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Digital First: Taking a new approach to events

June 25, 2021


By Beau Ballin
Commercial Leader, Americas, CWT Meetings & Events

Photo: Sam McGhee

After an extraordinary year (for all the wrong reasons) event producers, planners and marketers are more than excited to get back to “normal”. But leading organizations are seeking something better than normal. For meetings and events professionals, the secret to improvement will be found in embracing a digital-first world.

So, what exactly does it mean to “embrace a digital-first” approach? It means, that as we return to live events, the digital experience isn’t an afterthought but rather the first thing to consider. If you think back to March 2020 when the pandemic first took hold, event organizers across the globe were caught flat footed in the face of their event cancellations. Planners who had spent months—or in some cases years—planning every detail of the event experience were suddenly faced with the reality that a live event was impossible, and they had only weeks to adapt. Many were forced to cancel their events and incurred massive financial losses. Others realized quickly, that without prior planning, the transition to virtual was a significant challenge and they struggled to adapt. We are long past those early days of the pandemic, but we can’t forget the lessons learned. So what have we learned?

Virtual events will become a mainstay, and they are evolving rapidly

Virtual event platforms have existed for over a decade, but for a litany of reasons they had largely failed to achieve mass adoption. The pandemic, however, created an overnight demand for technology that replicated the live event experience. The result was an emergence of new virtual event providers coupled with planners who were laser focused on delivering creative, compelling and engaging content. Over the last fourteen months, virtual events have evolved from simple webcasts to television production quality experiences. This isn’t a passing trend. Continued investment and commitment to virtual events is being driven by a slower than expected recovery, continued uncertainty about the ability to gather large audiences and an understanding that some attendees simply aren’t willing to travel. Planners are coming to terms with this reality and at the very least adopting a hybrid strategy. In a recent pulse survey by NorthStar Meetings Group, more than half of respondents (54 percent) are now planning meetings with both online and in-person components or planning to do so, up from 48 percent in January.

Digital communication extends the life of events and expand communities 

Planners aren’t shifting to a hybrid strategy just because of the uncertainty surrounding live events, but rather because they understand the benefits of adopting a digital communications strategy. Virtual and hybrid events allow event organizers to expand their audience beyond those who can attend in person, measure every touchpoint of the experience and create a portal of content that lives beyond the live event dates. In particular, the idea that a virtual event platform becomes a venue that attendees can revisit, consume content and network with others has infinite value. These digital venues, unlike their physical counterparts are data rich. They allow the ability to track where attendees spend their time, who they visit, what they learn and how they want to interact with your brand. This new data is bringing planners and marketers together and the result is more meaningful events with a greater return on investment.

Data underpins and drives event strategy for live, virtual and hybrid events

Results matter. For years planners have relied on post-event surveys to gauge the overall effectiveness of their events. At the most basic level these surveys captured satisfaction with the destination, quality of food and beverage and the relevance of the entertainment or presenters. The emergence of mobile applications and RFID technology then provided additional insight into where people spent their time and allowed for some instant feedback. Today's omnichannel event experience allows for the broadest set of data we could ask for. With a mix of online and offline attendance data we can begin to quantify the expense of each attendee experience and compare the post event value of each attendee. We can evaluate website clicks, visits, viewership and interactions to determine the effectiveness of our social media and web-based event campaigns. We have lead generation capability and measurement tools that allow for the identification of buying signals and the ability to market to attendees before, during and after the event. With an understanding of both the costs of the event and the value of attendance planners can deliver a real ROI and work to enhance their future event strategy.

It will take time for the events industry to fully recover, but as we move forward into 2022, we will collectively be able to deliver events that are “better than normal”. Hybrid events and livestreams will be commonplace, planners will be required to develop new skillsets in event marketing and businesses will benefit from the most innovation our industry has seen in the most compressed time period imaginable. Meetings will be redefined and better with a digital-first approach.

A version of this article was originally published on  Successful Meetings.