Tony Compton, Managing Director
The other day I saw a picture. You may have also seen it. I’ve seen similar versions of the same picture a thousand times. And so have you.
It’s that picture of a business classroom setting. Rows of classroom style tables and chairs occupied by wide-eyed smiling attendees gazing at an instructor leading a session and standing next to a white board with faint scribbling on it.
Briefcases, purses, notebooks, pens, and all sorts of electronic extras decorate the meeting room. I’ve sat in that meeting room. Chances are so have you. On occasion, I’ve stood in front of that room to deliver a presentation. Maybe you have, too. Maybe you haven’t.
All good, well-meaning, people in that room. Attendees (customers) likely have paid to be there. The instructor is (hopefully) armed with knowledge, information, and an idea about what the audience will learn from the presentation. All are investing their time.
I’m certain you know about the business picture that I’m describing. It takes on different shapes and sizes. It can apply to any event, no matter how large or small. It’s intent is to demonstrate the value of an event which has just concluded, or convey the importance of an event that’s about to take place. After all, you see attendees diligently taking notes during a session embedded in an industry event which promises to unveil game-changing solutions that can be found nowhere else. Something important must be happening! Maybe. But the slog through another traditional three-day event of session, note taking, session, multitasking, session, lunch, session, reception, session, exhibit hall, session, airport has become outdated. There are better, more exciting methods to valued learning, content sharing, information retention, personal performance and event outcomes.
Performance Measures and Event Outcomes
Whenever I’ve produced a corporate event or have participated in one as a marketer from a sponsoring company, the primary objectives were clear: uncover new business opportunities within the current customer base, discover new opportunities outside the install base, help protect the current customer base and its revenue, and do so cost-effectively. That’s why time, money, and resources are invested. Yes, there’s a multitude of additional and very important objectives for any event which includes logistics, customer satisfaction, travel, alliance nurturing, etc. but the main goal of any event is to produce opportunities, generate demand, and secure downstream revenue. But while setting attendees adrift through three-days of a generic corporate event can produced some results, this approach has turned far too many programs into a global comfort zone of tedium. So many are so eager to overemphasize content lectures over learning, retention, and usage that the audience experience suffers. And it’s become a pandemic reoccurrence across industries, and companies.
When I look at that business picture of the hotel meeting room-turned-classroom,
I know. I know from experience that some (a handful) are actually paying attention.
I imagine a subset of that group will attempt to put presented solutions into practice. Conversely, I also know that a large portion of the audience is simply going through the motions. Through the motions of registration, travel, attendance, exhibit hall window shopping, and event expense reporting. Hard to find in that picture will be the attendee who isn’t distracted by some sort of electronic device. Easy to recall is the wear and tear on all attendees who are unreasonably expected to immediately implement newly-acquired subject matter on a moment’s notice upon their return to the office. And what you don’t see in the picture is all-too-common: salespeople on the periphery of every meeting room, trade show booth, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner activity with business cards in hand and account plans in mind.
Been there, done that.
I’ve produced multi-day commercial business conferences. I’ve sponsored and exhibited at large trade shows. I’ve hit the road for half-day, regional, owned and operated corporate events. But times have changed, and it’s time for a new combination of evolved content, instruction, and learning for next-generation events, involved audiences, and advanced outcomes.
Here are 10 next-gen ideas to consider:
1. Design a Radically New Event Experience
Instead of three-days of hotel-classroom-style seating in front of 15 presentations, add to – or change – the event environment. I’ve kicked around the idea of a week-long event that shares content ahead of time, then asks an audience to get on its feet to work with the content throughout the event itself. Instead of meeting rooms, cycle teams through a voice recording studio, video or television studio, or soundstage. Use material throughout a process which builds content that can presented, and retained, by the audience. Don’t lecture content, share it, and guide its usage on-site. Personal communication skills (especially on video) have never been more important. Tap into the trend.
2. Be Selective in Inviting Your Audience
Not discriminatory, but selective. There’s a difference in an attendee who only wants to travel to Vegas, sit in the back of the meeting room, see a show, and then go home, versus an next-generation attendee who wants to actively participate in a multiple day event which will enhance personal communication performance, information retention, storytelling abilities, and solution-developing skills.
3. Include New Instruction (and Instructors)
Frequently, event attendees are treated to an educational platform of product managers, sales leaders, technical engineers, solution marketers, and corporate executives. Some of those experts just love hearing themselves talk; few actually prepare for their sessions because the task of communication readiness is beneath them and they don’t feel as if they need to put in the work. (Wake me up when those sessions are over.) Instead, I suggest bringing in voice coaches, video instructors, and communication talent to lead event ‘sessions’ and activities. Different types of instructors who will know how to work with event attendees and creatively incorporate event content.
4. Rethink Event Sponsorships, and Exhibitor Opportunities
Instead of sponsoring more junk shoved into conference bags bound for the trash can, offer sponsorships for live video streaming broadcasts before, during, and after an event. Streams which create user groups bound for the event that share, build upon, and improve content instead of wasting it on one-off lectures and paper-based recyclables.
If you want an exhibit area or full-blown exhibit hall, you can still have one. But have one with purpose. Instead of attendees zombie-walking from booth to booth, require interaction and instruction in every booth location. The next-gen attendee will be informed, active, participatory, and in possession of high expectations from every event sponsor and exhibitor. No longer can an exhibitor simply show up – and check out – during a next-gen event. If the attendees are working hard during an event, so, too, should the exhibitors.
5. Cut Your Audience Size
Some equate a well-attended event with automatic success. Not me. The cost of hosting an event for attendees who do nothing but simply drain resources is a tough one to report at the end of the quarter. I’d rather host four or five teams of six-to-eight energetic executives for a week than a group of 200 or 300 disconnected passers-by.
6. Expand Desired Event Outcomes
Event producers are in the same boat of wanting new opportunities, customers, and revenue. And there is a point to working with your audience on their communication skills, with your event content, and its usage. Think. The next time your next-gen audience is asked to deliver an informed industry presentation, which material will they use – almost by default? When asked to talk to analysts in support of your submission for the annual technology report, how well will they be able to provide a reference and add the stories that they learned at your event – as opposed to mind numbing experiences provided by your competitors?
7. Expand Event Timeframes
Instead of one-off events, provide ongoing interactions with attendees who form user groups facing the same business and technology challenges. Guide these conversations. Use live, video apps such as Periscope, Meerkat, Blab, and Facebook Live. Anchor regular interactions to your corporate events. Remember, in radio the saying is “frequency sells” because it’s true. Apply ‘frequency’ to your event audience interactions before, during, and after an event.
8. Get Uncomfortable
Sure, it’s easy to keep doing the same thing. To keep hosting and participating in the same type of events, with the same pedestrian expectations. But I’m not talking about adding a trip to local golf course or fashionable restaurant district as part of your upcoming meeting. I’m suggesting that you throw out the playbook and give the audience what they’re craving: an exceptional event experience unlike anything that currently exists. An event experience that sends them home in a professional standing better than the one with which they arrived.
9. Ask Sales
Maybe you should “inform sales” instead of asking. Because any experienced salesperson knows. They know what goes into – and what goes on – at every single business conference, trade show, and corporate event. They know what it takes to produce a successful event, and how poorly planned and outdated events chip away at the effort to uncover opportunities and secure revenue. Ask sales if they want to you to keep doing what you’re doing with events, or if they would entertain the notion of a radically new type of corporate event that hosts targeted groups of passionate executive attendees. (We both know what the answer will be.)
10. It’s Next-Generation All Around
To produce next-generation events, not only will you need next-gen content, but next-gen sales and marketing personnel to execute. To interact and work with your audience. You’ll need the personal skills and communication expertise on staff, and the supporting technologies to complete the work. And you’ll need a next-generation approach.
Keep in mind the picture of that traditional classroom setting at a business conference. And the traditional outcomes those settings produce. Next time, leave most of the tables and chairs in the hotel’s back hallway. Find your targeted audience, create a powerful event process and program, work through content instead of lecturing, and measure the results.
I’ll take the business benefits of working with an elite, agile group of engaged event attendees over a room full of disinterested show-goers any day of the week.
So will sales, and anybody interested in fanatical customers and their revenue contributions.
My Ideal Next-Generation Event
As I wrote, I’ve thought about a radically-new type of a week-long corporate event. One that places small teams of executive attendees on microphones, on camera, and on stage. Using relevant corporate, partner, and industry content to create material that’s used in both short-form and long-form settings. Subject matter experts and communication coaches instruct active and engaged attendees. Sponsors sponsor event elements, while sales and marketing benefit from the deep and meaningful relationships built over the duration before, during, and after this type of event. I’d figure 30 or 40 senior-level attendees could be accommodated. And a great combination of presence, voice, branding, personal strength would be a fraction of the benefits. I haven’t worked out all of the details of such an event, but if for those wanting specifics, there’s a handful.
What are your thoughts on the state of the learning environments offered by traditional business and corporate events, and your ideas for producing next-generation events?