Your Events Are Canceled. Now What?
According to the Forbes Coronavirus Cancellation Tracker, more than 83 million would-be event attendees have been affected by the pandemic. And that’s just those who’ve had their events canceled or rescheduled so far. Even once large gatherings resume, there will inevitably be attendees who will decide not to go due to lingering concerns about the virus.
The COVID disruption continues to be a reality, and we don’t have a concrete timeline for when things will fully return to normal. Nor do we have the full picture of what our new normal will look like.
So, where does that leave companies that generate a meaningful portion of their revenue from conferences, trade shows, and other networking events?
In this article, we’ll explore how B2B media companies are adapting to the times and uncovering ways to protect their business model from future disruptions.
Events Need to Be Reimagined, Not Replicated
In the early days of COVID, several publishers quickly “copy and pasted” their face-to-face events online. No one blames them – it was a quick and logical fix. However, many of the digital replica events did not deliver the impact the producers would have expected to see in-person. Technology platform failures, attendee multi-tasking, lack of two-way engagement, and other flaws led some of these virtual conferences or trade shows to fall flat.
Eric Kammerzelt, CTO of Endeavor Business Media, acknowledges the weaknesses in the business-as-usual approach and recommends an alternative. Don’t think about reproducing your event move-for-move online. Instead, break things down to the core elements of the event’s value proposition and deliver on those promises across various formats.
Events aren’t really about speakers, finger foods, or swag bags. Kammerzelt contends, “Events are about networking, one-on-one interactions, generating leads for sponsors, sharing and getting feedback on new content, and creating a general buzz.” He recommends addressing each of these elements in a format-appropriate manner.
For example, let’s look at lead generation for sponsors. At an in-person event, lead generation tactics might include a booth that’s front-and-center at the venue and an opportunity to sit on a panel or present to attendees.
But those are just the trappings of lead generation at an in-person event. How do you take the essence of lead generation and bring that to life in a virtual setting? In the case of Endeavor, the team is creating a series of landing pages for their advertisers to help sponsors capture engaged and relevant portions of the Endeavor audience.
Use Content to Keep Attendees Engaged
One downside with in-person events is they are “one and done.” You see everyone on the conference room floor, and it will be another 364 days until you meet again. But with the transition to digital events, there’s an opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with your attendees. You can make relationships with attendees more persistent. And it starts with content. Leaders are trying out varying approaches to see what works best.
A steady flow of high-impact content is particularly important for those who are looking to hold onto cash from would-be attendees. If you postponed your in-person event, you need to provide an incentive for them not to ask for a refund. A quality webinar series may be the key.
Elizabeth Green, CEO of Brief Media, has been creating series of three or more webinars rather than just one-offs. This creates a lot more continuity, visibility, and community.
Tom Kemp, CEO of Northstar Travel Group, shares that podcasts and videos are rapidly accelerating. His team has seen webinar attendance triple in recent months.
While it’s great to experiment with new formats, don’t crank out so much digital content that quality suffers. Peter Goldstone, Chairman of Government Executive, notes that in this environment, the premium is on thought leadership and content. Zoom fatigue is a genuine phenomenon! So, make whatever you produce high-quality and worthy of your audience’s precious time and attention.
Advertisers and Sponsors Want to Invest in What’s Next
Many sponsors and advertisers have pulled back, pressed pause, and deferred payments. They don’t want to squander their ad budgets on tactics that are not certain to work. And in the current rapidly-changing environment, it’s tough for people to get a handle on what actually is effective.
The solution for publishers is to truly understand how you can help advertisers with their most significant need: quality lead generation.
New thinking is needed to get you there. Kemp presents a cautionary simile, “Business is like a shark: You move forward, or you die.” He points to the 2008 crisis, where publishers who didn’t change their ways went out of business.
Both Kemp and Green note the importance of providing marketing services for advertising partners. Custom content, lead generation forms, Account Based Marketing (ABM) support, and one-on-one connections fit the bill.
Kammerzelt recommends microsites, complete with valuable content and lead generation forms for critical sponsors and advertisers. For example, the American Heart Association has launched Heart Hubs, with meaningful information related to the quality of care and outcomes research.
Part of innovating is letting go of what’s not working. Many publishers are considering a reduction in print frequency as a result of the hard declines in print advertising. If you find your advertisers have cut back on print, don’t hesitate to respond to those cues — look for new ways to get your sponsors’ names out there with your audience.
Diversification Is the Only Sustainable Strategy
For publishers who had gone all-in on events, this is a scary time. After investing many hours and lots of dollars in events, relying on them as a significant source of revenue, learning that large gatherings will be off the table for the foreseeable future is a frightening prospect.
However, those who diversified before the pandemic are in less of a sticky situation right now. Goldstone shares that face-to-face events only make up 15% of Government Executive’s revenues because they proactively diversified their business prior to the pandemic. Thus, the impact of the cancellations is not as problematic as it otherwise could have been.
Green notes that Brief Media also diversified into paid content products and is experiencing a 39% increase in membership and subscription products.
When you see your audience shift focus, follow their lead. When the needs of your sponsors evolve, adapt. Use measuring and experimentation strategies to find new ways to better serve your industry – it can lead to a more balanced revenue mix and even higher returns.
Ultimately, the magic of events is in their ability to build community. They’re a way to help your brand and your sponsors meaningfully and authentically connect with your audience. But there are other ways to achieve those same goals, and now is the perfect time to round out your strategy and explore other avenues, if you haven’t in the past. Diversification will ensure publishers are well-positioned to not only survive but thrive in the future.
Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Ristagno is passionate about helping others grow near-term revenues by applying data science to uncover and test low-risk, high-reward sales and marketing strategies. Committed to spreading this message, Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and the developer of the Growth Mindset Assessment.