Digital Transformation Festival Marketing

Marketing events in the time of coronavirus


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

March 17, 2020 | 15 min read

The best marcom campaigns happen in the real world and not on computer screens. But following the recent coronavirus outbreak, event planners and field marketers will still need to learn and adopt the best virtual practices quickly.

live conference audience

In a survey of more than 1,000 mid-level and senior marketers last year by event software platform Bizzabo, 41% considered live events to be the most critical marketing channel (PDF). The number of companies organising at least 20 events each year increased by 17%. Almost all said in-person events are valuable opportunities to form connections in an increasingly digital world.

As a professional keynote marketing speaker, I have seen the effectiveness of events myself. Nothing beats the memories implanted when watching humorous and inspiring presentations. The most effective way to demonstrate a product – whether a flavour of ice cream or a B2B software suite – is personally and one-to-one at sponsor booths or in expo halls. People make lasting friendships and connections at conferences.

Human beings are social animals. We need physical and emotional connections to other human beings. In ancient societies, banishment into the wilderness was a punishment worse than having to listen to UB40. Today, I worry that social media makes it easy to communicate but also keeps people physically separated.

While real-world events can help companies as well as people, there is a downside that the entire business world is now witnessing. Conferences are environments that can lead to the efficient transmission of pathogens such as coronavirus.

What the event industry is witnessing

‘Typhoid Mary’ was a cook in New York who spread typhoid fever in the early 20th century by continuing to work after medical authorities had instructed her to stop. Of course, no event planner wants to go down in history with a similar reputation – whether knowingly or unknowingly spreading a disease.

“There's been a tremendous amount of cancellations due to the fact of trying to contain the virus at home, around the world – everywhere on a global scale, there has been cancellations,” Sherrif Karamat, president and chief executive of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in the US, told me.

“People have [also] really stepped up on their sanitation and the precautions that they need to take to stay safe. At the forefront and paramount is everyone's safety, and that is the primary concern.”

As of yesterday, the US state of Massachusetts had 138 cases of coronavirus. Reportedly, 104 resulted from a single meeting of the biotech company Biogen in late February. In response to such news, many event planners are cancelling or postponing their meetings. (A Wikipedia page contains a lengthy list.)

Nicki Kattouf, a field marketing manager based out of Boston who ran our global events when I was director of marketing at an Israeli tech company, told me that many conferences are being cancelled, postponed or transitioned into virtual ones.

“Everyone is affected by this – not just people that organise and sponsor events, but the world at large,” she said. “I think being open and transparent about the limitations we’re all facing will help us to work together to find appropriate solutions.”

What event organisers should do

Event planners have three options: continue, postpone or cancel. The decision is not easy.

Bill Reed, chief event strategy officer at the American Society of Hematology, told PCMA’s Convene blog that the decisions regarding the issue can lead event managers to take on a more strategic role. His association’s Asia-Pacific meeting was postponed until next year.

“I lament that our profession wants to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for every scenario,” Reed said. “There is no silver bullet when thinking about a timeline [during the outbreak]. It requires everyone to do what makes sense for their organisation and their stakeholders.

“Instead of making a fast decision that you may regret later, I think it’s better to hold off until you absolutely have to decide [what to do]."

To help events that want to proceed, the Association of Event Venues, Association of Event Organisers and Event Supplier and Services Association in the UK recently released a collective statement asking for government help.

“We are specifically seeking support from the UK government to help reassure our customers as we enter a critical time in the spring show season,” the statement reads. “We are seeking some positive public messaging in line with current advice from the chief medical officer outlining that people should remain confident in attending organised events, and there are no greater risks associated with attending events than any other significant gathering of people such as public transport.”

The UFI Global Association of the Exhibition Industry and the Society of Independent Show Organisers also launched a new campaign together entitled ‘This Show Is Open’.

“Exhibitions and events are essential to millions of businesses around the world,” UFI President Mary Larkin told Event Industry News. “They exist to provide platforms for people and industries to meet, to trade and to collaborate. Small and medium businesses in all industries in particular depend on exhibitions. And, like all types of events, they support the economy worldwide.”

For specific information on how to hold events in this coronavirus environment, I suggest these resources from Bizzabo, MeetingsNet, PCMA and Event Industry News. Still, the US CDC recommended on Sunday that all gatherings of more than 50 people be cancelled or postponed. Eventbrite’s blog has a good, seven-step process for postponing large meetings.

What event sponsors should do

So far, the most shocking thing about the coronavirus’ effect on events has been SXSW not refunding tickets to this year’s cancelled festival. (Whether SXSW will return sponsor money is still unclear. The event has also made a third of its staff redundant.)

If I were a company that wanted to sponsor a conference this year, that occurrence would make me very worried that I might lose a lot of money. Every event that depends on sponsorships should keep this in mind.

I can make a recommendation based on my own experience: always have clear cancellation clauses in contracts. Personally, I receive 50% advance payment deposits when I confirm appearances at companies or events. If I must cancel the speech, I return the money. If the event cancels ‘for any reason’ or if I cannot appear for reasons beyond my control, I keep the payment.

Specifically, I mention potential occurrences such as flight delays or cancellations, weather, political instability, disease outbreaks, war or terrorist incidents. In any such scenario, I state that I will try my best to appear virtually instead.

I highly recommend that similar, specific agreements be made between events and their sponsors, speakers, suppliers and partners. Everyone should be clear about what would happen in any potential disruption. After all, the thing that any business fears the most is uncertainty.

Smart Meetings has more information on how the coronavirus will affect contracts. The Drum’s Rebecca Stewart also has an in-depth feature on what the disruption may mean for sponsors.

How to hold virtual events

Virtual events are undoubtedly becoming popular. The Drum’s Charlotte McEleny found that companies could shift to live streaming – and indeed The Drum has done just that with its own online conference, the Digital Transformation Festival. At the beginning of February, the stock price of remote conferencing services company Zoom was $88. On March 5, it hit a high of $125.

But Zoom is not the only platform available. Jo Saunders, a LinkedIn trainer in Australia, announced four days ago that LinkedIn is rolling out an events feature that businesses can add to their pages. (LinkedIn’s overview is here.) I would not be surprised if Facebook Live and Slack also unveil a similar offering soon. Others include Grip and WebinarGeek.

Regardless of the platform used, virtual event holders told me some best practices.

“Find a great host who knows how to keep the audience entertained, as you'll definitely face technical glitches or short gaps in the transition between speakers, and a good joke will always make the whole process much smoother,” Alexandra Tachalova, who has run the virtual and in-person Digital Olympus conference for more than four years, told me.

“Bring your speakers into a real studio, and make your event look professional. That way, you'll avoid unexpected sound issues and keep the stream 100% safe, as you'll be controlling the entire situation from the studio – and often, studios can make technical assistance available.”

SEMrush created Global Marketing Day, a 24-hour virtual event, last year and had 55,000 attendees. The competitive marketing research platform will hold the next one in October.

“Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter enable the event to go live, which is a great way to target a wider audience to interact and participate throughout,” SEMrush head of global marketing Olga Andrienko told me.

“When it comes to virtual events, they need to be interactive in order to maintain widespread attention. Having a diverse range of speakers, guest experts as well as question and answer time via comments is of great importance in order to educate, inform and cover a variety of topics.”

For more, Endless Events has a guide to creating virtual ones. So does MeetingsNet. Rachel Boucher, executive editor of the Event Marketer magazine, has specific insights into lead time, goals and messaging.

Charlene Kate was on the events team that runs SEO software platform Moz’s annual conference when I spoke there in 2016. Today, she has her own firm. I recommend reading this Twitter thread of hers in which people give examples of good virtual events.

Dan Hon, co-chair of the Code for America Summit, also tweeted some advice: “All of you organisations cancelling conferences and trying to go virtual, I have one big suggestion. Hire. Online. Community. Managers. Otherwise you’re just delivering a bunch of webinars and likely paying for a bunch of Slack users in tumbleweed channels.”

And it is not just businesses that are ‘going digital’.

“As the impact of the coronavirus grows across the US, we anticipate consumers' media routines to be disrupted just as much as their daily routines,” Forrester Research principal analyst Jay Pattisall told me. “Spending more time at home will drive more people to several digital forms of information and entertainment.”

Forrester vice president Julie Ogilvie has also written a guide to coronavirus-related marketing and communications in general.

The issues for event speakers

If you, like me, are a professional speaker or someone who gives presentations for your company, the speaking industry is also going through tough times. Twitter is full of people mentioning their cancellations and postponements. But there is advice online as well.

remote speakers

James Taylor of Speakers U held a recorded webinar on what speakers should do with Fredrik Haren of in Singapore, Saana Azzam of the MENA Speakers Bureau in Dubai, Maria Franzoni of the MFL.Global Speakers Bureau in London and Jane Atkinson of in Canada.

Gallus Events in the UK has a virtual event speaker brief for both organisers and presenters. SpeakerHub did a podcast episode with speaker and attorney Mitch Jackson. Atkinson held one with Andrew Busch.

The positive effects for the future

At the moment I was finishing this column, stock markets throughout the world were plunging. If we are heading towards another recession, a prior article has my original research into how marketers should respond.

But event managers and field marketers should not dwell too much on the negatives. There are always positives.

“It is an opportunity for organisers to strip back their event offering,” Katie Morhen, director of 52eight3, an agency that promotes event suppliers, tech platforms and venues, told me. “This is a chance to shed any legacy commitments that may have been holding the brand back in the past and work to shape the future of the event to become more valuable and relevant to the attendee.

“For event marketers, they are going to have to rethink much of their event campaigns and the year-on-year messaging that is still so often used.”

Karamat, the PCMA president and chief executive, told me that the opportunity comes in the form of events starting to incorporate numerous marcom channels.

“Let's face it, this has just been horrific. And it's been a very difficult time,” he said. “But in everything, it creates many opportunities. It's opening up opportunities because an event is not just face to face – an event is on multiple channels. And what it's doing is [making us look at] how we are increasing the [number of] different channels to make sure that people can engage, exchange information and [have a] dialogue on different platforms."

As for me, I will be staying in my flat in Tel Aviv for the next few weeks while either buying equipment to create an in-home studio or hiring a production agency for future virtual events. But I will not be listening to UB40.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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