The events industry may still be debating the merits of a real-time Twitter feed and struggling to bring to life the concept of the 365-day show experience, but one thing is clear: The heyday of the static event Web site has passed.
Show organizers are navigating an increasingly dynamic terrain built up with video, blogs and social networks. The transition requires not only selecting the right online tools but also considering yearround management of content and moving toward monetization of new resources.
“We're in [the] early-adoption stage,” said Stephen Nold, president of consultancy Advon Technologies and founder of MeetingTechOnline, a Web site that follows technology trends in the events industry. “We've got a lot of show organizers who are trying to figure out what they should be doing.”
Technology advancements, coupled with economic pressures and the demand for a measurable return on investment, help drive interest in digital media, according to show organizers.
“Our revenue ... has shifted significantly from banners at the show to e-revenue from Web banners,” said Yancy Weinrich, VP-industry at JCK Events, where she is charged with two of Reed Exhibition's jewelry industry shows. “Trackability is pushing investment this way. If you can show the statistics and specific numbers, it becomes much more valuable to people.”
In the soft economy, JCK undertook a number of digital initiatives this year, using social media tools to reach out to its audiences and promote event attendance. “It's easy to do quick updates and get people excited about what's going on,” Weinrich said. “You can do it last-minute, and people were making the decision so last-minute this year—whether or not they were going to come to the show.”
JCK organizers also thought about long-term promotion, hiring a production company to create an online video presentation to help drive attendance at next year's event.
In addition, JCK launched a yearround online store and a series of postshow, sponsored e-mail blasts. The store, JCKShowDirect.com, serves as a value-added feature that offers exhibitors with a presence at the Las Vegas show an additional forum for reaching retailers. JCK organizers plan to transform it into a revenue generator, with sponsorship sales and featured product areas after it develops a loyal audience and demonstrates its worth, Weinrich said.
Other show producers are also adopting digital tactics, investing resources into new media despite what can be an initial ROI lag.
Digital sponsorships contribute only about 7% of an event's marketing budget, according to a recent report from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research and George P. Johnson. The study, “Digital+Exhibiting Marketing Insights 2009,” conducted online in April and May, surveyed 287 event managers and corporate brand exhibitors about the use of digital media.
That contribution, however, has already tripled its online revenue following the introduction last year of customizable event Web portals.
The portals provide access to show information, a proprietary social network and customizable news feeds, and soon will include yearround blogs by educational program speakers from the company's face-to-face events. The content has been designed to capture the rush of Web traffic that occurs before and during an event, retaining that audience all year.
“The whole point is to make our site an industry resource 365 days a year, rather than an online brochure promoting the show for 16 to 20 weeks,” said Nicole Buraglio, sales director at Hanley Wood Exhibitions.
“The push to create yearround engagement affected the microsites built to market individual events. “We redesigned the Web sites themselves and structured them in a modular way so we can incorporate different components, like RSS feeds and widgets,” Buraglio said. “We are very focused on bringing in as much content as possible.”
The Web development provides several revenue-building opportunities. Exhibitors can, for example, offer exclusive news feeds on the site; purchase smart advertisements or online sponsorships; or pay to increase e-mail capacity on the social networking system.
Additional improvements also integrate all the customer data Hanley Wood has collected, demonstrating to exhibitors and attendees who register that Hanley Wood remembers them and allowing the company to make recommendations based on a customer's profile and history of participation at its events.
“We can put together some cross-show marketing, as well as up-sell the events that these people participate in,” Buraglio said.
The social networking system provides significant sales leverage as well, she said. For the first time, exhibitors can access all attendee registration data, allowing the tool to be used for very targeted marketing initiatives.
“This is a huge value. It's a level of information we've never had the opportunity to offer before.”
Because an exhibitor's capacity to use the system is tied to booth size, the feature provides an incentive for exhibitors to maintain traditional footprints—despite the soft economy.
More than 15% of attendees have signed on to use the tool, and about half of exhibitors are expected to use it this year, she said—numbers the company expects to grow markedly.
In addition, Hanley Wood invested in a new ad server that allows increased tracking, helping the company meet exhibitor demand for measurable ROI.
The value of all of that technology hinges on Hanley Wood's ability to retain its audience after a show closes.
“We are just working to provide content and opportunities for exhibitors that cycle, so we've got new information for the whole industry to come back to,” Buraglio said. “It's a work in progress.”
The development of content, networking and revenue opportunities are challenges many event producers face.
“We are still in full experimentation mode,” said Mark Fissell, director of new-product development at researcher Gartner Inc., of the company's use of social media to support its information technology conferences. “We are trying to figure out the right mix of tools for our clients.”
The company is dividing social networking resources between proprietary and third-party applications, though a definitive model is still under review. Registered attendees can, for example, use the company's agenda-building features to access exclusive content or link to third-party forums.
Fissell, however, is cautious about how to invest Gartner's time, money and content.
“It might be free to create groups,” he said. “But do we want to invest where we don't own the network and what is being transmitted? It's a fine line, how much Gartner exists out in third-party [sites] versus on Gartner channels.”
While the company is looking at developing revenue-generating opportunities around digital media assets, the most valuable advantage of new capabilities may be the ability to offer attendees a refresher of complex conference material, ensuring that they draw full value from the event experience, Fissell said.
“That's the value-add conference organizers need to spend more time focusing on,” he said. M