Event technology is ‘an absolute necessity’ to satisfy modern-day chief marketing officers, according to Brian Field, chief operating officer at Emerald. In an interview, first published on ExpoPlatform, he sets out his belief that organisers need to explore how technology and data to maximise a return on investment (ROI) or risk being left behind:
Emerald COO Brian Field reveals the thinking behind the international organiser’s move towards data-driven solutions along with the company’s Digital Market, which offers 365-day business-to-business (B2B) access to product sourcing and ordering.
Field has more than two decades of experience in B2B and B2C industries and is now responsible for Emerald’s data and digital initiatives and product innovation. Emerald is the largest B2B event organiser in the US and would normally stage around 140 events a year pre-coronavirus.
“Covid-19 has forced everyone into realising that technology - whether it’s rented or owned - is an absolute necessity,” says Field.
“Organisers can’t just go back to a pre-Covid-19 way of doing things because the way things used to be done - coupled with the absence of performance data - has been increasingly challenging for chief marketing officers (CMO) seeking hard calculations of ROI,” he continues, adding: “Being able to use data and supporting tools to generate clear measures and metrics around ROI is required. We have to do it.
“Covid-19 has accelerated the need for broader technological adoption, which is something the industry was going to have to do anyway.”
During the past 17 months, Emerald has been focused on data, and has since consolidated its data to create a single view of a customer’s behaviour across the organisation’s many products and platforms. This means everything they have learnt from their digital assets as well as in-person events is contained in one platform.
Field gives an example of how this can be utilised for a potential customer who self-reports interest in one topic, but whose actual behaviour onsite and online may demonstrate a host of different interests.
The technology allows for analysis of what their behaviours suggest would suit this person, similar to the way Netflix suggests certain TV shows based on what a user has already watched. Using this approach, there are whole new types of products that can be suggested to Emerald customers.
If a customer begins to interact with these suggestive mechanisms, then the profile becomes increasingly robust over time.
A picture emerges of the user which is also clearer, allowing for a personalised experience both digitally and in-person. And for paying customers who seek to reach specific audiences, this kind of insight is increasingly attractive.
Complementing Emerald’s unified data strategy, one of the company’s latest moves has been the acquisition of Elastic Suite and the introduction of Digital Market, a platform which provides year-round access to product sourcing and ordering.
Field note: “Now we have the ability to not just see leads exchanged, but actual transactions that are made between buying and selling customers.
“We now know that a certain number of dollars actually materialised as a result of these customer exchanges. We now have the ability to not only report on leads created, but also on actual transactional value, which creates a huge benefit in quantifying ROI.
He believes the B2B industry historically had been trailing technologically because the business model of trade shows had been working so well: money was being made and people were continuing to return to events.
“It created,” says Field, “a degree of hubris and lack of willingness to change and invest - because why bother if it’s working so well?
“Some organisers put their heads down and pretend not to believe that the world is changing beneath them.
“Even though the customers kept saying: ‘I'm going to take less space this year’ or ‘I'm going to take a pass this year and maybe back next year’.
“Meanwhile, that same company’s CMO is demanding more data on the investment that they have been making.
“Others were trying to approach in slightly different ways by dabbling in technology improvements - a little bit of matchmaking here and there trying to make the customer experience a little bit different.
Field claims there is now more acceptance of how technology has progressed and how it can be utilised by organisers, but that realisation has come slowly when compared with other industries.
For instance, channels that sell directly to consumers have evolved a much more data-driven and sophisticated marketing approach over the last 15 years.
Direct-to-consumer marketers have been more advanced in using data to understand the importance of behaviour and emotion which can influence buyer decisions.
Online consumer marketplaces such as Amazon have grown at pace by using features that can build up a user profile and suggest items they might like.
Those in the top 100 – such as Amazon and eBay – took in £1.92 trillion (US$2.67 trillion) over 2020 and a 62% share of worldwide digital sales, according to research from ComprarAcciones.com.
That is an increase of 29% year-over-year in gross merchandise sales, while those for non-marketplace sites grew by 25% over the same period.
B2B marketers have so far been slow to develop a strategy that mimics the success found by those who sell directly to consumers.
A study by B2B International used an example of how industries with more direct exposure to consumers – such as technology and finance – were more likely to see interactions with a target customer end before they even asked for a quote.
The market research suggests people are now so used to smooth consumer experiences in these sectors that they want the same performance when they are buying for their business.
Furthermore, there has been a surge in subscription-based consumerism which values outcomes over ownership.
The subscription economy has grown by 437% over nine years, with the move in that direction looking like it will keep accelerating, according to Zuora.
Field believes a gap has emerged between what CMOs and marketing leaders inside of B2B organisations were paying for and their expectations. This became clear when coronavirus forced a global halt to in-person events.
He says: “Suddenly we had this shock wave across the world through Covid-19, which displaced everything live from sporting events to retail, certainly into B2B trade shows and conferences.
“The dash was on to try to support customer needs and resulting revenue wherever possible with whatever solution one could muster up. Many of the available solutions were many years old and frankly hadn’t matured and evolved because there wasn’t money to do it.
“Suddenly, people became intensely interested in solutions, and we’ve now seen a proliferation of platforms and solutions of various types. Some of these have a video component and content scheduling while others tried to create a carbon copy of face-to-face trade shows in a virtual environment.”
Virtual offerings can provide additional engagement and monetisation opportunities, year-round. They can also enhance live shows by giving organisers and exhibitors real-time information about what is working or not.
Whether live or virtual, the data gathered allows the production of clear mechanisms and metrics around ROI to better satisfy a CMO.
Field believes organisers who want to succeed must accept the industry will have digital components - and make the most of it by educating or recruiting tech-savvy staff. He says: “Embrace the outputs that technology can provide, which is data demonstrating success or a need for change.
“A lot of times, certainly operating in the analogue world, you’d put on an event and then you'd send a post-show survey a week after. Then a couple weeks after you get some results from some subset of those customers and then you think about it and make some changes - and then you try again next year, 11 months later. So, the cycle of data collection and what you're going to do with that data is fairly long.
“With many of these technology platforms today, you can gather the data and look at it and analyse it in near real time. It means you can continue to iterate, change, get better, improve, pivot, test and learn.
“With all of those things you need to make sure that whatever organisation is adopting technology are equipped and staffed with people that understand that and can take action on what they're saying.”