COVID-19 caught the world by surprise, forcing countries to close down industry, severely limit travel, and make a host of changes they never could have foreseen. These choices will be studied, second-guessed, and scrutinized for many years. We may never see a clear picture on which decisions were incontestably correct and which were undeniably wrong. But there is one reaction, specifically in the B2B events world, that I think needs to be reviewed now, before it is too late.
We need to take a close look at the snap decision made by many companies to pivot from face-to-face events to virtual - and delivering what was historically highly-valued, paid event content to their audiences for free. I understand that when a company is under crazy pressure, decisions must be made quickly. However, by instantly delivering valuable content at no cost, which has traditionally been the backbone of most events’ value proposition, did we just inadvertently alter our future?
In the B2B events world, we typically utilize a three-pronged value proposition:
- The value of the content and learning attendees receive
- The value of networking with like-minded individuals and industry peers
- The value of fun or entertainment attendees look forward to at conferences
Each piece of the value proposition holds different weight for different people, according to their individual needs and preferences. These three points have been the foundation of how events are sold and marketed.
Inadvertently Setting New Standards
Giving away one of those key value points may have changed the way we will need to promote conferences in the future. Now that this precedent has been set, the value of event content has been altered as we move forward. We need to consider attendees’ new expectations and preferences; within that understanding lies great opportunity. Getting clarity on what people are willing to pay for may help widen our audiences. Offering hybrid approaches can allow us to cater to both the in-person and the virtual attendee.
Moving Forward Post-Pandemic
Below are a couple of options for potential paths forward and questions we should all consider.
First, the most obvious tactic for us as event producers is to reevaluate our perceptions around the weight of the value proposition. Content and learning may remain a staple of these types of events and are frequently used as justification for attendance. But are the networking opportunities and fun aspects of conferences what really drive people to attend? If this could be the case, will we likely need to change our marketing approaches to appeal more to our audiences’ interests? I would say, “Absolutely yes.”
Second, with content delivery methods continuing to evolve and improve (as a byproduct of the forced virtual experience), we should examine the need to rebalance time allotted for networking versus the hours spent in traditional learning sessions. There may also be a need to redefine the payment structure for activities at conferences. Should we be charging for peer-to-peer interactions, hands-on workshops, networking, and “edutainment” activities, while general educational sessions are offered for free?
If this seems counterintuitive to you, I challenge you to think about why the industry was so quick to give content away. Could it have been due to fear that no one would attend virtual events or watch online content? If that’s the case, it’s really the content value that is being questioned. The conversations we should be having as event professionals need to be improvement focused in order to create success on the other side of this incredibly difficult time.
Over the next several months as we discover our new normal, I don’t think our attendees and buyers will revolt against the traditional conference approach. People tend to forget things quickly, reverting to how they did them in the past, which is why habits are so hard to change. I also suspect that approving managers will not be interested in allocating precious budget dollars to attend a conference focused on fun. However, if we want to motivate people to come back to events, we really need to spend time understanding what truly motivates our attendees. I hope that our industry will fully investigate why we reacted the way that we did, what the repercussions may be, and, most importantly, what changes should be made to ensure that we learn from this hardship. We can let the future show us if we made the right decisions or not. Check what you relied on as precedent at the door for at least the next 12 months.