Don’t be so afraid to embrace cannibalism…

Here’s a scenario for you to consider:

Your organisation runs an annual conference and exhibition.  The attendance figures are steady and you are attracting on average between five and ten per cent of your calculated total universe.  Exhibitor and sponsor numbers are holding up and revenue is on target.

So far so good

Two years ago you introduced a specialist pavilion for one of the sectors of the industry you serve.  It’s been a huge success and now attracts 15% of your total audience and generates 20% of your sales.  But there is a problem.  The companies and visitors involved want their own event.  They want to be the focus rather than a sideshow and they are getting very vocal about it.

What are you going to do?

  1. Stick to your guns, but pacify them by giving them a bit more space and a couple more sessions in the conference programme.
  2. Create a ‘mini’ co-located event.
  3. Grasp the opportunity and develop a second event.
  4. Nothing.  Very happy with the status quo thank you very much.

Why would anyone answer yes to the last question?

One simple reason – they can’t get past the cannibalisation problem.

It seems like forever that this thorny old issue has been hanging around, with the publishing and events industries particularly sensitive.  From whether a successful supplement should become a publication in its own right; to investment in websites and social media that would take readers away from the printed page; and currently whether or not a virtual conference or meeting space will reduce footfall at a live exhibition.

The main argument against developing a pluralist strategy is that it causes a reduction in revenue or perceived market share.  But the truth is that when carefully planned and executed such a strategy can result in a larger share of an increased total market.  Examples within the retail industry abound: when Coca Cola introduced Diet Coke, sales of Coke fell, but ultimately led to an expanded market for diet soft drinks.  Forward thinking and successful FMCG companies positively embrace the idea as Apple CEO Tim Cook explains:

“iPad has cannibalised some Mac sales. The way that we view cannibalisation is that we prefer to do it to ourselves than let someone else do it. We don’t want to hold back one of our teams from doing the greatest thing, even if it takes some sales from another product area. Our high-order bid is, ‘We want to please customers and we want them buying Apple stuff.'”

Why then are B2B publishers and events organisers still struggling with the idea of creating virtual experiences in addition to their current physical and online activity?

Hybrid and standalone virtual conferences, training and meeting sessions may affect audiences but the truth is that they are likely to deliver more visitors, both from a wider geographic area and from a demographic that would normally be too time-poor to engage in a live event.  Detractors suggest that viewers online are not as engaged; but neither is every visitor at a conference (particularly at 2pm).

The bigger question is not how many visitors or delegates you are going to lose from your live event, but how many people from your total market universe are you failing to connect with?  Anecdotally we know that membership organisations attract on average 5% of their total membership to live events.  In commercial event organisations, marketers need to hit a target universe seven or eight times in order to pursuade between five and 10 per cent of them to attend.  Plus, if you only engage with this audience once a year you are putting up constant barriers to retaining and growing the audience and its levels of interaction, which in turn diminishes your opportunities to drive and grow your revenues and profit.

Tony Rossell from Marketing General, Inc. has done some excellent research on this subject in the context of Association Membership: his work shows that Associations which create multiple opportunities for engagement with their members, whether via annual meetings, professional development, webinars, social networking etc. are more likely to show increases in overall membership in both the long and the short term as well as an increase in new members and renewal rates.

It stands to reason that the more you engage with your audience, both exisiting and potential, then the more likely they are to engage with you.  Hybrid events don’t have to reproduce your live event verbatim and virtual events don’t have to be restricted to specific times and dates dictated by venue contraints.

Where virtual events are concerned, it’s time to put the issue of audience cannibalisation to bed once and for all and embrace the concept of market colonisation instead.

Hellen @missioncontrol

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Time to wake up and smell the coffee chaps…

While rummaging through my email inbox this morning I stopped and read the one from the professional institute of which I am a member.

It’s compelling, and beautifully written, as it ought to be and it was asking me very nicely to attend the annual conference.  And offering me a discount.  What’s not to like about that?

What caught my eye though was that the early booking discount was £200 + vat.  If that’s the discount I thought, how much is the conference?  A mighty £445 + vat no less.  Which means that if I don’t book before the early bird discount runs out I’ll have to fork at a eye-watering £645 + vat to attend a conference run by the association I pay to be a member of.  Wow.

Possibly not for the right reasons, the organisation now had my full attention.  Surely this must be a two day event I thought… but no, this was for a one day 09:00 to 17:30 affair (with an hour and forty minutes of break time; you’ll be relieved to hear that lunch was provided) where I could attend ten sessions (if I had the fortitude to get through it all) of which there were some of only marginal interest.

The marketing line what smaller companies can learn from the “big boys” illicited a wry chortle. Because at that price how many small businesses are actually likely to attend.  The HMRC definition of a small company is if your turnover is £5.6million or less or have fewer than 50 employees.  In reality many small, and very dynamic, businesses fall well below these thresholds.  In the Marketing Week/Ball & Hoolahan marketing salary survey for 2012 the salary for a marketing manager is somewhere in the region of £36,000.  If you extrapolate down from this you can work out that this conference organiser is potentially asking a company to pay a quarter of an employee’s monthly take home pay to attend a one day conference from which there is marginal company-wide return on investment.

You don’t need to absorb much media in the UK to work out that these are straitened economic times.  There is many a managing director trying to work out whether they should pay the wage bill or the suppliers, and telling their employees that “we’re very sorry but there will be no wage increases this year”.  Training budgets may survive, just, but spending on expensive conference days out (we haven’t factored in travel and accommodation/lost productivity costs in all of this have we?) isn’t a priority for many.  And what about those who have embraced redundancy and become freelance marketers… if you take the cost of the conference and the loss of a day’s earnings why on earth would you even consider booking a place.

And conference organisers wonder why their attendance rates are down… Discriminating against large sectors of the audience by virtue of price isn’t going to help much is it? And membership organisations are more at risk than ever because we’re not even sure we need you any more guys.

It is in times like these that great innovation often occurs. Exhibition and live event organisers have recognised for years the need to add more and more value to their offerings, creating environments where visitors can get information or experiences that they just can’t get elsewhere.  It’s time that conference organisers did the same. There is no point telling a potential attendee that they will learn new things and network with their peers, because they can do this via LinkedIn without spending a bean or having to get up at 6:15am to get to the venue, and a day full of plenary sessions with tiny comfort breaks (because the programme is crammed to make it look like it is value for money) doesn’t deliver for many people.

So dear conference organisers I challenge you to do three things differently this year:

  1. Start your pricing strategy from how much you think your conference is worth and how much your delegate is willing to pay rather than from how much money you need to cover your venue costs.  If the answer is £99+vat then find a solution that fits.
  2. Stop trying to cram too much into a programme to justify the huge sum of money you are asking for.  Remember how exhausting it was to sit in a lecture theatre for a couple of hours as a student and ask yourself why you think people can endure it for eight hours or more now that they are older.
  3. Embrace some new technology to deliver to your audiences and members in a different, more inclusive and accessible way.  Get out of that traditionalist box right now.

At present most conference organisers (associations included) attract on average less than 5% of their target audiences to their events.  Which means that for every delegate you get there could be another 19 waiting to engage with your organisation. Time to go get them.

hellen @missioncontrol

Stop snacking… time to start eating properly again

Something unusual has been happening in the office over the last couple of months.  After years of seeing the volumes of free-circulation business press dwindle to almost nothing we have begun hearing the thud of magazines more frequently once again.

It started with Print Power, a publication produced by Lateral Group. The blurb at the front says that it is a European initiative dedicated to strengthening the position of print media in a multi-media world. That’s as may be, but what actually hit the desk was an extremely well thought out, beautifully designed and, most importantly, well written publication that not only made it out of the poly bag (got to open it to separate the recycling) but is still here for reference.

And then, starting the new year with a bang, along came the January issue of B2B marketing. I haven’t seen a hard copy of this magazine for a while, which is a pity because it’s a smasher.  Lots of varied content, once again well written, great layout and a tone which didn’t make the reader feel like they were on the periphary of a rather exclusive club, or reading something fresh out of the mouth of a PR assistant.

So, this got me thinking about two things: how important it is for B2B magazines that they are written properly; and secondly how we need to find time to sit, absorb and process information.

Many business magazine operations (and one of the above is not innocent of the offence) have embraced technology and decided that the way to keep their readers and consequently their circulations is to develop regular email newsletters. And then send them out to their database. Every Day.  Event magazine  went even further and sent out two email bulletins a day. Thank goodness they have stopped that.  It seemed like a great plan at the time, but it forgot something very fundamental about human behaviour: that if you give us snacks we will graze rather than engage; and that most people switch off when they feel they are being nagged.

What’s more, readers don’t even have to let on that they have stopped engaging.  While the email administrator always ensures that the unsubscribe information is included, all the recipient has to do is to classify the message as unwanted and it will forever be consigned to the junk folder.

In creating this constant stream of bitesize snippets we have created a culture of having to write something to a timetable rather than to an editorial plan.  In doing so, we resemble budgerigars: saying anything for the sake of it, not because we believe it is something that will interest the recipient or even that they will make time to read it.  So they lose interest, stop reading, and they are off to find someone who they think will give them what they want. Our marketing messages become bland, our products uninviting.

As consumers of information we are not without blame either.  This veritable cornucopia of new media has us flitting from place to place searching out the information we think we need.  But, time to ‘fess up: it’s exhausting isnt’ it? There’s a reason why hummingbirds drink pure sugar…

If we want to make good business/marketing/communications decisions, then we must pause to nourish ourselves with high quality information devoured slowly and with relish.  We must create time to sit down and consider what is in front of us without constant interruption from screen based applications, or the pressure of having to tell an audience of disinterested individuals streams  of minutiae. And noone is better placed to provide this michelin-starred content than the quality end of the B2B press.

So come on chaps… put the chips away and start cooking up some roasties.

hellen @missioncontrol

You’ve got to deliver what the audience wants

It seems like the technology has finally been toppled from its place at the top of the virtual events debate and we are, at last, getting back to the basics of looking at the needs of the client.  We are once again talking about the multi-faceted communications approach that engages all sectors of an audience.  There is no sense in trying to shoehorn all comms activity into a one-size-fits-all solution, when every other sector of business is constantly trying to find new niches to occupy.

The evolution of virtual events is being driven by one major factor: as more virtual events happen, more people are participating in them and the better we can measure their behaviour.  So rather than making assumptions and creating technology in a vaccuum, we are delivering the goods the customer ordered.

Two research studies* have been released recently which serve to confirm just how quickly behaviour is changing in the physical and virtual meeting industry; their core findings make for interesting reading, not least because of the gulf of expectation between event organisers and their audiences:

  • Live content, be it video or webcasts, is the most popular on a virtual site, and yet only 43% of physical events capture any of their content to post online, and where they do it is often less than 10%.
  • There is as yet little commercialisation of virtual events, whether this is a conscious business decision, a resistance from the marketplace or the resource issue below is as yet unknown.
  • Organisations worry about the additional staff time needed to execute a virtual event to the cost, the quality of the experiencefor the visitor and the complexity of technology.

The benefits for the organiser though are seen quite clearly; more than 82% of past users of virtual events and 84 %of future users questioned in the Tagoras study mentioned the potential increase in audience numbers, an important consideration where physical events were only enabling them to reach a fraction of their total target audience.

So why are event organisers still so reluctant to embrace virtual technologies.

Meanwhile, the potential audience shows no such reticence:

While organisers of physical events continually state that people want to do business with real people, the Business Motivations and Social Behaviors for In-Person and Online Events study found that:

  • 80 percent of respondents are comfortable connecting and networking with strangers.
  • 70 percent are comfortable using a video/webcam to chat and meet others.
  • 33 percent share information by instant messaging at online events, while 28 percent do so at in-person events.
  • 41 percent use Twitter at online events, while 51 percent do so at in-person events.

Another objection often raised by physical event organisers is that online attendees are easily distracted.  But attendees in real time also check their emails, text, tweet, phone and message while sitting in an auditorium.  The only difference is that the virtual attendees can come back to it later.

Respondents seek similar information from exhibitors whether booths are live or virtual: more than half want to see what a company does and how it can help them, and nearly half of respondents want to get company, product or solution information for review or want to see a demonstration or the product itself.

Where virtual events really begin to draw in the attendees though is in accessibility:

  • the environment’s ease-of-access;
  • the ability to ask questions and participate actively;
  • reduced travel costs and hassles
  • reduced time away from family and office

Given the solid evidence, it is hard to see why so many event organisations continue to find more reasons not to embrace virtual technologies than to explore the possibilities. Perhaps it will take some new entrants into the marketplace to steal a march on the naysayers, establishing great virtual events that morph into fantastic physical ones that take the old-guard by surprise.

Remember: if you don’t listen to your customers, and give them what they want, you are giving them every excuse to go somewhere else.

* The two studies quoted are:

Virtual Event Study, done in collaboration with the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, Relate Content & Community Solutions and Tagoras, and funded by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events:

The Business Motivations and Social Behaviors for In-Person and Online Events, a study sponsored by the Professional Convention Management Association, UBM Studios and Virtual Edge Institute:

Driving through the efficiency agenda

Clear road aheadWe’re going on an efficiency drive…

Just the phrase is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of any employee or organisation.  And with justification as this has become the thinly-veiled way of saying “we need to make budgetary savings and the easiest way to do this is by cutting our largest expense” – i.e. the labour-force.

While fiscal pressures may mean that production needs to be cut back to match a shrinking order book, and consequently less manpower is required, but shouldn’t this be a last resort rather than a first?  If an organisation sheds valuable intellectual capital and/or the means to re-engineer its operation too quickly, can it ever recover its place in the market or reputation for delivery of excellence.

The dictionary definition of efficiency is that it is the state or quality of being efficient,  and interestingly the definition of this word suggests that efficiency is achieved more by interrogating systems and working patterns than simply slicing numbers off the bottom line.

ef·fi·cient/iˈfiSHənt/Adjective

(esp. of a system or machine) Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.
(of a person) Working in a well-organized and competent way.

Organisations that top the efficiency leagues come in all shapes and sizes, but a common denominator between them is that they also tend to top the best places to work lists as well.  Their employees feel involved and able to contribute to discussion and decision-making processes: the organisation benefits by being able to tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience that can deliver custom-fit best practice… and efficiency.

By moving from a top-down decision-making to a collaborative process, board-rooms can exploit the experience of all areas of their operation, allowing innovation to spring up from every quarter and be properly dissected and discussed.  The difficulty for large organisations (small ones really don’t have any excuse unless they have multiple office sites) is how to action this process effectively.

Large scale meetings don’t really fit the bill because: a) they are expensive; and b) only the people with the loudest voices get to contribute unless they are very carefully designed.  Enter the virtual business solution… companies like Cisco, HP, Kaiser Permanente and GE have been using this technology for some time now to enable effective communication that reduces time out of the office, carbon footprint and the timelag in disseminating a message to a large number of people while increasing knowledge, motivation and challenging the efficacy of existing working practices.

If ever there was an efficent way to drive the efficiency agenda – this is it.

Educating exhibitors in the etiquette of virtual events

The Death to the Booth debate rumbles on and is unlikely to be resolved any time soon as the closest we have managed to get to an alternative title for this universally understood term is meeting point and that doesn’t quite fit the bill.

But another important theme has emerged, one which chimes very closely with the experience of live event organisers – that of educating your exhibitors to ensure that they get the very best out of their investment and meet the goals they have set themselves for attending.

Goals… now there’s a concept that some organisations haven’t grasped right from the start.  Motivations for being at an event are many and varied: from “my major competitors are going to be there, so must I”  to “I want to tell everyone of your visitors what a big player in the market I am” (generally said by someone with a 2x3m stand, no display graphics and no literature to hand out).  For some organisations, the concept of using an exhibition as the hub of an integrated marketing approach is a complete anathema: there is no dedicated sales message; inappropriate or old literature is taken to the event; there are no experts on hand to talk visitors through very specific issues; there is no pre- or post-event marketing efforts planned.

A presence on a booth in a virtual environment is no different.  During the live days visitors expect to be able to communicate with representatives in real time; to find a wide variety of documentation that is clearly targetted at them; perhaps some instructional videos; or even an opportunity to join in a chat session with the CEO.

With no print costs, and an almost unlimited array of media that can be taken advantage of there really is no excuse for not grasping the opportunity to really engage with virtual visitors in all areas of the virtual environment.  And as organisers of virtual events it is up to us to educate our partners to do this, and do it well.

But then there’s no excuse for sitting on an exhibition stand that represents £50K of company investment reading a newspaper, and yet people still do it…

It’s WHAT you know, not who you know, that is important

Data is probably the single most important asset available to the modern marketeer.  Online or offline, data helps you understand your audience, target appropriately, and evaluate what you have achieved.

Marc Michaels, Director of Direct Marketing and Evaluation, COI

For every organisation, there is an imperative to measure: be this HR statistics, i.e. attendance, satisfaction, billable hours; sales and marketing efforts vs returns; key customer behaviour; client satisfaction; website activity… you get the picture.  For publishing and events companies in particular data underpins almost everything they do, as well as being their most transferrable asset and how this data is managed and used is as important as the brands themselves.

Having established that data is incredibly valuable, and can really drive a business or organisation forward, how come most of it sits gathering dust at the bottom of a drawer or stored somewhere  on an individual’s hard-drive? Why do organisations make the same mistake over and over again, despite conducting annual satisfaction surveys or presenting monthly figures to the board?

Is part of the answer that once an organisation has collected some data they consider job done,  and haven’t established a clear mechanism for acting on the results?  Or is it because there is such a lag between collecting the data and delivering the results that by then the business has moved on and believes it is already addressing issues highlighted in the retrospective research (when in fact it isn’t)?

Of all these factors, time lag has to be the most important.  Receiving a visitor list a month after the event fails to capitalise on the momentum of a live experience; it leaves visitors wondering why you didn’t contact them earlier and your sales team have already moved onto something else.  Spotting a need to deliver another specialist session at a conference can only happen if you are either a) there in person and able to listen in to all of the chat; or b) able to view what everyone is talking about around a specific topic as it happens.

Even in the corporate sector, the ability to capture data about what is important to your staff or the customers they are talking to is nothing unless it is available in real time, in a format that can be interpreted easily and acted upon.

Virtual experience platforms go a long way towards achieving this.  Built correctly and with the right technology in place, they are able to tell you what your audience really wants to know, where they are going to find out about it, what they expect to receive, who they want to interact with them and how long they are willing to do it for.

Valuable information that is available instantly.