Go Small Or Go Home? - The Future of Engaging Events

High-attendance live event with a potentially under-engaged audience

In honor of Event Marketing Month, we attended our first live event after the pandemic and considered the evolution events need to meet shifted expectations.


It may not feel like it, but this strange and difficult time we live in is a renaissance for almost every aspect of business; advertising, technology, customer experience, you name it, it’s likely to have had a major shift (probably for the better) since spring 2020. The events industry was understandably hit hard immediately by the unprecedented and forced changes, but unlike others, we haven’t figured out our new play yet. This became starkly obvious to me after my recent experience attending a live event, where I learned plenty about how I plan to run events going forward. 

Large Events: Do We Need ‘em? 

You’re probably tired of hearing this, but the way we operated prior to COVID is not coming back.

With this in mind, at the 2021 CMWorld in September, I was impressed with the extreme effort the organizers made to encourage attendees’ sense of safety venturing out with the masses. However, after the whiplash of strict to lax safety precautions we’ve experienced over the past 18 months, I intend to heavily weigh the risk versus reward of every event I attend going forward. This begs the question, do we really need events with hundreds or thousands of people milling about in the same space? Consider the value of huge gatherings for business conferences of any kind. Does the age-old lecture format of presentation benefit both sides as much as it should?  

Who do these events actually serve?

Check out more of my thoughts on the value of in-person events from our SaaS Breakthrough podcast episode in the clip below!


A Tug of War Between Audience and Speaker

The majority of live events are made for the presenter more than the audience. I know, if you run events, that is probably hard to hear, but think about the amount of work that goes into supporting, preparing, and presenting your speakers. The person on stage gets a literal platform intended to direct all attention toward them, and a decent amount of time to express their unique points. But what does your audience experience while the speaker has the spotlight? They easily could have watched this from the comfort of their own home. Almost every virtual event has a chat for the audience to ask questions live, and time dedicated to providing answers, so the in-person Q&A is no longer unique. 

One In a Crowd

A strange and unexpected phenomenon I experienced at this event was a sense of loneliness being one in a crowd of many. The “connections” the event’s theme promised was hard to find beyond the presented subject matter.  

As an event marketer, the key value I seek in an event is that sense of connection, to feel like I’m a part of something! We’re joined by a common purpose with our fellow audience members, not just sharing a room with each other. Much needs to be altered to balance the one-way learning of in-person events with a sense of community and belonging to create a shared common interest. 

How To Restore the “Social” After Social-Distancing

Content Marketing Institute’s purpose is to provide how-to guidance, and at CMWorld, they fulfilled that goal with, well, buckets of content! However, with networking opportunities built into the agenda via bursts of about an hour, I expected a healthy balance between rapt attention to the speakers and opportunities to discuss my learnings with new connections. It’s hard to pinpoint why this didn’t happen, especially despite the organizers' best efforts. There seems to be some unprecedented challenges that we all will struggle to resolve; maybe the reduced capacity impacted chances for interaction, or we all needed to catch up on work during the breaks (hello 112 unread emails). Perhaps, as much as we craved it after being deprived for so long, we were all out of touch with socializing in person. 

Regardless, it’s no longer enough to herd a crowd of people into a room and say, “You have time to connect, go mingle!” Successful facilitation of conversations requires more thoughtful consideration: How do attendees find the people they need to connect with? Who breaks the ice? What (realistic) goals does each party have that’ll make the discussion worthwhile? When you’re at a highly attended, broadly themed event, the crowd can feel overwhelming, and meeting these goals becomes challenging.

Measuring Value for a Company

As I planned for my trip to CMWorld, I knew my main goal was to continue my professional development. Even though I didn’t get the plethora of contacts from networking that I had hoped for, what I did experience still made it worthwhile. 

Preparing for An Event From Every Point of View

Whether you attend as an audience member, a speaker, or a sponsor, you need to set accurate expectations for what you’ll get out of the event, which starts with doing research. If possible, talk to somebody who's been there, and imagine what it looks like for your brand to fit into that experience. Does the culture match? Do you think you’ll be able to speak to people there in a context that will resonate with them? A highly-attended event will likely serve the most value as a brand awareness opportunity. Granted, high-attendance events still have their place to let you share your message broadly. But if you really want to have that two-way interaction with the audience, large conferences might not be your best option for facilitating communication.

Regional Events and What They Can Do for EVERYONE

Looking to the future, I anticipate meaningful connections will take place through smaller or highly niched, regional events. The smaller the event, the clearer it is whether or not the discussions taking place are relevant to you. With my previous experience hosting grassroots marketing events, I believe that, aside from physically attending the presentation from within the presenter’s home office, no event is more personal than one that gathers people in their own communities. Even if the event still has a stage, a presenter, and a room of people, the smaller the room is, the more everyone is encouraged (if not forced) to recognize the humanity in every moment, and thus develop a sense of familiarity, if not a sense of community

Micro-Communities Through Events

The events that will be most successful going forward will be the ones that get everyone doing something together. There’s little benefit to attending in person if your experience is one that could have been virtual. We tend to gain a sense of fulfillment when we feel like we're contributing to something, whether that’s a discussion, a fundraiser for our child’s school, or connecting with other industry members at a wine tasting. For an event to become an experience, attendees need to perceive a “one on one” connection. Many events overlook this important aspect. They need to focus less on the topics presented, and more on creating a unique bond with that group of people, and how we each interact with the content at hand.

I expand on the future of regional events in the SaaS Breakthrough clip below!

Takeaways From My First In-Person Event in a Year

Few organizers have been able to nail the “rebirth” of events. As we forge the next generation of events, defining what type of experience is an “event” and making that clear to your audience is essential. Is your content best absorbed through intimate discussions, novel settings, and smaller groups? Or is the purpose of your event simply to teach, presenting a valuable overview or deep dive on a specific topic, with attendees walking away more knowledgeable? 

In an attempt to compensate for what we’ve missed being in person, the pivot to virtual events has set an expectation that we’ll receive personalized experiences for every event we attend. That’s not a bad thing; everyone receives greater benefit when we frame our events around mutual needs. We have to let go of our previous formulas for delivering the content we want the audience to interact with, and instead consider the experience they should have — one they can’t get anywhere else. We’ve proven that humans are resilient creatures; little can keep us from connecting even in the most trying times. When we find those precious moments that unite us, it's our chance to cherish them, making the shift from quantity of moments to quality.

 

Check out this discussion about the future of events in Episode 158 of Demio’s SaaS Breakthrough.