Digi-transa-data-accela-formation…big fancy buzzword, but what does it mean? Brian Scott of ClearTone Consulting shares what this buzz word is all about and what it means for the exhibitions and events industry.

By: Brian Scott, President and Chief Information Officer, ClearTone Consulting, LLC

I have a confession that I’ll share in confidence. I think that corporate buzzword bingo may have been one of the best inventions ever. I won’t tell you if I’ve ever played it during an actual meeting, leaving that to your imagination, but know even if I wasn’t actively competing against a co-worker, I was certainly playing the solitaire version in my head. The hubbub that is generated around the buzzword de jour has always fascinated me because, in so many cases, the concepts represented by the new popular moniker are exactly the same as the previous, but now archaic, buzzword.

For the last several years, and more recently at a fever pitch within the events industry, Digital Transformation (DT) has been the neon beacon shining bright from the headlines. Full disclosure: as I provide consultation services around DT, I too have been known to splash in the buzzword pool frequently. But I do so from a perspective of doing my best to help customers understand the no nonsense approach to these sometimes overwhelming initiatives.

If you take a moment to recall, I bet you’ll remember that prior to DT being all the rage, previous incarnations included “Data-driven insights” or “Business Intelligence” or “Enterprise Data Strategies”. They’ve all been blogged about at length. In my experience, at the core of all these initiatives, including Digital Transformation, rests the ever-present and fundamental “Data”. One cannot create a DT strategy without first starting with the data. In actuality, there is a level even more primordial than data, and that is the customer. There is no such thing as Digital Transformation without a data-centricity and there is no value in leveraging data unless it ultimately results in customer value.

Some may ask, isn’t Digital Transformation within the events industry really just providing virtual events or a 365-customer marketplace? Well, those tools could be a part of a DT plan, but it’s certainly not the entirety of a solid strategy. Since all events occur within the boundaries of their own respective industry verticals and market sectors, a 365-community may resonate supremely within one vertical, producing engagement statistics that any organization would be proud to boast, while that same community strategy within a different vertical could find itself at the bottom of the unsuccessful tech initiatives wastebasket.

These extreme opposites in results, while deploying identical toolsets or strategies, result because there is simply no one-solution-fits-all approach to the business of Digital Transformation. Success only comes with hard-to-achieve commitment to customer engagement, relentless focus on data, high pain tolerance during change, and leadership fortitude, along with an equal amount of organizational, operational, AND technology toolset evolution. If done successfully, all digital transformation initiatives will result in organizational change and that fact alone is typically at the core of why there are so many failed or marginally successful attempts.

I had a discussion with Chris Brown, EVP of National Association of Broadcasters Business (NAB) Operations, regarding digital transformation within the events industry. Chris sees that organizers are working hard to evolve their business DNA to include a data-centric perspective and recognizes that it is indeed an evolution that is not easily executed. “What’s the right way to collect data? What data can or should be collected? How do we get deeper and richer insight into our customers? And how do we make sense of it all in a way that drives value and can be made into a repeatable toolset?” Chris adds that to get it right, he believes it takes a vision and commitment lasting over several years. The transformation is an evolution of an organization that requires direction and persistence.

For NAB, Chris explained that their digital strategy was not to focus specifically on the virtualization of any specific event, but to focus first on building an engaging community available throughout the year. “This requires a mental shift away from a more transactional thinking that is common with face-to-face-centric organizations.” NAB has been at the tip of the spear with this type of initiative and launched NAB Amplify ™ in March 2021. NAB Amplify ™ will serve to fuel commerce beyond NAB’s live events and increase global collaboration and conversations by creating an accessible and essential destination and resource for the community to connect and engage in real time, 365 days a year.

Even though their community is already live, Chris acknowledges that it is a multi-year initiative that will take many iterations of development and investment to realize the ultimate vision. “The event industry can be challenged at thinking in terms of long-term plans such as a 5-year strategy. Some think that the rate of change makes such a long-term vision useless.” NAB expects to change the shape of their plan as needed by external demands, but they do so while keeping their core vision centered.

Bob McLean, CPA, CAE, CEM, interim President at Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) and Chairman of the Board of International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), and I recently spoke about DT as well. Bob recognized that even though COVID may have greatly increased the need for a solid digital strategy within the industry, most organizers have been so tapped with launching virtual events, and now planning for the safe return to face-to-face events, it has been very difficult for them to find the time to plan strategically. For PPAI, they had relegated the 365-day community outreach strategy to the membership side of the organization. Now, they are committed to extending their market reach by providing a virtual event experience after their face-to-face event occurs. Bob states that their strategy is focused on “capturing more relevant and meaningful data and then using that data to be forward looking as opposed to looking back. The goal is to drive improving the customer experience and the overall value of our event.”

A concept that many seem to agree on is that digital reach should be about expanding lead generation opportunities, engaging larger audiences, and providing more value to all participants. That is no small order for any strategic plan. For us to have collective success, we’re all going to have to transform our skills, our perspectives, and our thinking to truly become “digital first”.

Many existing, as well as newcomer, vendors are going to be challenged to up their game in regard to data. The lack of industry data standards and prevalence of bespoke solutions has allowed the events industry to operate far too long while poorly supporting a data-centric value proposition. I was born and raised a software engineer, so I understand what’s been going on here. Software technologists are far more excited by generating and capturing data in scalable and reliable ways as opposed to being primarily driven by data-output business value. The next big wave in our industry’s digital transformation is that companies making this switch well will survive and prosper and those who do not will be washed away by the digital tide.

To summarize what I believe about the big DT – there is gold in them hills! But just like mining ore, it takes a lot of effort, planning, building, tearing down, broken shovels and scuffed knees to finally hit that vein that will transform your organization and community. Ask any miner while they’re in the midst of it and you may get an earful of pain, but talk with those that stuck with it and persevered, and they are smiling mighty big!

Brian Scott, President of ClearTone Consulting and Partner of techmatch.co, is an exhibitions industry technology executive with 35 years of technology-innovation experience and 21 years of executive leadership experience. He currently provides consultation services for companies and associations to help them leverage technology to achieve their strategic aspirations and to accelerate their digital transformations.

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