Large-scale events took a hit when COVID-19 slammed physical doors, but as the old saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. Faced with shuttered venues ranging from theatres and meeting halls to convention centres and stadiums, event organizers did a deep digital pivot.
“What we’re seeing is that marketers are lifting and shifting what normally would have been a physical event over into the virtual world,” said Laurie Buczek, Research Vice President, CMO Advisory Practice, Digital Strategy and Customer Experience with IDC, the world’s largest media, data and marketing services company. “And we are hearing that marketers see the potential in not going back to the way things were.”
A digital marketing expert with three decades of experience in leadership roles across marketing, customer experience, IT and sales, Buczek joined ITWC President Fawn Annan in December 2020 for an installment of CMO Talks, a podcast series presented by ITWC and IDC to address pressing marketing challenges. The discussion focused on why there’s no looking back when it comes to virtual events.
Buczek opened by describing the annual benchmarking survey conducted by IDC, a traditional way to understand the preferences and strategies of marketers and tech buyers. “We have seen for some time that digital has been creeping into how marketers are going to market and how buyers want to engage with brands,” she said. “COVID has tipped that 100 per cent into the digital space.”
According to Buczek, the two main reasons people would attend an in-person, pre COVID event are the same two reasons they would attend a virtual event during the pandemic: to keep up on technology trends and to keep up on industry trends. Networking and building relationships with vendors and peers was another reason to attend live events, especially for Gen Z and Millennials, yet an IDC survey found that 57% of virtual event organizers are failing to provide a method for visitors to engage. Closing this gap will require technology advances for event hosting platforms.
“The key takeaway,” said Buczek, “is to provide an easier way to connect virtually, and to demonstrate that virtual events are not just to keep up on trends, but that they’re still a good way to connect with peers, experts, and vendors.”
When asked by Annan to comment on what has been lost in the departure from in-person events, Buczek reflected on her recent research into the future of marketing. “I was really curious to see if the loss of physical events would have a negative impact on a company’s ability to really engage with prospects and customers,” she said. “What I found is that companies discovered unexpected benefits from this broader digital reach and engagement.”
Two positive outcomes stand out for Buczek. For one thing, primarily North American events now draw attendees from all over the world. For another, there has been a significant increase in overall attendance. As a result, digital events have become so successful that as physical events continue to stay on hold, forward-thinking brands are reinvesting to build capabilities for omni-channel digital experiences and high-quality production.
Although Buczek expects some form of live events to return when things begin to open up again, she believes they will account for a smaller portion of the overall mix. “There will still be benefit to in-person events,” she said, ”but what I’m hearing from marketers is that they see it coming from smaller, regional, in-person events that will complement the digital experience.”
For Buczek, the four key factors for success in delivering virtual events are having a digital presence that allows attendees an element of choice, matching customer expectations and budgets, offering engaging content, and creating human connections.
“You don’t actually need to be in-person to participate in the event experience,” she concludes. “That’s one of the great things that we’ve all learned from COVID-19.”