I’ve gotten so much positive response from my recent interview articles that I’ve decided to continue them for a while.
Next up is Shauna Peters, vice president and marketing strategist for mdg, a Freeman Company. I’ve known Shauna for many years, and I’ve watched her excel at a variety of roles within the industry. Given that she’s experienced both the attendee and strategic management sides of the business, I was curious to understand what insights she could share from her recent years of managing in a COVID-altered world:
Warwick Davies (WD): How has your company been doing in the past 20 months? What’s worked? What hasn’t?
Shauna Peters (SP): mdg adapted in a matter of weeks to support our clients as they went from in-person events to virtual events, even forming a virtual event marketing division within the agency. Our event strategists, together with our paid media team, began collecting data that helped us understand the nuances of virtual events, including registration timelines, cost thresholds, audience profiles, effective marketing channels and more. In full transparency, we had varying degrees of success around virtual events, with some of our clients experiencing higher attendance than they had seen for physical events and others falling well short of expectations. We, along with just about everyone in our space, learned that some aspects of physical events are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a virtual space.
Another challenge we’ve experienced is with our clients’ databases getting decimated – mainly because of the industry disruption caused by the pandemic but also because of the great resignation, great retirement, office closures and even the number of people voluntarily opting out or disengaging. Because databases aren’t as reliable as they once were, many clients are now putting a huge emphasis on finding new audiences outside of their “house lists”. As such, our digital marketing team, in particular those focusing on paid media, has been very much in demand.
WD: How have your strategies changed in marketing face-to-face events?
SP: We’re moving away from marketing that focuses on detailed statistics demonstrating the size of the event in an attempt to draw a parallel between magnitude and value. Instead, we’re going back to clear value propositions and trying to capitalize on the pent-up demand for commerce and community. It’s not about seeing 500 vendors. It’s about finding the latest innovation that matters to you. It’s not about being among 20,000 other people. It’s about making quality connections with individuals that will inspire or inform you. And to that end, we are shifting promotional copy from one-way conversations—telling audiences all the facts and features of our events—to instead working with our audiences, speakers, exhibitors, key influencers in the space—to cultivate trust and add creditability to an event’s voice, ultimately driving attendance.
WD: How do you square that with until now, all shows have bragged about huge square footage and attendance numbers (in fact big awards are given to the largest events), and exhibitors want to know what the numbers are as a comparison to pre-covid numbers? Now that smaller attendances are the rule not the exception, is it fair to customers for event organizers to change the rules of the game and hide attendance numbers?
SP: When it comes to the messages that resonate with attendees, size no longer cuts it. And frankly, size didn’t convey an event’s value in the past either. People are, however, responding to value-based reasons to attend. And right now, those who are attending events are motivated buyers, so even exhibitors who may want to see as many people at events as possible, are very satisfied with the attendees they are seeing. According to recent Freemen research, exhibitor NPS scores are almost 20 points higher than they were pre-COVID.
WD: Should event organizers run events at any costs even if the attendance numbers aren’t where they need to be? How should poor attendance be communicated to exhibitors?
SP: Every organizer must look at their financials and make the call that makes the most sense for their event. We are encouraging exhibitors to think about Return on Exposure, Return on Engagement, Return on Impressions and overall, a Return on Objectives. This essentially requires accepting that not all goals are measurable with hard financial data. Exhibiting may be part of telling a brand story or sharing how the organization is evolving, serving a new segment of the industry, launching innovations aimed at solving a particular challenge, etc. It’s moving exhibitors closer to their long-term branding building objectives in a way that is more comprehensive and integrated than just tying direct revenue back to a trade show lead.
WD: What’s been your success with digital, other revenue models?
SP: We’ve seen digital platforms work well for some forms of educational content. For many clients, their digital events have brought in entirely new audiences, many younger and more international than their previous in-person events. This has opened many opportunities to engage with segments they previously didn’t reach and who are not likely to be attending their in-person events in the near future. This has led to more year-round content engagement strategies with things like webinars, online vendor demos or videos and small networking opportunities for audience subsegments—all of which pose new revenue stream opportunities.
WD: What is your view on launching new events in this environment?
SP: Now is an excellent time to launch a new event. This environment has required everyone, even established events, to step back and reevaluate much of their events. As part of the behavioral shift we’ve experienced, people value their time more, which means they are more discerning in how they spend it, where they go, which companies and brands they support and trust, etc. This means that we need to ensure our events have a strong compelling value proposition driving the need for our audience to continue to attend. This has really opened up the market for new events to emerge. There is opportunity to think differently and build an event from an audience-centric viewpoint to meet needs that aren’t currently being met. It’s leveled the playing field in many ways.
WD: Has your view on innovation changed?
SP: Absolutely. Innovation has become a lot less about the technology itself and innovating for the sake of change but more about the impact that change has on the end user or industry. It’s less about demonstrating something cool because we can, but seeking out ways that we can build better events, more efficient uses of our audiences’ time, ways to better connect people, help them do their jobs better, build a better world, give back, etc.
WD: What would your advice be to the rest of the industry?
SP: Embrace the opportunity to create a new future for events. Now is the time to reevaluate everything from the audiences we’re targeting and the value proposition of our events, to the ways we integrate technology and the experiences we create for exhibitors and sponsors onsite. Community and experience have become so much more important to us as a society, and these are big opportunities for us to embrace as an industry.
Thanks for your thoughts, Shauna! I look forward to hearing you speak at the upcoming Lippman Connects’ Attendee Acquisition Roundtable in the next few weeks.