George P Johnson (GPJ) is one of the oldest brand experience agencies, founded in 1914. They are a significant global player. We met with CEO Chris Meyer, a GPJ veteran, navigating the business through Covid times. He’s surprisingly upbeat and we were keen to understand why.

Adapting

We’ve been in business for 106 years but without doubt 2020 has been the hardest yet. We’re well positioned for adversity as part of a strong agency network with some deeply digital sister agencies and we can assist clients in transition with tools, staff and expertise. Short term our focus is information sharing on Covid’s impact on event ecosystems. The Federal government quickly offered relief to airlines, hotels and visibly affected industries.  But impact of up to 1 trillion dollars across event supply chains resulted in significant job cuts.  

Re-imagining B2B experiences without physical events

Brands still need to communicate with constituents, drive pipeline, launch new products, recognize and educate employees. We’ve seen quick pivots to digital experiences. I don’t say ‘virtual events’ because true digital experiences include interactive, personalized elements. These persona level, digital journeys contrast to ‘one size fits all’ physical events. Urgency normally dictates how well clients deliver personalised experiences. Some need to get content out immediately; this means using industry virtual event platforms where you upload content. Fortunately we’ve been delivering virtual experiences for a while, our first was with Cisco in 2008.They switched from a live to virtual global sales meeting for 17,000, it was the first big event in the corporate world that transitioned to virtual. 

Future for face to face meetings

When physical events return, new health and safety guidelines will demand different event design. Gatherings will be smaller, supported and supplemented by digital experiences, and physical attendance will have price premiums attached. Constraints will trigger major reinvention across sports, entertainment, concerts, etc. We’re seeing global clients move to hybrid ‘hub and spoke’ execution: simultaneous smaller gatherings, interconnected by digital “thread’ to the ‘parent’ event. 

Advantages to hybrid events

Digital event software platforms improve measurement – historically tricky for physical events.  We work within a client’s approved, installed technology ecosystem. Most brands have significant InfoSec and data privacy policies that we adhere to. We sometimes find sales enablement overlaps with event lead generation as can sales, marketing and IT platforms. We often bring different stakeholders together to focus them on pipeline generation but staying mindful of customers and delivering easy to navigate, integrated attendee experiences.

Core components of good digital experiences

  • Engagement:  Humans need to interact but recent surveys question when and how we will return to physical encounters. With widespread fear to overcome, old ways may not return, we will need to substitute physical participation with robust, engaging digital experiences.
  • Production values: Events will have better, more cinematic production values like broadcast TV and gaming but with interactive elements, and innovative online journeys. There’s a lot of creative scope!
  • Interactive Content: Content needs to engage with audiences whether they’re with you or online, creating a two-way exchange.  There are many ways to do this with tools, surveys, chat and Q&A, but these must be curated properly. More sophisticated events may use large, multi-player gaming experiences, like World of Warcraft. Digital events will improve their audience retention capabilities but that takes time and thought – posting content prepared for physical events online won’t engage and maintain viewership.
  • Agendas: 90-minute keynotes are out, and interesting, engaging smaller pieces with interstitials are in. Create content ecosystems with partners woven into an agenda that deliver ‘encounters’.

B2B lead pipelines

Events drive leads and most clients know what percentage of pipeline the event portfolio delivers. Short term there’s a need to re-energize pipelines, avoiding significant degradation of lead volume in coming quarters. Clients are assessing how fast they can deliver hybrid models; investing time and effort amplifying what they do well, incorporating a digital dimension and testing every format (from interviews to large scale events through to pre-recorded webcasts).

Digital event transition leaders

Large tech brands: Microsoft, Salesforce, IBM, NetApp, ServiceNow, Cisco. NetApp held an excellent live European event during lockdown leveraging the virtual event platform, On24. Live brings raw authenticity which can work better than pre-recorded sessions with high post-production values.  But even live meetings need preparation.  Unseen elements including connectivity, lighting, sound, teleprompters etc. must work!  It may seem spontaneous, but it must be carefully planned (with contingencies).

The drive to centralise

As Scott Brinker, Martech guru highlighted recently how the speed of digital roll out, tight budgets etc. drive discussions around centralization and agility. Our client Rodan+Fields Skin Care are good example of this. A multilevel marketing organization with several hundred thousand field sales consultants (not employees), they have an event platform which supports largescale meetings for thousands of participants (reinforcing brand values with centralized content), while empowering field sales consultants to deliver regional events and brand build locally. We’ll see more of these centralized platforms designed to enable regional experiences. 

The events industry is undergoing radical digital transformation. It’ll be interesting to see how mature brands like GPJ apply agility and innovation as they reinvent themselves and help clients ride the wave of change.  The good news is, this pivot is extraordinarily fast and industry wide.  GPJ’s business already shows signs of emergence, unlike others who are, quite frankly and very sadly, at risk.  

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller on Unsplash

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