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Event expectations

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"One of our conference speakers called us to say she couldn’t attend,” a publisher told me over lunch recently. “She said her company [a brand-name, high-technology vendor] had slashed her travel budget. Well, because we were already anxious about attendance at our conference, we opted to fly her in at our own expense. I called the speaker with the good news. ‘That’s great,’ she said. ‘But I’ve just been laid off.’ Here’s the punch line: We’re still flying he in to speak!”

Welcome to the event business, 2009.

Make no mistake, events aren’t going away—even in today’s dismal economy. In-person gatherings (more on virtual events in a bit) are an essential step for moving business relationships and commerce along, not to mention educating audiences and collecting qualified leads.

Nor is this surprising: Businesspeople are, after all, people. Biological imperatives trump cyclical, economic conditions every time.

Besides, events are a very cost-effective medium. According to a study released last month by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, companies spend on average $215 to make an initial face-to-face visit with a prospective customer at a trade show, compared with an average of $1,039 identifying and contacting a prospect in the field.

But CEIR also forecast an industry contraction. It estimated overall net square feet will be down 5.6% this year, exhibiting will be down 8.6% and “professional attendance” will be off 12.5%.

Other analysts, however, are more bullish. PQ Media, a provider of alternative-media research, said event marketing will actually see growth this year, albeit less than what was experienced in 2008, according to BtoB sibling publication Advertising Age. PQ Media is projecting growth of 10.6% for the sector, to $9.83 billion, down from the industry’s 15% growth last year.

As our special report on event marketing in this issue (starting on page 20) makes clear, marketers and show producers are responding in two broad ways: more rigorously measuring their events (and the return on objective of their event marketing) and dreaming up new ways to integrate live and online executions.

The report highlights the case of Lightolier, a 150-yearold lighting manufacturer that last fall hosted a live webcast product announcement. Some 1,500 handpicked attendees in nine U.S. cities simultaneously watched the online event and participated in an interactive online Q&A. Significantly, once the webcast ended, the sales force in each remote location demoed the new product, live and inperson. “Within minutes of releasing the product to our sales force, they were closing deals—major deals,” said Kevin Brewser, manager of media services at Lightolier.

While it’s a given that marketers are adopting virtual events as a way to overcome corporate travel restrictions among their target audiences, they need to be smart about this strategy, experts say. “I love all the virtual stuff, but there are certain things you can only do live,” said Richard Norby, VP-creativeservices at Live Marketing, a trade show and event marketing agency in Chicago. He said companies need to be careful to embrace online events for the right reasons. They’re missing the point if they focus on “what works for them and their budget, not what works for their customer,” Norby said, adding that marketers need to structure their virtual events on their unique strengths, “not as a clone of a live medium.”

It’s worth noting that BtoB itself is climbing on the virtual events bandwagon. Our daylong virtual event, “Leading Edge: Demand Generation in the Digital Age,” will take place May 19. You can register at www.btobonline.com/leadingedge. This online conference is in addition to our inperson events, including our multicity NetMarketing Breakfast series and an inaugural two-day conference on b-to-b marketing we will be hosting with the Association of National Advertisers in Chicago, Aug. 4–5.

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