The Immediate Future of Events is Content Marketing

B2B sales and marketing have (hopefully temporarily) lost a vital engagement channel; In Real Life (IRL). As I write this, pretty much globally we are all working from home, events, from the smallest networking and customer events to the largest trade shows are no more. As marketers, we are all working on creating a differentiated virtual offering to replace them.

Real-life events are a package, the reason people attend events is not just the content, it’s the people they meet, the network, seeing that hero keynote speaker in the flesh, the attractiveness of the location and the prestige in social sharing that they are there.

We can sell to our audience the idea of being in sunny Barcelona in May, access to a place, like a fancy restaurant that you wouldn’t usually have access to, seeing Seth Godin in New York or the chance to meet Earvin “Magic” Johnson at our B2B conference. The content is essential, yes, but a detailed examination of the agenda is only part of the decision to attend, and dare I say a small portion for some events.

Right now, as marketers, we are applying our creativity to how we move this experience online. But the challenge with virtual events (or as we know them today; webinars) is that the experience is not social and takes place at our desk.

There is no possibility of a selfie with an industry thought leader, no prospect of a sunny evening stroll down Las Ramblas or looking out over London from The Shard. When was the last time someone tweeted a selfie from a webinar? However creative we get, I don’t think we can escape the content centricity of the experience.

Attention for an online event, however ingeniously creative is going to be a tougher sell, as the channel, already saturated with content, will become even more saturated as marketing teams shift their event budgets and go-to-market strategies from physical to online.

Plus, the consumer still expects content for nothing. I watched a splendid webinar by SirriusDecisions/Forrester yesterday, super-valuable. It was free as it’s production was funded as a business development activity for the consulting business it would generate from the emails it harvested. In B2B the economy we’ve built around online content is that the stuff online is a loss leader for the thing we sell.

Which, obviously is a challenge if you want to move your paid-for event to the virtual world, sure your costs will be lower, but just getting attention will be hard. Event organizers will face the same challenge as publishers, who have been decimated by the inability to monetize content, as it moved from the gated printed channel of the newspaper stand to online.

I would love to know the attendance SirriusDecisions/Forrester got so that I could get a sense of how this worked out for a respected analyst firm, with useful content and credible speaker, but you get no feeling of that. No social proof. Plus, when the speaker stops, the event ends.

If it was a real event, I would have seen the crowd, rubbed shoulders with it, felt like I was part of a unique tribe. For smaller events, meetups and such, we can replicate the social aspect online, but that’s difficult to scale.

However, we shouldn’t try and replicate one-off, traditional destination events for a new channel, and believe that with some sort of gimmick, we will successfully move the crowd from the show floor to Zoom (other online collaboration platforms are available). Plus, if we stop thinking like event organizers, is there any reason why this content needs to be delivered over two or three days? Virtual gives us the opportunity of a more extended play.

To differentiate in this noise, organizations need to stop thinking about events as a separate field activity. They are now part of a content marketing strategy that builds credibility and trust, to the point that people will subscribe both with their attention, which will be tough enough and then their cash.

Sure, online events should be part of this strategy, especially smaller networking events where virtual meetings can work and we need to try and use our social tools to reinvent the broadcast webinar and bring some of the networking sparkles to it.

But, you need people to show up and stripped of the attraction of the fancy location and the crowd, the only reason people will come is for what they will learn, how useful it will be to them, and the credibility and influence of the person sharing the content.

That’s content marketing.

If this is interesting, after publishing this post I listened to Robert Rose and Dennis Shiao discuss this topic on Robert’s Weekly Wrap podcast, well worth a listen.

Photo of black chairs by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

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