B2B events in 2021: What changes lie ahead?

Helen Coetzee, CEE at MGP & AGNC, spoke at our recent events webinar about what the future of events looks like, and how to make the most of virtual, hybrid and physical events moving forward.

Tell us a little bit about your experience of running events in 2020, and how you’ve had to respond to changing circumstances

HC: We didn't have to change our business much. We already had strong skill sets focused on digital and data, which clients really needed to pivot to virtual events and start growing digital revenue streams. Inhouse teams struggled because they tended to have marketing generalists, ops people skilled in physical events, not digital. I've helped clients move events from F2F to online, and also launched some new conferences created for online, with a view to moving F2F when this is possible again.

Whether you run your own events, or you invest in third-party events, they are ultimately tools used as part of the wider B2B marketing and sales process. What impact has all this had on wider marketing and sales programmes and activities?

HC: There's much more focus on building top of funnel via content-led digital inbound (social, PPC, SEO) and database research, as well as more focus on generating MQLs digitally. Salespeople have struggled to sell if they don't have a lead already almost ready to buy. In addition, there's been more investment in database development, websites, visual branding and messaging.

How have buyers responded or reacted to changes, in terms of using events as part of their decision-making processes, or relationship management with suppliers?

HC: They're looking for more knowledgeable salespeople to talk to at digital events as part of networking.

Where do you think we are now with B2B events coming towards the end of 2020, looking forward to 2021? What expectations can brands and event organisers have for running/attending events in the next few months?

HC: I think that technology will improve and with that, hopefully, their customer service too. Content and speakers at events need to be spot on. Nobody is going to turn up if content is not highly relevant.

A lot has been said about hybrid events, but it feels like a nebulous term, with few people having genuine clarity about what it actually means.

HC: 'Hybrid' is nebulous and that's ok! The basic hybrid event is just streaming a large event online, while also having people 'in the room'. All events should be hybrid when physical events come back, even if it's just a Guild or WhatsApp group before or after the event to enable ongoing online networking. People should be striving to bring the community together online and offline around an event. There needs to be creative thinking in how you also bring together people based on what they find valuable and practical.

Do you think the switch to digital, and rapid reskilling of some event practitioners, and the blurring of boundaries with other content formats, mean that events has become a less defined or specific discipline within the marketing canon? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

HC: No! Events are an even more defined and specific discipline! Events will have more potential, but only if skilled people are operating them. Events have a pace and 'speed and need to execute' on a timeline that other channels don’t. Certain skill sets, marketing operations set-up and team combos are needed for this.

We’re seeing an explosion of activity from martech vendors in terms of developing event-based tech solutions. BrightTalk aside, has the martech sector risen to the opportunity here? Or are they still playing catchup?

HC: Yes, they're definitely developing rapidly, but there is a lot of catch up in terms of functionality for delegate interaction, sponsorship real estate and martech integrations. There's lots of 'live testing' on client events with disastrous results.

Thinking longer-term, do you think we’ll ever return to the B2B events landscape that we knew before? If not, assuming a successful vaccine is ultimately rolled-out and Covid effectively goes away, what will B2B events look like in the future?

HC: There will be fewer physical events, but they will be better and have more purpose in terms of physicality (i.e. why they're being run as physical, rather than online).
But I mean there's also a lot more coming in terms of hybrid and digital, which will get better!

What advice would you offer to B2B events practitioners or marketers struggling to understand the future context of events and how to prepare for it?

HC: Make sure you really understand your customers and target market, and consider what customers need your events to do for them. Then taking the above into account, build events into your full marketing mix in an integrated way: be clear on what purpose your events serve at top, middle and bottom of funnel.

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