Marketing leaders discussed the emergence of virtual and hybrid marketing events, the difficulties they are currently facing, how small-scale virtual events have affected marketing strategies, and how digital tools can help upscale these in-person events and campaigns on March 17, 2022, in an exclusive invite-only virtual roundtable.
In the past two years, organizations have seen marketing events move from gigantic conference rooms and expo halls to the living room and home office. While physical events are a welcome return for both hosts and attendees, marketers have realized that there is a place for virtual and hybrid events.
With the experience gained from the rapid adoption of technology, marketers are now empowered to experiment with their initiatives further. The efficacy of small-scale events has already been realized, and now, it is time to scale and innovate. Moving forward, the key to maximizing results lies in fine-tuning the process and enhancing the experience.
- What challenges and opportunities did marketers face in the last two years? How have they pivoted?
- How has the emergence of small-scale, virtual events affected marketing practices? Is this the future?
- How can emerging digital capabilities and tools supplement future in-person events and campaigns?
As global conditions forced companies to move to digital in the last two years, marketers had to reevaluate their approach to events, small and large, physical and virtual. Competition is still there, but it has taken a new shape, and breaking through the noise has become more difficult. Faced with new challenges, marketing leaders have been able to pivot and experiment to find new ways to drive their organizations towards success, but the journey continues.
Challenges and opportunities
Companies now recognize UX and CX as the deciding factors between standing out and fading into obscurity. “The challenge is in earning that click on your website,” said a senior decision-maker. With customers being constantly bombarded with countless products and services, the separation between companies is a matter of inches, not feet. Market saturation has resulted in companies scaling back on their reach and hyper-focusing on smaller niches. One executive said, “While we used to shoot for larger audiences, smaller audiences have become more valuable.”
“Email blasts have been, for the most part, one of the most ineffective tools in the last couple of years.”
Content remains king and where a bulk of the personalization comes in the new, digitally reliant norm. With audiences facing limitless options and distractions, marketers must capture the attention of their audience as quickly as possible, or else they risk losing potential customers. “Every brand and every company has to become a content creator to be viable during the pandemic,” shared a marketing leader. Content tailored to a small target audience has become vital as companies have shifted focus from quantity to quality.
This is especially important as most of the sales funnel human interactions have been replaced with landing pages, emails, and AI. Without targeted content, customers would be hard-pressed to find the motivation to commit to any one brand.
With the emergence of AI also comes a need for balance. At what point does personalization supersede efficiency in a company’s list of priorities? The answer varies from organization to organization, but the need for that equilibrium is ever-present. In many cases, especially for digital-native companies, the support team representatives are the only sources of human interaction in the funnel. “Technology is there to augment the human agent,” said an executive. “Use AI to engage and reengage with people better.” The significance of that human touch is not lost on marketers, but finding that delicate is a tough task.
The last two years of on-and-off isolation and limited logistics have hampered marketing efforts and taken go-to tactics off the table. Customer expectations have also undergone a significant transformation, compounding the issue. “There’s been a shift in eCommerce, even on the B2B side. People are looking for that sleeker B2C look and feel,” shared a marketing leader. “There’s a focus on what they’re experiencing in their personal time. They’re not leaving those expectations at home when they clock into their 9-to-5.” The blurring of the line between B2C and B2B has resulted in marketing and sales tactics taking on new forms. With the online space becoming increasingly crowded and hyper-focused marketing requiring a more methodical and measured approach, companies have turned their attention to enriching their existing client bases with upselling, cross-selling, and enhanced relationship management.
“Your industry determines the future of events, big or small.Your audience determines it, too.”
Marketers are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to outreach methodology. In an effort to incorporate B2C principles into B2B practices, they have adopted a more human-centric approach. Tactics like inserting emojis into subject lines and keeping emails as short as possible have led to conversion rates steadily increasing. Loaded calendars and inboxes filled to the brim are par for the course among C-suite executives, and marketers are leveraging the eye-catching pops of color that emojis provide and the efficiency of concise correspondence to drive results.
The utilization of social media, previously seen as a primarily B2C tool, has been key to renewed marketing efforts. From a business perspective, companies have been leveraging paid socials and seeing a great increase in traction. From the individual marketing professional standpoint, LinkedIn has been a core element of their strategy. They have gone beyond just staying active on LinkedIn to building robust profiles on the platform in order to showcase their ability and maximize their professional appeal. “Get the education, and market yourself,” said an executive. “Keep the LinkedIn profile updated so that the personal brand is out there,” chimed in another executive.
The increased use of social media is just one of the many initiatives that marketers have adopted as they move away from the tried but no longer true practice of conducting email blasts. One decision-maker shared, “Email blasts have been, for the most part, one of the most ineffective tools in the last couple of years. This used to be very different in the years before that.” Constant reinvention is needed to retain audiences’ attention, which has led to companies exploring webinars, podcasts, and other visually driven mediums to capture their target. One such format stands out — the small-scale virtual event.
With the emergence of small-scale, virtual events, “Engagement is at least a hundred times better in a small setting,” stated a senior executive. The nature of small-scale events has been ideal for marketers looking to reach their target audience and compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction. With a focus on niche discussions, companies are trading in broad, all-encompassing marketing for a targeted approach that attracts the right people with the right topic. “These smaller audiences that are engaged bring in higher value.” A decrease in attendees also enables a greater level of interaction and engagement from an individual’s perspective. This type of event, by virtue of its exclusivity and size, creates a naturally intimate setting conducive to open discourse and participation.
Beyond immediate sales, companies use these events to establish influence and enhance their reputation. Recognizing that each attendee is an influencer in their own right, companies have their events act as a catalyst to reach beyond their guest list. “Every B2B company, at the core, wants to establish itself as a thought leader in the industry,” shared an executive. “That’s how you generate all the business. Small selling, in my view, is the future.”
What does this mean for large-scale events? While smaller events have established their place in the marketer’s playbook, the future of larger events is still up in the air as their efficacy largely depends on each company’s drivers and target market. “The outcome of big or small events are driven not just by the business strategy but how the CMO views it and what the growth goals are,” shared an executive.
Some organizations are committing to small-scale events as they redirect resources from large-scale event budgets. An executive said, “I would most likely push for lowering budgets for those massive events as we attend less and less, and I would really push for those small settings and bring in stakeholders who are interested and can actually provide value to the discussion.” On the other hand, quantity-driven organizations are going all-in on large-scale events, pulling out all the stops to get as much traffic as possible. “I’m doubling down on everything. I’ve got a bunch of different tricks up my sleeve to get people to come to our booth,” said another executive. “Every sponsorship I’m turning into a demand generation channel to drive booth traffic digitally.” Different audiences require different events, and smaller settings are typically reserved for those in the C-suite. “Your industry determines the future of events, big or small. Your audience determines it, too.”
Not just a matter of small vs. large, whether virtual, physical, or even hybrid, being the future is also yet to be determined. A case can be made for each, but outcomes and experiences, again, largely vary from company to company.
A common concern with virtual settings is the lack of personal touch. While it may be easier to gather folks from different regions and companies in one video conference compared to a conference hall, nothing can quite substitute the experience of rubbing elbows with your peers, figuratively and literally. “There are a lot of different things that have to align, and it’s really hard to identify that in a virtual context,” lamented an executive. “It’s hard enough to form partnerships without it being too transactional, and not having in-person contact makes it a lot harder.” Even when peers gather in an online environment to discuss a shared perspective, the fact remains that they are alone in front of a computer screen. One way companies look to offset this challenge is by offloading personalization to the follow-ups stage. Showing potential clients and partners that they, specifically, are recognized goes a long way in helping them feel connected with and cared for by their provider.
An issue that persists from the everyday consumer to big corporations is the volatility of technology and the internet. While digital provides companies with amazing tools, they can sometimes be finicky or unusable. “The virtual conference and hybrid event softwares were quick to come to market but not necessarily able to ramp to the experiences that we know and love from in-person events,” said an executive.
Whether a company is going all-in or investing little by little, small-scale virtual events, have proven their value in marketing. The ability to connect with a wide assortment of leaders from different regions and industries is indispensable. “I think there’s a huge value in people hearing from their peers. It gets them thinking and engaged. It gets them thinking from a different perspective,” stated one executive. Large events may not be going anywhere for the time being, but some marketers see small-scale as the future. “While there will still be large events, my investment in them will be somewhat minimal. We’ll be looking instead at creative strategies to gain mindshare and open conversations with people.”
A digital future
Digital transformation is only beginning in the events space. Marketers are looking to leverage advanced and real-time data collection to augment events and facilitate deeper, more fruitful connections. “Whether it’s digital or in-person, doing your homework and doing your due diligence to the level of personalization, I think, is key,” advised a senior executive.
The cost-effective benefit of digital mediums also cannot be ignored. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a five-star meal or trade show booth, companies now have the luxury of moving their initiatives online for a much more budget-friendly approach. “If I don’t have the budget to go to a trade show, but I know all my competitors are going to be there, and I know my prospects are going to be there, I can still have a digital presence without having to purchase a $20,000-square on an exhibit floor.”
Leveraging virtual means also helps companies deal with blurring lines between B2B and B2C. Customers are largely moving online in the B2C space, and they like what they are seeing. So, it is only natural that they expect the same from their B2B counterparts. One executive said, “The people you are marketing to in the B2B space are people too, so treat them as such.” From adopting a light-hearted tone in outreach to using entertainment to garner attention, marketers are openly embracing the homogenization of market expectations. With global conditions stabilizing but the future still uncertain, it is on marketers to continually find ways to pivot and drive growth and innovation within their organizations.