Ep1. Evolving Your Events: Reinventing, Refreshing, Resetting

September 7, 2016 John Woo

Small brands and big ones, B2B and B2C, today’s event marketers are getting more aggressive about evolving their programs and portfolios. From reinventing strategies to upgrading experiences, refreshing and resetting live events its getting big play these days.

Take a look at this week’s EM All Access episode focusing on evolving your events.

Video Transcript

Hey there, event marketers. Jessica Heasley here. Welcome to another episode of EM All Access where we connect you with some of the industry’s most innovative events and the marketers behind them.

I spoke with GES executives Mark Thomas, John Woo, and Jeff Youngs about evolving event programs making sure the strategy is always up front and matching the message with the experience. Let’s listen in.

For event marketers who have created a very successful, strong event portfolio, why should they constantly be thinking about evolving their events?

John: I think everybody should be considering evolving your events consistently. Evolution isn’t something that just stops.

Jeff: If you’re focused on the audience and the content and the message that needs to be delivered now as opposed to last year, the event will automatically evolve. It’s not necessarily something you need to have on a checklist—“evolve event today.” That’s not really what it’s about. It’s about responding to the pressures or the challenges, the realities of today. It’s going to happen automatically.

Mark: Ultimately the event evolves because the attendee evolves. The attendee changes. And so what you have to do is you have to take that event and make it suitable and make it appropriate for the attendee. Whatever the content is, whatever the message is, whatever the experience is, what are they looking for?

Is there an appropriate place in the process, in the development of the strategy or in the annual planning to stop and take a look at where that evolution thinking should be taking place?

John: The strategy should be up front. And I believe we should really keep it collaborative. We bring in multidisciplinary teams to think about what you’re trying to communicate, the vehicle you’re trying to use to communicate the message, and then how it can start to evolve year after year and look at it more holistically rather than saying “I’m going to have an event in Las Vegas and that’s where it is because that’s where I’m stuck with from a facilities standpoint, or that’s what I have to work with.” We just sometimes kind of get pigeon-holed into the physical rather than thinking about what’s best going to deliver the message sometimes.

Are there parts in an event that typically need to be refreshed? Are there areas that event marketers should be looking at as elements that typically need a fresh perspective from year to year?

Mark: I think we always look at that as every part of the event should always be refreshed. But it’s that ongoing thing. It’s an evolution. So what we’re doing today is not necessarily what we did five years ago. What we did five years ago is what we didn’t do ten years ago. So that constant evolution, we have a different audience, we have a different perspective on things. And taking that perspective allows us to be able to tell a different message. So I don’t think you can locate it into one separate thing, but looking at the overall experience is what we have to look at to how we refresh everything.

Jeff: And it’s coming from content. So what’s the content of the message? The content really is the king there. So if you focus on the content, then how it’s delivered and the ways it’s delivered and the timing in how it’s delivered—those things will naturally evolve in order to support that content. So if you’re focused on the purpose and why you’re there, those things—should it be the general session? Who knows. Maybe. Maybe it’s the expo, maybe it’s the way they interact with one another so that the engagement of the employee or the attendee matches the message a little bit better.

John: And look at it from a different perspective. Maybe step outside of the day-to-day execution and really focus more on the team and understand how you’re bringing that collaboration together in order to have the content delivered to the audience.

You brought up the word “thinking,” which makes me think of design thinking. And it makes me think there might be some value to evolution thinking, and constantly having that top-of-mind. Is there some value to keeping evolution top-of-mind as an event marketer?

John: It naturally occurs, so you can’t ignore it. Evolution just happens, whether you want it to or not. I think design thinking is really interesting because it’s been around for such a long time in the way that we apply and leverage empathy, being able to try things out and prototype and ultimately fail quickly to learn from it. It leads itself to evolution. When we do our events, one of the first questions that I ask my clients is, “Where’s your risk tolerance at?” What are you willing to risk and try something new in order to create change and make that happen on the show floor. And it’s funny because a lot of people will have a really high risk tolerance, and some people will be like, “yeah we want all that, but we’re not going to do it.” So it gets us to the answer much faster just by asking that single question. It’s really interesting to see how a program evolves so you can look at it from a course of five or six years. They change because one: the team’s mentality, their perspective starts to change. And the way that they’re looking at their events and by going out to other events changes and influences that. So I think that’s all part of the evolution process for that.

Mark: Evolution can be a very positive thing. So with the evolution of a brand or the evolution of a concept, we’ll really bring that to fruition. Taking all those elements and bringing that to the content level, bringing that to the strategy level will help evolve that brand.

Are there some lessons learned from some of the events that you’ve recently executed that have helped evolve the place where a client was, where they wanted to go?

Mark: We just recently retained a new client, actually. Somebody had been with another company for thirty years. When we went in, we did discovery sessions with them and we really asked them questions. Very serious questions about what their brand meant, what was their message, how do they want to do things? It wasn’t just a tactical execution; it was a really strategic way to think about things.

Jeff: We looked at that program from the perspective of the audience and the message of today with that client and brand. Because previous suppliers had been doing it for decades. They were just doing the same thing year after year after year. And the client began to see that wasn’t helping them. Their audiences were dropping; they weren’t being as effective as they needed to be. So they came to us and we were able to address that for them. And that risk factor that John was talking about is key. And some clients don’t want to do that, we get it, but we’re always going to present the risk because that’s the way to really push the envelope for them and break new ground in their communication because that’s really what it’s all about.

John: What was different about that client was that we actually took a step back and we actually interviewed their entire company before we even created the event. Because we it was for an internal facing audience. It wasn’t a consumer audience; it was an internal group. So we actually took the time to step back and we took a month to interview that entire group from their leadership team to their events team, their marketing team, their product development teams. And we understood what their perspective was, so we gained that empathy and we were able to transform the show because of that. And I don’t think we would have gotten there just off of a brief.

It sounds like your discovery process is unique to each client but then also goes where it needs to go in order to get to a place where you can present those risky ideas maybe to that client that has created something that’s working, but might need that nudge. How do you get them to move forward in a place that might be a little bit scary but they’re excited to go to?

John: You got to push them out of the envelope. That’s why they ask us to jump in to help them create something. If we just replicated back exactly what they were looking for, then we’re not doing our jobs as creatives or designers or as people who are trying to evolve the industry. I think our task is to help them come out of their safety zone by showing them a safe way of expressing that. It has to be content-relevant, it has to be on-brand, and it has to be respectful of that. But at the same time, you can help people transition by showing them a safe way of expressing that type of risk, being able to take that on. And many times we just do it through methods of play. Say we’re doing the engagement. That’s not to say “you give me all your information and now I’m going to go back home and do it all on the computer and I’m going to give it back to you and here you go. Here’s a pretty picture.” I think it’s actually the whiteboard sessions. You sit down in a room and you sketch out the ideas loose and rough and fast; you prototype through it, and then you can come up with a better solution. Because you’re all involved in that creative process and it’s something that’s been missing from this industry for a while. We tend to say, here’s the point person, you talk to them, they give you the information. You’re playing a game of telephone. Designers can’t really thrive in that type of environment, so we try to close that gap as tightly as we can by putting the designer with the clients. Getting the multidisciplinary team around it to work through those solutions on those problems and challenges.

Jeff: I think what we do as communicators is paint that really good picture of what could be when we take these risks. And when they’re part of that solution-creation and they can see it more clearly and they’re more willing to go. Just handing it to them, a lot of times, we’ll hit a wall. If we can have them engaged in that process, then they’re seeing it as we see it.

Whether you’re evolving some of your events or resetting entire portfolios, it’s important to keep an eye on your audience. Use an evolution as an opportunity to drive a deeper connection with attendees and drive post-event engagement. I’d like to thank Mark, Jeff, and John for me and you for watching.

Learn more about GES’ top influencers and problem solvers through our in-depth EM All Access video series on thought leadership.

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About the Author

John Woo

John Woo is VP of Design & Creative at GES.

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