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Key Elements of Event Planning in 2022: ROI, Flexibility + Engagement

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Our Impact@Home virtual event brought together event industry leaders to discuss best practices on how to build better virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

There, we were thrilled to welcome Sarah Lynn, Chief of Staff at the Black Star Fund and a former Senior Programmer at SXSW, she executed one of the most prominent tech, film, and music festivals in the United States. 

Lynn joined Justin Brown, our COO and Head of Product, to discuss the future of events. 

Together, they covered the topics keeping event planners up at night these days: How can event planners continue planning events amid  the impact of  various factors of uncertainty? How will the pandemic (and any new variants that arise) impact events in the long term? How has event technology evolved in response to increased demand for virtual and hybrid options — and what can we expect next? 

Undoubtedly, these are uncertain times for marketers and event planners. In this conversation, Lynn and Brown addressed these topics and gave actionable ways for event planners to move forward. Read on for the full scoop: 

Editor’s note: Quotes have been slightly edited for brevity and cohesiveness. 

How can marketers plan events in this uncertain landscape? 

“We’re all still learning,” Lynn says. “For example, a large event like SXSW involves close communication with public health officials and taking the temperatures of the local community. Remember that SXSW was the first event canceled by COVID [in March 2020], because there was a lot of uproar among Austin residents about not wanting the event to happen.

Back-up plans and back-up back-up plans are the new normal for us. And we’re getting better about integrating those into our plan from the get-go… It’s a massive challenge, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on what you’ve done, what’s worked, and what you can do differently in the new landscape.” 

Brown agrees, emphasizing the need for more flexibility and resilience. 

“The best event planners are able to pivot across these as information and research changes,” he says. “We saw it in August with the Delta variant — It changed so many people’s calendars and shifted so many people’s budgets. Planners had planned to go in person and false starts, then pivoted last second to virtual. So August 2021 looked very similar to March 2020, where plans had shifted twice.” 

"Now that people have been burned twice, we’ve built our scar tissue. So people are asking themselves, ‘What happens next spring when flu season is bigger than we think? What happens when different perceptions and preferences of the crowd are different than we expect?’” 

“Consistent pulse checks are so important. Hosts need to know the needs and preferences of their audience, whether it’s B2B or a consumer event,” Brown says. “And they need to know those audience needs could change between when we start to plan an event and when it takes place.

They also need to segment that audience and understand there are differences in people’s desires and preferences. So having multiple options that meet people where they are will be more important going forward.”

What steps can hosts take to host safe, yet successful events? 

“Reducing the number of people participating and having events outside wherever possible is important,” Lynn adds. “ Moving to a hybrid model has also become comfortable and feasible for many organizations — and it helps from a cost perspective, for both hosts and attendees.” 

Once COVID recedes, what lasting aftereffects will it have on events and attendees? 

The shift to virtual events has introduced organizations to whole segments of audiences that wouldn’t have been able to attend their events otherwise, Lynn says. And even after in-person events return, companies will continue capitalizing on those new audiences. 

“I definitely think events will enlarge their virtual presence, and play around with it, not just during event experience but year-round,” she says. “People can engage more with you year-round, so you can reach people who wouldn’t have even known who you were previously. 

People who pay for a large presence at live events will send people to virtual events. That means more companies can participate at more events than they could in a solely live setting. And we can activate those organizations in ways we haven’t before.” 

Virtual events will also continue to serve attendees reluctant to attend events in person, she continues. 

“{In a virtual setting], attendees can also connect and learn on a more flexible timeline. They’re thinking about their kids and the impact of COVID, or they can’t afford to travel. That’s happening with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons right now... Being able to learn and participate in events in a more flexible way will be a huge opportunity for people who wouldn’t have been able to attend.” 

The widespread shift to remote work has changed the way that both individuals and businesses approach events, Brown adds.  

“When it comes to events, we’re gonna be more discerning,” he says. “There will be cases where the positives [of attending an in-person event] outweigh the negatives — like if there’s commercial value in attending live. If we’re networking and looking for the next opportunity in our career, it makes sense to get out of our comfy sweatpants and get on a plane.

From the business side, if we’re participating in an industry trade show with competitors and we have a fear of missing out on business by not attending, that would move the needle too. Companies are gonna be looking through the microscope and asking, ‘Do we need to send 20 people to this event? Or can we send 5 and have the rest come virtually?’” 

How has event technology evolved in response to COVID? 

“Flexibility is going to be super key,” Brown says. “Our psychology as knowledge workers has shifted in the last 18 months. We’ve adapted to the comfort of working from home, and we’ve learned that we’re as productive or even more productive now. 

So the psychology of work, and how that’s shifted in the last year and a half, also impacts how we’re thinking about BigMarker’s product roadmap.” 

“First, we see the need for a single platform to unify the in-person and virtual experiences. That doesn’t mean a single experience, because those experiences for in-person or at home are very different. 

Think: If you’re in real life at the Super Bowl, it’s a magical experience. The people all around you, the lights, the halftime show simply can’t be replicated at home. But when you’re at home and you’ve got your friends over, you’ve got your favorite seven-layer dip right in front of you… there are elements that make that experience great as well. 

So there are two optimal experiences that can be wonderful for both people. We want to optimize both of those experiences and do it on one platform. That way, everything digital is in one place and it’s easier for organizers to plan.” 

It also allows BigMarker to double down on data and help hosts better justify their event ROI, Brown says. “This is one of the biggest shifts I’ve seen among event producers in the last 18 months. Calculating ROI for a live event has always been nebulous — just out of reach. Do we look at impressions, eyeballs, people coming through? 

You can measure surface-level stats, but the depth of experience is hard to measure in IRL events. Virtual events are a lot easier to measure. It’s a lot more of a Google Analytics experience. Now we know where people are spending their time. And now event producers have gotten a bit of an addiction to that data-rich environment and want to pull it into the [live events] world. So from a hybrid perspective, we’re trying to make data as actionable as possible.” 

What features and capabilities are audiences looking for right now? 

More than any splashy feature, people want events to provide value, regardless of the format, Brown says. “From the conversations we have, we hear that people want no frills. There were so many flash-in-the-pan experiences in 2020, so now we’re seeing fatigue over gimmicks. People just want to get to the basics.” 

“When we’re talking about SXSW or Dreamforce, a lot of people care about ‘What am I going to learn?’, `How am I going to become better at my job or life by consuming this content?” Also, ‘Who am I going to meet?’” 

What advice do you have for event professionals navigating COVID, and life beyond the pandemic? 

Do thoughtful research on different event platforms, as well as their impact on the attendee journey, Lynn says. “We spent the summer of 2020 attending as many virtual events as possible,” she says. “We kept notes about things about the event we liked and didn’t like; what we liked and didn’t like about each of the virtual event platforms. We spent a lot of time putting together user stories. What would their experience look like at the event and how different people would respond to different parts of our events.” 

She also recommends grounding any significant decisions about programming in data and audience feedback. That’s especially important if you’re forced to move your event from in-person to virtual, or vice versa, with little notice. 

“Do due diligence with your community and use data to implement changes intentionally,” she says. “Then figure out what makes your event special and how you can replicate it in a virtual setting.” 

Brown agrees, saying, “It’s not the what in what people are doing, but the how in how they’re doing it. Because when people do things wrong, it’s because they saw a shiny object — they saw a company doing something that worked and said, ‘We need to do it too.’ But what works for that company usually isn’t going to work 100% for you.” 

So take an audience-centric design thinking approach. Think, ‘What do the people attending my event want and need?’ ‘What’ll excite them and make them feel awesome?’ ‘What are they afraid of and concerned with?’ Build a profile for all kinds of stakeholders we’re trying to attract. Work backward from the profile of that positive event and then say, ‘How can we build that?’”   

Bonus question: Do you have any advice for young professionals pursuing events careers?

Get as much experience as you can, Lynn says. “I think definitely being able to share any experience you have actually planning an event. A lot of people want to go into event careers because of the glitz and glam. But things go wrong all the time. Be honest with yourself about what it’s like to be in the event industry. 

“There’s a lot of work and not a lot of recognition for it. For instance, guests will say that SXSW was so amazing — not Sarah did a great job planning South By [Southwest].” 

So applicants should demonstrate that they understand the realities of working in the event industry — whether through professional experiences or more informal experiences. 

“That can be planning fundraising events for your sorority in college or having an internship where you plan events. Show that you recognize the skillset of being an event planner and highlight those [traits in yourself] if you don’t have event experience,” she says. “Show you fully understand at least the basics of the events industry and it can help you stand out.” 

Event technology takes a similar solutions-focused, get-it-done approach, Brown adds. 

“And from the event technology side, we like builders,” he says. “We have an insane bias toward people that build things and show action. People who show that they’ll roll up their sleeves and get things done. 

It could be an event or a digital platform you built. Or even a blog or a podcast. That shows that you have the kick in the butt to get started, and also the grit and tenacity to see it through. That’s a great signal that you’re a good fit.” 

Need guidance on how to build a more comprehensive event strategy?  Email us at sales@bigmarker.com for a one-on-one consultation with a BigMarker event expert today. 

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