B2B marketers had to pivot hard over the last 18 months, especially when it came to event marketing. The wholesale cancellation of trade shows and events, a staple of B2B marketing budgets, left many scrambling to find other avenues to drive awareness and connect with potential buyers.
As it turns out, adopting a virtual event strategy can actually produce a number of unexpected benefits — benefits that will surely outlast the pandemic. Of course, virtual events will always be more accessible than in-person events, but the marketers we spoke to had other lessons to share as well. Here’s how forward-thinking marketers learned to love virtual events and reaped benefits that will follow them for years to come.
Building Customer Communities Virtually
In-person events have always offered a valuable opportunity to talk with customers directly. While there may be no substitute for face-to-face communication, marketers we spoke to discovered they could use the bread and butter of virtual events — the webinar — to connect with customers, share stories and build community.
During the uncertainty and isolation of the last year, fostering a sense of community was one of the most important things a brand could do. Not only did it build stronger relationships with customers, it created true advocates for the brand.
Allison Kavanaugh, former VP of marketing at EHR provider Azalea Health and a seasoned B2B marketing professional, found success with a peer-to-peer webinar series in which clients led sessions and developed the agenda. “We were able to genuinely connect with prospects, collect valuable insight for marketing collateral and sales enablement, and leverage session material for ongoing campaigns. I’d say that these events delivered some of the most unanticipated value and lasting returns.”
Jim Somers, CMO at patient engagement platform provider CipherHealth, shared a similar webinar success story: “We got into a regular rhythm of larger webinars where our clinical team and current customers shared their stories — and augmented those events with case studies and great press.”
Takeaway: When it comes to webinars, think beyond lead generation. How could you use your webinars to bring customers together?
Related Article: Online Communities and the Campfire Principal
Recognizing the Upside of Virtual Conferences
Trade shows have long been the bedrock of B2B marketing. In 2017, 40% of B2B marketing budgets went to exhibiting at trade shows. As the pandemic cancelled one show after another, it was unclear if virtual events would bring the same value and results. The good news is, for some companies, virtual events proved more effective than the live alternative.
“We weren’t sure what to expect at our first IntelliShift ConnectedOps virtual conference, but it was a success based on the feedback we received from both customers and prospects,” said John Carione, CMO at Intellishift. “I’ve been involved in annual conferences before that typically take nine months to plan, and it’s not fair to compare apples to oranges, but we had strong attendance and engagement for an event that was one-tenth the cost and took six months fewer to plan and execute.”
Smaller companies and startups in particular found virtual conferences not only saved them time and money, but also leveled the playing field with their larger, more established peers.
“As a startup at a conference, it’s very easy for others to see how you compare with competitors just by looking at the size and scope of the booths and the number of team members there,” said Keren Fridman, former director of marketing at Alcide (recently acquired by Rapid7). “For us, going virtual was wonderful. Our booth was the same size as those of our competitors. Other than being in a different 'hall,' we weren't any different from the Googles and AWSs of the world!”
Virtual conferences also help teams focus their efforts during the event. Why? Because a virtual conference takes place in a kind of augmented reality.
"At a virtual conference you can see the name, company and job title of any attendee before you start a conversation,” said Fridman. “This has two benefits. First, it tells you when you need to give it all you got with a booth visitor and when you don’t need to waste your energy. Second, it means you can go to a competitor’s virtual booth and identify possible prospects with just a click of the mouse.”
Takeaway: Take advantage of the virtual nature of virtual conferences. They are less expensive to host and allow you to punch above your weight.
Related Article: Shifting to a Virtual Events Strategy
Are In-Person Events Still Worth It?
In-person trade shows and exhibitions are slowly coming back. But based on the experiences of the past year, many marketers are rethinking their attendance.
Frankly, some marketers questioned whether events were still worth the investment at all, citing lasting changes in the buyer journey. "The pandemic forced us to put a premium on social and search marketing," said Patrick Berzai, VP of global marketing at video platform JW Player. "We are not certain we will be investing in events next year."
Nevertheless, others we spoke to were more reluctant to walk away from in-person events entirely. "Trade shows and exhibitions have traditionally had a high cost per lead, but the leads are higher quality than with paid advertising," said Joe Capes, CEO of LiquidStack. "We just need to get smarter about how we participate in these events and how we choose the ones that have real meaning and benefit."
Fred Waugh, former SVP of marketing at Arena Solutions (recently acquired by PTC), agreed: “Conferences will come back — there’s no substitute for in-person networking — but marketers are going to question the ROI of those investments in ways they hadn’t in the past.”
Takeaway: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by swearing off live events, but don’t take them for granted. Instead, use this opportunity to ask how you can optimize your investment in them.
Live events will always have their place in B2B marketing. At the same time, the last 18 months had many asking, “What will I do without them?” The answer, according to practitioners, is “Watch and learn!”