For B2B marketing and event teams, 2020 delivered a crash course in hosting virtual events. Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen experimentation and innovation across the events industry and, as social distancing rules relax, a cautious return to in-person gatherings. In the meantime, we are beginning to see a shift to hybrid models that incorporate the most successful elements of virtual but get back to using events to build relationships with customers.
Yet, people are social animals; they attend events for the experience and to connect with others. Replicating the excitement and spontaneity of physical events in the virtual world or in a hybrid scenario won’t happen until marketers can outfit non-present attendees with virtual-reality goggles and haptic gloves, but that’s no excuse for failing to make digital experiences more engaging in the meantime.
Keeping remote employees involved means designing virtual event experiences that differ from webinars and deliver more value, which is a challenge cited by 58% of respondents to Forrester’s Q4 2020 B2B Marketing Events Management Solutions Forrester Wave™ Customer Reference Survey. Regardless of format, the virtual elements of events must look and feel like the real deal, not like a random collection of videos or webinars broadcast together.
Technology providers are called to step up offerings of more innovative online venues, giving remote attendees better ways to interact, allowing virtual and in-person audiences to mix and share experiences, and encouraging marketers to highlight those features as an event draw. Added interactivity features will draw remote attendees into the action, offering access to the chance meetings that physical events foster.
New ways to serendipitously connect with other attendees, sponsors, or speakers are limited on a virtual platform, and 58% of the customers Forrester surveyed want their providers to improve attendee engagement capabilities the most. Beyond basic polling, Q&A features, social sharing, and videoconference meetings, we expect artificial intelligence (AI) to play a key role in recommending sessions and suggesting like-minded attendees to connect with during the event – wherever and however they might be joining.
Overall, Forrester forecasts a future where:
- Hybrid events become commonplace. Through our research and conversations with clients, we found nearly unanimous agreement that hybrid events will become the event format of choice. Though has 2020 taught valuable lessons about which digital elements to retain to better serve their audiences in the future, people are already showing signs that they are increasingly keen to return to in-person formats.
- Marketers will use events to return to enhancing customer relationships. During the pandemic, most marketers panicked as in-person tactics were prohibited. They instead focused myopically on lead generation as the primary goal of any marketing activity. Yet, when asked about 2019 – prior to the pandemic – 69% of these marketers said they used events to build customer relationships, with a distant 38% picking “generate leads” as an important objective. As restrictions on in-person gatherings ease, we expect B2B marketers to return to customer relationship building as the core focus, leaning on virtual event experiences to reach further inside current accounts and enhance post-sale communications.
- Attendance will increase but attention remains a challenge. Chalk it up to novelty, not having to travel, or the fact that 63% of marketers chose to forgo entry fees, but virtual events attracted big crowds in 2020. Survey respondents reported higher attendance rates at virtual than previous in-person events: 34% attracted at least 2,500 attendees on average, while 37% achieved attendance-to-registration rates of 65% or more. Getting customers and prospects to show up is the easy part; getting them to stay and engage is harder. Instead of spending dozens of hours attending an in-person conference, 56% of reference customers measured just 5 hours or less of participation on average, and 61% reported that maintaining attendee interest was the top challenge they faced.
Regardless of format, getting attendees actively involved and engaged is a pre-pandemic problem that has only been highlighted by the pivot online. Improving the experience requires mobile apps that treat remote and in-person participants with parity.
Marketers struggled to get attendees actively involved in virtual events and 49% say they would like their technology provider to improve digital experiences related to virtual environments, scheduling, and networking. Though, while mobile-enabling attendees has potential to facilitate a more personalised experience for in-person and remote participants alike, it requires widespread adoption of mobile applications by the broad conference-going audience and that an improvement we expect to see draw out over the long term.
Laura Ramos, Vice President and Principal Analyst
Laura serves B2B marketing and sales professionals. She is a leading expert in B2B marketing with hands-on senior management experience in corporate, industry, account-based, and product marketing; demand management; and social media. Her research addresses the skills, technology, process, and customer experience concerns of top B2B marketers related to all aspects of engaging existing customers.