The ROI of online event communities

By now it’s clear that the traditional events model must change. The industry has faced a reckoning of late, but this is providing an opportunity to start afresh – or more accurately finally do what has been promised for decades. Create online event communities that are engaged 365 days a year.

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The industry has been talking about the combined power of high-value content and technology to create an event community that is engaged 365 days a year, not just the 1 – 5 days of the annual events, since at least the turn of the century. And yet…with a few notable exceptions like TED, few cracked it, or tried that hard too.

Now there is no choice. The events businesses that don’t just survive but grow through the current crisis will be those that deliver on the promise of an expert community. Not just creating a content section on their website for sponsors to post their whitepapers, but genuinely expert content from and for speakers and peers, that connects, engages and grows the event community 365/24/7.

Content + community

20-25% of event delegate revenue is typically spent marketing an event.  However, only around 15% of delegates and 30% of companies tend to be year-on-year repeat buyers. Therefore the marketing cycle starts almost from scratch each time, trying to win over a new pool of delegates.

For two decades, the industry has spoken about using online event communities to reduce some of this marketing spend. Instead of a 2-4 day must-attend annual event that only has a one-time impact, organizers curate a 365-day community where they maintain relationships with delegates, and the annual event is the highlight of the year.

Events businesses have tried to achieve this in the past, by adding a content channel to their event websites. But instead of reducing cost, it has simply moved costs from one column to another. Increased spend on content creation and promotion has been largely offset by decreasing direct mail costs. 

This kind of content marketing has not increased repeat buyer stats or built a thriving, growing community of potential delegates. Some content has failed to add value at all. Thinly veiled sponsor sales pitches and click-bait pieces that don’t pass the expertise test. Speaker presentations uploaded post-event that don’t tell the whole story.

Therefore, the real experts, the speakers whom delegates pay to hear from, are only visible for those few days of the year. Speakers tend to have little loyalty to event organizers because their loyalty is to the subject matter or industry and their peers within it. But this means differentiation is near impossible. 

Event communities

All B2B conferences and events are crucially the result of a united desire to learn, develop, and connect around a topic with others who want to do the same. This is the heart of an event. It is this intersection of content and community that creates the magic of an event. And lackluster content strategies totally miss this point. 

Content has too often been treated as an add-on, an afterthought. Conference producers see it as the remit of the digital team, entirely separate to the extensive research and relationship building that goes into an event.

For this to work effectively, organizers need to think about the intersection of content and community. Producers need to work with marketers and sales teams to create an environment in which premium, authoritative expertise is curated, where delegates can also engage with each other and with expert speakers, and engage, interact and collaborate together. This is the expert community model. 

The ROI 

An expert community, with substantive user-generated content, would finally enable events businesses to increase their repeat delegate numbers, doubling their retention stats. Today, the primary channel for delegate retention is telesales which is also the most expensive channel. By using the expert community to lock in repeat delegates, events businesses could drop their marketing spend by five percentage points of revenue, or 25% of marketing spend. An enormous saving.

There are knock-on benefits such as stronger product differentiation, and real speaker loyalty. The 365 engagement model boosts speaker profiles and visibility, fosters real relationships and unlocks new opportunities to deliver value. 

Sponsorship value

Now, consider the value-add for sponsors. In the past, sponsors were happy to pay around £15k for bronze naming rights. This was basically to access a delegate community that would otherwise be inaccessible, and to promote their brand, position their thought leadership, and hopefully generate leads. Their focus on ROI, initially, was rather relaxed - taking the lead from the advertising community where one cannot really accurately know what spend was effective. 

This all changed with the advent of digital marketing. Sponsors now know the cost per lead and cost per sale. They have also embraced producing their own free webinars (a trend accelerated by the pandemic) to which they can easily use their own mailing lists to solicit registrations. 

To protect sponsor revenue, and grow it, events businesses have to be able to demonstrate real ROI and offer more than the client could achieve on their own. An expert community where the sponsor’s thought leadership benefits from the halo effect of real industry experts and that delivers regular, sticky traffic enables events businesses not just to protect sales revenues, but to grow them. 

Download our guide to Smarter Sponsorship to learn more about the sponsorship opportunities available with an online event community

List building

Event companies spend 1% of revenue on building their prospect databases for email and telesales marketing. An expert community model with an inbuilt growth engine is highly attractive. An online hub that attracts new prospects through great quality content and experts that their target audience is searching for. Done well, it could reduce spend here by 50%.

Team efficiency

Then there’s efficiency to think about. Conference businesses can have more producers than marketers and sponsorship salespeople combined. For a small event, they tend to spend a month researching the event and inviting speakers. For the annual gathering, they spend up to four months. 

With an expert community, this time is drastically cut. They can quickly see what their community is interested in. Mining of their readership, interest, topic, comment, author and sharing analytics will both reduce the needed market research time and improve the product output, saving staff costs (because one conference producer will be able to be more productive) and generating more revenue by producing events which attract more delegates.

Structure improvements

One last benefit comes from these insights. For events, media businesses have often struggled with structure. Should they organize by market, by geography, or by product format? Each choice has trade-offs in terms of buying and expertise synergies. 

If you structure by format (e.g. conference vs business information) you may miss out on cross-sell opportunities. By market, you may reduce the quality of one of the delivery formats - and so forth. The beauty of expert communities that sit across divisions is that they enable access to all formats, can increase order value and keep everyone updated on new product and market opportunities. Expert communities are truly customer-led. And media businesses can then see where audiences cluster around a particular topic or format, and create new products in response to this. 

Irrefutable ROI

There is a more than compelling argument for the expert community model in events, particularly as the industry picks itself up and begins to recover from the past months. The ROI of the community model covers marketing spend, sales revenue, and product quality angles. In combination, this is irrefutable, and essential for the survival of the industry. 

Nicola Fine

Head of Marketing, Zapnito

I've worked in B2B marketing for 6 years now, across corporate events and professional services. I love digital marketing and analytics, and finding ways to make B2B as exciting as B2C.

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