become more technology-driven. Circleup has already been reimagining ways to connect sponsors with brands by allowing the sponsors to deliver five-minute elevator pitches to 20 invited brands via Zoom.

4. A Different Role For Sponsors

Marketing events are put on to promote a brand and generate revenue through increased sales. Sponsors are there to help offset costs. If events shift heavily toward digital distribution, the cost will go down, and fewer sponsors will be needed.

For industry events where revenue comes from ticket sales, we may see the opposite effect. If ticket revenue is down, those events will need to increase sponsorship to offset lower ticket sales. I foresee a lot of innovation focused on incentivizing sponsors to invest in a down market.

There’s no question, our new normal is still unfolding. With a list of canceled events a mile long, and the fate of many major conferences like SXSW on the ropes, the event industry is currently in survival mode. But the brands that have made these amazing adaptations provide a silver lining. What they are doing now will reshape how we meet and share our knowledge and influence. I believe the next normal for events will provide new revenue streams, better experiences, and ultimately better events that create greater value for everyone involved.

Director of Market Strategy @Salesforce, Author of The Context Marketing Revolution (HBR 20), and contributor to Forbes, AdAge. Covering the Future of Marketing

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