For those in the back who couldn’t hear, the silver lining of the COVID pandemic has been *that buzzword we all hate that starts with inno*. For the last year, I couldn't unlock my phone without a virtual event invite popping up. My favorite restaurant in Austin, Comedor, let you order an ingredients kit, then watch a live tutorial with their chef as you learn to put it together. Virtual conferences are helping you happy hour by sending cocktail mix kits to your home. Name an actor or musician who isn’t available weekly via your IG live stream. (Ben Platt’s been a regular dose of “everything’s fine” for me.) We bought a TRX suspension system and I got to workout with a different coach online, for free, every day. I attended the Fast Company Innovation Festival with thousands of people from around the world while I sat on the floor and folded clothes.
We all know COVID has forced change in so many industries - but the one I see being talked about the least, when it comes to events, is event marketing. I think all of us event producers are hoping that the minute everyone is allowed out of their homes, they’ll register for every event in sight. We’re hoping our entire society will try to overcorrect the lack of human interaction with non-stop networking opportunities. I think we can expect some of that, but I think other side affects are more likely, and it’ll be up to event marketers, more than producers, to get attendees in the door.
Pricing & Cancellations
Event audiences post-COVID will have different expectations and conditions for where to spend their time. For starters, this podcast episode, featuring my favorite co-founders in the events biz, Autumn & Lisa of Panacea Collective, noted nearly 70% of the virtual events happening over the last year cost $0 to attend. Regardless of the AV, production and coordination required on the backend - the lack of food and beverage, venue costs, swag, staffing, etc. makes attendees less likely to pay. How will this affect price expectations moving forward? After so much family time at home, will parents be begging to socialize every night, or will they want to keep up those nightly walks with the fam? How will our new appreciation (or aversion?) for family time affect our willingness to be out at networking events several nights a week? Event marketers will have their work cut out for them when communicating pricing and value of their events moving forward. How will you price virtual option add-ons? And that cancellation policy? You can bet on more people reading it and asking questions before registering. Make sure it’s crystal clear.
Another trend I’ve noticed is that entire groups of people are now attending virtual events who were previously ignored in event marketing efforts for in-person events. The remote workers whose companies won’t pay for travel. The working moms and dads who can’t travel or attend events past the time school ends for the day. The underrepresented groups less likely to have time or budget to attend. The extreme introvert who’d rather catch COVID twice than attend a networking event. They’re helping brands set unprecedented attendance records right now on virtual events. How do you keep them engaged when your events revert back to in-person? How do you not segregate them from the in-person attendees and manage to get them both in-person or both virtual again?
Another question I can see being added to event FAQ pages everywhere is: “How is your event prepared to handle another pandemic?” Again, what do cancellations look like? How will you reschedule, sanitize, prioritize and minimize your contribution to the spread of a disease? Details and assurances should be included in your marketing materials, and it’ll be a delicate balance to communicate the information as prudent and not alarmist.
Connecting the Online & Offline Experience
How many events that had to cancel in the last year are kicking themselves that they didn’t create an online community, through an app or social media platform, leading up to the event? What seemed like a nice-to-have at the time, quickly became a missed opportunity when events were cancelled. Too often, companies have an internal marketing department that kills it at digital marketing and engagement. Then they often hire a stellar event contractor or agency to produce a memorable event. Not as often, do they connect the two teams to make sure the online and offline experience of attendees is seamless and lasting. For most brands, event attendance is not the ultimate goal, it’s simply a nurturing opportunity on the way to meeting, retaining or upselling a client. Event teams are not usually the ones responsible for or tracking those metrics, so those metrics often fall out of their focus in planning. The effects of COVID-19 will hopefully push marketing teams to dig deeper into event planning, before they’re just given an Eventbrite link and told “Get lots of attendees and turn them into clients, thanks.”
The virtual events I’ve seen praised most widely over the last year are those who made zero profit, but raised tons of money for a cause - whether that be first responders, PPE production, unemployed workers, WHO or other. In the podcast episode mentioned above, Lisa noted that many events don’t have a set price but instead just a box where you can choose to donate anywhere from $1 to $1 million, whatever you have. If brands can drive that much responsiveness for doing something meaningful in a crisis, imagine attendees’ responses if you do something meaningful without a global-pandemic looming. Attendees like to be part of something - not just a marketing conference, or incredible interactive experience - they like to be part of a movement. Not just in their industry, but in society, in the way they impact the lives of others. Help them do that through your mobile app or trade show experience, even when it’s not sexy or imperative. Add donation options to your registration, partner with a nonprofit you believe in and give them a title sponsorship alongside that big corporate partner that pays you all the money. It’ll add meaning to your event, and to your attendees’ experience.
The best changes come from challenges. 2021 will be an opportunity for event marketers, and not just event producers, to build brands and businesses by doing things differently. Something I say to myself often that, oddly, helps: “Well, at least there’s no chance of being bored any time soon.”
If you want a partner in connecting your events and marketing teams and revamping your event strategy post-COVID, we'd love to talk.