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The Glitch in your Digital and Hybrid Strategy: Unlocking the Commercial Value of Digital Events

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With the pandemic continuing to impact the live events industry into 2021, clients have a balancing act ahead of them, writes Carley Faircloth, global VP and managing director at Freeman EMEA Agency

The Glitch in your Digital and Hybrid Strategy: Unlocking the Commercial Value of Digital Events
One of the most significant business implications of Covid for the majority of brands has been lost event revenue. Previously a sizeable contributor to overall income and growth, some of our clients lost up to one third of their annual business growth overnight when the majority of 2020’s events were cancelled or postponed. It’s a complex and controversial topic. But the recovery of both our industry and our clients’ businesses depends on successfully addressing it. 

Having rapidly adapted to this hybrid world, it would be a mistake for agencies to focus purely on creation, design and execution - regardless of modality. As business partners, we need to begin at the point of overarching commercial objectives to help our clients design portfolios and experiences that guarantee required attendee value and bridge the return to driving appropriate event revenue.

As much as 80% of some clients’ revenue was generated by live events pre-Covid. So as 2021 gets underway the question from most brands is, “How do we get back to that?” Again, this is a sensitive topic given the landscape. But the challenge of unlocking this value becomes equally very exciting when we begin galvanising our insights from last year into actions for this coming one.


Reframe the experience – and objectives


While events exist to enhance sales by encouraging attendee conversion, the reasons people attend vary greatly. Digital events can’t replicate a physical event and nor should they try; they serve a different purpose with opportunities of their own. Therefore transitioning from physical to digital/hybrid events isn’t as simple as moving everything online. Alongside understanding attendees’ motivations, the road to the new value offering begins with reprioritising your event objectives.

Last year we observed many brands immediately shift their focus towards deepening brand awareness and increasing sentiment online. This logical response to Covid’s restrictions on daily life inadvertently caused a lack of confidence to charge for digital experiences. This stems largely from the misconception that, because of diminished sensorial elements and more contracted timeframes, the digital format causes experience deficit and reduced return on experience (ROE). In reality, the value of participation for attendees both live and digitally comes from shared ideas, learning and connections, not the amount of time invested. Reframing the notion of time-to-value is key. 


Create the new value proposition 


Businesses need to access their audiences with a new organiser-sponsor-attendee dynamic in which brands adopt an attendee-first mentality, reframe content and adjust their objectives to match. Understanding audiences’ needs, drivers and motivations isn’t new. But this refreshed lens is critical to creating a unique and meaningful value proposition via user experience intended to persuade action – otherwise there is no ROI and, just as importantly, no ROE.

The data proves that this type of reframed digital engagement does drive business conversion. One client received five times the engagement for its online keynote vs the standalone physical event. The follow-up whitepaper also saw a 60% uplift on previous post-event whitepapers. But the combination of both is the magic that delivered exponential growth and generated £1m confirmed net new revenue –substantial gains for any event marketer to amortize. 


Enhance the business model


It’s time to redesign the traditional event revenue model, typically comprised of a fine balance of sponsorship/exhibitor revenue, ticket sales and lead generation. The abrupt shift to digital precipitated an increased cost per event (CPE) offset by reticence to charge attendees for fear of a reduced ROE, pushing the model to its limits. It also prioritised format and structure over sponsorship, devaluing the digital experience and underdelivering on ROI in the process. 

While live digital CPE is increasing (in one case by five times the amount), we are seeing an overall reduced cost per attendee (CPA) due to reach and scalability.  One of our clients observed a 10-fold increase in attendance and engagement by moving their pre-existing events online, equating to over £0.5 million revenue. That’s tangible proof that a potential overhaul of the sponsorship package with scalable formats to leverage digital’s increased accessibility, reach and customisation could exceed expectations.  


Measuring success with data diligence


The move to digital created a flurry of anticipation around improved metrics and real-time tracking. But with more data comes greater responsibility; digital marketing benchmarks are not interchangeable with digital event performance benchmarks, which are still in a nascent stage. 

We have to be strategic with what we are measuring and why, with an awareness that stats such as event registration numbers can be misleading in the digital ecosystem. For instance, digital events offer impressive reach but it’s tantamount to footfall. This number is meaningless without an understanding of qualified leads captured and a plan to extend the conversation. Correlating KPIs with success metrics during initial stages of event planning will help mitigate against the misappropriation of data points after the event.


Final thoughts


The future of the events industry (and its associated revenue) will undoubtedly comprise a significant digital element, regardless of where your portfolio sits on the hybrid spectrum. That was already a growing trend before Covid expedited the transition. 

While the potential to monetise digital events is yet to be fully realised, the need for business growth has never been higher. In the short-term we will continue to see variations in cost per lead (CPL) as benchmarks are set, lead capture-sharing capabilities become standardised and sponsorship value propositions are redefined. 

In the process, we can unpack the specificities of the digital format and address individual needs to certify commercial viability, especially as new digital revenue streams continue to emerge. Because ultimately the fundamental essence that drives our industry, transcends format and underlines all events is the enduring need for human connection that can create meaningful moments of interaction to drive ROI. 
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Freeman, Mon, 25 Jan 2021 12:01:43 GMT