Eric Holmen is the CEO of Splash, a next-generation event marketing platform that provides event marketers and field marketing teams with the tools they need to design, create and execute virtual, in-person and hybrid event programs that create memorable experiences, engage attendees and drive business value. He is an expert in marketing technology, and digitally enabled engagement and connection, holding leadership positions in several notable experience technology companies, including most recently at Airship. In his two-decade career, Holmen has managed and led all aspects of events, from executing and hosting to implementing enterprise-level event tech platforms.
We’ve come a long way since the breathless, hand-wringing days of the early pandemic, and are now able to make better predictions around what events will look like in the future. And while many companies and event professionals are rushing back to “normal,” many more are taking what worked during the pandemic and applying it to forward-looking plans.
A recent survey from Event (a Skift brand) found that large majorities of event professionals expect events to be hybrid (67.5%) and smaller (51.6%) once business returns. Smaller proportions of event professionals expect gatherings to be more local, shorter in duration and exclusively virtual.
Why aren’t these event pros anxious to get back to business as usual? Because it turns out that smaller events are just better — better at delivering ROI, better at getting decision-makers together in relevant, targeted situations and better at generating real business results. And hybrid events, bolstered by a year-plus of gradual but steady improvement to their virtual components, are far more feasible than they once were and ultimately more accommodating to attendees amid ongoing uncertainty.
Let’s start with event size. People are less likely to attend a large event than a smaller and more intimate event that feels more directly intended for them. That’s not just anecdotal observation; our data shows that large events get about half the attendance rate of smaller events, and as the number of RSVPs increases, the number of people who actually show up declines.
That means small events carry less risk than large conferences and conventions. Big events require big investments, as well as substantial resourcing and long production times. Their inflexible nature also goes against what most companies and marketing teams aim for — agility, speed and measurable results. Still, we’ve accepted them as business “must-haves,” despite long-term contracts, budget strain and questionable outcomes.
Attendees say they go to big business events to network, learn and discover new ideas. But they often become distracted by devices, overwhelmed by packed agendas and get lost in rows of booths — and miss yours. When you get too many people in the room, someone is bound to tune out. That’s why big event vanity metrics — thousands of visits to the event webpage; hundreds of RSVPs — don’t mean much anymore.
When measuring event efficacy, not only do you want people to show up, you want them to come ready and able to engage with your material and message. This is how small events consistently generate positive ROI — they can be more targeted, more relevant and comprised of more of the right people.
Smaller events are also lower cost and easier to optimize. They tend to attract decision-makers like enterprise buyers and unites them into a community of common purpose. Smaller events drive pipelines faster with better, more objective-aligned conversations. And they’re easier to get your distributed team involved in, which results in more personalized touchpoints.
Smaller events can build valuable communities, but only if they’re connected and coherent. It’s essential to find the right people, put them in a small-group environment and facilitate small-group experiences that drive BIG outcomes.
To achieve those outcomes, companies are investing in software that does a better job optimizing ‘who’s in the room.’ Event technology has allowed us to segment audiences in unprecedented ways, making getting the right people to show up easier than ever. Technology also facilitates the involvement and movement of the teams needed to plan and execute each event.
Collaboration capabilities keep both teams and attendees engaged and hands-on with the events that matter to them. Rather than large groups of in-person or remote attendees listening passively to a speaker for an hour or two and probably tuning out — especially if they are at home — engaging smaller groups in more interactive and collaborative experiences encourages their involvement.
To effectively measure that engagement and what it means for your organization, ROI and performance tracking are key. In the current environment — after 18 months of upheaval — few businesses can tolerate investing the resources, finances and time into an event only to have it generate negative ROI.
We aren’t going back to the old days of one or two tentpole conferences that could make or break an annual event budget. Instead, event calendars are filling and will continue to fill up with smaller-scale events. Understanding and measuring their individual impact can help determine the success of a company’s sales strategies.
Just as smaller, tech-enabled events are here to stay, so are hybrid events that combine the best of virtual and in-person events. The new breed of hybrid events demands a platform that prioritizes engagement features and allows for flexibility in format. Setting intentions, limiting and tailoring content, and focusing on interactivity, are all critical for successful hybrid events.
Some companies are innovating in this area by introducing 1:1s, breakouts, session caps, automated agendas, avatar joy-sticking and speed networking. Both small and hybrid events must provide something that attendees cannot get from an online-only model, and the right event tech can ensure that happens.
Ongoing uncertainty makes supporting hybrid events a necessity, and attendees’ preferences for safety must be accommodated. In our survey of event professionals at the end of 2020, most were preparing for a hybrid event future; 79% of companies anticipated hosting hybrid events, even when in-person events returned.
No matter how the event landscape changes in the months ahead, the lessons we’ve learned about improved ROI and the technological advancements in smaller events can and should be part of our event’s future. Any organization wanting to improve their guests’ experience while capitalizing on their event investment must commit to internalizing and implementing these changes.
Ultimately, your organization needs to choose the event format that works best for them. For a handful, this may mean getting back to the large, in-person events that they hosted pre-pandemic. Others will opt to host smaller in-person conferences or produce hybrid events that give attendees a choice.
Whatever the path you choose to move forward with, event technology has evolved to make every possible event format easier for businesses to produce and evaluate.
For example, there are event management platforms that connect to existing CRM systems and can track an event’s impact on the sales pipeline in order to facilitate more precise ROI measurements. Similarly, we now have centralized collaboration tools that allow disparate teams to plan and execute smaller, brand-aligned events that are relevant to their objectives. There are also event-hosting platforms that support interactive virtual and in-person components allowing high-impact hybrid events within reach for most planning teams.
Choose your event format and then utilize the latest event technology so that your organization can see what’s working and what isn’t. Use these insights to adapt your next event and watch your ROI steadily increase. | AC&F |