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‘Transparency Is Your Friend’; Events Are Coming Back With Hurdles Still to Clear

CEIR survey research and index results released yesterday indicate recovery of the events industry will accelerate. The intent is obviously there, particularly on the exhibitor side. The question remains what will drive attendees back. “While it will take time to get back to 2019 performance levels, we are on our way,” said CEIR CEO Cathy Breden.

“If COVID has shown us anything, it is that the need to get back to connecting one-to-one again is as strong, if not stronger, than it’s ever been,” Brian Cuthbert, group vice president of Diversified, told me earlier in the year—coming off a very successful event. “That doesn’t mean virtual is not or should not be a component of what you do, because it can get you new attendees and exhibitors who might not want do an in-person event. But large events are back running, and you get a lot of the same feedback from people who are running the show: ‘It felt great to be back on site; it felt so good to be able to do that.’”

This week, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) reported that the U.S. B2B exhibitions industry improved significantly in the first quarter of 2022 from the previous eight quarters—especially in terms of cancellation rates. For physical in-person events, the cancellation rate dropped to 9.2% in Q1 2022—still significant, mind you but compared to 91.3% in the first quarter of 2021 and 66.2% in the second quarter, it represents a world of difference.

“You tell people what the event is going to be; you tell them what the safety measures are,” Cuthbert said. “Are you delivering value? It’s the same measure that we’ve always been judged on—did the event deliver value to you as an attendee or you as an exhibitor? ‘And did I learn something from the content [and the people] that I made connections with.’”

The CEIR Total Index—a measure of overall exhibition performance—remains below 2019 levels. Among cancelled events in Q1 2022, 50% instead offered digital events, down from 78.5% in Q4 2021. It’s clear that the appetite for virtual—at least in place of an in-person event—is waning.

“We realized very quickly that translating live events to digital events is not a one-to-one translation,” Haley Berling, senior manager, digital programs and events, GovExec, told us last week. “It is actually a completely different language you start to speak… We had to say, ‘What do people want? They’re lonely, they want to connect with each other, they want to access content. They want something different.”

“[By] thinking, ‘How do I take the show that we were running and allow people to access it on their tablet and let them try?’ you’re forcing it,” Cuthbert said. “We are looking at all the shows individually—so in some markets we’re beefing up and certainly continuing to invest in the content that we’re producing, the types of demand generation offerings that we have for our exhibitors and sponsors.”

It will still take some time for in-person events to return to what they were. Among completed events, only 15.3% have surpassed their pre-pandemic levels of the CEIR Total Index. Real revenues have suffered a little more than the number of attendees, 34.2% to 32.9%. Exhibitors have tumbled 30.1%..

“B2B exhibitions offer opportunities for buyers to find alternative reasonable-price supplies under the current elevated inflation environment and persistence of global supply chain challenges,” said CEIR economist Allen Shaw. “The B2B exhibition cancellation rate should decline further, and the performance of completed events will continue to improve.”

“You have to address head on what the safety protocols are going to be because it’s not in anyone’s best interest that you come to an event and then you’re surprised by what those protocols are,” Cuthbert said. “It can lead to conflict and confrontation on site, and that means a bad customer experience. We would much rather you come because not only you feel that the content is valuable, but that you’re also comfortable and accept what the process we have in place is to keep everyone safe—and if you don’t agree to it, we completely understand that.

“Transparency is your friend right now. Be as transparent as you can. And let people make the decisions that are right for them.”

For the record, Broadway theaters just announced that required masking will continue through at least June 30. For our own upcoming event—AMPLIFY, June 22-23 in Washington, D.C.—a clear policy has been firmly in place since April 1 of full proof of vaccinations and masking requirement.

“We want people to consume the content in the way that’s most comfortable for them,” Cuthbert said. “You want to come to an in-person event, you want to go listen to something on-demand, you want to engage with people online in networking chats. I’ll give you all of those options, but I don’t think it just exists tied to a single show anymore. It’s really around how you build it out over the course of a year.

“If you just existed on a single show, were you really as relevant as you think you are? Or were you taking your audience for granted in some way that you weren’t thinking about—their information needs over the course of a 12-month period?… And you weren’t thinking about ways to monetize those opportunities. A lot of what’s happened [has] just reinforced good behaviors of how we build and develop and support the audiences that we serve.”

 

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Inclusion, Covering Key Issues, Infographics and Ralph Waldo Emerson Make FleetOwner Special

This is the first article in an ongoing series on the 2022 Neal Award winners—what makes them special, what is replicable, and what lessons we can learn going forward. Endeavor Business Media’s FleetOwner engages us early with its design and tough stances, gives us easy-to-digest infographics and then pours it on with wonderful prose.

“Today, the words diversity and inclusion go hand in hand,” writes executive editor Cristina Commendatore in an article titled ‘Diversity in Trucking a Must’ in Endeavor Business Media’s 2022 Neal Award-winning issue of FleetOwner. (It won for Best Single Issue of a Tabloid/Newspaper/Magazine – brand revenue $3-7 million.) “Without an inclusive culture, it’s impossible to maintain diversity within any business operation. That’s particularly important for the trucking industry, which has a growing labor shortage and hasn’t traditionally been known as the most diverse industry.”

She points to Total Transportation in Jackson, Miss., which has a team that specializes in going to historically Black colleges and universities to promote the trucking industry. “The company also touts having nearly three times more female drivers than the national average.” “It’s easy to be diverse,” said CEO John Stomps. “Inclusion, however, is a culture; you’ve got to have that from the top down.”

That’s just one informative article in an issue chock full of them. Here are some of the things that the Endeavor Business Media staff got right in putting together this winning issue.

Address issues of the day. There’s an article how the vaccine mandate affects the industry, especially praising truckers. “When many in this nation sheltered in place, you maintained composure and answered the call,” said American Trucking Association CEO Chris Spear. He also praised the infrastructure bill that passed. “This bill is an investment in our economy, in our nation, and in our daily lives.” Other articles include: coverage of driver shortages; Volvo Trucks commitment to offer a fossil-free commercial truck lineup by 2040 and a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030; a focus on how data previews the tire market; the ecommerce market for truck parts; and an auction by a salesman for Inland Kenworth-Phoenix to benefit Truckers Against Trafficking.

The writing is first-rate. This is not your typical trucking lede—for an article titled The Long and Arduous Journey about the passing of the infrastructure bill: “The road trips we used to take as a kid, whether to Florida or Maine, were inevitably surrounded by great memories that lasted a lifetime,” writes David Heller. “In that regard, I must reference the adage by Ralph Waldo Emerson to describe the recollection of those long family jaunts: ‘Life is a journey, not a destination.’” An IdeaXchange expresses thoughts of many industries. “If we don’t start talking to young people about how important trucking is and the cool technology on trucks, we will have a hard time getting fresh faces behind the wheel.”

A great use of infographics. Trucking by the Numbers – A Supply Chain in Crisis, also by Commendatore, contains 12 pages of infographics, from Freight Forecast by Mode and Type to Substances Identified in Positive Drug Tests to Top Ten Truck Bottlenecks. A couple years ago, I recall Danica Stanciu, vice president for Politico, telling us: “We’ve invested quite a bit in infographics. The use cases for this are myriad. They can be used to help a sales team get up to speed [or] to [assist in] providing content and news to subscribers. Listen to your audience and understand what they need.”

Good use of the last page opinion article. “Last Word” may not be an original title, but Endeavor makes the best use of the space with an article titled “Everyday Heroes,” about proceeds from the sale of a specially built truck going to Truckers Against Trafficking. In 2017 they raised $83,000 and in 2019 $162,000. “Truckers are making a big difference in identifying a reporting possible cases of human trafficking to law enforcement.” “They are our eyes and ears out on the road and are relied upon to report suspicious activity,“ said Kendis Paris, executive director of TAT.

Clever touches. The message from the executive editor is called From My Lane. There’s an excellent top industry concerns column. The biggest 5 issues are: driver shortage, driver retention, driver compensation, lawsuit abuse reform, and truck parking. We can substitute any niche in the first three of those. An article on Yonkers, NY’s 1,400 municipal vehicles tells how they are maintained in a single shop with the latest technology.

Design matters. The red and black cover really shines, with its graphic use of numbers. And then they continue with that image in the contents and the feature article spread. The opening pages offer reports from their conference with an engaging top brick design tying it together. Also impressive is a full-page photo of the manufacturing of direct-fit diesel filters showing a woman doing the fiery work.

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‘You Want to Leave Room for Magic’; How to Plan for Serendipitous Outcomes

“You want to leave room for magic.”

That line was uttered this week by independent filmmaker Drew Stone following a showing of his latest documentary, The Jews and the Blues, at a festival called JxJ here in Washington, D.C. The question was how scripted his 9-day trip to Israel was to film six famous blues players there—including Ethiopian-born Gili Yalo. (The two are pictured here.)

The “magic” he was referring to materialized in a couple places—on a visit to the Hebrew Music Museum where a woman working there showed him these incredible, old instruments; and dancing in a famous square in Jerusalem on the last night. He said his time was tightly scripted, but as a filmmaker, you have to leave a little time for some unscheduled things to happen. It’s a tough balance.

It reminded me of things we plan—our in-person events, our webinars, even our meetings. Are we allowing time and space for our “magic” to happen?

I say this because it’s one big reason that we should attend in-person events again when we feel comfortable—like our AMPLIFY conference, June 22-23 in Washington, D.C. (We have a universal track for B2B and niche publishers plus an association track.) Events produce the unknown—all mostly good. We meet people we wouldn’t meet otherwise, hear about ideas that are new to us, and put ourselves in an atmosphere where we can experience serendipity. (The word comes from a fairy tale and thus has always been thought as a “fortunate” thing.)

Knowing that I probably did not just invent this, I googled planned serendipity and sure enough, University College London (UCL) conducted a 2012 study “to design interactive systems that harness its power. By collecting and analyzing people’s ‘serendipity stories,’ researchers…hoped to design an interactive system that makes us more prepared for recognizing serendipity when it happens and, crucially, supports us in acting on it.”

Stories told to these researchers included:

  • A student being offered an internship at a journalism lab because someone from the lab noticed her enthusiastic journalism-related tweets;
  • An experimental chef getting the idea to create a sea-salt-cured mackerel dish when watching his daughter collect stones on the beach;
  • An architecture student watching a BBC documentary on honey bees and getting the idea of using the hexagonal shape of honeycomb to create a novel building design.

A researcher said: “By looking for patterns in people’s memorable examples of serendipity, we’ve found that it is more than just a ‘happy accident.’ It also involves insight—an ‘aha’ moment of realization.” There’s even a humorous video on the UCL site of the interviewer asking students, “What is serendipty?” “Is it Latin?” someone asks. They list three elements:

  • Unexpected circumstances;
  • Insightful “aha” moment;
  • Valuable outcome.

“The people we interviewed benefited from their serendipitous experiences, not only by enhancing their knowledge, but also by saving time—serendipity propelled the interviewees forward at a faster pace than they would have travelled otherwise,” said Stephann Makri. “Everybody can benefit from serendipity if they remain receptive to it and ready to act on it when it happens.”

Of course, we have to put ourselves in places to encounter it. Working from home now may eliminate some of those chances for serendipitous happenings in our lives. (Though it’s hard to beat working from my patio on this beautiful morning.) I used to have interesting discussions with a blind man I often encountered—by chance—on Metro each week, making his way to work like the rest of us. It’s easy to see why many bosses are pushing for some kind of hybrid work experience.

Will it happen at our AMPLIFY event or at the next Editorial Council online meeting or at the INFO Local dinners that we’re hoping to bring back? Hopefully, yes, if we plan it right. My colleague Jen Smith, who is doing a great job planning AMPLIFY, is scheduling plenty of time for those interactions with roundtables, no-speaker lunches (what a concept!) and time with the exhibitors. Personally, I can’t wait.

The UCL researchers were working on a mobile app aimed at creating opportunities for people to experience serendipity, but I can’t find any updates. They might have decided that an app might not be needed for this one.

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Experiences Rule. How The Atlantic Is Using Newsletters to Respond to Reader and Listener Needs

According to Litmus, 80% of customers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that provides personalized experiences, and 83% of customers are willing to share their data to create a more personalized experience. More than 65% of marketers are creating at least two versions of an email on average. Nearly 16% are creating four or more.

Experiences are in.

In an article in NiemanLab recently, The Atlantic’s executive director of audience research Emily Goligoski wrote about the 5 “Reader and Listener Needs” they found from an expansive survey they conducted. In assessing these needs, it’s clear that The Atlantic wants its readers to have more personalized experiences. Here are some insights from that research—taking a look at each of those needs.

Introduce me to writers at the top of their craft. The Atlantic built on the success of Robinson Meyer’s climate change newsletter The Weekly Planet.  Another is called I Have Notes by memoirist Nicole Chung. “Some look to Asian American stories—which are always ‘timely,’ always worth uplifting—to manifest a worth, a dignity, that should have already been evident,” she wrote recently. DEI, sustainability and climate change are all huge issues today, particularly for young people—83% of millennials say it’s important that companies they buy from also align with their values, and 73% of 35-54 year olds and 60% of 55+ year olds agree. (Elizabeth Green, CEO of Brief Media, will be talking about her media organization’s commitment to social good at our AMPLIFY conference, June 22-23 in Washington, D.C.)

Give me deeper clarity and context. “Our audience members have wide-ranging passions, from community service to cycling to learning languages,” Goligoski wrote. “A general interest publication like The Atlantic can’t offer the depth of knowledge they find in forums and through communities dedicated solely to their topical interests.” They are now up to (at least) 14 newsletters. Others include Dear Therapist, the puzzle-centric The Good Word and How to Build a Life. “The [B2B] media space has changed, and for that matter, so have the needs of the professionals it serves,” said ALM CEO Bill Carter. “We have to provide context and insight, data and analysis, forums and events that allow our customers to excel as practitioners as well as business professionals. Through this evolution, we strive to be the most trusted information services, data and media company available to our key industries.”

Help me discover new ideas. Organizations report that they have taken initiatives to focus more on innovation. This has entailed focusing more on communication and collaboration (62%, up from 53% in 2020), providing encouragement to innovative employees (52%, up from 38% in 2020), and driving innovation from the top down (45%, up from 41% in 2020). However, only 20% of association executives report that their association has a process in place to encourage innovation and new ideas. More than half (54%) say they do not. And the pandemic probably did not improve this. “Our consumer strategy and growth team used this insight—that people who are familiar with The Atlantic appreciate the range that it offers—in planning recent marketing emails to prospective subscribers,” wrote Goligoski.

Challenge my assumptions. “Our data science team has seen that ‘lighter’ topics tend to appear earlier in a person’s path to becoming a subscriber, and that ‘weightier’ topics tend to be the reads immediately before a person makes a decision to subscribe,” wrote Goligoski. “We don’t lean toward one of these over the other; rather, it’s the overall composition of topics a reader spends time with that matters most in driving return visits and subscriptions.” The Atlantic’s top-performing marketing emails list content examples that demonstrate their topic range.

Let me take a meaningful break. “When they come to us, they’re not looking to zone out. They’re looking for novel approaches into big picture topics.” So while The Atlantic knows they’re not Saturday Night Live, they’re also not the Congressional Record. I noticed a crossword on their homepage and a Recommended Reading list. Even meaningful breaks can be experiences, maybe even more so if you consider quizzes, puzzles, This Day in Our History, anniversaries, etc.

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‘We Need to Rethink What the Webinar Is’; 3 Experts Offer New Rules of Engagement 

“Audiences today come with a completely different set of expectations for when they come to a webinar with you,” said ON24’s Mark Bornstein. “They don’t expect a boring tutorial; they want to participate, interact and engage with you. They want to self-select through lots of different content, besides the presentation that you’re giving them, but they expect it to be approachable and they expect it to be human.”

The occasion was an AM&P Network Editorial Training Session on webinars. Another panelist, Haley Berling, senior manager, digital programs and events, GovExec, told us that the light went on for them during the pandemic when it came to the importance of creating riveting virtual events.

“Folks are showing up in smaller numbers in person, but they’re still showing up consistently online, so I would say, for hybrid events, we’re really taking a digital-first approach. It’s really important to still reintroduce that live component, because there is a need there, [though] in a smaller way. So we’re doing [in person] in a much more intimate and intentional way rather than casting a wide net to our whole network and just hoping 400 people show up, because that’s not necessarily the reality anymore. So as far as our hybrid events go, it’s definitely playing a part into our larger digital strategy.”

That strategy, along with the expertise of industry veterans Bornstein and Regina Harris, program director, Webvent, made for a value-packed webinar on webinars. For Bornstein, it’s a matter of changing the perception—after two-plus years of our sitting at home and getting Zoomed out.

“Webinars have evolved a lot over the last few years,” he said. “We need to rethink what the webinar is; a lot of people have a bad connotation in their head when you hear the word webinar. You think boring-talking PowerPoint where somebody is giving you endless slides and speaking in a robotic way… not an engaging experience. [But now] we’ve evolved to where webinars have really become experiences.”

Batting clean-up—if you consider moderator Matt Kinsman our first speaker—was Harris. And she does, calling the moderator “super important.”

“You would not imagine how effective it is to have a moderator who is experienced in that particular topic that we’re talking about,” Harris said. “Moderators can help connect the audience with the takeaway by preparing for a successful experience… A good moderator allows the speakers to pay attention to our presentations and do a great job and give our attendees what they need.”

Here are more takeaways from this event:

Practice makes perfect. “There are now 300 million experts, and I say that because, as a producer and as a host, I have so many people who come on as presenters and consider themselves an expert because they’ve been doing this all day, every day,” said Harris. “But it feels really, really good to do a practice session with every presenter that you have, regardless of the fact that they may say, ‘Hey I already know what I’m doing.’ Make sure that they’re familiar with the platform and where everything is. And also that they understand the flow of the presentation, who’s going to open it up, who’s going to speak when, and who is going to end it. Do you want the questions to be filtered throughout the presentation?” Practice is especially important as you get more global, she added. “When we brought in our first global client, we just figured we can do this. [But] it gets really rough when you’re over here in Central Standard Time, and you’re trying to do something for someone in China. You get really sleepy by midday the next day… We’ve just been able to be more visible with our webinars and our trainings.”

“Forget the word webinar; a webinar is an experience,” said Bornstein. “We tend to think of webinars as that thing you do every month to just get leads and that’s it, but now webinars are taking on all kinds of [roles]. They’re more like programs that you would see on TV. There are news style formats, where you’re just becoming the thought leader in your particular area. And we see movement from presentations to conversations—a lot of modern webinars have no slides at all. They’re just people talking to other people about things that matter to the people that are on the webinar.” He mentioned Thomson Reuters doing a cocktail-making class for their customers. “I recently participated in a game show webinar. My first big takeaway today is stop thinking about it through the lens of what we used to do in the past.”

Ch-ch-changes… “If there’s one thing to take away is the theme of evolution and constantly having to change,” said Berling. “We realized very quickly that translating live events to digital events is not a one-to-one translation. It is actually a completely different language you start to speak. Pre-pandemic, we had 2 webcast offerings—they were visually very sparse. So when I look back to those webcasts we used to do and compare them to what we do now, I think that was so cute. A lot of them, I would say about 50%, involved cameras and talking heads. A lot were simply slide presentations with some audio overlay and even a lot were just audio, which is kind of unheard of these days. Then we started to do our initial brainstorm. We shifted completely. We had to say, ‘What do people want? They’re lonely, they want to connect with each other, they want to access content. They want something different.”

Create a customer experience. “We created a new virtual experience,” Berling said. “We incorporated things like virtual and customer sponsor resource pages with interactive chat features In downloadable assets for our clients. We created a virtual press room and editorial resource library for our editorial staff. And then we built a simple theater digitally where users can easily consume the content within very intuitive, easy login experience and [more] chat… As a living resource hub of content of all types, and then a place where our VIP community could come and interact with us and each other, it was more of a digital experience. Over the course of the next six months we partnered with some fabulous partners and actually built and developed that event site into our own internal virtual event platform that we could easily deploy for multiple events.”

Target. “We see people creating executive-only webinars where maybe they’re inviting an analyst to come and speak for a few moments, and then bringing everybody into a breakout room—where it’s a much smaller audience or a more targeted audience, or maybe it’s by specific industry type,” Bornstein said. “We see more discussion-based webinars where you get a little bit of presentation and then maybe everybody comes on camera and does a conversation for a smaller group of people.”

Include a handout. We usually think of handouts more for in–person events, but Harris encourages giving attendees “a one-pager, a fact sheet—something to take away. Each time I review my survey results, the number one [piece of] feedback is, ‘I would have liked some type of handout so that I can write notes for each slide that you go through,’” Harris said. “So think about that as you put together [your webinar]. The handout would be in addition to a PDF of the slides. Because we are in this virtual world, they kind of walk away empty handed if you don’t give them something outside of having them go back to view the recording and do [the] fast forward [thing trying to get to the content that they’re trying to get to…”

Engage. “The goal of the webinar is all about engagement,” Bornstein said. “The webinar is basically bringing people together in a space to connect and to communicate, but also to engage—and we need to if you really want to deliver a modern webinar… The more they engage the more you learn about them and the more effectively you’ll be able to connect with them to train them, to close them, to upsell them, whatever it is. We can do Q&As at the end of a webinar, but also we can be pushing out polls, surveys. We can have CTAs integrated into the webinar experience. We can be driving them to all kinds of different content in lots of different ways.”

Be an architect. “We give people lots to do in the experience and that’s how you need to think about it,” Bornstein said. “What can I enable my audience to do, besides just watch my presentation?” GovExec thought this way as well and started focusing on how and where they can produce high-level video content. “We constantly in our production were drawing on examples of TV network and news networks saying, ‘Oh, what if we could do stuff like that,’” Berling said. “So for the past year or so we’ve been really dipping our toes into producing TV programs [and] taking those TV programs on the road following trade shows that have started to come back into the market. We’ve also been working on producing different types of video content like teaser videos, quick-hit commercials and explainer videos that are all short snack content.”