Taking Inventory of Your B2B Exhibition’s Use of Digital

Taking Inventory of Your B2B Exhibition’s Use of Digital

By Nancy Drapeau, PRC, VP of Research, CEIR

While the global pandemic persists, many in the industry wonder what to do to assure B2B exhibitions will resurge once the crisis is over. Last week’s blog discussed historical CEIR Index data which suggests that the industry will recover. Its resilience is explained by the value these events deliver to participants, attendees and exhibitors. This will happen, question is, when. A recent poll by APCO Worldwide with Americans affirms the industry will re-emerge:

The poll finds that  83% of Americans currently forced to work from home say they miss attending in-person meetings and conventions. 78% say they plan to attend as many or more when the threat of COVID-19 passes.

In last week’s blog, I promised to write about leveraging digital if an event is forced to cancel. As I have thought about this topic further, it seemed too narrow. While the industry is paused, B2B exhibition organizers are wise to inventory how they have integrated digital into all aspects of their events:

  • communications with exhibitors and attendees,
  • how participants can access event content digitally while an event is in progress, and
  • how engagement is supported, nurtured outside the event lifecycle throughout the year.

A robust integration of digital may make it easier to pivot to digital solutions if a catastrophic event like we are facing today happens again. Even so, when B2B exhibitions happen, digital can make participation even more impactful. It can be a powerful driver for attendee acquisition and exhibit booth and sponsorship sales.

B2B exhibitions are communities. They may be extensions of an association or they may be a community in their own right, run by an independent organizer. Those that attend and exhibit spend time and money to participate. This is a major commitment. So how can organizers leverage this connection, nurture it throughout the year, build on the community it is privileged to have and grow it via digital activities?

In this blog I do not point to specific solutions. Instead I offer general ideas for B2B exhibition organizer executives to discuss with their show teams and am sure many are doing this already. As well, I am supporting ideas with relevant CEIR data.

Digital Should Be an Integral Part of Any B2B Exhibition

Today, digital is likely and should be an integral part of a B2B exhibition’s offerings and communications. Events by their nature are temporary, they can last from one day to a week. To maintain relevance, connection with communities served, engagement with communities is likely and should be year-round. This may be done in part via face-to-face events, meetings, phone calls, print media and other outlets, though for most, digital engagement is the primary method used by B2B exhibition organizers.

Omnichannel Marketing Is Here Now – Has Been for a Number of Years

CEIR research has consistently documented that we live in an omnichannel marketing world. First documented in the 2014 Marketing Spend Study and again in the 2018 report, 68% of brand marketers that exhibit also use one or more digital channels in their marketing mix.

Integrated Marketing
Source: CEIR 2018 Marketing Spend Decision report

Attendees are looking for digital engagement from exhibitors whose booths they visited. CEIR’s Digital Toolkit series documents their digital preferences for these post-show communications.

2016 Digital Toolkit Series
Source: CEIR 2016 Digital Toolkit Series

Given this reality that exhibiting companies are already active using digital channels and that attendees are interested in engaging with exhibitors via digital outlets, how can B2B exhibition organizers harness these behaviors and preferences into content, opportunities made available via a B2B exhibition?

Ideas, thoughts on this below:

  • When an event takes place, B2B exhibition organizers might consider how to help exhibitors get the best bang for the buck – enable them to maximize the broadcast, propagation impact of exhibiting; ways to get the word out to the broader communities served who may be looking in remotely via digital outlets. If an organizer is not harnessing these activities, don’t be surprised if exhibitors are doing it on their own via YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and other social media outlets. The opportunity is for organizers to find ways to be the purveyors or distributors of all this great content. And since it is done digitally, it is measurable, e.g. number of shares, likes, number of outlets, etc. Use that data to make the case for the value of making the investment. This would deepen the marketing/sales value/impact to exhibiting companies and provision of data demonstrates its value, helps exhibitors make the case to invest in the opportunity again.
  • When a B2B exhibition does not happen, or for digital only events, the opportunities are the same. Though to complement a physical event, content of the digital event could be positioned to create buzz for products that will be featured at a show, a way to create FOMO on the chance to engage with these new products at the actual physical show.
  • In the absence of a F2F event, a bigger challenge for an organizer is supporting the ongoing needs of its exhibitors to generate leads, connect with qualified attendees and achieve customer/prospect or product engagement goals. Matchmaking programming could be a solution, or concierge services or a combination of the two. Other solutions may be uncovered in brainstorming with a show team or partners that provide services to an event.
  • It will be very interesting to see which digital, virtual solutions being promoted now will take hold in the market place. There was a wave of virtual event offerings post-2008 economic collapse. Many vendors came and went, a few remain. The biggest winners in that iteration of innovation have been video conferencing solutions such as WebEx, Zoom, and other free options such as Google Hangout, etc. Solutions that support one-on-one and one-to-many engagements such as webinars, webcasts, etc. Vendors that strove to replicate the offerings of a physical trade show floor, e.g. virtual exhibit booths, have largely fallen flat. Online education has gained traction. Those winners make sense to me. They align with key values of digital. Efforts to replicate a physical, three-dimensional experience does not make sense to me. Look what happened to 3D television. Few households own them. People didn’t want to buy the glasses, they were expensive. It limited the viewing experience. How many own Oculus rift headsets? They too are quite expensive. Holographic technology is still nascent. Perhaps one day it will work well as it does on Star Wars (though even there, people’s images flicker in and out sometimes, J). But until that moment, I think the solutions that will do best take advantage of the two-dimensional aspects digital. Powerful broadcasts of speakers, sessions important, valued by target communities. TED Talks are wildly successful at doing this well. If there is engagement, interaction, make it user-friendly, glitch free.
  • Here it will take courage and willingness to experiment. A willingness to fail in the quest to enhance the digital aspects that are a companion to a show.
  • The best first step is to ask your exhibitors what they believe would be the best solutions to support their urgent marketing and sales goals. Based on that feedback, build from there.

Business Professionals Are Likely Aching to Connect with Their Peers and B2B Exhibitions They Value in These Challenging Times

This is a very big opportunity for event marketers to leverage. By making these overtures, establishing meaningful connections and nurturing them, you are building the ground work for attendee acquisition for your next, physical event.

CEIR’s 2016 Digital Toolkit Series documents attendee digital communication preferences with organizers. They want to engage with the events they have attended. Pick the digital outlets that match your communities’ media consumption habits.

Post-Event Communications with Organizers

Post-event Communications

Think of the most valued content and offer it on a digital channel where a community goes regularly:

  • For example, education is likely to be popular. Cover topics addressing a community’s most urgent educational needs or that relate to the hottest trends. These digital events are exhibitor sponsorship opportunities, perhaps a way to retain lost sponsorship dollars. For some exhibitors, thought leadership is an important reason why they exhibit at your show. Convert this to sponsorships for virtual education running during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Think of a format that works in a digital setting. Forcing attendees to sit through a program that lasts multiple hours is apt to fail. Digital likely requires shorter formats. FMI go to: https://work.chron.com/optimal-length-webinar-14635.html
  • Networking is another important objective for attending an event. As with exhibitors, consider using a matchmaking program to help attendees find other business professionals with whom they may want to connect.
  • Besides one-on-one networking, online engagement opportunities are another way to keep connections alive with specific communities that attend a show: group chats on topics of relevance to a community via an online bulletin board format or via Google hangouts or some other setting help like-minded professionals find each other, commiserate or discuss issues of importance. These too are events offering opportunities to sell sponsorships.

CEIR’s How to Grow Attendance report series offers insights relating to the messaging approach among B2B exhibition organizers who are more successful in growing attendance. Though the results relate to attendee acquisition, the messaging approach applies to marketing a digital event as well.

Personalized content is critical. Think of the primary categories of professionals who attend that can be serviced with online education, webcasts or networking sessions. How can any new products be promoted in a way that speaks to them, is specific to the different communities that would walk a show floor? Same is true if offering opportunities to have a look at new, hot products. Consider offering online product reveals or showcases to separate audiences. Perhaps fun, peoples choice awards can be the engagement opportunity. Think about how to make the opportunity alluring, attractive to a specific community that attends a show. For example, what will catch the interest of an automotive engineer compared to technicians servicing the needs of car racers will result in different messaging and as well different experiences.

Marketing Message Approach

I know these recommendations are generalized. They are offered again to help stimulate thought, ideas, discussions among a B2B exhibition organizer team. We are facing an historic challenge. Now is the time to innovate!

Engaging efforts to keep the connection going with professionals who would have attended is worthwhile. CEIR research indicates that engaging online is an effective attendee marketing vehicle. This has been documented seven years ago by CEIR in the 2012 Role and Value of F2F Study. It was found that the younger a professional, the more likely that an attendee answered that engaging online was more apt to prompt participating in F2F events. That result portended that digital would be an effective attendee marketing tactic. Today, it is THE primary way to draw attendance to a physical, F2F event. Keep that connection going, feed them content digitally now and many will be chomping to attend your next physical event!

Figure 07


Nancy Drapeau, PRC, is a 24-year market research veteran and is CEIR’s VP of Research. She conducts industry-wide studies and reports on current trends in the exhibition industry. She holds a Bachelors from Georgetown University and a Masters from l’Institut Européen des Hautes Études Internationales.

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