In-person events such as trade shows and industry conferences have been a mainstay of B2B marketing for many years. Various industry analysts have estimated that B2B companies typically spend from 12% to 24% of their total marketing budget hosting and/or participating in events.
Recent research has shown that most B2B marketers view in-person events as a highly effective marketing tactic. For example:
- In the 2020 Demand Generation Benchmark Study by Demand Gen Report, survey respondents ranked in-person events as the most effective engagement tactic for driving lead conversions among potential buyers in the middle stages of the buying process. Respondents also ranked in-person events as the third most effective tactic for initially bringing leads into the marketing/sales funnel.
- In the 2019 Event Marketing Benchmarks and Trends Report by Bizzabo - a provider of event management software - 85% of survey respondents said that events are essential to their marketing strategy, and 41% said that event marketing is the most effective channel for driving business outcomes.
Back in January, it appeared that 2020 would be a good year for in-person events. Bizzabo estimated that 3.2 million global professional events would be held during the year. That optimistic outlook vanished almost overnight when the coronavirus reared its ugly head.
The cancellations began in mid-February, and they just kept coming. For example:
- On February 27th, Facebook canceled the in-person component of its F8 developers conference.
- On March 2nd, Adobe canceled the 2020 Adobe Summit live event and made it online only.
- On March 3rd, Google canceled its biggest event of the year - the Google I/O developers conference.
The most high-profile cancellation of the spring occurred on March 6th when the City of Austin, Texas canceled South by Southwest (SXSW), an event that generated over $350 million for the city in 2019.
Many event organizers and B2B marketers have responded to the rash of cancellations by migrating their events online, and as a result, the number of virtual events has exploded. Eventbrite - the provider of a self-service ticketing platform for online events - recently reported that in April, the number of business and professional events on its platform increased 1100%, compared to April of last year.
Most event organizers and marketers seem to be generally satisfied with the performance of their virtual events, but few believe that online only events can or should replace in-person events. While the technology for delivering virtual events is powerful, it's simply not possible for virtual events to replicate the social and networking aspects of in-person events.
The question now on the minds of many B2B marketers and event organizers is: When will in-person events begin to return? The short answer is: No one really knows.
On one hand, recent research by Bizzabo suggests that in-person events may resume later this year. Between April 13th and April 30th, Bizzabo surveyed 400 event marketers, 65% of whom were located in North America. Just over half of the respondents (56%) said they anticipate their organization will resume hosting in-person events in late 2020, with 32% selecting October as the starting month. The remaining 44% of respondents indicated that in-person events will not resume until sometime in 2021.
On the other hand, several large enterprises - including Microsoft and Facebook - have already announced they are cancelling all large in-person events until the middle of 2021.
My view is that few if any in-person events - particularly large events - will be held in the second half of 2020 or in the first quarter of 2020. The reason is quite simple. In-person events will not resume until event organizers believe that people will feel safe travelling to and attending those events. And it's not likely that most people will feel safe until one of two things happen.
- An effective and safe vaccine for COVID-19 becomes widely available.
- A safe and highly effective therapeutic for COVID-19 becomes widely available. What I mean here is a drug or drug cocktail that can be used prophylactically on an outpatient basis and will kill the virus (and eliminate the disease symptoms) in a short period of time, i.e. a few days.
The bottom line is, B2B marketers should not expect large in-person events to resume before the second quarter of next year. In addition, marketers should closely monitor the trajectory of the pandemic and the progress toward a vaccine and/or a therapeutic over the rest of this year and be prepared to adjust their plans based on how these situations evolve.
Illustration courtesy of creativelakes via Flickr CC.