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‘Blowing Our Model Out of the Water…’; for Some, Virtual Events Have Major Virtues

“How you define events is really the key here,” Orson Francescone (pictured), head of FT Live, told us at BIMS in December. “If you’re a trade show organizer then trying to go digital is tough. If you’re a conference organizer trying to go digital, it’s easier. We’re really good at delivering content.” As all of us get better at virtual events, the lure of the bigger audience should incent publishers small and big to keep at it.

“Can I give you some numbers?” Francescone, asked during the events Power Panel at BIMS 2020. “FT is a newspaper, and we reached a million subscribers a year ago. Our strategy is to drive subscriptions and we’re doing that very successfully. Events were always a big part of that strategy because subscribers who attend events tend to be better engaged [and bring] longer lifetime value.

“Last year we had 24,000 delegates at our conferences. [In 2020] with 220 online events”—plus three more December events were still to come—“that’s webinars, conferences and award shows, we’ve had 160,000 ‘digital delegates.’ So suddenly those numbers are kind of blowing our model out of the water in the sense that we are bringing in a huge funnel of new subscribers into the FT machinery. That’s a very attractive proposition to someone who owns an integrated media platform like us.”

Taking a quick look at the FT Live events homepage, I count 17 virtual events in March, from Women in Technology on March 3, to FTWeekend Digital Festival – Spring Weekend on March 18, to the New Leadership Conversation on March 25. Obviously, we all can’t be the Financial Times, but in a way their idea of cultivating a more global audience can work even better for a publisher with less resources.

Here’s some advice from experts who have experienced success with virtual events.

Keep it short. “The most important thing we tell clients first is [keep it] short,” said John Capano, SVP of Impact XM, an experiential marketing agency, in a recent EventBuzz podcast. “If you’re talking about a keynote that would usually last a half an hour or 45 minutes, [now that might mean] it’s 8-12 minutes. You’re just not going to keep people virtually.” Matthew Cibellis of Cibellis Solutions suggests thinking through a sponsorable monthly series, rather than one or two big annual events as a means of engaging attendees and sponsors.”

Be interactive. “People want to feel like they’re interacting with another living being,” said Shaul Olmert, CEO of Playbuzz, in an article on Huffington Post. “As such, content needs to provide users with interactive material that actively engages them. Playbuzz “Story” enables publishers to “present the content of an article in a series of interactive formats (think polls, flip cards, quizzes), text and visuals. With this format, people spend an average of 3-4 minutes per visit.” Adds Capano: “Say I’ve got a half-hour experience that I’m creating—the audience is an important part of that experience. So yeah, I’m going to deliver some content, but in between the content, what am I going to do to get that audience engaged? And it’s just being thoughtful about that, based on what is the content? What is the event? What is the audience? And what is their appetite for that?”

Choose the right technology. “A lot of folks end up picking their platform before they answer any of these questions and then they realize the platform can’t do what they want creatively,” Capano said. “And so we’re always telling our clients, start early and figure out these questions about what you want this event to be and how you want to engage. And then we’ll go find the right platform. There’s a million platforms. Sometimes the cart gets before the horse on that one.”

Showcase your content people. Of course, FT posts all the big names first for their Spring Festival like Diane Von Furstenberg, authors Martin Amis and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and, wow, the London Symphony Orchestra. But then they follow with FT staffers like wine columnist Jancis Robinson, editor-at-large Gillian Tett, How to Spend It editor Jo Ellison and drink columnist Alice Lascelles. (Wine tastings may still be virtual’s biggest draw.) Put your people front and center—this is a time to showcase them to a bigger audience.

Help your audience do virtual better. Last July, Questex produced the first REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit event. They hosted 26,000+ live attendees from 155 countries and 722 universities and colleges, with 2500+ questions asked to presenters and 47,000+ networking chats. The idea was “to provide a forum to identify and promote the best possible pedagogy, techniques and tools by faculty for online and blended learning and to help faculty design the most engaging experience for learners.” They did not hesitate in scheduling the 2021 all-virtual edition. “We’ve learned so much in the last year,” writes David Levin, the event’s producer. “Student behaviors and expectations have changed. Workplace and professional practice have been significantly reshaped. We can do SO much better for our students NOW than we could in January 2020.”

Parse the data, even while the event is going on. “There’s definitely more data that we were able to collect with the virtual event than with an in-person event,” Enit Nichani, vice president of marketing for North America at IGEL, told TechTarget. A reporting feature in vFairs—their digital platform of choice—enabled their marketing team “to see how many times a user visited a particular booth, what sessions they attended and how long they stayed for those sessions.” Use the data to even make changes during the event, if need be. Maybe some type of Q&A worked particularly well on the first day or a chatroom or exhibitor showroom didn’t. You’ll know.

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.”

Woman connecting with her computer at home and following online courses, distance learning concept

‘It Helps You Understand Your Audience’; the Data and Connectedness From Virtual Events Give Them Value

It has become a bit too easy to undersell the value of virtual events. People still want to be connected. One media company, Winsight, went as far as not doing them, turning instead to online sponsored communities. (Still emphasizing connection, however.) While it works for them, virtual events can still be successful with the right expectations—on both sides. And even when in-person comes back, virtual will remain vital because we will not want to lose that audience. So may be worth it to get them right.

In a recent webinar hosted by exhibitions association UFI, Liz Irving, EVP, head of marketing, technology and customer experience, Clarion North America said that the need for connection—yes, digitally—has never been stronger than it is now. Her company has spent a lot of time conversing with its markets.

“We found new ways to take our markets forward by helping them address their needs today and connect in new ways digitally,” she said. One virtual event they did offered a series of live product demonstrations from people’s homes. “It doesn’t replace face-to-face, but it allowed those connections to be made further upstream.”

Here are more reasons and ideas for keeping and boosting your virtual events:

Create sub-communities. Irving said you can really “home in on specific customers that sellers are looking for, “just on a smaller scale rather than one massive event every one or two years.

Be proactive about managing customer expectations. Emphasize the positive outcomes that attendees can expect—how-to lists, video examples immediate surveys and polls. “It’s really important to manage those expectations and show them that the value of virtual events lies in the reach of the data,” said Laura McCartney, head of exhibitor experience, EMEA, Informa Markets.

Consider the data you can collect virtually. “When you overlay it, every click, every video they watch, every interaction they have, it’s all trackable,” said John Capano, SVP at Impact XM, on an EventBuzz podcast last week. (There’s a transcript.) “And that really helps you understand your audience and develop your next meeting and prove your ROI to your bosses and all those things that you want to do with an event.” That’s a similar advantage to something in my article yesterday, where Sam Yagan who founded OKCupid wanted every interaction to happen on his site where they can track it.

Smaller audiences can reap bigger rewards. “The key is to really understand the different markets you serve and develop strategies specific to each of those markets, panelists agreed,” Sue Pelletier wrote in Trade Show Executive. “Also, digital events can extend the reach of those audiences beyond just the scheduled day of the show by keeping the community and connections going year-round.”

Look at your virtual attendees as an opportunity to market for future in-person. FOMO is a real thing. Capano offered the words you’re looking to hear: “Hey, I went last year online, and it was awesome and I saw how much fun people had on site, I gotta go this year.”

There is incentive to stay with virtual events in some form to stay connected. “I’m going to spend the extra time and effort to get through this year because there’s a lot of value in that live [aspect],” Capano said. “If you asked anyone about trade shows two years ago, or even some live events that weren’t highly engaging… everyone’s like, ‘oh, trade shows are so old school, nobody wants to go to them.’ And now all of a sudden, people are dying to get to trade shows, like ‘I miss it so much. I want to see my friends, I want to be there.’ So really it’s kind of a snap back to realize that virtual well done, and hybrid well done is going to drive the heck out of your success for live going forward.”

Sustainability is a thing—young people especially have indicated in surveys that it affects their decision-making. “Live events take a lot and have a big carbon footprint,” Capano said. “And so doing an event where maybe it’s a smaller live portion, but a much larger online portion, you can get the same benefit and the same engagement for a much smaller carbon footprint. And obviously, that is important and should be important to many of the folks that we work with. So this is really a ton of benefits there. Your cost per attendee, all that stuff is better when it’s hybrid over just live.”

As Irving said, “We do have to educate folks on the value of digital and how it looks different than face-to-face. But Clarion’s business model now will have digital, and it will have face-to-face. You can take some or all of it to help reach the suite of folks you want to find in your industry.“

Vote on Questions, Reimagine Swag and Get Out a Bit to Reenergize Your Events

How I would’ve loved to vote on which questions get asked at the many panels and interviews I attended in-person pre-pandemic. Now we can. What else can we do to liven up our virtual events in 2021? Swag, speaker walks, a new networking game. One thing is for sure–it’s worth the risk to be a little creative.

In a park in Palatine, Ill., in March last year—with birds really chirping—a bundled-up Wylecia Wiggs Harris, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), addressed members on Facebook Watch before taking a much-needed walk. She wanted to assure everyone that she and her colleagues were okay, and, of course, make sure that members were doing okay as well.

It was a very effective use of video and the elements. I thought of this again when reading a 2021 recommendation that we encourage our speakers to take us somewhere new this year—literally.

“In-person keynotes and education sessions are compelling partly because dynamic speakers walk around the stage or even draw a picture or do something else creative while presenting,” Samantha Whitehorne wrote in Associations Now. “Find a way to get your virtual presenters to do the same. During his prerecorded keynote for the Turnaround Management Association’s IMPACT 2020 virtual meeting, Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation at Disney, walked around, used different camera angles, and had large paper slides hanging behind him that he illustrated himself.”

While most agree that virtual events will take a supporting role—in the name of hybrid—once in-person events return, that does not mean that they can’t improve this year. Here are a few more ideas that I’ve seen that can improve the virtual event experience.

Network like the old days. Fast Company calls Gather “half video game, half video call.” “Spend time with your friends, coworkers, and communities like you would in real life,” their site says. Everyone at a gathering is “represented as little controllable avatars that can stroll around and talk to each other. When your avatar approaches another one, the real-life video from your respective webcams will pop up on-screen so you can converse face-to-face. Walk away, and the video disappears. Small talk has never felt so fun!” It’s free for up to 25 users, with paid plans starting at $7 per user, per month, for additional features.

Explore new ways to pick questions for Q&A. (From The Economist) At one conference, questions were displayed in a queue. Attendees could donate “points” to other people’s questions based on their interests—like a Reddit upvote. The moderator then asked the highest-ranked questions first. This ensured that the questions asked were those that mattered most to attendees.

Provide transcripts. (Also from The Economist) “Pre-recording sessions means event organizers can arrange for text chats, closed-captioning, even ASL interpretation. Even if you do the presentations live, providing transcripts later is enthusiastically welcomed. And there is now a wide range of AI tools that can provide accurate transcripts.”

Consider mingle-with-speaker sessions after panels. We did this for our BIMS 2020 conference—letting attendees chat with one another and the speakers on Zoom directly after a session. I was the lookout/moderator for a few of these. We did not have huge crowds join us in the Zoom rooms—maybe 4-6 people—but the people who were in there said they got great value by being able to ask questions in this more intimate space. So it felt worth it.

Reach out to presenters—look for enthusiasm. Asked what makes a virtual event great, 49% of respondents in a recent survey said when “presenters are enthusiastic and engaging.” Three in four respondents (74%) said passion and good online delivery were essential qualities in a great presenter—well ahead of being knowledgeable about the content (22%). To improve events, 51% said “being able to access the presenter after the event in an online forum” (see previous bullet) and almost a third said smoother technology.

Re-imagine swag. This idea—sending items to participants ahead of time—really picked up steam as the year went along and will probably get even more popular in early 2021. In late June, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and the Association of Genetic Technologists sent swag boxes to attendees—JAM Packs—that included a kazoo. Guess what the concerts were called? The Daily Kazoom. BIO Digital (Biotechnology Innovation Organization) took place in June with more than 7,000 participants from 64 countries. To foster community, they changed the meeting’s tagline from “Beyond” to “Nothing Stops Innovation.” Then, in advance of the conference, BIO mailed all speakers a custom mug with the new tagline.

‘We Will Never Do a Virtual Event’ – Why Winsight Is Doubling Down on Sponsored Communities in 2021

Events are big business for Winsight, which pre-COVID 19 produced nearly 50 trade shows and conferences (including the 40,000-person National Restaurant Association Show).

However, unlike many of its peers in B2B media, Winsight has not jumped on the virtual event bandwagon. “We will never do a virtual event,” says Amanda Buehner, Executive Vice President of Convenience Media and Events. “They don’t work. In our space, we have restaurant owners and operators who can’t spend a couple hours away from their jobs. Webinar attendance and engagement were going down even before the pandemic. We knew we needed to do something different.”

Instead, Winsight is focused on producing online communities offering participants unique content and interaction and sponsors direct contact with highly qualified prospects.

Last year, Winsight tested the model with the launch of three online groups (Outlook Leadership, Restaurant Technology and Restaurant Recovery) and last week announced the upcoming debuts of three more, including Restaurant Community (which goes live Jan. 28), CRU Community (which builds off Winsight’s Convenience Retail University conference and launches Feb. 23) and FSD Community (which serves food service directors and launches March 23). A fourth, FSTEC, will roll out this summer.

Each community is built around three pillars—community, content, connection. “The community part is about the audience,” says Buehner. “Our live events can draw a couple hundred to several thousand attendees. With a virtual platform, we can reach more than that and knew we wanted two-way discussions instead of webinars just speaking at you.”

Content, Connections and VIP Access

The communities produce new content each week that Buehner describes as “raw and real,” including “Talks from the Top” interviews with C-suite executives, Origin Stories on how industry figures got their start and By the Numbers, featuring industry metrics and analytics supplied by Winsight’s data and research arm, Technomic.

Within the communities, Winsight handpicks 20 VIP members to be part of Share Groups that have direct conversations around topics such as workforce, technology and more.

There is no fee for participants but members must provide registration information as well as answer drill-down questions on their qualifications, budget authority, need and timing. Each sponsor gets to meet these qualified retailers/operators one-to-one.

“If you can connect me, as a supplier, with people who are not only registered but also have the excitement, the need, the budget and the authority to purchase say, open air refrigerators for restaurants, that’s cool,” says Buehner.

Building Communities

The Communities are built on a proprietary platform that Winsight developed in-house that locks into a user’s single Winsight sign-on, while discussion boards run on Vanilla Forums.

Every week, a dedicated e-newsletter for each community targets between 40,000 and 80,000 uniques touting new content and upcoming programs.

“E-newsletters are the biggest push,” says Buehner. “We’re also doing social media for branding and air coverage and using every tactic possible within our own sites, including interstitials and chat bots. For Restaurant Community, we have more than 2 million impressions within the Winsight platforms and social media.”

Buehner expects thousands to register for Restaurant Community over the next few months. While the initial three communities launched last year had lower user targets (due to only being live for three months), each exceeded their goal, she adds.

Sponsorships and Sales-Qualified Leads

The communities are monetized exclusively via sponsorships, which command between $7,500 and $50,000 and offer three components:

  • One-to-one meetings with qualified buyers. “Every one of our sponsors can join a Share Group, listen and learn, and have one-to-one meetings with qualified buyers,” says Buehner. “We are giving our sponsors the opportunity to engage with sales-qualified leads—to date we have only seen marketing-qualified leads.”
  • Speaking opportunities, ranging from leading educational sessions to aligning with thought leadership by introducing CEO speakers.
  • Air coverage (branding) that includes the sponsor’s logo in the weekly e-newsletter, logos within the communities, the chance to include branded collateral in sample boxes sent to the members of each Share Group and dedicated microsites. “Notice we are not using the term ‘virtual booth’ – that doesn’t work,” says Buehner. “We have heard so many key sponsors say, ‘I don’t want to talk about a virtual booth.’ People purchase through the meetings we concierge for them.”

Retraining Events Staff for New Roles

While most event professionals lucky enough to retain their jobs pivoted to producing virtual events last year, Winsight retrained its events teams to produce communities.

“This is all-hands-on-deck,” says Buehner. “We told people across the company that we needed between 20 percent and 80 percent of their time to get this up and running.  We all learned new jobs in the last six months–marketing teams that were doing live events previously are now doing communities. We had to retrain our sales team to sell communities and convey value.”

Fifteen different areas within Winsight collaborate on the communities, including Content, which manages speaker topics and recruitment; Platforms, which vet the technology and manage logins and registration; Sponsor Relations, an existing team that now pivoted to selling community sponsorships rather than booths; Editorial, which runs discussion boards and moderation; and Recruiting, an essential component of building and maintaining the communities.

“You can put out two million impressions promoting these communities but it’s those personal relationships that get these owners and operators to register,” says Buehner. “We have a whole team that’s constantly sharing the story of the value of our communities.”

When Events Return

With most of the industry hopeful for the return of live events in the second half of 2021 (Informa recently saw a stock jump when it announced plans to resume live events in the U.S. in June), digital communities will continue to play a major role going forward, according to Buehner.

“This is another touch point for our audience and sponsors,” she adds. “We will continue the communities since not everyone can attend every live event, but they can always make it to a community. For sponsors, this is a great complement to our live event—they can meet with potential partners then see them at the live event. We set goals internally for these communities and three weeks into 2021, we’re halfway there already.”