Meridian West and The Professionals magazine have created a series of Leadership Forum breakfasts, and like many events in recent months it was held virtually. With Zoom and Teams fatigue beginning to set in, the question before heads of marketing and business development was how can professional services firms make virtual events effective?
Professional services firms have for so long relied on the power of in-person event-based marketing. It is ingrained into the culture of firms, from topic-specific seminars, roundtables, conference, trade events and, of course, hospitality.
In a pre-coronavirus world, it would be impossible to imagine their demise at all, let alone switched off overnight. Now, agreed the Leadership Forum panel, is a unique opportunity to effect long-term change.
Whilst many firms have quickly switched their events programmes online, few have yet to effectively crack the social networking aspects – the post-event mingling is just not there. It would be a mistake for firms to think that they can simply replicate their old events programme online.
At the heart of a successful online event is the need for strong client data. There needs to be greater hygiene and management around who is invited, who attended, and attendee engagement. Legitimate and targeted follow-up is critical to fill the gap of the post-event networking.
One unforeseen benefit of the virtual event is the rise of the introvert. That does not mean individuals hiding behind a webcam, but those able to show the empathy needed to nurture and build relationships online. Leadership Forum panellists are coaching and delivering a whole new set of speakers with very different skills to the traditional big hitters.
And just as a new breed of internal speakers emerge, the quality of external speakers is, too, improving. Once very difficult-to-reach people are now more willing to give their time to speak at an online event, with speaking slots shorter and without the incumbent travel. Of course, the quality of the event and audience remains key.
So how might online events evolve and change?
One idea is the peer conference, also called the un-conference, with no formal presentations or speakers with a format designed to foster relationships. Delegates are typically asked ‘how did you get here’ and encouraged to share concerns they may be facing, ‘what do you want to get out of this event’ establishing a clear call for engagement, and ‘what do you bring to this event’ allowing them to show off. The ability to allow individuals to speak in smaller virtual break out rooms often underpins the event success.
Given that rarely do professionals attend an event to learn but rather to network, the un-conference goes partway to deliver that aim.
But do online events have a future? Yes, agreed Leadership Forum panellists, but not at the expense of in-person events.
There remains in many a hunger to return to the office, to escape the confines of a home office and to network and meet old friends and forge new relationships. The physical in-person event will return and will be embraced. But so too will the virtual event with its ability to allow firms to respond quickly to a rapidly changing landscape and to bring people together from across the UK and the world. Interestingly, our panel believes we will see hybrid events, with smaller in-person audiences joined by a larger virtual audience. They will not be without considerable logistical challenges.
Pulse surveys, focused around one theme with short, punchy questions completed within short timeframes, are proving popular in both thought leadership campaigns and underpinning client events. They will continue to grow in popularity as firms wish to build more agile thought leadership and events programmes.
Tomorrow’s events programme with include both in-person and virtual events, tied ever more closely to client data and underpin firms’ communications strategies – and that has to be a good thing.
Conference, webcasting and networking technology platforms as alternatives to Zoom or Teams were also shared: Shindig.com, pathable.com, hopin.to, on24.com, gatherly.io, remo.co.
The Leadership Forum panellists included heads of marketing and business development from Trowers & Hamlin, Intertrust, Womble Bond Dickinson, SLR Consulting, Arcadis, Quantuma, Slaughter and May, PwC, Cripps Pemberton Greenish, Blake Morgan, Mercer & Hole, Fox Williams, Thomson Snell & Passmore, Stephens Scown, Barnett Waddingham, Ross Trustees, Control Risks, Thrive Marketing Communications, Asset Finance International, Knox Consulting, Meridian West and Coast.