Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Future of F2F: How to “Save” Events

Event spending is under attack. The purveyors of “inbound marketing,” SEO, and various forms of lead-generation and tracking, are advocating reallocating event marketing budgets to fuel online growth. New simulated or “virtual” events offer information seekers and marketers some of the benefits of events at lower cost.

Tech buyers are relying less on tradeshows and events for product information. According to a MarketingSherpa survey cited at marketing automation event we attended recently, 37% of the 1491 technology buyer respondents reported using tradeshows and events less often in the first half of 2009. Around 30% reported increased use of virtual events, online search, news websites, and vendor websites.

There are cyclical and secular factors to tease apart. Because the MarketingSherpa data was collected smack in the middle of a major recession, it’s not surprising that buyers said they had gone to fewer shows. (Their budgets had probably been cut.). But an internal sales and marketing coordinator we talked to during a break at the same event shared the perception: “Our leads aren’t coming from trade shows.” he asserted, “People find us on-line.”

Events aren’t facing the same grim fate as newspapers but the James Fallows piece in the June Atlantic, “How to Save the News,” is worth a read for anyone interested in “saving” the event business. Fallows looks to Google for answers - not a bad approach to any question these days.

Fallows starts with the point that newspaper subscriptions per household have been falling for sixty years as TV and other new media have gained share of mind and time. He doesn’t get into the history much, but we know that newspapers enjoyed monopoly profits that masked problems. One has to wonder if the fat margins in big events of a few years ago didn’t portend future challenges.

Of course people will end up paying in some form,” for media of value. Fallows found zero interest at Google in the free vs. paid media debate. Google’s interest is utilitarian and empirical: “What works?” Similarly, we know F2F is valuable – from here the questions are utilitarian and empirical.

The current structure of the media business is not the result of moral failings. Fallows was surprised at how little mockery and moral superiority he heard from the Gods of Google, although he did quote a Google economist referring to the flawed business model of “grinding up trees.”. (This from a guy whose business depends on electrical power generated by grinding up and burning carbon-rich rock to boil water to spin steam turbines.) In the event business, our three-dollar sodas, five-hundred-dollar-a-day data projectors, union electricians to plug in equipment, three-hundred-dollar hotel rooms, seven-hundred-dollar plane fares and two days of travel for two days of event don’t reflect moral failings, just business problems to be solved.

The problem is not demand, it’s the business models. The Google mantra for news media, “distribution, engagement and monetization” applies to events. We need events in more places and more people at events, we need to involve them in the experience in more compelling ways and we need to find more ways to turn event participation into revenue.

The three most important things a newspaper can do: “experiment, experiment and experiment,” quoted by Fallows, are also key to the future of F2F. “Nothing works but everything might,” the maxim for the future of the news oft quoted at Google, can be applied to specific underperforming events and industry problems today.

Regardless of the new options, people will keep spending time in shared live experiences and face-to-face communication. Fallows sounds a final note about the Google faith that good solutions to almost any media problem are just waiting to be discovered. Do you have faith that there are solutions that will “save” events?

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