As technology evolves and grows and digital alternatives to connection continue to present themselves, the biggest question for all marketers is: Why do in-person conferences still excel at networking? What makes them such a valuable marketing tool?
The simple answer is that despite the technology available, there’s simply no comparison to the value that comes from serendipitous encounters, face-to-face networking, and personal connections. But with the rising fear around the COVID-19 crisis and further restrictions on travel and public gatherings, companies (especially those in the B2B space) are searching for digital alternatives to conferences and networking more than ever before.
As companies face the tough decision between canceling conferences — or in some cases, are forced to cancel by governmental mandates — or risking their employees’ and patrons’ health, marketers are beginning to ask a new question, as well. What could possibly replace conferences and networking?
The Obvious Contenders
As B2B companies begin searching for alternatives to the annual in-person conferences, two obvious choices immediately spring to mind: livestreams and webinars. While these methods of “virtual conferencing” don’t present all of the same benefits of networking that in-person events tend to, they have a slew of their own benefits that make up for the lack of serendipity and personal connection.
Of course, one of the largest benefits of conferences is the information they disseminate and produce. Fortunately, companies can still share their content, strategies, tips, and tools without actually being in the same physical space as listeners via livestreams and video conferencing.
In fact, several recent startups have made promising progress in creating “virtual conference spaces” via apps like Run The World and Hopin. With other apps, like StreamYard, you can even stream content to multiple platforms at one time. The added benefit of livestreaming or recording a presentation is that you have more time to prepare and deliver your content without having to travel or spend extra money on a room or space.
Additionally, streamed or recorded content can be saved and added to your website, blog, or social media for more people to find, access, and enjoy even if they missed out on the live stream.
Webinars have been around for a long time and it’s obvious that they can’t fully replace the networking features of conferences, but they can provide an interactive digital space for the sharing of thoughts and ideas — which is exactly what a conference is meant to cultivate!
Webinars are versatile and have options for question/answer periods, document sharing, live chat conversations, and notes to be shared. Many tools even have options for the participants to continue swapping ideas with each other or further networking after the webinar is over via chat features.
Additionally, webinars make for great lead capture opportunities because even if people fail to attend, you still have their information from when they registered! It’s easy to review this information at a later date and reach out to make new connections.
Okay, let’s talk about personal connections for a moment. What makes the in-person connection so much stronger, more memorable, and more impactful than virtual meetups? The first loss, of course, is the quaintness and serendipity of bumping into an old coworker in the break between events at a conference or bonding with a stranger in line for free cocktails after a day of long sessions.
The other drawback is the lack of real interaction or cooperation between peers, colleagues, and subject matter experts. In a conference setting, hundreds of people are milling around and there are always opportunities to pick the brains of fellow professionals and experienced leaders after sessions or in between breaks. In the digital world, you don’t have that kind of experience without putting in the effort of scheduling time together — which is another drawback as many people are hesitant to “waste” other people’s time.
Fortunately, there are digital alternatives even to these situations, in the form of dedicated Q & A sessions, virtual networking meetups, and casual conversations.
Q & A with Experts
If you are still interested in sharing your ideas, expertise, products, or services with the public, but don’t want to risk a conference environment, consider moving online with a Q & A session. In one of these formats, you can use a livestreaming service such as Discord, Zoom, or UberConference to host an open forum for visitors to question you on anything they’d like. You can begin the session by introducing a topic or product or you can simply let the conversations flow organically and share your tips with engaged viewers while they enjoy being a prime part of the interaction.
Coffee & Conversation
One of the most valuable parts of conferences, of course, is the casual “let’s grab a coffee and catch up” style conversation. Many valuable connections and foundations have been forged between strong companies over a half-caf latte. So why not still offer that?
Set up a designated time and invite your followers, employers, prospects, and colleagues to join you for a virtual coffee time conversation. You can use any of the digital tools you’re used to and video chat with friends, team members, prospects while enjoying the warm, caffeinated (or not) beverage of your choosing. Don’t set an agenda — just see where the conversations lead, just like you would during a regular coffee meeting!
Local Luncheons Online
So many smaller organizations rely on luncheons as the backbone of their networking and the reason for that is simple: no one is going to turn down free food. But in the face of the COVID pandemic, sharing lunch with 50 other people is highly inadvisable. So what are these organizations to do?
Move your lunch hour online! If you have the budget, splurge and set up a deal with your local food delivery service to let viewers have a discount or free meal delivered to their house and share it with each other in a virtual space.
Can’t afford to do that? That’s okay — suggest everyone make their own meal for lunch and compare notes on what you chose. Or switch to a “cocktail” hour instead of a luncheon and enjoy your favorite adult beverage from the comfort of your home while networking with your favorite fellow professionals.
Switching Up The Focus
Let’s say you’re not ready to pull the trigger on virtual networking just yet, but you also don’t want to — or don’t have to due to cancellations — attend conferences. Well, then it’s time to pivot that focus.
Instead of focusing all your energy on conferences that have been canceled or are up in the air, switch your marketing budget to using digital marketing and attracting more qualified leads.
Focus on Digital/Inbound Marketing Instead
I know, digital marketing is not even close to networking in terms of conversations and connections. But it is more valuable in other ways. First of all, it’s measurable. Each digital marketing campaign you conduct has trackable results that will tell you what worked and what didn’t. Second, digital marketing can produce higher-quality leads with less effort on your part than casting a wide net at a conference can. Finally, when you consider the cost of attendance, travel, room and board, etc., digital marketing is far more cost-effective than conferences or large-scale networking events.
Also, let’s face it, the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. No one could have foreseen this and no one knows what to expect when it’s all over — or even when it will be over. The very face of in-person communication and networking could be altered. And that means digital marketing and communication is more important than ever.
So, what should you be focusing on? What is going to help you draw those valuable connections and high-quality leads? Everything! That’s what inbound marketing is designed to do. Here are a few things that you should be concentrating on to upgrade your strategy:
- Website Content – Your website is the face of your company in the digital world. It greets your prospects and customers in your place, so making sure that your content is up-to-date, accurate, and engaging is vital. Concentrate on making sure that your content is optimized with engaging CTAs that drive clicks and conversions.
- SEO – Speaking of optimizing, your website will never be found if it isn’t optimized for search engines. Review your keywords and strategies to ensure that your site is being found by Google and put in front of the right people.
- Content Marketing – Don’t you still want to be getting your ideas and helpful tips out there to your audience? Of course, you do! Content marketing is the way to offer your valuable thoughts and lessons to any audience — not just one confined to a conference hall.
- Social Media Engagement – Okay, you’ve written great content and have incredible advice for people in your industry. Now get it out there via social media! In the digital world, social platforms are the pulpit from which you get to enlighten your audience and share your ideas.
- Video – Really, I can’t say enough how important video is becoming. Whether it be livestreaming or prerecorded, troubleshooting tips or an “About Us” bit, or anything in between, video is the best way to humanize your brand and connect with your audience. And best of all, having video on your site just increases your SEO value!
- Digital Advertising/PPC — With less foot traffic in physical locations and more time spent in the digital shopping spaces of Google, Facebook, etc., ads are more valuable than ever at getting your products, services, or content in front of the right people at the right time.
- Live Chat — Customer service is hard to keep up with, especially when you are dealing with staffing shortages caused by the COVID crisis. But a live chat stream can help filter those questions, assign them to task members, and ensure that they are answered in a timely fashion.
Whether you are looking to update your networking practices for the digital age or are simply responding to the growing threat of COVID-19, now is the time to embrace the technology available and engage in virtual networking and digital marketing best practices. COVID-19 isn’t going to be around forever — really, it isn’t! — but technology is here to stay, and this may be the signal we all need to embrace the opportunities afforded by it.