Event Marketing

Predicting the Future of Events

by Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes

For the past nine months, mdg’s marketing strategists have been researching, reading, experimenting and tracking what’s working and what’s not in the events space. And while we don’t profess to know exactly what the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic entails, we have developed a keen sense of what’s working in our industry, what’s working in other industries and what can logically be expected in 2021.

Attendees will return to in-person events. The Freeman Data Solutions team has been tracking the coronavirus’ impact on the event industry according to audience attitudes and perceptions. The latest pulse survey shows that attendee confidence in returning to events and overall positive sentiment are the highest they’ve been since the beginning of the pandemic. Consumer research validates this, noting that despite the recent uptick in cases, concerns about the pandemic are actually down. Americans are less concerned about dying from COVID-19, less concerned about the health care system breaking down and more optimistic about the availability of an effective vaccine.

Exhibitors will return to live events, but only if their customers are there. In the same Freeman research study referenced above, exhibitors said they are looking for at least 80 percent of prior attendance to maintain ROI. Based on the current attendee outlook, we predict many events could achieve 80 percent of prior attendance in the fall of 2021.

Event organizers will be managing two competing sentiments with the return of physical. One sentiment will be a pent-up demand for the commerce and sense of community that live events provide. The other is going to be a lingering fear about travel and mass gatherings. Event producers and marketers must be hyper focused on maximizing opportunities associated with the former while minimizing fears associated with the latter.

Virtual events won’t replace physical events. Freeman research shows that attendees value digital events for their ability to provide access to learning and content. Not surprisingly, overall convenience claims the second spot. Where digital continues to struggle is with connecting audiences. This has been borne out in mdg’s post-event research conducted with exhibitors at virtual events—those happy with the experience and return on investment are few and far between.

Virtual events will continue to open doors to new audiences. It isn’t all bad in the world of digital, however. One of the most interesting trends we’re tracking with the online events we market is the number of new participants. This is likely a reflection of the number of people who have always been interested in the content and experiences created by event organizers, but were not able or willing to travel to physical events.

Integrated models will be the new normal. Digital experiences won’t go away, even after the coronavirus does. Most event organizers have committed to developing a more robust plan for delivering content. The concept of hybrid will no longer be relegated to broadcasting certain elements of a physical event, but will encompass webinars, peer-to-peer roundtables, podcasts, community management platforms, smaller regional events, etc. that happen year-round—and ideally, as part of an integrated strategy.

Physical events will must get better. Event organizers have been using the same basic business model for the past 100 years. Because things didn’t feel broken, we didn’t feel a need to fix them. In 2021, savvy organizers won’t be mired to the ways of the past, especially when they no longer make sense. Be prepared to say “goodbye” to printed directories, direct mail, long registration lines and more.

The way we talk about events will change. There’s never been a better time for event producers to retool the essence of their brands, injecting more empathy, kindness and authenticity into their communications and focusing less on show statistics and features.

Digital marketing will simply be referred to as “marketing.” Because what other kind of marketing will there be? Event organizers are recognizing a need to invest in the right people and solutions to execute sophisticated, smart, data-driven campaigns. Concepts like marketing automation, performance modeling, agile marketing, etc. are no longer sexy buzzwords – they’re the methodologies on which future success will be built.