Has it truly been six months since we were hit with COVID-19 and the all stop lever was pulled on an entire industry? In many ways it seems like it was yesterday that we were talking about growing our events, meeting or exceeding our annual budget numbers, and focusing on our biggest risks like security. Oh, those were the days. In other ways, it seems like a lifetime ago that we were so unaware of the impending implosion. Either way, there has been a virtual cornucopia (no pun intended) of emotions, tough discussions, and tougher actions as we’ve collectively been forced to navigate through the storm surge.
If there are any potential silver linings to this sad summer, it has been a much more conscious and purposeful outreach within our networks and peer groups to provide and partake of support and compassion. With the changes in my own circumstances, it’s provided me a reason to connect with so many more fine people than I might have beforehand, and I count that as a blessing in my life. Through these connections, I am hearing a resounding affirmation that face-to-face will return. Not only is the expectation strong for a return, but there is much speculation of a renewed and rejuvenated industry.
It is my sincere hope that each of you can keep your passion candle lit and protected from the wind while we collectively toil to change, pivot, and survive. There can be no doubt that our industry, if not our world, will be forever changed by this pandemic. Using history as a guidelight, it’s likely to have grown stronger and more effective in many ways.
So, what was it that we were all talking about PC (Pre-COVID)? Oh yes, it was “all about the data.” Our industry was maturing and evolving into a data-driven enterprise. I was having countless conversations with event organizers that were focused on gaining a much deeper and revealing insight into their participants by leveraging all the data that had been piling up for years. With a clearer understanding of interests, behaviors and personas, mutually beneficial outcomes could be generated helping both the organizer and the participant. The organizers could market more effectively and hence grow their numbers of both attendees and exhibitors. But more importantly, this growth would be justified by improved and more aligned experiences and opportunities being created as a consequence of having more insight.
This interest in extracting insights from the data had evolved to the point that several behavioral tracking products had become available to measure actual activities with even more granularity. Exactly where were people spending the most time? What types of individuals were frequenting what types of areas the most? How were those trends changing over the length of the event? Did sponsorship opportunities in certain areas or venues actually change exhibit floor behavior? Did exhibit booth location truly play a hand in traffic? And if so, how much? If we opened that new pavilion, would it drive new attendance? The questions went on and on.
What’s a bit ironic about this necessary and all too sudden shift from physical to virtual is that the amount of behavioral data being captured, or I will say should be captured, by your virtual event platform far exceeds anything that could have been generated from a physical event. Simply by the very nature of the engagement interface, the web browser, we are capturing a massive amount of behavioral engagement data with every click and page-load. No longer do we need to hire temps to stand at the doors and scan badges to know exactly who entered each session. We should now automatically know how long they stayed there or how much of the pre-recorded content they watched. We now know exactly who is talking to who and how long they are doing it. We know if they stayed only for the first half of the program and left in the mid-afternoon only to return for the closing remarks. Know exactly what exhibitors or sponsors every single person was interested in. Collecting feedback on specific sessions or keynotes if far easier since you control the screen in front of every one’s face. Social media tracking is easier. Suggesting connections is easier (or should be easier). Satisfaction survey’s can be embedded throughout (smiley face….frowny face). Believe me, as long as you chose a mature event platform, there is likely far more data being captured than any report or dashboard is currently showing you. And that actually leads us to the new problem.
Okay. I misspoke. It’s not a new problem. In fact, it’s an age-old problem that is so common within software product organizations. I feel I can speak frankly on this issue because I experienced, if not exacerbated, the issue myself (not intentionally, of course). Long ago, I was a software engineer. I lead software engineering teams for years. I oversaw product development and strategy. Like it or not, there seems to be a natural tug-of-war within software engineering teams between focusing on the interfaces to collect data as opposed to interfaces to provide data insights. Don’t get me wrong. No one is conspiring to keep their customers in the dark. Of course not. Every software product organization that I’ve come in contact with is truly driven to maximize customer value. They certainly wouldn’t be in business long if that wasn’t the case. It’s just that there is some strange, inert, natural proclivity to lean more into the technical functions that ultimately gather the data and a slight tendency to think of the insight generation functions as an afterthought.
I believe it comes from the fact that if you’re not effectively providing your core functions effectively, resulting in the capture or generation of data, then you would not have the data to report on or analyze in the first place. So of course, that’s where our attention would be. But this tendency lingers, and all too often results in a product with an underdeveloped data-driven insight capability. What’s more, I have come to truly understand that the skills and talents of the resources required to be effective in the generation of data-driven insights are totally different than those focused on the capture and storage of the data. It’s kind of like defense and offense in football, you usually build a career focused on only one of them. It’s the rare player that plays both sides well.
This explains what I’ve been hearing from so many event organizers that have now had the time to produce one or more virtual events. Things have finally calmed down enough that they’ve reached the point to start to ask questions and seek insights from those virtual experiences. Unfortunately, what many are finding is the fact that their virtual event platforms are still underdeveloped in this area. It makes sense, right? So many of these fine companies have pivoted to adjust their focus during this tough change. Or they’re so inundated with events that it’s been all hands-on deck to on-board new clients while keeping the engines from overheating. I get it and I’ve been there.
To exacerbate this issue, the marketplace for virtual event platforms is exploding even as we speak. We’ve gone from around 20 providers at the beginning of the year to approximately 160 in my last count. Believe me, it’s not done either. I predict the number will surpass 200 before the end of Q1 2021. With so many new products entering the marketplace, there is bound to be many that have yet to have had the time to develop a mature, data-driven insights capability.
Yet, the fundamentals of driving business remain unchanged. Event organizers need to understand well the behaviors of their participants in order to adapt as quickly as possible and to level-up their value proposition with the next engagement. This need does not change and it will only become a more complex equation once face-to-face returns but with the enhancement of virtual experiences as well. Then, event organizers will need to mine the data and extract actionable insights to drive their engagement strategies from two completely different environments.
What is the cross-over between my physical participants and the virtual? Does virtual engagement drive future physical? Do physical participants have a higher virtual engagement post show? Does the virtual platform serve well for new participant acquisition? Is it possible to measure enhanced value to exhibitors through both platforms? How is the value of sponsorship changed by its extension throughout the year within the virtual space? Should we be changing our approach to physical education due to the inclusion of virtual? If so, how? I’m sure this is just scratching the surface.
The trailhead that leads to the development of sound answers to these strategic questions begins in the foothills of data-driven insights. Since this is the case, and so many of the virtual platforms are still ‘under construction’ in this area, where does that leave the event organizer? Are they left with just getting a dump of the raw data themselves and then try to scour through the proverbial haystack in search of their needle? I’m sure you’ve been there before and you realize that that is biting off quite a bit. Let’s not forget, an entire industry emerged with specifically skilled roles to do just that. It’s not a weekend warrior type of thing.
Luckily, event organizers are not left out in the cold. Just as before pre-COVID, there are several organizations within the industry that specialize in data analytics and have a long, proven record of serving up event organizers with just what they were seeking – actionable insights to drive strategies. For the organizers out there, I might offer the following recommendations.
When shopping for a virtual event platform, after a few initial high-level questions to slim down the choices just a bit, start with an exploration of their data-insights output. Thoroughly dig into what kinds of insights you should expect to pull from their system first, and then take the time to align that internally to develop a set of measures and objectives for your events based on these KPIs. Use that as your primary selection criteria and then move into other functional comparisons afterwards. In this way, regardless of the pros and cons of any given virtual experience, you will already know that you’ll have insights to drive future actions. You should know the questions and the answers that will be generated.
What if you have already done the work to define the insights you believe you need, but can’t find a platform to support those out of the box? Then my recommendation would be to engage your data analytics vendor early and include them in the process, letting them help you define the insight expectations you should have and then ultimately deliver those to you through the analysis. I know there are budgetary considerations and all the other very real business considerations that we are all challenged with today, but in the chaos of our circumstance, I urge us to not forget the primary objective of meetings as a whole – to add value to the engagements of market participants. That value cannot be assumed or surmised, it should be measured and quantified. As it turns out, regardless of the noise and chaos generated by this environmental melee, it really is still “all about the data.”