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The B2B events reset
Betting on smaller
Since we are in the heart of “events season,” I decided to revisit how I see B2B media industry events changing. First up, a message from Ex.co.
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The B2B events reset
Of all the pandemic fakeouts, the end of in-person events is up there. With the memories of disinfecting groceries still fresh, there was the hare-brained notion that people could hardly be expected to get on germy planes to don a lanyard and be in a petri dish in a Hilton hotel ballroom somewhere in the outskirts of Phoenix. Clubhouse was valued at $4 billion, Hopin raised at $5.65 billion.
In-person events, of course, came roaring back. 2021 was a bizarre year where everything was up and to the right, even virtual events that were a poor substitute. The events momentum continued through 2022 and this year. Virtual events are not DOA, but they will remain a complement to live events rather than a substitution for them.
Events have emerged as a key growth area for everyone from lifestyle publishers to B2B to the crop of new digital players who have mostly sworn off the scale playbook of the previous disastrous generation.
And like anything else in publishing, there are too many events chasing too little audience and too few sponsors. At The Rebooting Dinner Series last week, one executive on the “prosumer” end of the publishing industry predicted an events bubble. An executive at a major financial publisher wrote me after an earlier piece on the pivot to events to remark, “The big events, festivals don’t work and are way too broad for marketers and are tricky to evaluate results, measurement, etc. “
Whenever a bubble is predicted, I start from the principle that there is too much of everything. That’s what capitalism is all about. The market then sorts out the winners from the losers. That accelerates in time of economic stress and structural change.
I view events as a live form of media, and therefore subject to the same prevailing winds. In the media business overall, there is a flight to quality over quantity, niche over general and quantifiable results over airy promises of branding. The same pressures will be felt in this area. Too many events offer thin value.
The media industry is something of a test bed for this proposition. I don’t know of any other industry that congregates this much. There is a hierarchy of events. First come the “tentpole” industry events: CES, the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, Possible, Cannes, Advertising Week. Then comes the more focused multiday “summits” at fancy locations that happen nearly every week from Digday, Admonsters, Adexchanger, Brand Innovators, MediaPost, Adweek. Finally, there are the one-to two-day events in major cities.
Outside of July and August, it is possible to spend 80% of your time on a plane going from event to event. (If LinkedIn is any judge, some people are doing this.) At their best, these events serve a critical marketplace dynamic to bring together different parts of a complicated ecosystem to cut deals, find new jobs and vet prospective tech partners. And let’s face it, they provide a plausible rationale for a break from the endless meetings and fire drills.
Events have always been the workhorse of B2B media, which has long played a connecting role in their industries. It also just so happens that events are where the biggest share of budgets are — and the margins can be astounding. The most successful B2B events are gussied-up sales marketplaces, with the heavy musk of raw capitalism in the air, luring executives with budget responsibility with the promise of a complementary trip to Key Biscayne in exchange for doing vendor sales meetings over sponsortinis. You need to find leverage in media.
The model is grindingly effective. One of the reasons is it produces receipts. Many B2B events can produce that in the form of sales leads of in-market buyers. This is critical, because it allows these companies to shift from selling sponsorships to being a cost of sales.
Location matters. Getting people out of New York or major cities isn’t just an excuse to spend time by a pool and escape the eye-watering high costs of unionized hotels. Events in big cities often have people who come for a session or two and then depart for meetings. That doesn’t happen at a resort within driving distance of Orlando. Sponsor-driven events – and nearly all in B2B are sponsor-driven – want a captive audience.
On-stage programming often serves as a cover for a sales boondoggle where more attendees tend to be at the croissant table, pool or lobby bar than the ballroom with the sessions.(There are exceptions to this rule, of course.) I made peace with this as the on-stage guy with the thankless task of loudly asking people to find their seats for the next session and existing in a perpetual state of being the only thing standing between you and cocktails. Just a few housekeeping items…
This results in an interesting competitive dynamic in which publications compete with trade organizations and pure events groups that skip content altogether to focus only on congregation. The latter model is growing and arguably a more sensible approach since the majority of marketing budgets are devoted to events, so why bother with the headache of running a newsroom when you can do the bare minimum to market the events?
What I noticed at the approximately trillion events I did over the years is the most valuable parts were the smallest: the closed-door town halls where publishers groused, the working groups where people often openly shared advice to peers, and the cocktails and dinners that have always been how people build connections. Conversation is more important than programming. And conversation is hard to do at scale. Just look at Twitter.
Smaller gatherings have more differentiated value and lend themselves to a true community model built around conversation. More connectivity can happen, and you can deliver more value for partners if that’s the model. A big opportunity remains for stitching smaller events in a community model that continues conversations. Most events act as reunions of sorts, with a “community” that congregates and then disperses, with the caravan moving on to whatever resort town is next. The best events provide a context for meaningful conversations, including commercial ones. That’s harder to accomplish in big auditoriums and those freezing Hilton ballrooms.
Of course, events organizers have their own goals. The reason many publishers and events organizers go bigger is bigger events have higher revenue potential, and events already “don’t scale,” as you hear nonstop if events are part of your business model. It’s better to make a bunch of money at once than a smaller amount over many times. Sensible.
However, smaller events provide more flexibility and widen the market. Travel budgets are being constricted, and the reality is outside of certain roles, few people operating businesses can regularly blow a three-day hole in their calendars to go on ATV rides or boozy boat cruises on a Wednesday afternoon.
The inevitable boondoggle aspect that remains at these events also serve as a form of exclusion. The more-with-less era will require a back-to-basics approach that dispenses with some of the conference excesses of the previous generation. I was always surprised at how frequently people misbehaved when treating a work trip as a “hall pass.” That kind of environment is for a certain type of person, including the guy who streaked the lobby in Palm Beach with a strategically placed palm frond.
My plan for 2024 is to expand The Rebooting Dinner Series, capped at 15 people, to include a slightly bigger Breakfast Forum Series. My bet is the market for multiday events is saturated and the value created at them can be replicated and exceeded with different approaches that are rooted in conversation.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic and also suggestions for the type of gatherings you wish existed. Send me a note by hitting reply or emailing me at email@example.com
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