Taking Event Marketing Online

  • Categories:

    Industry Trends, Public Relations

  • Date:

    April 16, 2020

Taking Event Marketing Online

Industry Trends Public Relations

[Updated June 29, 2020]

The Olympics, the Tony Awards, Comic-Con, the Met Gala — almost every major event has been canceled for the foreseeable future. Event professionals quickly found themselves out of work this spring as months of engagements were wiped off the calendar. Many found purpose in the pandemic, building field hospitals instead of stages, identifying meeting spaces for testing facilities or calling on hospitality industry contacts to house front-line workers en masse.

On a marketing industry level, trade shows, events and brand experiences have gone dark, leaving companies without key elements in their marketing programs. As COVID-19 continues to rage, how has it changed event marketing? And, what does it mean for the future of events?

Event marketing often depends most on intangible elements: the connection of in-person networking with industry peers. The shared experiences of being in a room for the same event at the same time. The sights and sounds of a product launch. The opportunity to touch, feel and interact with a product. While some companies have become paralyzed by the loss of these opportunities, others are doing what the event industry and marketing world does best: pivoting.

Pivoting big and small.

Global Events Make Major Changes

The NFL made one of the biggest pivots so far in April, holding its annual draft as a pared-down, virtual event in place of a flashy Las Vegas ceremony. More than 55 million people tuned in over the three-day event, a viewership increase of 16% over 2019.* People watched to see the first live sports content in over a month, anxious for familiarity. But there was also an element of curiosity: Would there be technical glitches? Would it be dull without the usual glitz and glamour? What do the home offices of NFL bigwigs look like? Technical aspects of the event were virtually seamless with few glitches, as teams communicated via Zoom and Microsoft Teams between picks.

Overall, the draft had a more down-to-earth feel than in prior years, with more casual attire and cameos from the children and pets of general managers and coaches, much like our own current work-from-home experiences. The NFL also smartly tied in a charitable element, including a Draft-A-Thon that raised more than $100 million for six COVID-19 relief charities.

On a trade audience level, organizers of North Carolina’s High Point Furniture Market canceled the spring event for the first time since World War II. To enable furniture companies to bring new products to the right audiences, the online interior design trade site Steelyard hosted High Point at Home, a web-based presentation platform that afforded exhibitors an online-only rollout. While the online version is far from the showroom-hopping, nightly cocktail hour event attendees are accustomed to, dedicated online showroom space for brands and evening happy hour recaps of the day were a good substitute. The approach gave designers a first glimpse at new furnishings and allowed them to continue client work and the selection of furniture for future projects. And thankfully so, because almost 51% of interior designers reported to Business of Home magazine that the pandemic has had “no impact” on their business.**

Small but Crucial Events Go Digital

So, what about small-scale events, sales team meetings, shareholder events and summits that are crucial to businesses large and small?

Companies are overcoming budget restrictions and tight timelines with a range of online options.

Events can still go on with technology as simple as a Zoom meeting, complete with screen sharing, breakout rooms, chat functionality and collaboration boards. The content can also be recorded and shared with attendees later.

Livestreamed events are also popular, though a bit riskier. Arts organizations such as symphonies and dance companies have turned to this option, broadcasting live on Facebook or YouTube and recording the broadcast for later posting. The live element suits the groups well and helps artists stay at the top of their game with the continuation of performances.

Other companies have found that virtual events with live and prerecorded content work best for their audiences. This format gives them the opportunity to edit video, enhance sound as needed and incorporate additional graphics, music and downloadable materials that make the execution feel more dynamic.

Some common lessons have emerged as online events have become more popular.

  • High production value is important. Bad Wi-Fi and poor presentation timing can ruin everything. A quick online search will reveal a plethora of virtual event management and hosting companies to tap into.
  • Speaker selection can make or break you. An in-person event doesn’t automatically translate to an online event, so don’t assume the best presenters are all perfectly comfortable with the online space. Without the element of audience response and interaction, some speakers can fall flat. Identify speakers who are comfortable with looking into a camera and presenting to an empty digital space.
  • Keep it succinct. Just as no one wants to sit still for a six-hour in-person event, the same is true for an online event. Also, consider all the distractions your event is likely competing with — children at home, homeschooling responsibilities, needy pets and a never-ending barrage of news and information. Schedule breaks between sessions and keep those sessions to 20- to 30-minute increments.
  • Find a way to engage and connect people with each other virtually. In-person networking is one of the biggest reasons people attend events. Happy hour chat rooms and interactive Q&A sessions may seem like lame substitutes, but they keep an event from being a passive experience.
  • The collection of data is bountiful and necessary. Online events require registration, which is a guaranteed exchange of information. Interaction with comments and questions during online sessions gives insight into attendee behavior and preferences. The accessibility of online events means an immediate expanded geography and attendee list, which can turn into sales in new territories. And, the always-important step of follow-up gives you another chance to engage with people, optimize your content and improve your format for future online events.

So, what happens to event marketing post-pandemic?

If brands find success with virtual events, many believe the event industry will never be the same again. And, with what will likely be tightened travel budgets and general trepidation about travel, it’s likely that we will see significant shifts. Now that we’ve proven to ourselves that our lives can continue with online elements and that we can stay engaged with them — virtual happy hours, virtual church services, virtual homeschooling — why would we go back?

Common thought is that event marketing will evolve to include hybrid events, a combination of in-person and virtual components, allowing brands to maximize on actual touch-and-feel brand experiences as well as expanded data collection.

Others believe that events will take place on a smaller scale in multiple cities, a hub approach with satellite events that complement a larger gathering and an overall curated feel that makes the event feel more personal.

The reality is that people crave face-to-face human interaction. It’s in our DNA. And once it’s safe for people to be together again, they will gather. And when they do, the diversity of available events and formats will drive the industry forward.

*Birnbaum, Justin. “2020 NFL Draft proves it can work from home — and score record ratings.” CNBC. April 27, 2020.

**Nicolaus, Fred. “COVID-19’s impact on interior design, by the numbers.” Business of Home. May 13, 2020.

Explore more articles from Wray Ward.