It seems odd to be more than three months into the global pandemic and still wondering about the future of trade shows, but here we are!!
No matter the industry you are in, trade events are a vital part of your marketing, sales, and PR strategy. They provide a platform to launch products, position thought leaders on panels, connect with distributors and customers, and engage with media. Events also offer less measurable but equally as important opportunities for peer-to-peer networking, professional development, education, and job prospecting.
I have spent more than 15 years of my marketing PR career either working for a trade show producer to promote an event, working for an agency that supported trade show producers, or helping my clients with trade show participation. While the industry has certainly seen its fair share of changes over the years, it has never experienced anything like this!
In the early days of the looming quarantine, shows were just canceled. Since then, event producers have had the opportunity to pivot their thinking and many have shifted to virtual offerings. As they say, when given lemons…make lemonade. Times like these require creative thinking and the ability to quickly pivot your strategy to take advantage of this new, unconventional opportunity.
Virtual trade show formats are likely here to stay. Trade show experts have been looking for ways to transform the experience, and with the COVID pandemic, the time is now. Industry experts have said that a hybrid approach, which leverages a live platform with significant inclusive and interactive virtual components, is likely the future of professional events.
Bob Priest-Heck, CEO of Freeman, the world’s leading live event and brand experience company, recently commented in a blog for Trade Show News Network that “Those of us in the live events space have a clear-eyed perspective on the industry’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and liabilities. We have known change was necessary. We have invested in virtual platforms, understanding their value and long-assuming that hybrid events would become a critical part of enhancing any size event portfolio.” Under the current circumstances, Priest-Heck continued, “our industry is poised to move to a new, more relevant and valuable reality. Moving forward, trade shows will thrive by focusing on the live experience, making it easier for the right people to connect in person, while expanding to virtual audiences.”
Collectively, this means businesses will need to continue learning how to maximize virtual event success. So, what do virtual trade shows and events look like for your business, and how do you maximize ROI when participating? Like many, we’ve needed to learn about digital events on the fly. Here are a few things we have learned over the last few months that can improve virtual event participation.
The coveted speaking opportunity is still out there with virtual events and should still be included as a tactic within your marketing and PR plans. Regardless of the setting, chances to represent your company and demonstrate your subject matter expertise are crucial to growing brand mindshare and establishing thought leadership. Reach out to event organizers to cultivate relationships and develop yourself as a reliable, knowledgeable source.
Don’t know who to contact? Most event organizers have a public call for speakers. Follow the targeted event and be prepared to submit your speaker’s bio and presentation synopsis when submissions open. While the venue may have changed, the submission process is generally the same. Don’t forget, if you did not get selected initially, many event organizers have a go-to file for last-minute substitutions, so staying connected with event producers is an essential part of the equation.
Finally, keep in mind that during digital remote presentations it can be harder to engage your audience. You will need to make tweaks to your presentation to be sure it’s concise, on point, and “wow” worthy to keep virtual participants paying attention and not distracted by other projects, their snuggly dog, or their ever-expanding social media life. Sometimes this is hard to do in the life sciences, where research data or product-related information is often packed with important details that may require in-depth analysis and discussion. Nonetheless, it is important to synthesize the key messages into soundbites that listeners can easily remember and takeaway. Spend extra time making sure the presentation and figures are eye-catching and easy to digest.
Like many of us, journalists rely on conferences and tradeshows to build relationships and drive story development. With the transition to virtual events, the hurdles to gain story leads, product launches, and executive comments have become a little more challenging. In a media survey that CG Life executed, our media contacts told us they would be participating in virtual events, booking appointments for interviews, and participating in sessions. Armed with this information, we suggest that you think of virtual media appointments like you would one-on-one deskside meetings.
Reach out to your media contacts well in advance of the event to ensure they will be taking interviews during the event window and clarify what news angles they will be reporting on during the event. Once you have a clear understanding of how your media contact intends to participate, you will have a better chance of filling their reporting needs and getting a spot on their calendar.
When you land a meeting, make the most of the time by keeping the discussion interesting and tailor-made for the journalist. To do so, provide a comprehensive product demonstration or share key trial/study results of interest to their audience. If you have compelling descriptive figures relay them ahead of time, so the reporter has time to review and can ask follow-up questions. Since many reports will want subject matter experts and thought leaders, have a well-briefed and eloquent scientist available to do deep dives or introduce a well-prepared company executive ready to discuss the organization. Lastly, make sure to follow up allow for an interactive discussion to ensure all the reporter’s questions are answered and a lasting relationship is established.
Event producers are always going to look for sponsors! With virtual or hybrid events there may be more (and different) opportunities to tie your brand to the event. For all event sponsorship, ROI is always key to measuring the value of the sponsorship, but depending on the opportunity, it is not always easy to gauge. For example, if you hang a logo banner in the convention center’s lobby, you can extrapolate exposure by knowing the number of people that walked through the hall.
With an online event, that measurement actually becomes more precise and actionable. As education sessions wrap up, the technology used to host the virtual event can report the number of participants that logged on to the event, thereby giving you great insight into the sessions’ success. The data can also tell you how long people stayed, where they called in from, their job titles, contact information, and more. With this information, you have an immediate understanding of the types of people who participated and potentially a shiny new prospect list of journalists, doctors, and potential research partners ripe for follow-up conversations.
If you choose to participate in a virtual or hybrid event, be sure your community of enthusiasts, buyers, prospects, scientists, healthcare professionals, and journalists know you will be attending. Use your digital footprint to promote your speaking opportunity and virtual sales meetings.
By posting on your social media sites, you increase the number of people that may join you. You can also use these social posts to set up meetings with interested parties ahead of the event. Also, put out a press release that highlights your speaking opportunity, promotes your sponsorship, or even just your participation and excitement.
Don’t be afraid to get creative. You can try social media surveys to ask future event participants about their interests and goals. You could host a virtual happy hour and invite participants to some social time. After the event, keep the ball rolling by writing and sharing a blog about your experience or even by sending cool swag to key individuals you’ve met, shipping cost allowed. (PS, everyone still loves swag, COVID-19 or no!) This additional communication helps elevate exposure and increases your company visibility where it matters most.
When you weigh the benefits of participating in a virtual event, you see that the opportunities are similar to a face to face events, only reimagined. With a little flexibility, creativity, and innovation, digital event formats can still check all the boxes that maximize your marketing and PR goals.