Virtual events are here to stay: and they’re a digital channel

“This has been an interesting year on the events front in lots of ways.”

Some British understatement from Chris Wickson, the co-founder and former CEO of U.K.-based B2B events and lead capture vendor Akkroo. Akkroo was acquired by B2B demand orchestration platform Integrate in April, 2019, and Wickson now serves as Integrate’s GM for events solutions, and for EMEA.

The state of events

We were speaking with Wickson, and CMO Deb Wolf, on the occasion of the release of some timely research: “The State of Events: Crafting Your 2021 Event Plan.” Integrate surveyed 500 senior marketers in the U.S. and U.K. to get a sense of how they’re viewing prospects for in-person, virtual and hybrid events over the next 12 to 14 months. The results are broadly consistent with what we’ve been tracking here at MarTech Today:

  • In the future. in-person and virtual events will co-exist (80% of those surveyed);
  • There’s uncertainty as to when in-person events will return — the situation is constantly changing — but there’s a sense it will be second half of 2021 or early 2022;
  • Almost 60% of those surveyed will not attend an in-person event absent safety precautions, and 27% plan to wait for a vaccine;
  • Planning the right mix of virtual events and webinars is a challenge for B2B marketers, even as they see their budgets for these kinds of events increase.

The acquisition of an events-focused lead capture and management solution reflects Integrate’s mission to bring together a full range of channel options for B2B marketers.

The omnichannel buyer journey

“We think there are some interesting things going on — for example in ABM — but very single-channel focused, mostly programmatic advertising,” said Wolf. “When I think about when I use things in my tool-chest, I use everything from webinars to events to content syndication to, of course, programmatic display. We’re trying to bring all those different technologies into our demand acceleration platform, where we validate and cleanse data, and make sure it is compliant, before it goes into a marketing automation system or a CDP.”

Recently, Jon Miller, CTO of Demandbase, told us: ““Emails are not working, and marketing automation is a lot about email.” Wolf echoes that sentiment: “Once you get into MA, you’re really a one-trick pony — you’ve got email to nurture with. Marketers are starting to look at nurture much further into the sales cycle, especially this year when so much of what we’re doing is digital.” The challenge is finding the best ways to exploit other digital channels — and right now, events is a digital channel.

No turning the clock back

Integrate’s research confirms the general feeling that the post-COVID landscape will not be just the same as pre-COVID when it comes to events. “The common theme right now with our customers,” Wickson said, “is that no-one has really got answers for what 2021 should look like. A lot of people are spreading their bets, planning an event mix — pencilling in in-person, but as the weeks and months go by, those are getting shifted back.”

For the first half of next year, Wickson expects to see a combination of first-party webinars, “full-on” virtual events, and hybrid events — a combination of in-person and virtual elements. “That’s a tricky one,” said Wickson. “When you peel back the layers, it’s a daunting task for organizers and marketers to get their heads around. We’re struggling with virtual events at the moment, let alone when you try to put the two together.”

“When you go to the hybrid model,” Wolf added, “you’re planning two events. They’re two different mind-sets, two different skill-sets, and two different-costs.”

Distinguishing in-person from virtual

Wickson in fact believes it’s useful to draw a strong distinction between in-person events and virtual events. “An in-person event, by its very nature, is an occasion that people travel to; you’re physically there as a captive audience. On the virtual even side, people went into it earlier this year with an expectation that they could flip the switch and re-create the in-person in a virtual scenario — and that’s led to disappointment. A virtual event is a form of content that can be used in lot of different ways, and the more successful virtual events we’re seeing now are going into it with that mind-set.”

The survey shows that engagement levels at virtual events are poor, making to on-demand aspect of virtual events important. “Let people consume the content in their time, when they’re ready,” said Wickson. Is there any virtual equivalent to the kind of engagement seen at an in-person event? “I saw a stat that 20% of the attendees are responsible for 80% of the live chat and networking, and the other 80% are there just to passively consume the content,” said Wickson. “You can’t re-create an in-person event on a screen, and everyone is getting to the point of realizing that these are two very different experiences.”

Folding events into the digital experience

On the plus side, said Wolf, events marketing teams — once more or less siloed from the digital components of the buyer journey — are now being embraced as responsible for what has become, in effect, another digital channel. “I think that’s a bonus that has come out of this for event planners, to start thinking across the buyer journey, and how they fit within it.”

“A lot of the traditional event marketers who have come through this year are now having to get much tighter with their demand gen marketing operations counter-parts to get ready for next year,” Wickson added.

Wolf reflected on the implications of transferring in-person event budgets to digital efforts. “You’ve taken a moment when you’re connecting with someone — which is down-funnel activity — and turned it into a top-of-funnel kind of channel. I think what the jury is really out on is, all that in-person event budget that went into digital channels, did it really work? If you take a pre-COVID look at channels and spend, and during COVID, and then post-COVID, it’s going to be very interesting.”

This story first appeared on MarTech Today.

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