Honesty may be the best policy but your biggest challenge.
I was part of a lively discussion the other day in which colleagues were weighing the merits of live-and-in-person events vs. events that only exist in a virtual format. Everyone recognized the value of strategically balancing the use of both physical and virtual components. But we were speculating about a formula or template that would guide show organizers in designing an ideal integrated experience. The challenge, we agreed, was getting clarity around the strategic purpose of the planned event. Would it be primarily educational? Transactional? Would it cater to the networking whims of the attending tribe? We quickly found ourselves running through a labyrinth of hypotheticals that could only be resolved by the event organizer.
I won’t take you down all the rabbit trails we explored, because there are too many and you can probably guess most of them. But we quickly realized that the point at which success begins and ends is with a moment of honesty regarding what beautiful looks like and who gets to define it.
The uncomfortable truth is that when people are asked about their strategic purpose, honesty is hard to come by. This conundrum isn’t exclusive to the events industry. It’s a challenge for every marketer working in every communications channel. In fact, it is hard to get an honest answer from any group that’s empowered to provide direction and make decisions. This isn’t because they are being willingly deceptive. Or because they don’t value the services you are providing. They simply fail to be honest because they think they have clarity around key strategic issues when they don’t. They cling to a false truth ― often a high-minded and broadly promoted corporate statement ― and ignore the fact that their success will be graded on an entirely different group of metrics. This gap between what’s endorsed and what is actually measured is not malign; it has simply become obscured by the swirl of activity known as “the way we always do it.” There is no agency driving clarity of purpose.
That’s why I’m a huge advocate for designing a digital layer into every event strategy ― a way to learn, test, and validate key components. In a word ― data. It’s how organizations achieve honesty. Start by acknowledging uncertainty and then list a variety of concepts, scenarios, and foundational assumptions that can be tested early on, before any serious money is spent. If you can’t find a community of enthusiasts committed enough to respond to an online survey or focus group, that might be your first clue that you shouldn’t host a live event. And thanks to advances in digital software and analytics, it’s never been quicker, easier, and more affordable to design real-time data analytics into live events, so that you can learn and adjust your event even while it is happening.
By being intentional about the digital design of an event, planners can pinpoint the kinds of content and engagements that are most relevant (or repellent) to their various stakeholders. It can bring understanding around what the exhibitors, sponsors, association members, participants, venue, and local community expect from an event organizer, and deliver it in a way that aligns with their own goals. Digital layering can help planners develop and grow a tribe around discrete issues by learning what matters to them and providing new ways to connect. All this creates a platform for honesty around the event’s purpose. Is the objective to reduce the carbon footprint? Attract new first-time participants? Sell more exhibitor space? Attract higher-profile sponsors? Even if the only metric that matters is this year’s ROI, there needs to be a plan to define and measure the imperatives that will deliver that result.
Every start-of-work meeting should begin with the questions, why are we doing this, what do we hope to achieve, and how will we know if we are successful? Often, the most honest answer is, we don’t know. And our response should always be, let’s find out.
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