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Mike Lieberman, CEO and Chief Revenue ScientistThu, May 28, 2020 24 min read

Trade Shows Won’t Be Coming Back This Year Or Next; Innovative Event Marketing Ideas Revealed

Trade shows and conferences are canceled how to generate leads with live events

How To Replace The Lead Generation You Were Expecting From Live Events

Canceled trade shows and conferencesI saw a new free report called “Getting Ready For The Return Of Trade Shows” from a software company, and I thought to myself, “What trade shows?”

Make no mistake: Air travel and live trade shows, conferences and events will be among the last business activities to return, and they may never return to pre-COVID levels.

If there’s a virus flare-up or a second wave in the fall, you could be saying goodbye to air travel and trade shows in 2021, too. I’m not surprised that Facebook, AWS, Google and Microsoft are aggressively looking at virtual events in 2021 and 2022.

I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’m encouraging you, as we have for the past month during our On The Horizon videocast, to stop pining for the good old days and start thinking about what the future’s going to look like so you can be a part of it.

Don’t start planning for your big trade shows and conferences to come back in the fall, and don’t expect them to be back in 2021 either.

Instead, start creating a strategy for planning and testing a variety of alternatives to live events, so you can generate leads, converse with prospects, set up sales meetings, answer questions and move your businesses forward in what we’re now calling the “next normal.”

Here’s what you should be considering for your event strategy in 2020, in 2021 and beyond.

The Current State Of Virtual Events

Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll see these new “virtual” events popping up everywhere. I attended one a few days ago hosted by Verne Harnish, and it advertised a top-tier set of speakers including Mark Cuban, Steve Forbes and high-profiles authors. This event also included a magician and a mentalist to entertain in between sessions.

Needless to say, these events are still getting their feet under them. I have yet to attend one that was amazing. Yes, the price is right, as most of these events are free or modestly priced. The sponsorships are dramatically reduced when compared to the in-person versions, but the format, content and delivery still leave something to be desired.

I applaud the companies and the people rushing to get these events out, and I know they are trying hard to help people with content. However, I can’t help but think there is a better way to do events like this.

Don’t get me started on these virtual trade shows. You’d be better off with a virtual trade show booth and drive your own visitors to your own booth. It would be cheaper and more effective at generating leads for your business.

The main problem, in my humble opinion, is the organizers are still thinking in old-school linear event formats. INBOUND 2020 was canceled last week in favor of a virtual event September 22-23. I’m not sure I’ll be blocking off two full days for virtual content. I am sure I won’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor the event.

What should these events look like? Glad you asked.

First, I think the length should be reduced. The reason events are held over multiple days is because people travel. Now that’s off the table, and so should multi-day events.

Next, I think the format should be changed. Having a single speaker with large groups of attendees sitting quietly and listening should also be reimagined.

Finally, the economic model where people spend thousands of dollars just for access to the conference should also be scrapped.

Now that we know what isn’t going to work, what should we replace it with?

The new event model should be more like Coachella and Firefly, where content is spread over a longer period of time and attendees get to pick and choose (and potentially pay) for only those shows they actually attend.

Make it more like a festival or celebration spread out over a longer period of time, so it’s more like Black History Month than a condensed fire hose of content that not everyone can digest.

Consider two weeks’ worth of sessions spread out during the day and where people only pay for what they actually attend. For week one, attendees can opt in to attend a 9 a.m. session on Monday, a noon session on Tuesday, a 2 p.m. and a 5 p.m. session on Wednesday, nothing on Thursday and another noon session on Friday.

Every session is recorded and offered on-demand, so I can go back and watch sessions whenever I want to, just like Netflix and my DVR allow me to time shift my content today.

Perhaps the payment model is now pay-per-view. I pay $19.99 to watch a session on-demand but $49.99 to watch it and participate live. Perhaps the speakers get a small cut of the proceeds to encourage them to promote the events through their networks. (Just thinking out loud.) You could also do a rent or own pricing plan as well, just like movies on many on-demand services.

Speaking about participation, let’s make all of the sessions highly interactive. Wouldn’t the audiences get more out of the content if they could ask questions, get answers and be able to digest the content in context to their own specific companies?

No more generic presentations. That might mean two session leaders, one that’s sharing content for the group and one that is handling questions behind the scenes for audience attendees. Interesting, right? The technology would make that very easy.

But enough about me helping the event marketing industry rethink its entire model. Let’s get back to your challenges. How do you replace all of those trade show leads with virtual events?


Your Own Virtual Events

I think events must be a part of your content strategy in 2020 and beyond. That means doing your own virtual events should be in your plans today. Since it’s the wild, wild west right now, you don’t have much to lose. Worst case scenario, you end up with a new piece of educational content for use on your website in an on-demand format.

Best case scenario, you get hundreds of people to sign up and attend your event. You generate leads for your company, you have a low-cost way to generate leads and you have a format for events going forward that work in the “next normal.” You differentiate your company as a thought leader, and you position your company to outflank your competitors.

Let’s look more closely at what these events should look like.

First, let’s blow up the linear nature of these events and stop asking people to sign up for one day, two days or even three days of activities. The chance of keeping an attendee’s attention virtually for even one full day is low.

Instead, let’s pull from my festival approach introduced at the beginning of this article. My suggestion is to take a week or even a month and design content around that festival. Think more like Black History Month, for example, where every day during February something is planned to honor the accomplishments of black Americans.

I’m recommending a virtual event schedule that looks more like that. One single registration gets you access to all of the content. Your content consumption patterns dictate your investment (more on that later). Focus the event on a single topic, narrower than many of the events I’ve attended.

Instead of an all-encompassing digital marketing summit, try an event focused exclusively on one area, such as account-based marketing (ABM), email marketing, website optimization, sales and marketing alignment or sales operations. Because such events are easier and less expensive to execute, you can do these more frequently.

Here is what the schedule could look like:

Monday at 9 a.m. – A live session with a recognized keynote speaker for 45 minutes and then 15 minutes of Q&A from the audience moderated by a host. The session is recorded and posted later in the day for on-demand viewing.

Monday at 11 a.m. – A new e-book is emailed to everyone who registered for the event.

Monday at 12:30 p.m. – A lunch-and-learn live session with a speaker who has a Q&A associated to handle live questions from the audience. The session speaker does her presentation while her associate handles questions during the session.

Tuesday at 9 a.m. – A new infographic is emailed to everyone.

Tuesday at 10 a.m. A session to walk people through the insights in the infographic.

Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. – A networking app allows you to scan all of the registrants and request 10-minute get-to-know-you sessions with accepting invitees. You must pick them; they have to accept and want to meet you too. I’d enable some type of messaging app to help make these less creepy and more informative. For example: “Let’s chat before we set up our 10 minutes to meet.” You can open this up a week ahead of time to make it highly efficient.

Wednesday at 9 a.m. – A series of prerecorded videos with experts talking about topics submitted by the registrants. The top 10 challenges, issues or questions are selected, and videos are recorded with experts from around the world answering questions and sharing insights designed to help execution.

Wednesday at noon – Another live session with a recognized keynote speaker for 45 minutes and 15 minutes of Q&A from the audience moderated by a host. The session is recorded and posted later in the day for on-demand viewing.

Wednesday evening – An email is sent with a collection of 10 tip guides related to the focus of your event.

Thursday from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. – Workshops (90 minutes each) are hosted by experts covering a specific topic and working directly with a limited number of attendees on their individual and specific company challenges. At the end of the 90 minutes, the experts allow “Ask Me Anything” sessions to add more value beyond the workshop content. Each session is limited to four to six attendees, so depending on audience interest, this might decide how many of these you run simultaneously.

Audience interest is now something you can actually gauge in advance. Surveys, polls and even individual outreach to potential attendees could drive up attendance. The more you let people customize the content, the more value the event adds for each attendee.

Thursday at noon – An email with a playbook related to the theme of your event is sent out to all of your registrants.

Thursday at 5:30 p.m. – Have an awards celebration. People submit for awards, the awards are announced and people accept them virtually with short speeches. Awards can be sent out and badges can be emailed to winners so they promote the award and your event. You can make this event as big and robust as you would like. You can have three awards or 30 awards; it’s up to you. But people love awards, they love winning and they love the spotlight. Make a big deal out of this.

Friday at 9:30 a.m. – Wrap up with a photo montage of the week’s festivities, and then have the final keynote. Make this your biggest celebrity speaker to ensure this is the most attended session of your weeklong festival.

Friday at noon – One final email is sent with a link to a special section of your website where you host all of the content from your event, plus a survey to get feedback on each attended session and the event in general. Perhaps even request for an online review or the right to use their positive feedback in future event promotions.

I’d go so far as to offer an unexpected gift with your “thank you for attending” message. The gift could be a book, a free subscription link to a sponsor’s software only available for registrants or some prize that no one was expecting.

Go out of your way to say thank you for their attention during the past week. After all, the costs for these virtual events are so low that you can afford to be generous with registrants.

Now you’ve found a way to weave your content, your agenda, your sponsors’ content and your sponsors’ agendas into each day. You’ve done this without disrupting attendees’ schedules, without making them travel and without taking them out of their offices or homes.

Better yet, you’ve created a remarkable experience that people will be talking about. This makes doing events like this easier in the future. You could potentially do something like this quarterly or even monthly if you have the people to pull off the content and guest speaker development work.

When it comes to payment, consider basing it on a consumption model. You could offer an “all-you-can-eat” rate for everything during the week, or you could offer a pay-as-you-go model. Live events might cost more, while on-demand events may cost less.

Workshops might be more expensive than the general sessions, because the value would be higher to the organization and the individual. It would be easy to experiment with different models and see which one gets the most attention, drives the most revenue or gets the highest satisfaction scores.

Speaking At Other Virtual Events

Canceled marketing conferencesI get it; that does sound like a lot of work. What are your alternatives if you’re not up for creating a weeklong festival of speakers and content?

You can work harder to get selected to speak at other virtual events. It’s not easy to get selected to speak at big conferences. But if there are going to be many more virtual events, it might be easier to get selected to speak at these types of events going forward.

It makes sense; there are a limited number of events and a limited number of speaking slots. Many speakers are pitching for that limited number of seats. In the past, the events held all of the cards. But more events should mean demand for more speakers. 

Understand that you might be speaking to 10 or 20 people instead of 100 or 200 people, but those people should be highly qualified and very interested in what you have to say, or else they wouldn’t have selected your session and agreed to pay for it.

The more interactive the session, the better the value.

What kept a lot of companies from running their own events was the cost. With that out of the way, I expect many more companies to be running their own virtual events instead of showing up at the big events, which are likely to be canceled anyway.

Get started now identifying the virtual events you want to speak at and create specific session titles and ideas. Feel free to use some of the innovative session ideas in this article when you pitch. Some event planners might still be thinking in the old way, so you may have to get them thinking differently.

Start pitching now and pitch all year to everyone. You never know who might know someone else and could recommend you. Without having to travel, you could speak 10 times and get in front of 200 people, just like you would have if the annual trade show was still planned for New Orleans in September. Plus, this will cost you one-tenth of what the NOLA trip would have cost.  

Events With Strategic Partners

It’s a lot of work to plan events, and when you have to rely on your list or aggressive marketing to drive up registrations, that can be a heavy ask. But when you work with partners, you can share the load. Not only do they help promote the event to new people who could be new prospects, they also help share the content and planning burden, too.

In certain circumstances they could share the investment as well. These virtual events shouldn’t cost much, but even if they cost $5,000, sharing that cost with a partner or two works for everyone.

The first big reason to work with partners on events is access to speakers. Even if you have the best network and know all of the big-draw speakers, someone at your partner might know different people or new people you don’t know. Leveraging a partner’s network to create truly remarkable content and attract remarkable speakers is going to be a big draw for your event.

Content is king, and it’s going to be even more important in virtual events. The speakers, the workshops, the educational material, the workshop leaders and the awards are going to be the biggest draws. The more notable the experts, the better your show will do.

The next big reason to work with partners is their marketing capabilities. You want to select a partner with access to the types of companies you want access to, and they should have enough connections to make it worth your while.

To be even more specific, this comes down to the size of their prospect or customer email database and the number of visitors to their website on a monthly basis. Look for partners with an email database north of 10,000 people and a website that sees roughly 30,000 visitors a month or more.

You also want a partner with marketing people who can help create content, execute their own promotions for the events and handle any day-of or week-of event assignments. The more experience and the more people they can bring for executing an event like this, the better off you’ll both be.

Live Webinars, Ask Us Anything And Office Hours

Finally, I want to point out that events like this don’t need to be big, blown-out multi-day programs. It might be better for some of you reading this to start small.

The key takeaway is that events are being recreated. Events are being reimagined. Events are being redesigned with today’s constraints and tomorrow’s likely constraints in mind.

Run a live “Ask Me Anything” session. Have open office hours for prospects. Plan a live webinar where you can share your thought leadership, record it and offer it on your website.

Educational content is transforming in front of your eyes. Standard high-production-value videos and highly designed but printed educational content are getting pushed aside by live, interactive, webinar, workshop and “show” format sessions.

The sooner you start revamping your event strategy to take advantage of the changes going on today, the sooner you’ll leapfrog your competitors, generate more high-quality leads and see your event budget drop dramatically.

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Mike Lieberman, CEO and Chief Revenue Scientist

Mike is the CEO and Chief Revenue Scientist at Square 2. He is passionate about helping people turn their ordinary businesses into businesses people talk about. For more than 25 years, Mike has been working hand-in-hand with CEOs and marketing and sales executives to help them create strategic revenue growth plans, compelling marketing strategies and remarkable sales processes that shorten the sales cycle and increase close rates.