With in-person events still a distant memory for most of us, Kim Darling, Executive Producer of HubSpot’s INBOUND, argues that B2B events as we know them might have changed for good in this opinion piece.
Farewell lanyards, business cards, and branded pens. It’ll be some time before any of us get our hands on these souvenirs of in-person events again. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform the way we work, buy, sell, socialise, and entertain ourselves, the global events industry is facing its biggest ever challenge.
But the truth is, the B2B events industry has been in desperate need of a shake-up for years.
The Problem With B2B Events
As other types of events have innovated and modernised, the B2B industry has failed to think beyond the high-cost, low-value world of corporate conferences at cold convention centers.
Since March, the world’s most popular musicians have been performing directly from their living rooms into ours. Art galleries have been engaging with audiences in new, innovative ways. Platforms like Instagram’s Live have made way for entirely new online communities. Meanwhile, most B2B companies have been caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights when confronted with the challenge of staging an event in the digital-first world.
They have the technology. They have talented teams. But what’s missing — and has been missing for a long time now — is a forward-thinking vision for what role events can play in a modern marketing mix.
For years, the B2B industry has viewed events exclusively as a place to close deals. In-person gatherings are considered nothing more than an opportunity for salespeople to look a prospect in the eye, make some small talk about the food truck options, and secure that agreement that’s been months in the making. The bright lights, big-name speakers, and photo booths are there to create deals for companies, not delight for customers. If an attendee has a great time, it’s a bonus, not a top priority.
At a time when customers are craving a stronger sense of connection with the businesses they support, events can be a company’s greatest tool in fostering a feeling of community. It’s an opportunity that has been missed by B2B companies for years prior to the pandemic and is destined to be missed again and again after the pandemic has passed. As businesses are forced to confront their events strategy — or lack thereof — and create a vision for the future, many are planning to merely replicate their in-person experience online. And it’s an approach that simply won’t work.
When staging an event in the digital-first era, businesses can’t rely on the flashy screens, big-budget installations, and spine-tingling sound systems they’ve used for years to command their attendees’ attention at in-person gatherings. What’s more, they have to compete with an infinite supply of alternative options, including Netflix, Instagram, and YouTube, all of which are only ever a click away for an attendee.
To have any chance of wrestling an audience’s attention away from these channels, event producers must learn to think like them. We had to tackle the challenge head on.
Standing Out from the Crowd
When my team and I first recognised that our annual event INBOUND would be fully moving online in 2020, we didn’t look to other virtual events for inspiration. We observed the work of our favourite TV producers for ideas on how to tell compelling stories via a screen. We turned to social media experts for strategies for connecting with audiences, not only during an event, but before and afterwards too. And we studied the ways music festivals like Glastonbury to Burning Man create an overwhelming sense of FOMO every year. Here are some of the takeaways:
- Audience at the heart — Ever since we hosted our first event in 2012, it’s been our philosophy at INBOUND to challenge the status quo, take the risks needed to push boundaries, and make the audience our number one priority. We didn’t want our attendees to be outside observers passively peering through a screen from far-flung places with the new format. We wanted them to be active participants in a global gathering that’s built to inspire them to shape the future of their companies, careers, and communities.
- Get creative with content — This year we introduced a wide range of content types — from education sessions to audio-only mindfulness sessions — many of which would not have been possible at an in-person gathering. And because all talks were available on demand, attendees didn’t have to worry about schedule clashes or session fatigue, which can get in the way of taking full advantage of all of the information, insights, and inspiration on offer. We also built a custom meetup tool, allowing attendees to connect with fellow attendees through video call or live chat.
- Diversify the audience — As a digital-first event, INBOUND 2020 hosted guests from all over the world. To enhance the experience of our non-English-speaking guests, we offered a range of spotlight talks and breakout sessions with French and German subtitles. Meanwhile, all of the talks delivered had English subtitles to better enable accessibility for everyone.
COVID-19: A Catalyst for Change
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for urgent change in the B2B events industry. Gone are the days of big-budget mass gatherings at which closing deals is a priority and delighting attendees is an afterthought. There’s a new era of events is about to begin, and the gatherings that are able to create a deep sense of belonging for attendees are the ones that will rise to the top in the digital-first world.
The very essence of what it means to host a large in-person gathering has changed, and while the future of the industry remains unclear, one thing is certain: there will be no going back to the way things were. And I, for one, celebrate that fact.
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