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Beyond Virtual Events: 3 Replacements for Live Events That Are Taking Center Stage in 2021

The cancellation of live events in 2020 (and for most, at least the first half of 2021) has forced publishers to find new ways to connect buyers and sellers, particularly as sponsors shifted ad dollars earmarked for events into all-digital channels.

Virtual events were the obvious answer but if you talk to most publishers and sponsors privately, they’ll admit they see “traditional” virtual facsimiles of live events as a stopgap to be abandoned as soon as the world goes back to normal.

Here we look at three solutions developed in response to the crisis that have performed so well that they will continue to be offered even as live events return.

1.  Social Simulcasts

AC Business Media (ACBM) covers markets ranging from heavy construction to manufacturing to supply chain and that means serving sponsors with heavy equipment to sell. As events canceled, giving customers a way to get products in front of potential buyers was critical.

“We were at CONEXPO last March just as the world started imploding,” says ACBM Chief Digital Officer Kris Heineman. “Big manufacturers had already paid millions to ship machines out to the show but they didn’t come themselves because they didn’t want their staffs exposed to COVID. When events go away they’re not going to stop producing products, they’ll start looking for other outlets.”

While many publishers produced virtual product showcases within proprietary digital platforms, ACMB created simulcasts—basically live streaming—that leveraged social media to expand the reach of its audience.

In one example, ACBM created a single livestream that played simultaneously across the seven different Facebook pages devoted to its Construction brands.

“When we first started doing this, we were concerned that the channels would start overlapping with each other but it’s actually a case of more is more—with each platform you get a certain percentage of your overall audience,” says Heineman. “Let’s say you have 1 million Facebook followers—Facebook won’t let you organically reach all those people. But if you stream to 10 different Facebook pages, maybe you reach 40,000 here and 60,000 there, so it’s all complementary.”

ACBM created a simulcast for equipment manufacturer Bobcat that drove more than 100,000 views and 800 interactions in the first few days.

“For B2B, those are high numbers,” says Heineman. “When most people in B2B say they put something on Facebook they’re usually getting two or three interactions. Not everyone thinks there’s opportunity in B2B for social media but this product proves that wrong.”

Customers continue to clamor for the live streams even as ACBM begins exploring the return of live events. “We can’t produce enough video,” says Heineman. “We’re already sold out on some channels through 2021.”

[Editor’s note: For more on how ACBM is creating social simulcasts, register for our upcoming webcast this Thursday, March 25 at 1pm ET on New Revenue From Social Media: How To Build a Live Product Showcase.]

2. Marketing Services

Marketing services have grown faster than digital display advertising in B2B media for several years now but prior to last year still took a backseat to events as an overall revenue producer for most publishers.

Marketing services has always been tied closely to events for Government Executive Media Group (GEMG) but in 2020 came to the forefront by helping customers meet their event objectives when live events came to a standstill (and finished the year with revenue up 43 percent as a group while helping to drive 20 percent topline growth for the overall company).

Frank Salatto, GEMG

“It wasn’t just about helping customers achieve their event objectives with us but their event objectives writ large,” says Frank Salatto, Vice President and General Manager of Marketing and Communications at GEMG. “Honestly, we were part of the conversation with clients like never before in how to rebuild their event programs.”

GEMG transitioned quickly to an all-digital environment by turning large live events into multi-part integrated digital programs, using content as the connector to drive audience from one touchpoint to another.

“Digital events were part of that but it’s a series of digital events that would allow you to recreate what you would get with a live event but in between those you need additive content that keeps the conversation going,” says Salatto.

Data collection and diverse capabilities helped GEMG keep revenue whole for all but one live event booked prior to the pandemic.

“There is opportunity in the data that you can collect,” says Salatto. “That’s always been a pain point for live events. But in digital we know what customers are interacting with across a much longer time-period and we know more about them including how interested they are and how ready they are to buy.”

Branded websites proved to be a winner for GEMG last year and will continue to be a key product in 2021. “That turned out to be a great vehicle for brands to tell their story and drive sustained engagement over time but also a way for us to have a center piece for really large, long term programs and have tack-on revenue beyond the initial build,” says Salatto.

GEMG expects a similar marketing environment in 2021 and is looking to capitalize on its stable which includes branded microsites, immersive articles, video and audio, digital event integration and data visualization.

“We believe this is sustainable and there’s room to grow,” says Salatto. “The net of this is that 14 out of our 15 top clients have marketing services central to the program they bought with us. We are not a huge piece of the revenue pie as an individual unit but we are a driver of topline revenue and a significant part of the pathway to bigger revenue programs.”

3. Attendee Data

You’ve likely heard of first party data and third-party data but how about zero party data?

At our recent Business Information and Media Summit, Informa Markets chief digital officer Jason Brown, who leads a newly created group called Informa Markets DNA, showed how the company is finding new revenue by leveraging event audience data into a new take on lead gen that not only creates revenue in the interim but promises to elevate the value of Informa’s live events when they return.

That includes creating online marketplaces that are enhanced versions of the show directories that Informa produces for its live events. Customers can use the online marketplaces to search products and suppliers, discover new products via a recommendation engine, make connections, create a virtual “walking” or favorites list and register for other Informa physical and virtual events.

The online marketplaces also provide Informa with “zero party data” where users offer direct insight into their interests through their use of the marketplaces, which helps Informa create authenticated data that shows not only who a lead is also their buying intent.

“We take our first party data, the third-party data that we can buy or borrow and the zero-party data given to us by our audience when they are specifically after something and combine that information together to create something called authenticated data,” says Brown. “If we do all of that correctly, our gray cloud of a data lake becomes a green cloud of known buyer status. That’s where we can say who our buyer is and where they are in the funnel.”

In addition to the traditional model of offering leads as part of a one-off sponsorship, Informa is moving toward an annual subscription model that includes,

  • continuous access to fresh data
  • ability to count, segment and modify criteria for best data selection
  • intent scoring
  • ability to create a sales pipeline that feeds directly into the customer’s CRM

“Instead of bundling and packaging programs, this is an annual program that you can subscribe to and we can present different layers and opportunities to you,” says Brown.

Informa Markets

3 Ways B2B Giant Informa is Reinventing Lead Gen

With more than 500 trade shows and exhibitions that in a typical year generate more than 60 percent of its total revenue, few companies have borne the brunt of COVID-19’s impact on events more than Informa.

But the way forward is turning crisis into opportunity and Informa is aggressively creating new businesses out of its existing events model and the enormous cache of audience data those events create.

At our recent Business Information and Media Summit, Informa Markets chief digital officer Jason Brown, who leads a newly created group called Informa Markets DNA, showed how the company is finding new revenue by leveraging event audience data into a new take on lead gen that not only creates revenue in the interim but promises to elevate the value of Informa’s live events when they return (replays of that session are available in the BIMS archive and AM&P Network members can reach out to me at mkinsman@siia.net for a link).

“We were hit hard with corona, but on the back of that, we’re working hard to look at alternative ways we can generate revenue from a similar mix of audience,” says Brown. “We’re not seeking to replicate what a show would do but instead offer year-round engagement with buyers and sellers which will mold itself to physical trade shows when they come back over the next 12 months.”

Three-Part Combo: Online Marketplaces, Authenticated Data and Audience Extension

Informa’s new approach leverages three components—Online Marketplaces, Authenticated Data and Audience Extension—that work together to generate data, convert that data into highly detailed and actionable intelligence and ultimately leverage that intelligence and Informa’s scale in connecting buyers and sellers across its own properties and beyond.

Online Marketplaces are enhanced versions of the show directories that Informa produces for its live events. Customers can use the online marketplaces to search products and suppliers, discover new products via a recommendation engine, make connections, create a virtual “walking” or favorites list and register for other Informa physical and virtual events.

“We let attendees figure out what they want to do,” says Brown. “It’s not about driving traffic to physical shows but creating engagement for 52 weeks a year. We’re allowing buyers and sellers to connect now without the ultimate destination of a physical trade show.”

The online marketplaces also provide Informa with “zero party data” where users offer direct insight into their interests through their use of the marketplaces, which helps Informa create the next component—Authenticated Data.

Identity and Buying Intent

If the top of the buyer funnel is about generating awareness, the bottom of the funnel is about decision and action. Informa is offering its customers authenticated data that shows not only who a lead is but also their buying intent.

“We take our first party data, the third-party data that we can buy or borrow and the zero-party data given to us by visitors and our audience when they are specifically after something and combine that information together to create something called authenticated data,” says Brown.

Getting the data right is the most important part. Informa aggregates its full spectrum of audience data into a data lake, including event registrations, online behavior and third-party data from services such as Bombora. Informa then uses that information to build a picture of a user and create an intent score.

“If we do all of that correctly, our gray cloud of a data lake becomes a green cloud of known buyer status,” says Brown. “That’s where we can say who our buyer is and where they are in the funnel.”

“Right Person, Right Time, Right Message”

Audience extension—reaching customers not only on your own branded properties but beyond—is something Informa and other publishers have been doing for years (and it’s why social platforms have become such an existential threat to publishers). But the addition of highly targeted, highly accurate data makes Informa’s audience extension efforts even more powerful.

“We ask our clients what kind of customer they are looking for, then we work with several third-party companies to find that lookalike audience and present a marketing message,” says Brown.

This is something Informa has seen success with particularly in the ag vertical, where it runs events such as the Farm Progress Show. “We can take a farmer, find hundreds of thousands of other farmers just like them, find whatever device they are on and target them with a message,” says Brown. “Right person, right time, right message.”

“Giving You the Needle, Not the Haystack”

And while audience extension is about scale and Informa still sells many traditional lead gen projects (including CRM feeds, webinar series, email promotion, programmatic remarketing, geo fencing and market intelligence reports), providing access to qualified buyers is the ultimate goal.

“We don’t want to give you access to 9,000 people; we want to give you access to 12,” says Brown. “Customers say, ‘don’t give us the haystack, give us the needle inside it.’ If you do a webinar today, you might get between 200-500 attendees and that’s great, but you’re not sure how qualified they are. Here, we are talking about creating a qualified buyer and then working with clients to create a webinar for 20 people, but a very distilled audience of 20 people who have shared with us their intent.”

Changing the Ways Leads Are Sold

Traditionally, publishers sell a sponsor on a content-driven program such as a webinar, then hand over the audience list to that sponsor. That’s a risky and outdated approach for both publishers and sponsors, according to Brown.

“The current model in many places of giving away the crown jewels of our data is not a good business model,” says Brown. “The danger in handing over those leads is that they can be abused quickly. Files also start aging from day one—and not like fine wine but like moldy cheese. As soon as you hand it over to someone, their journey in that buyer funnel may have changed the next day.”

Informa is moving away from selling leads as part of a one-off sponsorship and instead offering an annual subscription, which includes,

  • continuous access to fresh data
  • ability to count, segment and modify criteria for best data selection
  • intent scoring
  • ability to create a sales pipeline that feeds directly into the customer’s CRM

Informa also enables subscribers to Bring You Own Data, in which customers can give the publisher their data and Informa will cleanse it, authenticate it and attach an intent score for the customer’s own audience.

“Instead of bundling and packaging programs, this is an annual program that you can subscribe to and we can present different layers and opportunities to you,” says Brown.

Not for Everyone

It’s an approach that requires a skillset and an infrastructure that not everyone—including both publishers and advertisers—can take advantage of. Informa has developed a criteria for assessing markets and clients that could benefit, which include,

  • an active digital market
  • a sophisticated digital sales team on the client side
  • market pricing
  • a client with existing audience data

“The markets need to be fairly advanced. We look at whether they are buying on social, on Google, how much are they spending with us and can we convert what they are spending elsewhere,” says Brown. “We’re not selling Webinars, we’re selling access to data. We need to work with really smart digital salespeople who we can train to cross-sell access to data.”

Data protection vector illustration. Cartoon flat database protecting concept with tiny character holding key from lock for bank account password, email, electronic wallet, document files background

Behind Questex’s New ‘Modern’ Information Model: Combining Content, Data and Events to Go to Market Faster

Editor’s Note: Join Paul Miller at our virtual Business Information & Media Summit on Dec. 2 for a look at The New Go-to-Market Strategy: How Questex Launches Products Faster, Better and More Profitably. Join the discussion as Paul shows how Questex aligned internal assets to create a more efficient structure and leverages data to drive the entire process. Register here. 

In June, Questex announced the creation of a “modern” information services model that leverages audience data to tie content and events closer together to create a year-round customer engagement framework.

And as publishers scramble to make up for lost event revenue amidst the pandemic, the new approach also gives Questex the ability to launch new products and go-to-market at accelerated rates (think virtual events being produced over the course of a few weeks, rather than a full year, as with a live event).

Questex debuted the new approach with its Fierce Life Sciences group, aligning the Fierce content business with ExL Events, a Questex division acquired in 2016 that produces events in similar markets such as life sciences, pharma and healthcare, but until recently had operated as a separate business from Fierce.

Tying events more closely to digital isn’t a new idea but one that hasn’t been well executed, according to Questex CEO Paul Miller [pictured]. “On a personal level, we’ve been talking about this for many years—how we combine different types of content and data and use learnings from that to bring together the community,” he adds. “We’ve almost gotten there a couple times in our past lives but not quite.”

 

Miller points to live events tacking on an online directory or virtual floor plan. “There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not a real translation. Those of us coming from a digital background say, we’ve got all this data on content consumption, wouldn’t it be great if we use that to pull together conference programs around what’s trending.”

The Immediate Payoff

The new approach paid dividends almost immediately as Questex shifted to virtual events, with Fierce and ExL coming together to produce the Virtual Clinical Trials Online on April 22-23. The virtual event attracted over 2,000 registrants with 50 percent generated by the FiercePharma content websites. The sponsors saw over 600 booth visits and there were 2,800 downloads of content providing strong sales leads for the vendors.

“For the first time, we had complete collaboration between ExL and the Fierce team based on content, speaker recruitment and reporting on what’s going on at the event,” says Miller. “We’re thinking, let’s do things differently. If something is really trending, let’s change our conference program and launch it quickly, taking a couple weeks to plan rather than a full year.”

Elsewhere, Fierce is working with Arizona State U to launch a new virtual event in July for the education tech marketplace called Remote that will focus on how institutions are adapting higher education in the coronavirus era. The event already has “many thousands of registrants and high-level sponsors,” according to Miller.

With 70 percent of its revenue coming from live events prior to the pandemic, Questex hasn’t avoided a major revenue revision or the significant lay-offs that came with it.

But the Fierce group is up 20 percent year-over-year and there’s early evidence that the model can pay-off across the entire organization, including Questex increasing the overall number of webinars it produces (up from 199 in all of 2019 to 347 through May 2020), while its American Spa business capitalized on the CBD craze by launching a CBD-focused virtual event over the space of just four weeks, securing a quarter of a million dollars in sponsorships.

A Second Attempt at Reinventing B2B?

In many ways, the new Fierce approach borrows from Questex’s first attempt at reinventing the B2B media model with The Beauty Experience, a content and marketing platform that the company launched last fall for its beauty industry vertical that upended the “search and click” way of scrolling through websites by enabling users to choose specific content tags that they want to follow, which then serves up relevant content.

The idea was that the data produced by the feed and follow approach would help program events, identify prospects for sponsors and create opportunities to serve users beyond the events itself. Unfortunately, the Beauty Experience Event, scheduled for March 7, was one of the first to be canceled due to COVD-19.

“Beauty is a pro-sumer market and we learned a lot of lessons from that community, says Miller. “Social is really important there and we were able to get very good in the social world, seeing which keywords work and using artificial intelligence to personalize the journey. Unfortunately, we were not able to see that come to full fruition due to the event cancellation and some market dynamics in the beauty sector.”

Getting There: Culture is the Biggest Obstacle

While Questex needed the right tech infrastructure to get the right data into the right hands, Miller says that getting beyond perceived cultural differences between Fierce and ExL was the biggest challenge.

“We were dealing with two different cultures that hadn’t been integrated and the team didn’t do a lot together,” says Miller. “Fierce thought it did this, ExL thought it did that. But did they really? The fact of the matter was, they needed to be doing stuff together.”

While COVID-19 has been the bane of B2B publishing, it has helped Questex pushed through some of the inertia that would have held up change in the past.

“In terms of collaboration and bringing these groups together, I have to say the COVID situation helped us do this more quickly than we normally would of,” says Miller.

Miller credits Questex’s ability to break down siloes and get groups working more closely together to its Centers of Excellence, in which experts across the company come together to produce best practices in a variety of areas including audience and database, content, customer experience, and product, with topics ranging from protecting customer privacy to identifying where the customer is in the buying cycle to hosting virtual events to which headlines work best and why.

“The first thing is you need to do it to make the decision on what you want your internal core competencies to be, which is easier said than done,” says Miller. “Usually, you’re saying collaboration gives you more of a competitive advantage than really deep product knowledge. We combine the two—the markets work with the Centers of Excellence by saying ‘Our audience wants this, our advertisers wants that’, and the Centers of Excellence say, ‘OK, we have that over here, which parts work for you and what do we have to create as new?’”

Having that expertise on hand has enabled Questex to move quickly. “Someone asked, how have you pivoted so quickly to virtual events?” says Miller. “We just did it, but in essence we didn’t just do it because we have six people on our team in our Centers of Excellence who were part of creating the first scalable virtual events about a decade ago.”