Can digital events offer an equivalent experience to physical ones? No, and nor should they try to, argues Denzil Rankine, the co-author of a new book on the future of events.
Called “Reinventing Live: The Always-On Future of Events”, the book offers a roadmap for event organisers to meet customer expectations through innovation – something which the author claims has been all-too-lacking in the sector.
To Denzil, Executive Chairman of strategy consulting firm AMR International, the pandemic has stimulated much-needed change in a sector which was already facing headwinds.
He argues that while the events industry appeared to be healthy prior to the pandemic, with participation stable or growing and organisers making money, sponsors and exhibitors were less happy with the status quo as measured by net promoter scores. “It was possible to be successful and make money without innovating,” he tells FSF, attributing this to the unique qualities of face-to-face events in terms of networking and immersion.
This had led to a balance of about 2% digital and 98% analogue events prior to Covid, with “very limited green shoots of digital and little incentive for events organisers to embrace it”, and digital seen as a “Friday afternoon activity”.
The fundamental reason for the low satisfaction with events was a lack of ROI: companies “not securing the number or quality of leads or achieving a promotional purpose such as amplifying the brand.” Denzil likens sponsors and exhibitors to hostages, feeling compelled to be part of major events despite the poor returns.
While he argues it’s unclear how “systemic” the digital shift has been during Covid, he and his co-author argue in the book that the industry should move to a balance more like 25% digital and 75% physical (measured in terms of spending).
This will require a “step change” in the level of innovation, with winning organisers being those who “embrace the whole range of tools including digital to meet the needs of the audience”.
“We won’t be using terms like “digital”, “virtual” or “hybrid” events in five years’ time, just like no-one in a factory talks about electricity.”
He expects that in the future, all events will have a combination of physical and digital elements. He characterises this as a journey, beginning with an initial phase where an attendee learns about the event and exhibitors and sponsors learn about that attendee’s needs.
This will be followed by a physical event with digital extensions for people who can’t attend, with a digital follow-up afterwards.
“Anyone who is running events which are 100% physical we expect to be much less successful and pushed out of the market by those who embrace a range of digital tools.”
Those attending events will see their experience supplemented by digital recommendations and guidance, says Denzil: “when you go to Amazon or Netflix, you are given recommendations for shows or products based on your persona and your history.”
Those attending events will be given information about how to engage with the event, with recommendations about relevant sessions or booths.
“We’re going to move away from the random meeting model and move towards a much greater facilitation of interaction.”
Denzil strongly argues against the idea that physical and digital events should offer “equivalent” experiences, advocating a data-driven, personalised approach to both.
“What you have to do is look at each attendee and what they are trying to achieve and shape the offering to deliver against those goals.
“Start with the customer need and not with the product or service.”
He cites Money20/20 as an example of an event in financial services which offered greater innovation than existing ones.
“It achieved high market share and the business was sold for a very substantial sum after four years. This is a proof point that there was insufficient innovation and a proof point to the value that can be created through innovation.”