With more demand for virtual events, organizations should consider these five ways to engage participants and measure event performance, Lisa Riley of Forrester Research writes.

LisaRiley-ForresterResearch

Lisa Riley

COVID-19 has flipped the events landscape completely. Continued uncertainty has prompted global industry events, including the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and South by Southwest (SXSW), to either cancel entirely or reconsider the format of their events. Despite the uncertainty, one thing is certain: The value of engaging with customers and prospects at events cannot be replaced.

Strategically executed virtual events can help organizations be present and proactive during many moments of their prospects’ buyer journeys.

Prior to the pandemic, according to a Forrester Research survey, an overwhelming majority of global B2B marketing decision-makers—93%—had planned to maintain or increase spending for in-person events—nearly 15% of their total program budgets.

B2B marketers who are canceling or postponing all in-person gatherings face dire consequences—in-person events are major demand drivers and accelerators of prospective deals for B2B firms. The pandemic has proved that strategies that worked in the past are no longer effective.

Even before COVID-19, most B2B events did not take full advantage of digitization to enhance attendees’ experience, even though technology and digitized content can help make events the centerpiece of ongoing customer interactions. Event attendees are empowered buyers/prospects who expect events to cater to their specific needs and goals. They expect the same personalized experience in a virtual event that they would receive in a live environment. Additionally, Forrester’s SiriusDecisions research shows that organizations need to become better at virtual selling to accelerate growth in 2021 and beyond.

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To stay connected with buyers and keep their event communities alive, many organizations are pivoting to virtual or hybrid models. However, organizing a virtual event is very different from organizing a physical one. Strategically executed virtual events can help organizations be present and proactive during many moments of their prospects’ buyer journeys and engage with them across their preferred channels and touchpoints. In this new normal, organizations can leverage events to activate, validate, and accelerate their pipelines.

With that, below are the top five considerations to keep in mind when pivoting to virtual events:

● Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to weigh the pros and cons.

It sounds straightforward, but many organizations completely overlook this crucial aspect. In their zest to pivot quickly or often due to pressure from executives to find an alternative to live events, organizations don’t invest in weighing the benefits of going virtual against the cost. Organizations must explore value factors that will compel people to attend, gauge expected audience size, and assess key customer and influencer count before making decisions.

To fully reap the benefits, virtual events require significant investments in technology and training staff. Innovative organizations see virtual events as an opportunity to redesign existing models to deliver an exceptional attendee experience, while more old-school organizations see virtual events as a stop-gap arrangement until in-person events resume.

● Nail down event objectives to get executive buy-in.

Making the pivot to virtual requires a strategic decision, not one driven by technology. Traditionally, any in-person event has a full year to plan and ramp-up. As a result, associated costs are more spread out.

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In the case of virtual events, however, the cost investment is upfront and the ramp-up time is quick. Robust virtual event platforms that deliver an immersive experience can be expensive! The sticker shock can freeze decision-making and delay executive buy-in. Therefore, it is essential to define the event objectives clearly and demonstrate the ROI it can deliver. Objectives can include building thought leadership, driving community engagement, showcasing products or services, creating a partner ecosystem, establishing stronger relationships with influencers, and fostering one-on-one engagement between buyers and sellers.

● Build enough time to allow attendees to acclimate to online platforms.

Fragmented technologies lead to fractured event experiences. As discussed earlier, technology decisions should be made once objectives have been defined. Given that virtual events are a relatively new phenomenon and that most people are unfamiliar with virtual platforms, it’s important to give attendees enough time to explore the event platform before the actual event kicks off. Don’t drive all attendees to the platform two hours before an event and expect them to navigate it flawlessly.

Instead, open the virtual event a day earlier and create pre-event sessions so attendees can learn to navigate the platform and have a richer experience overall. The meaning and scope of virtual events could vary from organization to organization. Depending on the size and the scope of the event, give attendees an opportunity to properly immerse in the experience.

● Condense event content to drive higher engagement.

Sustaining attendee interest in an online environment can be challenging. It is easy for attendees to get distracted. To be more mindful of attendees’ attention spans, condense event content into shorter segments and build frequent breaks. Provide digestible insights that prompt better engagement, pique interest, and spark conversations to allow for continued interactions post-event. Make the sessions available on demand for attendees to prolong the shelf life of the content.

● Leverage analytics to measure success.

Instead of a one-off tactic, treat events as part of integrated marketing campaigns to build relationships with customers, prospects, influencers, and partners. Virtual platforms provide the ability to collect and analyze data before, during, and after events. Metrics such as the most-watched session, average viewing time for sessions, number of visits to the marketplace, and types of questions asked can give marketers deeper insight into buyers’ interests. Smart marketers can leverage this data to serve more personalized and relevant content and forge stronger relationships with their customers and prospects.

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The future of events is at a pivotal stage. At Forrester, redesigning our events portfolio to meet our clients’ needs in the new normal was a game-changer for us. However, there are many organizations still struggling with making the pivot to virtual, whether for lack of executive buy-in, lack of strategy, or waiting to just go “back to normal.”

In the long run, events will likely embody more of a hybrid model—combining the virtual experience with elements of an in-person setting. But for now, B2B marketers need to integrate digital technology into every aspect of the event experience.

Lisa Riley is vice president, global head of events at Forrester Research Inc., where she is also a member of Forrester’s Executive and Operating teams reporting directly to the CEO. She leads Forrester’s Events business and has been defining and redefining the customer impact on attendee and sponsor experiences for nearly 30 years, and she led Forrester’s strategic decision to transition their 2020 portfolio of in-person events to digital in less than six weeks’ time. Lisa has also developed, executed and expanded event portfolios in China, India, and Dubai (Middle East). Prior to joining Forrester, Lisa worked with other brands including Citigroup, Gartner and Thomson Reuters.

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