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In a digital-first world, events must transform today to meet attendee needs tomorrow.

The pandemic rapidly accelerated digital adoption and provided a tipping point that is transforming our personal and business lives. Within the past year, companies have advanced the development of their digital or digitally enabled products by the equivalent of seven years, according to McKinsey & Company.

As the workforce adapts to new ways of doing business, the event industry must also think about a future involving an ongoing digital presence.

We have seen it before: innovation, disruption, and transformation in everything from transportation to healthcare to our social connections. Are marketing events next? If so, what will drive events forward during this critical time, and how will that impact marketers?

Scratching That Itch: The Pent-Up Demand for Marketing Events

As we continue to emerge from COVID-related restrictions, one thing is certain: Marketers are itching to get back to some kind of normal, and that includes attending industry events.

When the pandemic hit, many brands and agencies either paused or outright killed their marketing budgets. Services and partnerships were curtailed, launch plans were put on ice, and business travel was thrown out the window. Every expense was scrutinized, and teams were asked to do more with less. Weathering 2020 was tempered only by the promise that 2021 would be a year of recovery.

Now, we are finally seeing signs of life as marketing budgets are once again growing. Understandably, many of us miss the opportunity to meet face-to-face. As a result, attending marketing events in the future will be more purposeful, personal, and intimate.

We all attend events for the same reasons: to seek new market share and raise brand awareness, to engage new customers and reconnect with existing clients, and to be seen and heard or to spot new trends and research. Those intentions haven't changed, but the way we participate in events will change, and organizers have to rethink their events to meet those intentions in new ways.

Technology already plays a large role in bringing people together, both in-person and online. And although many marketers will want to travel to events again in the near future, what in-person events are held will attract fewer attendees. Regional events requiring less travel may become more common, and hybrid events that bring together in-person and virtual crowds may become the norm.

Necessity: The Driving Force for Virtual Events

When the pandemic hit, meetings and events had to quickly pivot to virtual solutions. Unfortunately, many aspects of in-person events (e.g., setting up meetings, walking the expo floor, networking at parties and gatherings) didn't translate well to their digital counterparts, and engagement suffered.

To provide the best experience, virtual events have an opportunity to embrace audiences across channels. Imagine a marketing event that spans desktop, mobile, and even VR platforms. Creating such a digital environment requires two things: integration and focus.

To engage the audience, the best digital events will continue to integrate with third-party plugins, from transcription services to mobile app experiences to calendaring and more. As for a sense of focus, event organizers will need to determine what is most important to their attendees. Networking? Sourcing technology? Discovering best-practices and trends?

The more in tune event organizers can be with audience needs, the better they can craft a meaningful experience.

How Will the On-Site Event Experience Change?

Even though event professionals are optimistic about the return of in-person events, safety remains the No. 1 consideration for hosting live events. Putting safety protocols in place that ensure social distancing and keep meeting spaces disinfected and sanitized are just as important for the venues and event organizers as they are for the attendees.

In addition, events will continue to improve attendee data security and physical security, especially for large gatherings.

Many business attendees are also concerned with cancellation and attrition terms. Event organizers must balance providing a financial safety net for their attendees with the hard costs associated with event production.

Event production and ancillary event services may come back slowly; for example, venue, audio/visual, and show decorator services may hire staffing on a per-project basis as new events are added.

Smaller and simpler may be the motto for marketing events in 2021. And although in-person tradeshows may take place across multiple days, they will generally be shorter than pre-pandemic events. Airfare and hotel costs have rebounded to 2019 levels, but event prices will, generally, remain slightly lower and will be slower to recover.

Finally, whereas intimate client or colleague dinner gatherings will continue at events, expect fewer off-site outings. Attendees may also choose to curtail the number of nights they spend at an event.

Finding Success With Hybrid Marketing Events

Most event organizers agree that the future of events lies in hybrid offerings. Their success will depend on how well they can connect the online audience with the in-person audience.

The idea of creating a virtual experience on top of an in-person experience creates unique challenges in itself. How do event organizers and sponsors staff both events simultaneously? What features and content should cross over, and what should be unique to each experience?

By now, we all understand at-home distractions and conferencing fatigue. Event producers will have to find unique ways to keep the online audience engaged, including streaming live content and providing opportunities to participate in discussion, such as Q&As and real-time polls.

Hybrid event models also present new opportunities for sponsorships and speaking engagements. Imagine some of the possibilities:

  • Sponsoring and introducing a major headliner in-person and remotely to a wider audience or hosting an intermission break
  • Being the brand behind a virtual/in-person matchmaking service
  • Hosting a poker competition in-person that connects with an online tournament

In all instances, brands can use technology to their advantage to build awareness. For example, during the conference, sponsors could share a relevant intro video, use the lower third of the video frame, or conduct polls in real-time during a presentation.

To aid in networking, sponsors could tap into a mobile event-app experience by moderating a mobile chat or job board. Alternatively, they could sponsor a lounge that includes webcam stations to connect in-person and virtual attendees.

To improve engagement, sponsors can help connect online and in-person attendees—giving a virtual scavenger hunt tied to exhibit booths that involves groups of in-person and online attendees, or using the event mobile app with a "check in" feature so attendees can earn virtual points by completing activities that culminates in a prize giveaway.

In the future of marketing events, the sky's the limit. Success depends on limits on budget and time, and the exercise of your imagination.

More Resources on the Future of Marketing Events

The Return to In-Person Events | MarketingProfs Guide

Marketing Events in a Post-Pandemic World: Opportunities for Innovation

Post-Pandemic Event Checklist: Audience-Centric Innovation and Messaging

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image of Warren Pickett

Warren Pickett is the VP of brand strategy at Blast PR, a full-service public relations firm committed to driving measurable results for clients.

LinkedIn: Warren Pickett