B2B events were broken before the pandemic, their online reinvention is creating positive change

Kim Darling, executive producer, Inbound

Farewell lanyards, business cards and branded pens — it’ll be some time before people get their hands on these souvenirs of in-person events again.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform the way people work, buy, sell, socialize and entertain themselves, the global events industry is facing its biggest-ever challenge. The image of thousands of handshakes taking place in an enclosed space is suddenly unnerving. The idea of boarding a plane to meet a potential business partner seems downright reckless. The prospect of professionals wandering through an endless sea of sponsorship stalls in search of a business solution is wildly far-fetched.

The very essence of what it means to host a large in-person gathering has changed. But while the future of the industry remains unclear, one thing is certain: There will be no going back to the way things were. And that may not be a bad thing. By many measures, the B2B events industry has been ripe for a shake-up for years.

In the crisis, B2B events went dark — why that highlights a problem

As other types of events have innovated and modernized, by and large the B2B industry has failed to think beyond the high-cost, low-value world of corporate gatherings at cold convention centers.

As the pandemic hit, the world’s most popular musicians began performing directly from their living rooms into ours, art galleries started engaging with audiences in new, innovative ways and entirely new online communities sprang up overnight. And yet, most B2B companies found themselves stuck when confronted with the challenge of staging an event in the digital-first world. Many came to a standstill, many went on pause and a wide range of B2B events went dark.

This puts the spotlight on a problem. B2B events planners had the technology to persist, and they had talented teams. But what was missing — and has been missing for a long time — is a forward-thinking vision for the more expansive roles that events can play in a modern marketing mix.

Going forward, B2B events can take a cue from creative channels

For years, the B2B industry has viewed events exclusively as a place to close deals. In-person gatherings have been considered little more than an opportunity for salespeople to look a prospect in the eye, make some small talk about the food truck options and secure agreements that were months in the making. The bright lights, big-name speakers and photo booths were there to lubricate deals for companies, not delight customers. If an attendee had a great time, it was a bonus, not a top priority.

Now, at a time when consumers are craving a stronger sense of connection with businesses, events can be a powerful tool in fostering a feeling of community. 

However, in the digital-first era, businesses can’t rely on the 90-foot screens, big-budget installations and spine-tingling sound systems they’ve used for years to command their attendees’ attention at in-person gatherings. What’s more, they have to compete with countless alternative options for screen-time — and the kinds of experiences audiences are used to on screens, thanks to channels such as Instagram, Netflix and YouTube. To compete with the expectations these channels create around online experiences, event producers must learn to think — and act — more like them.

Case study: What Inbound 2020 can teach us about online events 

When HubSpot first recognized that Inbound — the company’s annual event for business professionals — would be fully digital in 2020, the team looked not to other online events for inspiration but instead to the work of their favorite TV producers. In the ways that powerful television tells compelling stories on-screen, HubSpot identified forward-thinking ideas for better engaging remote event attendees. 

In another shift of mindset, the team turned to social media experts for strategies around connecting with audiences, not only during an event but before and afterwards too. And they studied the ways music festivals like Glastonbury and Burning Man created an overwhelming sense of FOMO every year.

This year’s Inbound — reimagined by its team as an online, immersive event — stands as a case study in how to embrace change while keeping the central goal squarely in place: A wide range of content types, and active participants in a global gathering intended to inspire them, some of which would not have been possible at an in-person gathering. And because all talks will later be available on demand, attendees won’t have to worry about schedule clashes or session fatigue. Furthermore, guests will also have the ability to arrange one-to-one meetings and organize group sessions via a custom-build meetups tool, allowing them to connect with fellow attendees through video call or live chat.

All of these elements of the virtual event highlight the changes the pandemic put into play. They also dovetail with the movement for more inclusivity and access that emerged in 2020. For example, over 40 percent of registered attendees are from outside the U.S. To enhance the experience of non-English-speaking guests, the event will offer a range of spotlight talks and breakout sessions with French and German subtitles. Meanwhile, all of the talks delivered will have English subtitles to better enable accessibility.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for urgent change in the B2B events industry. Gone are the days of big-budget mass gatherings at which closing deals is a priority and delighting attendees is an afterthought. A new era of events is underway, and the gatherings that are able to create a deep sense of belonging for attendees are the ones that will rise to the top in the digital-first world.

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