Events are the catalyst to your customer journey: An interview with JR Sherman

Events aren’t just a nice day out to network and learn, but the key to getting to know your customers and pushing them further down the funnel. Lucy Gillman sat down with RainFocus’ JR Sherman to discuss the changing view of events post-pandemic, what to do with your customer data, and why you shouldn’t bother trying to replicate in-person.

“Events are integral and the most powerful way to enrich a customer relationship at all points across their journey with your brand”

“The best business relationships are built by meeting people,” JR begins. “Whether it’s virtual or physical, it’s the best place where connections are established, nurtured and grown.”

Having spent an entire career using events as a B2B business driver, JR is well versed in the art of events as a tool to fuel the funnel – but that’s not to say that this was a commonplace view.

As he outlines, events have historically been seen as a ‘nice to have’ – an opportunity to meet customers, do business, and celebrate with the team. “In B2B, events represent 30-50% of marketing’s budget. But it’s always sat on its own,” he continues. “There was so much struggle for 15-20 years of how you can measure the ROI of events because that conference and the experiences that took place with customers and prospects merely represented one touchpoint.”

With this came a ‘battle’ between how events play a role in customer renewal and retention - whilst events can’t take credit for closing a deal, they can for influence. In a similar vein, the c-suite, digital marketing and various tech roles ‘understood that conferences were effective, but couldn't explain why.’

“If you asked a CMO what makes an event so special, it would be difficult for them to say. You’d hear a lot about ‘energy’”

The switch to digital not only brought with it “over ten years of evolution in the past two years,” but a switch in how we see events. 

“When we moved that same conference online, what ended up happening was the same thing: we had great content, incredible experience when they consumed that content in a portal and could network with attendees, speakers, ask questions, meet with exhibitors and get demos,” JR develops. “By moving it online, we put it into the language that marketing understands better. It woke up a part of the brain that said: this is why events are successful - we give people the right content, at the right time, and in the right experience.”

“We’re seeing the most significant change in how technology enables events and experiences since the Internet came about”

It’s time to set aside the silos and truly make use of the insights you can gather from events. “If you have a platform that’s integrated to your martech stack and campaigns, you can do those at the right time for a customer or prospect in the journey,” JR continues. “There was this epiphany of the value of events - we create this great content, deliver it in amazing experiences and, with the right use of technology, we can deliver the right content at the right experience for an individual based on where they are in their customer journey.”

Keep ‘em coming back for more: What to do with your customer data post-event

Getting an attendee through the door is one part of the story. What do you do post-event to keep them coming back? “In physical events pre-pandemic, we tracked everything - who attendees visited, where they went, how long they stayed, etc,” JR states. “That augmented a customer profile which was really enriched from the insights from events.’

‘When events moved online, there was something about the switch to digital that made the insights we were getting from events more understandable,” he continues.

As he outlines, pre-Covid, attendees en masse would receive the same marketing material - “we didn’t have the ability to associate the behaviour showcased at events with where delegates are in the customer journey,” JR outlines. 

What came out of that information was updating demographics and putting delegates into various SQL campaigns. Therein lies the rub: “The unfortunate thing is all you’d do in that campaign was trying to get me to exhibit behaviours I’d already exhibited at an event. We were duplicating this qualification process as an industry!” JR dismays.

The switch to digital marked an ‘epiphany’ on gathering data and insights on customers, helping to establish events as a means to accelerate the customer journey through valuable, personalised content. As JR states, “there’s huge benefit to the customer and not be flooded by irrelevant content, but also huge efficiency benefit to our client organisation to do that in a better fashion.”

“We’re doing the same thing online as we did in-person. By moving these mechanisms online, more people in marketing understand it better”

He continues: “There’s so much insight about customers throughout their journey that’s garnered from their experiences and consumption of content at events. Events play such an integral role in deepening the relationship throughout the customer journey and providing interactive, engaging content to help them make their decisions and evaluate.”

Don’t replicate the experience. Own it

It’s hard not to speak about events during the pandemic with a tone of doom and gloom - organisations faced the overnight collapse of one of their largest revenue streams, tasked with navigating new, digital waters. But that’s not JR’s experience.

As he outlines, the move to digital brought with it ‘crazy numbers’ for some of larger events. Case and point with one tech company seeing a spike in 90,000 virtual delegates compared to physical - or another household name welcoming almost 700,000 virtual attendees from 137 countries to their leading summer event. 

But a new audience brings with it a new task: How (if at all) can you transition in-person networking online?

The answer? Don’t replicate or recreate - reinvent; simply put, online experiences aren't the same as in-person. 

Case and point with Netflix. As JR outlines, rather than recreating a Blockbuster-esque experience of walking down aisles looking for tapes, Netflix created a unique UI and UX that gave customers the fastest path to finding what they needed. 

Chats over coffee and pastry aren’t the same as glitchy, ‘can you hear me?’, bottom-half pyjama-wearing online networking. And don’t try to make them. Need I remind you of the dreaded Zoom birthday?

“This isn’t walking into the Blockbuster store. This is a different experience online”

Tailor virtual experiences to your delegates’ needs. Some people enjoy online networking, some don’t. Some prefer to head down straight towards content, others like asking questions, meeting exhibitors, etc. “Having flexibility is the key to moving forwards with the best programme,” JR develops. “Give attendees the ability to engage with content in their own experiences and in the most personalised way they want to.”

He adds: “In 2022, we’ve come to the realisation that it’s about the customer and not the event. What we’re going to deliver is how many unique experiences audiences  can have and we’re going to give them a great selection of choices - we’re going to make sure we’re doing the best  job possible.”

“We can’t think of all participants attending events as the same - or even segment them into large buckets. These are individuals that have individual preferences”

One thing’s for certain: for JR, the events industry has entered a golden age. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m passionate about it, and I’m so excited for the industry,” he continues. “This is such an incredible step to bring events to the foreground as the most powerful channel to enhance every step in a customers’ journey.’

‘I really feel this is the most significant thing I’ve seen in over 25 years.”

Want to learn more about creating a stand-out event to fuel the funnel?

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