News | 20 November 2020

Will virtual interactions be the future of B2B events?

We asked clients about building relationships and making sales in the absence of physical events

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, many of us in are missing the real-life interactions that are usually part of our working lives. Physical B2B conferences have been suspended, roadshows cancelled and breakfast meetings shelved. These events were not just places to showcase products and seal deals, but spaces to meet face to face, anchoring relationships that hinged on remote interaction for the rest of the year.   

However, these unique conditions have spurred many companies to adapt creatively, embracing virtual interactions for client engagement. According to Gartner, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels by 2025, so adopting a digital-first approach now will help meet customers’ buying preferences in the future. We caught up with three of our clients to chat about their initiatives, successes and challenges in building relationships and making sales in the absence of physical events. 

 

New possibilities for coming together  

This year BMO Global Asset Management switched their Annual Investment Conference from a physical to a virtual client event. “It’s the first time we have gone fully digital for an event of this size”, says Stephen Watchorn, BMO’s Director, Head of Channel Marketing, UK and MENA. “This involved rethinking our approach, working with our presenters to adapt to new technologies and really putting ourselves in the shoes of our delegates.” He notes that that current climate has acted as a huge accelerator for many brands’ digital journeys. “We were quick to adapt our communications strategy as COVID-19 hit and have had real success with our interactive webinars, online training sessions and client support throughout this period.” 

Specialist mortgage lender Foundation Home Loans is running regional level interactions on Microsoft Teams, initiated by their sales teams; and also putting on national events with interactive Q&A sessions. “Being able to catch clients across the whole country in one event has increased the ROI of our endeavours. This is a process which we were developing before, but were able to focus on more as a result of the pandemic.” Says Katie Newell, Brand Manager at Foundation. “We’ve discovered that our audience absolutely love having time in a forum with our CEO who gives his view on market changes. Our post-event survey shows that this cultivates huge trust in the brand and increases desire to use us. Before this, we would never had been able to utilise our figureheads so widely in person.” 

The shift to virtual events and relationship building has fostered creativity across all sectors. Wladys Argoues, Global Communications Manager at ConvaTec recently ran a week of activities to engage customers that included webinars, podcasts, article and games. “We realised that customers are more likely to engage with us on content that is not promotional and also in their own time. We had high number of registrations for webinars, lower attendance for the live webinars, but a high number watching on demand. From this we learned we need to make the content accessible and flexible to our audience”   

Data-driven interactions 

Budgets and travel time usually allocated for external events are being diverted towards brand building and more targeted use of data. “As a result of the pandemic our marketing department has more time to focus on advertising and brand over events,” says Katie. “And the digital aspect means we can report on this at a much finer level to understand their effect. Our field sales team have experienced increased conversion rates where they are calling out to a much more targeted and therefore relevant audience, or taking inbound calls initiated by a targeted marketing piece rather than spending time with the lottery audience of a third party event.” 

Clients we spoke to reported better use of targeted communications and follow up opportunities post events. This has thrown into relief the strategic flaws in trying to capture new business from random delegates wandering past a sponsored stall in a large conference hall. Especially when many prospects may be put off international travel for some time yet. But where does all this leave events in the future?  

 

The future is hybrid  

When physical meetings do return, firms envisage a mix of virtual and physical interactions, informed by the challenges and successes of this all-remote period. “Next year we are planning some virtual and face to face round tables,” said Wladys at ConvaTec. “In the future we will engage more virtually with customers, still bringing them together and give them some space to interact with each other and share best practice.

And while their virtual events have been successful on many levels, Katie at Foundation is keenly aware that the culture of mortgage brokering prioritises meeting up in real life. “I suspect there is still a cohort of our audience base who are uncomfortable interacting virtually. There is also the chance that when events do return, our audience will vote with their feet and start to reject virtual engagements in favour of the day out; our industry is a life choice and a great many of them chose the job because they enjoy the ‘being out meeting people’ element.”   

Stephen at BMO says “We hope we can get back to an environment where physical events and the obvious networking opportunities they bring can be an important part of our plans. That said we’re very aware that virtual events have a number of distinct benefits such as broadening the geographic reach of an event, giving delegates more control of their own experience and generating content that can be used more easily in follow up communications. One thing’s for sure: while virtual events might have been considered a poor relation until early this year, firms are now far more likely to build them into their plans however the pandemic plays out from here.” 

   

Conclusion 

The pausing of B2B conferences and physical events has meant that brands are finding new and creative ways to engage audiences online. Data can be captured and used to drive better brand interactions, including the capacity for personalization during and after the event. Unchained from geographical constraints, speakers, collaborators and attendees can take part wherever they are. Interactive elements such as Q&A sessions in webinars and podcasts can enhance client engagement and deliver valuable data. Sales teams are acting as marketing advocates and content amplifiers. While many people are looking forward to a time when they can make eye contact and shake hands once again, B2B events will be changed by the pandemic, becoming a hybrid of virtual and real-life. 

 

Author
Paul Wreford-Brown,
Digital Director