Conference Trends for 2017
Back in February, I was invited to deliver the opening keynote at the C&IT Corporate Forum, an annual gathering of in-house event managers. I was asked to talk about conference trends, so I focused my talk on how societal change is affecting delegate expectations, and how the smartest event planners are rising to that challenge. The content of that talk is below, along with some of my slides.
From the 1950s until about 2005, the conference model remained largely unchanged: a few hundred men in grey suits watched as another man in another grey suit delivered presentations about sales projections and imparted research findings.
So what happened in the mid-Noughties to make a difference? Well firstly, conferencing became a proper business. Event management became a recognised area of study at university. Processes became formalised, health and safety loomed large and that beast, sustainability, reared its now-familiar head.
And what a boom it has proven to be: last year, there were 67 UK universities offering events-related degrees, and around 30,000 new event management graduates are expected to hit the jobs marketplace in the next five years.
But also, the technology we use has developed significantly, changing the way delegates engage with the content we create.
There is a real move at the moment towards redesigning events, so that a conference really is a place where people with opinions gather to share them.
Last year was the year of being heard. Brexit wasn’t about Europe and the presidential election certainly wasn’t about building a 2,000 mile wall.
Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Beyonce and Peter Thiel and Cara Delevigne and Frank Ocean and Kevin Systrom and Rihanna and Jack Dorsey and Nigel Farage and Hulk Hogan and Kim and Kanye and Khloe and Kylie and Caitlin and the 45th president of the United States have changed the game.
They have risen to prominence on a platform of giving voices to ‘ordinary’ people. Technology has democratised opinion, giving the greatest weight of importance not to the smartest, or the richest or even the most talented, but those with the largest following.
We are all content creators now – our phones and laptops enable us to broadcast, day or night and almost everyone now does it in some small way.
1. Building communities with tech
The period from 2006 to 2010, event-tech’s focus was on making online booking work. Then from 2010 to 2014, it was all about apps.
A game-changer in this situation would have been a seamless API with LinkedIn, the executive’s Facebook, but LinkedIn charge anywhere from one to three million to plug in, and reserve the right to change their policies at any moment, which makes it impossible to build an app business on top of.
Digital life works when it is frictionless. Having to re-enter your information into an app every year, or for each event you attend, creates friction, and so the app journey has been a bumpy one.
Events which succeed in this area have nailed the idea of building a community which continues to engage throughout the year, keeping delegates in touch with each other and the latest products, services and developments in their sector, as well as giving them an easy way to communicate and build relationships onsite.
Because of that, content marketing has never been so important. Lots of event organisers I come into contact with are now beginning to understand this and plan their educational and sponsored content to take place over a much longer cycle, in order to stay front-and-centre of their delegates’ minds.
2017 will be the year when social media, digital and offline marketing, and live events all form part of the same content plan, to keep attendees plugged in to the community, where the main event is the pinnacle of activity.
In terms of conference content, humans bringing their own opinions to the table means there has never been a more important time to challenge them with controversial content.
Heuristic web algorithms have tightened the noose around delivering catered content. Since late 2015, it has become increasingly difficult to be exposed to information which doesn’t already chime with your own views.
The only online engagement that matters is ‘phatic’ – this means that Facebook, Instagram and Google-delivered news feeds will only show you headlines, updates and information similar to those you already like. The internet was supposed to give us a window onto the world, with unfettered access to data which could change our views.
Now, our previous choices limit us to seeing only that information which confirms what we already believe.
In the last few months, political discourse – and therefore water-cooler conversation – has become almost gladiatorial, divisive and heated.
Your job at a conference is to bring people together under a common banner in only a day or two, to give them the tools to drive forward a company or an entire industry for the next year.
More and more this year, we will see this achieved by the use of antagonists instead of protagonists as keynote speakers: people with strong views that can divide a room like a bomb going off.
For this to work, it needs to be followed up with plenty of opportunities for collaborative problem-solving in the form of workshops and roundtables. These give people a voice on a subject they feel passionate about, and give delegates the chance to work together, to develop their own tools to fix the problems facing their businesses.
This has been growing in popularity for the last year, so in 2017, we will see a lot more event planner setting off content hand grenades, to give attendees the chance to choose their own banner to rally under.
3. Behavioural Analysis
As live events have become a more integral part of the marketing mix over the last couple of years, so the need to demonstrate clear return on investment for organisers, sponsors, speakers and exhibitors has become apparent.
Increasingly, conferences and exhibitions are subject to the same metrics and KPIs that all marketing investment has been over the course of this decade.
Where advertisers measured impact based on eye-tracking and Google analytics, now the technology previously only available for large-scale expos are now being deployed more cost-effectively on smaller events, so that footfall, relevance and engagement can be more accurately measured.
Behavioural analysis will be huge in 2017, analysing delegate behaviour onsite and tailoring the experience – often during the event – to meet their needs and keep them engaged.
If we look at the biggest technology concerns of the conference producer over the last 30 years, we see that eventtech has long played a major role:
- 1987 – that the lightbulb wouldn’t blow in the OHP
- 1997 – that the show PC had Powerpoint installed
- 2007 – that the venue wifi was fast enough to download a presentation
- 2017 – that the picture painted by data from scanners and sensors is a positive one.
Doubledutch’s CEO Lawrence Cockburn recently declared that “The analog event experience is dying. Event attendees are engaging with software as they navigate a live event experience, enabling far more customized experiences, and also generating troves of live engagement data that can be acted on in near real time.”
His company collects hundreds of millions of monthly data points from exhibition attendee activity and says that, with the current huge investment in wearables, sensors, and IoT, by 2018 the “smartphone will still be an important device, but the event floor will be fully instrumented”.
He also predicts a new key marketing role for all B2B companies: ‘Live Ops‘, responsible for managing companies’ presence at conferences and tradeshows (presumably in the space between CRM, eventprof and BizDev – or perhaps replacing all three).
Sponsorship has always been a tough sell, but now marketing directors need to see proof that the budget spent on sponsorship can have the same (or greater) return than cash spent on other promotional avenues.
Which is where trying to understand ‘brand activation’ comes in. There is little or no inherent value in just being listed as a sponsor, with a small logo on a branding board with 35 others.
However, there is huge value in delegates being able to experience your sponsor’s brand in action. So here’s the future of sponsorship:
If your sponsors’ products and services are relevant to your delegates, communicating their benefits should add value to the ecosystem. There has been a huge cultural shift in the last ten years.
What is touted as a millennial issue is actually much broader – everyone who downloads an app, or registers a smart phone is now accustomed to giving away a slice of their personal data and a few of their normal human rights in return for access to free content and services which in some way improve their lives.
So in short this shift – the size and scale of which has never been experienced in human history – sees people now expecting to be offered branded content in return for an easier experience.
The catch is that the content they consume must be relevant. Therefore, creating interesting ways for your ‘buyer’ delegates to be immersed in the brands that financially support the event should add value to their overall experience.
If their key messaging, product offering or branding seems incongruous with your event, it probably shouldn’t be there. If your event cannot create an immersive platform for your attendees to experience and understand the sponsor’s brand, then you simply shouldn’t be selling to them.
Where historically, producers have always worked hard to divorce sponsored content from editorial content, this year, I am witnessing a real move towards sponsors becoming more actively involved in the educational content of conferences – and delegates deriving huge amounts of additional value from the experience.
The tide has turned. Now, if your ‘sellers’ are the right fit for your ‘buyers’, they will have something to say that your delegates can benefit from.
Innovating with conference format is nothing new – I’ve been trying to do exactly that for 12 years! But in the last few months, we have seen this step up a notch.
Conferences that have been running in the same format for years are suddenly being reinvented as festivals of innovation. Conferences are being deconstructed and mixed with new ingredients like:
- live music interludes
- slam poetry sessions
- interactive storytelling using trained actors
- facilitated roundtable discussions
- experiential theatre workshops
- live product demos
- startup pitches
- quickfire quizzes
- campfire sessions with industry experts
- improv talks
- and unconferences.
This isn’t just about doing something different. It’s about curating ways for the delegates to connect more deeply with the event experience by contributing to it.
Enabling people to speak and share their opinions helps to validate their investment in the conference – and right now even the biggest shows in the world are actively trying anything they can to deliver that level of intimacy, which will be one of the most recurrent themes in 2017.
As the event business continues to grow and competition becomes more fierce for delegate dollars, the ones who foster that sense of intimacy will be the ones to thrive in the years that follow.
I hope you find this useful. Please feel free to add your comments, share and discuss with colleagues. Thanks for reading!