By Robert Rose published April 22, 2020 Est Read Time: 9 min

Hey Brands, Don’t Make 2005’s Mistake on Your Future Virtual Events

It’s a weird time. People are scared, and the whole world is in chaos. But we will get through this. We will persevere. And there will be a time for us to reflect on all that we did to evolve our marketing strategies through this.

As I write this, publishers and event companies (including CMI’s parent company, Informa) are evolving their conference and event strategies. One of the most viable, and certainly popular, solutions is the move to transform physical events into virtual events.

From the IAB’s 2020 NewFronts, which was moved to streaming-only presentations, to the Collision Tech Conference, which was reimagined as Collision From Home, these media companies are faced with transforming physical event strategies almost overnight.

So too are product brands looking at the alternatives of moving their events to a digital format. Okta, the security and identity-management company moved its Oktane conference online. IBM transformed some of its canceled Think developer event into a virtual event. Even Workday has changed its sales kickoff event into an online event.

This year will permanently change the nature of many events.

This year will permanently change the nature of many #events, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Physical events will certainly remain. There is no doubt. Life will return to normal for many of these event organizers. But many media companies, as well as product brands, will realize that going digital was actually a very profitable move. They will observe how much cheaper it can be. Management will argue that it is easier than setting up all that stuff required for a physical event. They will say whatever quality is sacrificed is more than made up with how efficient it was to hold the event in a digital format.

They will be right of course. And they will be making exactly the same argument – and the same huge mistake – that publishers and brands made about digital marketing and advertising 15 years ago.

Digital #events are cheaper isn’t the argument for virtual events in the long term, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

‘Trading analog dollars for digital dimes’

In the early 2000s, as digital media was beginning to bloom and before social media really took off, there were great disruptions happening. Media companies were being forced into new digital business models, moving their print publications to digital formats. And because digital real estate was seen as cheap and subpar in value to the analog media of print, radio, or television, the deals were cheap.

It was not uncommon for media sales teams to sell digital properties as “make good” or “added value” to convince brands and agencies that their analog ad buy was worth it. Put simply: Media gave away digital advertising for free. What happened? Well, it worked. Brands valued digital media for exactly what they were paying for it. That, of course, created a real struggle for the digital teams to monetize content in any meaningful way.

In 2008, NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Zucker famously said that the entire entertainment industry was “trading analog dollars for digital pennies.” It was a statement that he would upgrade a year later to “digital dimes.” But the sentiment remained for years – digital is less valuable and therefore should be a less expensive way to consume content.

The move to digital for many of those media operations came without a true digital strategy. They didn’t look at how the digital experience could be enhanced or even different. They simply lifted the publication and its analog behaviors as they were and applied them to a cheaper, more commoditized experience of digital.

Product brands copied the media companies

Product companies did largely the same thing as the media companies. Holistic digital content strategies were nonexistent in the early days of websites, blogs, and social media. Most companies simply looked at their website or their content marketing approach (to the extent one even existed) as simply the digital stop on the information superhighway. Digital media was seen as the cheaper alternative.

Over the next decade, everybody from software vendors to media and content brokers that sold a digital-over-physical solution extolled the value of digital being easier, faster, and cheaper than the alternative and requiring less effort. Guess what? It worked. Now many senior leaders in the C-suite view digital costs through a much more critical eye than any alternative. A television ad should be more expensive to produce than a YouTube video. Right? Isn’t an e-book easier and cheaper than a “real” book? It must be. Coverage in a digital magazine is worth less than getting an article in the printed Wall Street Journal. Isn’t it? And, of course, a strategy to create a digital event that features speakers and education online has to be cheaper and easier to create than a physical counterpart, right? The speakers don’t even have to travel. It MUST be cheaper.


The medium is not what makes content valuable

All content – created and published from any number of functions in the business – has a common goal: to create a positive experience for the consumer of it. In 2015, Craig Borowski, who was then an analyst at Gartner and is now the managing editor at Motley Fool’s The Blueprint said something wonderful. He wrote in Harvard Business Review:

Many companies clumsily add digital components to customer journeys that don’t directly benefit the customer or are superfluous to the company’s value proposition … ‘digital’ and ‘online’ are not synonymous with convenient.

As Craig points out, any digital experience we create should be consistent with people’s offline experiences and make life better for them, not just more convenient for the business.

Any digital experience we create should make life better for them, not just more convenient for the business, says Craig Borowski via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

So, here we are in 2020 and both brands and publishers are faced with a dilemma – how to evolve event strategies to take advantage of the virtual/digital experience?

Well, that question assumes that there is a content strategy. Perhaps we should ask not how we make it more convenient for our business, but how to make it more valuable for the consumer?

We’ve begun to hear from a few brand teams on this topic. In most cases, events such as sales kickoff meetings, customer events, thought leadership summits, et al., are simply like much larger versions of the other assets they are creating. If they’ve been doing them year after year, there’s a good process for assembling each one. They have the basic components, costs, and efforts pretty well down. I will tell you that the teams at most product brands will tell you their annual event is one of the hardest things they do every year. It’s usually an all-hands-on-deck exercise and copious amounts of PTO are taken afterward.

That’s because creating great events is hard. Trust us, we can vouch for that. And if it’s not your job 365 days a year, it’s an even tougher challenge. If these same teams are asked to transform them to digital, they are certainly capable of looking at all those tasks and applying them to a digital format.

But, let’s be clear, for the most part – there is no content strategy. There has been no effort applied to how the content might be reused, repackaged, aggregated, managed, or activated in something that could be a different kind of digital experience.

Ask how #content for a digital #event might be repackaged, aggregated, or activated differently, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

No one is asking the right questions:

  • How might we structure the digital event to capture all the presentations so that we might present the on-demand version of it?
  • How should we structure the content in such a fashion that it’s easily findable and reusable in other formats by other teams and in other channels?
  • How should we leverage the power of digital to make the event different than its physical counterpart?
  • How should we change our measurement with the added capabilities of digital so that we track which sessions, how long they are viewed, or other metrics that might give even more value to the sponsors of the event?
  • How might we ask for different formats of the event from speakers so that we’re not just sending PowerPoint decks but actual contextual e-books that provide a different kind of digital experience than printed PowerPoint slides?

Now, for this year’s expression of an event, there may be no time for that. I get that. I really do. It may, indeed, be a time when we need to do just enough to get the job done.

But let’s NOT lose sight of one incredibly important thing: THE VALUE OF YOUR WORK IS NOT DIMINISHED BY THE MEDIUM!

Yes – I just yelled that. It’s my new mantra and I have it printed and taped to my computer, because I’m as guilty as anyone of forgetting it.

“THE VALUE OF YOUR WORK IS NOT DIMINISHED BY THE MEDIUM,” yells @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

A virtual event is no less valuable, should be no less expensive, and should provide no less of an experience than an analog event. Different? Yes. Less than? No.

A virtual #event is no less valuable, should be no less expensive, and should provide no less of an experience than an analog event, says @robert_rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

In order to be true, however, the statement assumes one thing. It requires that we treat the work and the medium for which it will be designed with as much care and strategy as we do any other.

Media guru Marshall McLuhan long ago noted, “When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos … We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what the new form will do to all the assumptions we had before.” For example, some of the earliest television programming was merely a few people reading a radio play in front of a camera. It took years for TV to begin to express its own distinctive identity.

No matter what the catalyst – a disruptive business change like the development of digital media or a global health crisis – the evolution to new ways of delivering content should not be seen as the easy way out. We should be wary that we don’t turn digital events into the digitized version of physical events.

Let’s get our content strategy in order. Let’s think expansively. Our digital event – whether it’s this year or next – isn’t a side project. It is THE project.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert Rose

Robert is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory, the education and consulting group for The Content Marketing Institute. Robert has worked with more than 500 companies, including 15 of the Fortune 100. He’s provided content marketing and strategy advice for global brands such as Capital One, NASA, Dell, McCormick Spices, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert’s third book – Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been called the “book that rewrites the rules of marketing.” His second book – Experiences: The Seventh Era of Marketing is a top seller and has been called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert’s first book, Managing Content Marketing, spent two weeks as a top 10 marketing book on and is generally considered to be the “owners manual” of the content marketing process. You can follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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