Like many leaders, I was searching for answers about how to deal with the cancellation of every major physical event in our marketing plan. I decided to tap into a great network called AnyExcuse, a 15 year old group of more than 300 senior marketing executives in the greater Boston area. I hosted a virtual forum this week with 40 marketing execs from AnyExcuse and we discussed how they are dealing with the transition to digital events. This is what I learned.
The name AnyExcuse is short for “any excuse for a drink,” homage to the original purpose of the networking group. When the group started in the early 2000s (I found emails going back to 2005, but it may have started earlier), it was primarily an in-person group that would get together about once a quarter at a local watering hole to network, kibitz, look for a great new hire, or a great new job. The group eventually moved to a mostly online discussion with a simple email listserv. The value isn’t the technology, it is the ability to tap into the hive-mind of great marketers who genuinely want to help each other.
It all started with Brian Kardon
In the early days of COVID-19, a discussion quickly started on the topic of digitizing events, and I recommended that we get together in our own virtual AnyExcuse event. Around the same time, one of the long time members of the group, Brian Kardon, the CMO of InVision, wrote a fantastic LinkedIn article about his experience moving their in-person sales and marketing kickoff meeting to a virtual event a week before it happened.
We decided to use Brian’s experience as the jumping off point for a discussion, scheduled a Zoom call for anyone who was around, and was thrilled to have 40 senior marketing execs show up for the call and actively participate and share ideas.
Setting up the discussion with some data
One of the advantages of holding a digital event is the ability to easily poll your audience. We started our session by gathering some data about the audience and their current situation with events.
Because this group is based in Boston, many of the companies sell products to businesses vs. directly to consumers. We surveyed participants on the call and all of them sold to business (while a few of them also sold to consumers).
Because of the focus on selling to businesses, 69% of the attendees spent more than 20% of their annual budgets on physical events and 24% of them spent more than 50% on physical events. Why is this the case? Marketers of products and services to business often use an event-focused strategy, especially if the products involve a longer consideration cycle where in-person interaction with new prospects is valuable.
Not surprisingly, most of them have already canceled events
Based on the audience, I wasn’t surprised to hear than many of them had already cancelled events. In some cases, these were events that the companies were hosting themselves, including seminars, customer conferences, and workshops. In other cases, the events were large trade shows and industry events that were canceled by the sponsoring companies, or due to local government restrictions.
Most of the budgets will shift to digital
Because this is all still new, not everyone knows how they will adjust their plans at this point. About 17% of the audience didn’t know yet, and 8.6% indicated that they would simply cancel and not use the unspent budget, more than two thirds of the audience plans to shift the budget to digital or other channels.
We also had some discussion about holding back some of the savings. Several people assumed that they would be asked to trim their spending anyway based on expected softness in their business, so they were planning to hold some of the budget in reserve.
What did we learn from this esteemed group?
After framing the discussion with the InVision case study, we had a spirited discussion about digital events. Here are some of the key things that we learned:
- Change is coming - and accelerating. As the data shows, most people have canceled events - and many more cancelations are coming. We need to get ready for it.
- It’s time to get good at agile marketing planning. Because our plans are going to keep changing, we better improve our skills in the area of agile planning. I recently created a video to show you how to use Plannuh for contingency planning. If you haven’t done so yet, make sure you set up a demo of Plannuh so we can help you manage through this change.
- Innovation is happening. There are some really creative things happening in response to all these changes. A great example comes from Pendo, a product development platform. Pendo’s CMO, Joe Chernov, was planning to attend SaaStr, a huge event in the SaaS software business and they canceled. Joe quickly brought together about 30 vendors who were planning to make announcements at SaaStr and arranged a speed-dating digital conference to share the news they were planning to announce.
- Mimic in-person experiences and augment with digital capabilities. The InVision team created digital versions of in-person elements of their invent, including an awards night, main tent and breakout presentations, and bumper videos for presenters. But they also leveraged some of the compelling things you can do with digital experiences, like interactive feedback, chat streams, and their own version of Cribs where their employees did tours of their home offices.
- It takes pros to make it work. The InVision team had stage managers on call via Slack, and a ton of planning still went into the event. It was also clear that there is a coming talent gap - most event planners are really great at physical experiences, but far fewer have deep experience in the digital world. Sounds like an opportunity for some cross training. Some features like video are quite tricky to get to work in a digital event - and not all the web conferencing platforms are equally good at video.
- Video quality is important, but audio quality is king. Participants can deal with fuzzy video, but when audio breaks up, it is much more distracting. Even though your laptop has a pretty decent mic in it, invest in a higher quality microphone like a Yeti to create a more pleasing experience.
- The economics are in favor of digital, but that doesn’t mean you should spend nothing. Digital events are obviously less expensive than physical ones, not only because of space rental and physical production, but also because of travel, meals, and lost productivity. That doesn’t mean that you should spend as little as possible on your digital event. With some of your savings, you could develop some great content, hire a digital producer, or even hire a speaker.
- There will be more competition for digital attendees. We all agreed that the number of digital events is about to dramatically increase. You will need to get really good at developing compelling, differentiated content if you want to attract a good audience.
- You can reuse and recycle your digital events. A huge benefit of digital events is the ability to re-use the content for other purposes. If you create great content in your events, it is easy to edit it down for other applications, including web assets, sales development tools, and even new employee training.
- Expand your audience with digital. While many B2B marketers rely on physical events, they are significantly limiting their audience if they rely only on in-person experiences. If they expand access to remote participants, they will be able to reach a much broader audience.
- Nobody has had a great experience with virtual trade shows - are we missing something? We all have used platforms like Zoom, ON24, and Webex for virtual events, but nobody had experienced a compelling virtual trade show. We looked at the handy CabinetM list of virtual platform providers, and it still didn’t jog our memories.
- Use the MasterClass or Cameo playbook to bring in high-end talent. If you want to attract a high end audience, you need to find the right kind of content. Think of the quality of content presenters on Masterclass and mix that with the personalized experience from Cameo, and I think you could attract a great audience.
The final lesson? Use digital events to leverage your networks and connect to your community.
Perhaps the most important lesson we learned was the value of a connected community. We are all dealing with the uncertainty of a global pandemic and the collateral economic challenges. With many of your colleagues working from home now, it is a good time to reach out and stay connected to your networks.