A Chief Marketing Officer’s insight…and why hybrid matters

Written by Chris Doggart

I was at a party last week. That in itself deserves to be the headline. After months and months of monastic devotion to staying alert and controlling the virus it was such a delight to hug a dear friend and celebrate her birthday with a few friends. It was a school night and I was driving. I drank nothing but Heineken 0.0 alcohol free beer*, but I bounced out of that party on a euphoric high. It felt really good to be back.

Having spent my life producing parties and events, bringing people together in celebration has been both a personal and professional pleasure for me for many years. So that’s it, right? The genie is out of the bottle, people will, if all goes according to plan, soon be able to mix restriction free. Parties, conferences, concerts and meetings will go back to how they were and we can consign these last 18 months to the record books. Or are they? Countless blogs and LinkedIn posts from those within the event industry are willing it to be so and “celebrating” the failings of the virtual substitutes. I was therefore intrigued at this party to hear a dissenting voice, and one from someone we should all listen to, a decision maker, a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO).

As with all CMO’s, this one’s motivation was the growth and development of the brand, striving to contribute to greater revenues for the business. Their opinion… “why would I ever want to go back to the old event format”. Not something I hear much in my social media filter bubble, but her story was not unique, it was one I have heard a few times recently. Before you are tempted to click away, fear not … this is a story of hope.

 

“We used to run a 200 person leadership conference every year, due to the pandemic we weren’t able to do the conference in real life so we went digital. The great thing was I was able to invite so many more people and we decided to open it up to the whole business. Instead of 200 attendees we had 20,000 taking part in a “brand festival”. So many more people were able to consume so much more content than in real life, moving effortlessly from keynote to breakout to discussion spaces. Why would I ever want to go back to the old event format?”

Oh, so events are dead? The cat is out of the bag, how do you uninvite 19,800 people next year? “Sorry, last year we really wanted you to be part of this, your opinion mattered and we wanted to share but I think this year we just want to talk to the 200 we spoke to in 2019”?

Few people (organisers or attendees) claim they prefer virtual events to attending in the real world. The benefits of meeting people in the flesh are clear for all to see (even when we are drinking alcohol free beer!). But sadly being “more enjoyable” and even “better” don’t always cut it. Just listen to any old fogey like me talk about how things used to be in the good old days and you will hear that not all change is for the “better”. Why did we cut lengthy expenses fueled lunches, stop accepting Christmas gifts, apply spending limits on hotels? Nobody changed those behaviours because they wanted less fun or even because the individuals involved thought there was a better way for them to get their work done. Sometimes progress doesn’t mean individuals’ lives improve, sometimes it is about small incremental benefits for the masses rather than the elite, the 20,000 not the 200.

Our motto at Beings is “better together”, it underpins our approach to the world. Our heritage is in live events and we have spent the last 18 months bringing people together virtually. What I took from my chat with the CMO as we sat beneath festoon lights pretending it wasn’t freezing cold, is that engaging with 20,000 people was right for the business and was going to deliver better results. I have long believed events are the best way to engage an audience and to foster learning, innovation and behaviour change. The costs of flying 20,000 people to a single location previously limited the impact the CMO could achieve, but the impact of the virtual event has validated the benefit to the organisation. So step one, whether it is virtually or in the real world, bringing people together is still good for business.

So what next, now that we can hug again (or corporate air kiss), how do we take the learnings and benefits of virtual into this

new/old world? I worked with a client over 10 years ago who turned a live event virtual (sorry to burst anyone’s bubble – this is not as new as some may have you think – some of us have been doing it for years pre-elbow bumps). They stopped bringing 15,000 people together in Las Vegas and broadcast their message online to a dispersed remote audience. Over the years the program evolved and the data was fascinating. Audience satisfaction scores were higher when they experienced the broadcast in a group, not only that, but there was also a positive correlation between the size of the group and the audience satisfaction.

For me this best articulates why hybrid events will win and last long term. Hybrid will allow CMO’s the world over to achieve the scale they have enjoyed during locked down and retain some of the benefit of the live experience. The 200 executives may not be too happy that their much loved trip to a glorious sunny 5 star resort is consigned to their old fogey storybook but the business will enjoy a much brighter future with 20,000 engaged, motivated and enthusiastic employees.

*for the avoidance of doubt the CMO in question does not work for Heineken, I just really enjoy their 0.0 alcohol free beer.

*credit for both the photos and the fabulous garden design to Juanitasharpdesign.co.uk