More than 400 event professionals joined the “Ask CEMA Live!” webinar on April 9. The first in an ongoing series from CEMA, the webinar featured a panel of event marketers discussing the current challenges in the industry and how they are addressing events in this uncertain time.
CEMA CEO and President Kimberley Gishler explained the concept of the series as a platform for all to maintain a feeling of community. “You are not alone, we are all very much in this together,” she said. “Now is a perfect time for us to break down the walls and have everyone come together and help each other out.”
Moderated by Jimmy Ervin, founder and president of Velocity, the April 9 expert panel comprised:
- Colleen Bisconti, vice president of global conferences & events, IBM
- Diana Cam, senior director, partner marketing, Workiva
- Sara Straw, senior manager, event program strategy, Sage
Panelists discussed in depth how they and their organizations are handling events currently as well as planning for the future.
The Current State of Events
Panelists shared the status of their events programs, which are indicative of what most companies are experiencing at this time.
Sage’s two major proprietary events were scheduled for May and June. Straw said that the company is in the process of postponing them, and also noted that many third-party events are being cancelled.
In February, IBM began pulling out of third-party shows in China. By the end of March, the company had cancelled all its events and event participation worldwide through June. IBM’s 30,000-person user conference, IBM Think, originally scheduled to be held in San Francisco May 5-7, will be a virtual event.
Cam says that Workiva cancelled or pulled out of the majority of third-party events scheduled through June, along with postponing or cancelling field marketing events. Workiva’s annual user conference, Amplify, scheduled for this fall, will be in a virtual format. Cam says that later this quarter, the company will reevaluate other events slated for the second half of the year.
Pivoting to Virtual?
Across all industries, event professionals are debating whether to convert their live event to a virtual format — or replace a potential live event with a virtual event. There is no right or wrong answer; the bigger question is whether you can still serve your audience in the context of your company’s strategy and goals.
Bisconti says that goal setting is the most important thing, as in-person events and virtual events have many fundamental differences. She explains that for IBM Think, the team deconstructed the event, looked at the most important things attendees derive from the face-to-face experience, then determined what could be turned virtual in a meaningful way.
Components may vary based on your own event structure, goals, and requirements, but for Think, Bisconti broke it down to three:
- Core content – keynotes, announcements
- Skill development — technical content
- Networking — developing connections with peers
The team then brainstormed around the best way to make those event components digital, she explains. This included areas such as:
- Platform — how to best deliver the components in a meaningful way
- Audience retention — convince people there’s still value in attending
- Audience acquisition — recruit new registrants who may not have been able to attend face-to-face
- Attendee engagement — how do you keep attendees engaged during the event?
The messaging for a virtual event will be different than for marketing a face-to-face event, and may be outside of an event marketer’s usual realm of expertise. Thus, there may be some required ramping up of digital skills, which will be necessary for successful delivery of virtual events.
Core Business Values Haven’t Changed
Cam says that it’s important to really put thought into what will work in a digital format rather than just rushing into it. “We’re still trying to figure out how to keep our customers and prospects engaged, impact our pipeline and our lead gen, and do that in this new environment,” she explains. “A live event going virtual does not equal just a simple webinar.”
Many organizations are also now revisiting their budgets, and looking at ways to refocus marketing dollars. As business values stay static, oftentimes so do lead generation expectations. And without leads from hosted or third-party events, many marketers are being tasked with getting creative and determining how to keep building market demand.
For Cam and Workiva, now is a good time to investigate technology. “[We’re] really looking at how technology and our tech stack can support what we’re trying to do … [seeing] what else is out there, and best practices to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for the organization.”
Straw says that ensuring customer success is the highest priority for Sage. Providing hands-on learning and access to the company’s ecosystem of products and partners are key considerations for any changes to events.
The webinar covered many more topics, including predictions and audience Q&A. Top-level takeaways include:
- Third-party events are being postponed and cancelled on a rolling basis — even some slated closer to year-end
- All panelists noted that they are reevaluating their own flagship events
- The pivot to virtual is a common theme across all industries
- The concern around doing virtual “right” is shared by many
- Nobody has all the answers
One word that was used frequently is “together.” All the panelists recommend collaboration— internally and externally — to help ensure that you have the best understanding of audience needs and desires. Talk to your customer success team, sales team and digital marketing colleagues. Talk to your customers. Talk to your partners. The more included everyone feels, the better the results are likely to be.
Watch the April 9 Ask CEMA Live! webinar on-demand here.
The next Ask CEMA Live! webinar will be held on April 23, and will focus on content, the attendee experience and digital events. The annual CEMA Summit is scheduled to take place at the J.W. Marriott Nashville, July 26-28. Gishler says that (as of now) CEMA is still planning to hold the event as planned.