Transcript: That Events Episode

Amie Stankiste, Senior Director of Global Marketing at S&P Global Market Intelligence, shares her experience of the events process, from gaining internal buy-in to making sure you keep a laser focus on delivering what your audience wants from your content.

Listen to the full conversation here.

The first thing, I think that comes up when you’re planning, particularly sort of bigger event is, how do you balance sort of learning value with entertainment when you’re creating events? I know you created the S&P Essential Conference, sort of from a standing start last year, how did you go about getting that balance right?

Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting and critical question, whenever you’re going into an event or organising an event. And we always come back to the same thing, which is the customer value and the customer experience. So obviously, you’ve got to think about and consider the type of event that you’re running. So it could be anything from the kind of smaller afternoon event, you know, which is a couple of hours, to our very large event that you know, you referenced, which was the Essential Conference, which was a three-day event. So that’s quite a different ask for customers who are attending, and what they’re going to be expecting out of it. So we always go back to that “what are the objectives really? what are those objectives for our business? What are we trying to achieve through that event, but most importantly, the attendees? So what are they trying to get out of that event, from the moment they sign up through that whole process? And then when they arrive on the day, what are they actually expecting to get out of it?” And I think if we’re all honest, content has to come first. So the learning content, the kind of exclusive access to some type of information, or data or insights that those customers really want to gain to go away, and take back to their normal roles to their businesses and to add value to their own contributions in their jobs. So really, we start with the content. And I would say, thinking through the types of speakers, you’re hosting at that event, at the subject matter the hot topics, making sure that you are really tailoring that type of content to the needs of those customers, depending on who is attending. And I think you’ve got to do that analysis beforehand, to make sure you’re getting the content absolutely spot on and tailored to your audience.

If it’s one of those larger events I was talking about, I do think it is important to balance their kind of learning and then the listening intently to that incredible content with a bit more lighthearted entertainment type of activities. So that could be simple things in between the sessions as people are moving between rooms, or you know, going from one session to another in terms of keynote or to lunch or something like that, you can then start to build in entertainment, which can be simple. People walking around the crowd and entertaining them as people are kind of eating their lunch and, or networking, just to try and keep that kind of interaction going and to bring people together and get them talking and kind of break the ice in some way. But it could also be bigger kind of entertainment ideas as well. So when we’ve had our customers together for two or three days where they’re staying overnight, we’ve put on activities such as Segway tours in that city where the event is because if people have travelled, they might want the opportunity to go and see the city. So tours of the city, you know, cooking classes that really focus on on the local cuisine, has been sometimes fun to do anything with that kind of local field that brings people together and gets people talking. And I was actually part of the cooking class, I remember last year and it was absolutely fantastic. It really got people into groups talking to each other naturally networking, really kind of forming a bond so that they then had people to kind of hang out with and talk to throughout that event. And they created their own really close networks, which I know from, you know, our follow-ups that people have actually continued, following that event.

So not only are we providing the fun, and the entertaining activities, but also we’re really trying to promote that underlying networking need that people do have when they go to events and sometimes people struggle with networking, it’s doesn’t come naturally to everybody. So these the entertainment is really facilitating some of that, for people who maybe want to get involved in activities, and it just it breaks the ice. And it makes it just a bit more comfortable for everybody and you go away feeling good, you’ve been entertained, you’ve met some, some, hopefully, you know nice people who you want to stay in contact with, then you’ve shared some thoughts and expertise and thinking with so it’s a win-win all around.

 

Do you think there’s a way to encourage that sort of community building in the build-up to an event? It seems like, you’d have to share some data to do that. And I don’t know if that’s people will be comfortable having their data shared in that in that way. Originally.

It can be quite challenging, because of data privacy, and obviously, that’s super important. And we always, always make sure we adhere to any data privacy laws and really think about what people are comfortable with. One thing I’ve seen work quite well actually, and we do this a lot internally with our big internal events, is setting up apps before the event. So if the event is sizable enough, where there’s enough information to share, you can actually bring people into an app environment where they can share ideas, and there is more of a chat function or there is polling, or people just being able to see people’s profiles, there might not be actual contact details on there. So people wouldn’t have to give their emails or their phone numbers publicly within the app, but at least, you know, a name, a photograph, and maybe a small bio or a job title just so people can start to see who else is being engaged within that event. I’ve seen that work on webinars as well. So more on the virtual events where you can just see a sort of snapshot of the type of people who are also signed into that event. But I think the app sort of environment makes people feel a bit more just, it’s more of a trusted environment where they feel that they can share a bit more, it’s not something that’s kind of being publicised out there on the internet for everybody to look at and to watch. 

 

You touched there on internal events, as well as the other side of that is buying getting internal buy-in, especially for events in terms of getting enough of the company behind them to create that experience. Is there a blueprint that anyone can use? Or is it just about getting your colleagues in a room and speaking to them about the event and finding a way to engage them in the build-up?

No, I wouldn’t say it’s a blueprint as such, but there’s certainly specific steps you can take to make the process a bit easier. Again, I think you’ve always got to go back to what the objective is of this specific event, you’re looking to run and to host and you’ve really got to think about how that objective aligns to your business objectives and your business strategy. So you know, if you’re going to go and talk to senior colleagues or management team, you’ve really, really got to understand what the business is trying to achieve overall, and then how this event or initiative would, would drive towards that. Also, as I said earlier, you know, the focus on customer experience, driving customer loyalty is key. And I think that trend is making its way into boards and senior management team, increasingly so. So, therefore, you know, building that customer experience lens into your sort of business case is always going to be well received.

ROI is something that everybody cares about. And if they don’t, then they really shouldn’t be in business! But we’ve really got to think about “What is that return on investment going to be?” But the way you position that internally needs to be slightly different. So, it depends on who you’re talking to, and who’s in the audience. So, you might have a Chief Commercial Officer or Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Product Officer, you know, these are just some of the people who you would need to get their support and buy-in. So, a Chief Commercial Officer might be thinking really about the customer experience and driving that customer loyalty, the Chief Revenue Officer will absolutely be wondering, “Well, how much will this cost? And what’s going to come out of the other side in terms of revenue, short term and long term?” The Chief Product Officer might be thinking more about “what’s the product awareness opportunity here? And how are we going to showcase our roadmap and our overall product strategy? And how are we going to build engagement with our overall product?” So, you’ve really got to think about all those different elements. It’s not just a simple, you know, three-point kind of argument, I think you’ve got to look at it from those people’s perspectives and what they in their roles are trying to get out of any kind of event or an investment that’s, you know, sort of going to be critical to the business.

Now, I think also you’ve got to follow up not just with, you know, what’s the potential outcome or result, but also what is actually going to be needed to make it a success. So, you don’t always just think about budget, because yes, but it is important, and everybody wants to know how much something’s going to cost. But also on top of cost, you really need to think about other resources. So to make an event a success, especially a large event that I’ve referenced, you’re actually asking a lot of internal people to travel to that event, to spend a day, two, three days in a location where they, you know, that they’re dedicating their time to do a speaking slot, giving a keynote, to network with the customers, spending time away from their family, you know, all of that you really got to think about the people side of it internally, and what that the impact is going to be on the, you know, the separate teams with that the senior management team are responsible for, so really thinking about their kind of overarching “resource need” that will go into this, but also any other time commitment before the event, after the event. And really trying to give that broad perspective and that overarching strategy for the event, it is not just a one day or two days situation where it starts, you know, nine o’clock on a Monday and finishes at five o’clock on a Wednesday, a large successful event takes a year to plan. And it takes all sorts of different engagement internally, to be able to make it a success and to be able to deliver the standard that we want to for customers. So, I think there are a few key steps there. But all of them are just as critical as each other.

 

Given that huge time frame that that you’re talking about. I think you’re absolutely right to highlight the amount of building and planning that goes into the event. Oh, how flexible Do you think the business events model is? We can’t, we’re recording this beginning of June 2020 we’ve obviously to talk a little bit about lockdown and COVID-19? Do you think that there’s going to be a have to be a significant rethink of how these events work as we start to emerge then? Or do you think the model itself is pretty healthy, and people will sort of snap back to normality fairly smoothly?

I think that’s the big question everybody wants to be able to answer right now. And I’m seeing the shifts and the movements. But I have to say right now, if you’re asking, has there been a significant shift or a significant rethink? Yes, 100%. I mean, you know, we have zero in-person events going on right now. So we’ve had to be extremely flexible and pivot our entire strategy extremely quickly, I am lucky enough to have one of the best events teams I’ve ever worked with, you know, they are seriously industry-leading. So, they have been phenomenal in reskilling, shifting their focus from in-person to, to virtual. So, we’re really trying to, to make sure that the virtual experiences we’re driving now are top class. And in terms of what you know, in terms of the future, and what that might look like. So, I lead a global team, and we’re already seeing shifts in different parts of the world. So, in China, for instance, and talking to you in you know, the start of June, there are already in-person events that are being organised and that are being scheduled. And people are asking to go and attend. So we’re having to look at that compared to where we might be in, you know, where I’m based in the UK, and I know many of my colleagues in the US, we’re just not ready for, for an in-person event right now. And I think going forward, we do have to just think about this from a very human aspect, very empathetic aspect. So people come down on different sides of, you know, how they feel about the situation, safety, trust, all of those things really come to the fore.

As we look forward, we might be able to start to re-engage with in-person events. And I would love that to be the case, because I’m definitely a person who gets energy from being around people, and that socialising and the networking side of business. So I really hope we can get to that. And I do believe we will, however, it will be a phased and a staged type of approach. And I think what we’ve got to do is stay very close to our customer base and really take their opinions very seriously. Ask them questions, ask their opinions, really try and take the temperature of the groups of people that we’re trying to engage with, because that’s where we how we should be led in our decision making. So an example at the moment is we were meant to be having putting on a conference later in the year in the States. And what we’ve done is we know we have some quite loyal attendees that do tend to come every year. So we’re thinking right, well, we’ll try and do a focus group with our most loyal people because they’re the most likely to want to come in person, I would have thought, the people who really love coming to the same event. So we’re going to put focus groups together and really try and understand the sort of qualitative, how people are feeling about these things.

I think we’re all about to go into a world of surveys, I have to say that’s that is one of my predictions. We’re all being asked for our opinions, left, right and centre, whether it’s going back to the office or attending events, or any other kind of experiences that companies are trying to drive. So it really is about that customer opinion, what they really want to do, and then how it based on those that feedback, we need to make decisions, but make sure that we’re providing the value that you would expect from any of these types of experiences. So, it’s a long answer, it’s not a concise answer, a yes/no answer. But we’ll see where we are, I guess, in a few months’ or years’ time.

 

As we’re starting to do emerge, and as you said, all different bits of the world, some events are starting to come back online, I think a huge part of it is going to be the trust that customers have in your brand. How have you been able to maintain that? And how did you build it going forward do you think?

Yeah, I think trust is front and centre at the moment. And we’re really thinking about this from lots of different perspectives. I mean, as people, we want to do business with people that we trust. So human interactions, and human relationships, and customer relationships are being almost you know, disrupted at the moment, given everything that’s going on. And  finding a way to build those relationships back up, and especially a kind of trust-based relationship is so important. So, trying to bring the human aspect of your brand to the fore is, is super important. So, at the moment, you know, that could be challenging, but that could be around the speakers, or like I say, just making sure that there’s some kind of interactivity in your event experiences. So people can just get a sense of who your people are, and what they stand for, and I have to say, you know, for S&P Global Market Intelligence, our people are front and centre, we have a really strong people-first culture. So, we really do want to bring that to the fore, because our feedback time and time again, after we host events is that people are one of our key differentiators. And our customers have amazing feedback on our people. So, I think that’s first and foremost.

In terms of information and data that people can trust, that is, again, more important than ever, we are reading and consuming so much more than we ever have, I think and almost being bombarded by that. So, again, it’s being able to cut through the noise and maybe rely on certain sources, as you sort of asked me before about where what do you rely on to get that information expertise, you’ve really got to think about what your value proposition is, and how it really speaks to the this trusted, trusted offering that you have, and why customers should be really coming to you. And thinking about working with you over and above maybe any of your competitors. People again, want to feel safe. So, it’s a slightly different nuance, but safe and trust, I think are quite closely linked. So if we do start to go back to the in-person events, people do want to feel safe, they want to trust your company and the venue and, and where they’re walking into, that all the measures have been followed, that they know what they’re getting into. And you know that everything is delivered as expected. And that they go through that experience enjoying it and not having to worry. So, I do feel that kind of safety and trust, we do have a responsibility as event-hosting companies or, or venues to really provide that environment of safety. And I think people just want to make good decisions at the moment. And we’ve been talking a lot about making decisions, and how do you make decisions. And so really, that is all based on trust, whatever, you know, whichever sort of decision you’re trying to make, you have to try and trust what you’re, you know, you’re reading, who you’re talking to, the data you’re ingesting, whatever that might be. It all comes back to trust. So as we go forward, it’s so so important. And we’ve all got to make sure we have a responsibility to deliver to people’s expectations so they can trust us.

 

In so far as it is possible to be sort of thinking of the future on a slightly longer term. Do you have a quick tip for event marketers for the next three to six months?

I would say my quick tip is probably as relevant in the future as it is right now which is around agility. So just be ready, be ready to change, be ready to learn. I think as marketers and event professionals we’re all pretty agile and that’s what’s sort of built into our daily lives and our how we do our jobs generally, but we need more than ever to be ready to learn. Ready to adapt. Gotta jump on new experiences, throw ourselves into the unknown, but always thinking about what customers are needing at the end of the day.

 

Yeah, I think it absolutely is about having an open mind going forward and looking at things, rather having a concrete plan that we’re going to try and put in place to say, How can we let’s think about how we can adapt, and then we can change, change the plan going forward. At Spotler, we’re very lucky that our, our big annual customer conference happened the beginning of February, I don’t think Coronavirus would really on the public radar. I particularly remember being on there. And then so we’ve got up until February to add to the scheduled event, we haven’t decided to move it as yet. But you’re right. I’m intrigued by the possibility of a blended event where you have maybe from the audience visiting in person, and then live streaming the rest. I think there’s a lot of possibilities of how you manage that. I suppose My my concern there at the risks of not being empathetic is how do you persuade people to invest the money to cover costs to the real one if they can get the content online? Or do you go? Do you go fully? Or do you go for the online for a year and see if that gets the engagement and then move it back? I think there’s a lot of like you say, a lot of question marks? There are no quick short answers to any of this.

Yeah, we’ve been having that conversation about the sort of hybrid model of virtual and in-person. And it is very clear that to get somebody to an in-person event, especially for the foreseeable future. Only if it’s safe, of course, is absolutely what that added value is of going to the event in person versus dialling in, virtually, or being hosted online. We’ve looked at different models, where could we have the speakers together? So there’s the more natural rapport between panellists or that type of environment where we could get them into a studio to have that, but then have the audience all virtual?

We’ve also thought about, “Could we have a VIP side of things where certain customers are invited to the in-person side of things that make it extra special?” So it might be some of the sort of more entertainment side of things that I’ve been talking about, or a speaker being there that isn’t actually streamed online, but it is the big draw, it might be somebody who’s extremely in demand in the industry, or somebody who’s going to have some really exclusive kind of insight. So, we’re still looking at it, and certainly haven’t made any, any of those decisions yet. Because, again, you know, then you’ve got to weigh up, “is it right to give people different experiences based on whether they want to travel or not?” I’m sure we’ll all get there. But the industry is talking endlessly about this. And like I say, I’ve got the best events team who are absolutely keeping their finger on the pulse in all different regions around the world, and really just helping to guide our decisions day by day, at the moment, to be honest, it’s it really is sort of that short term list in terms of what we’ve got to make decisions on.

 

Absolutely. If people are trying to get involved and get them to take part in those kinds of discussions that are happening across the industry, where are the best places to get started, if you’re starting to think about how this is going to affect your events for probably for 2021 now really if we’re honest?

I think there’s sort of two areas that I’ve been talking to the events team about a lot, and they’ve really thrown themselves into different networks. There have been a lot of virtual networks setup unsurprisingly, with events professionals, I don’t have the exact names of them here. But I would say, anybody who’s looking into events, right now, we’re trying to make these decisions. There are a lot of these forums around and online. So they’re forums that are made up of events professionals, people who work at venues who are trying, you know, they’re trying to get back into hosting events within their own buildings. And so, they’re online as well trying to figure this out. So there’s sort of these forums where you’ve got different groups of people coming together who all have similar but slightly nuanced levels of expertise around events, and they can all bring their thoughts, their experiences to the table, and, and learn from each other. And I think that’s been absolutely invaluable. I would say outside of just being in these sorts of forums and talking to each other, it’s also about attending other people’s events online at the moment. So, there are some of these very large conferences that have shifted online pretty quickly. And I’ve attended a few of these where, I’m certainly not going to name any names, but some, some are extremely high quality and some sort of less so. You can learn from attending as well. I wouldn’t say you would learn from the decisions in terms of in-person from those, but you can definitely learn about providing that heightened level of customer experience from attending them yourself.

 

Okay, yeah, like you said, I won’t push you to name any names. But what’s been something that stood out for you as a really effective thing that that’s come from an event you’ve been to, or virtually been do you like?

Yeah, I think it’s thinking about that accessibility and not expecting people to sit in a room on one screen, going to an event for three days, it just doesn’t work. And people have screen fatigue, and sitting down fatigue, and listening fatigue, I think at the moment, there’s quite a lot of fatigue out there, you’ve got to somehow build the event around the different, you think about the different sections of the event that you would normally have had, and then try and recreate that environment virtually, which is tough. But what you can do is offer the opportunity for people to dip in and out of these things. So, if you were going to have a keynote session, and then breakout sessions, the keynote session could be the main draw as you enter the event. So that’s where you do attract people, and that’s getting people off to a really strong start in terms of the engagement levels, then you might have the different breakouts. And I think, now even more than ever, it’s really important to tailor that content so that you’re really drawing people into what’s interesting to them right now. So that might mean you’ve done your analysis beforehand. Again, you’ve done your research beforehand, finding out what people are really caring about what they’re thinking about what’s Top of Mind, and really tailoring those sort of breakout sessions and different kind of experiences that are online to their needs, to what they’ve said they actually, they want out of these things. So, I think when you go into these virtual platforms, as well, you want to feel like you’re in a conference or an event-type space. But you’ve got to be quite clever in how you recreate that. I think you’ve got to break it up into sections give people the chance to dip in and out as much as you can, build in interactivity and engagement. So, whether it’s, you know, consistently asking, sort of polling, really understanding how the attendees can talk to each other, if there is that functionality. And just thinking about all the different levels of experience that you would get in a normal in-person event, how do you actually recreate that virtually? And just think about those different areas? That’s where I’ve seen it done particularly well.

 

One thing I saw on BBC Radio One’s Big Weekend, they actually produced lanyards, wristbands, and access passes that you could buy, even if you even though the content was streamed online. Yeah. I mean, I’m interested to see how that works, especially in a B2B context. Is that just a gimmick or would that kind of thing actually work with your audience? Like, I can imagine our particular Spotler audience going for it quite well. But then if it would work necessarily for everyone’s events?

Yeah, I think it could. And again, you just need to think about your audience and what you could add to that event to make it a heightened level of engagement, or entertainment, or fun or whatever you’re trying to achieve. We have been researching and thinking about, you know, client gifting. So using, through online portals that if people attend a certain event, they can, they can log in to a portal, put their details in, and they get sent, you know, a special gift or, and it’s, you know, nothing too high-value and, you know, new car, anything, but the sorts of things that people would expect to get when you go to a conference is a lot of sort of branded giveaways and that type of thing, but really trying to tailor it to the current situation. So for instance, our client gifts that we’re looking at providing would be things like a wellness box, or a stay-at-home box or an entertainment box that have little games or workout gear, or a water bottle, things like that. It’s trying to be really mindful of the situation people are in and how the gift hopefully would make people feel good and feel a little bit special, but also is kind of useful and tailored and not tone-deaf. So it feels like it’s right for this time, as well.

 

That’s quite a nice loop back to where we started getting the content learning and entertainment. Right, you have to get that right from a follow-up perspective as well. Brilliant. Let’s flip the question over, for these companies that have pivoted to big events, what sort of things have you seen where you’ve gone, “Oh, no, that doesn’t that’s not working. But we could learn from it the other way”?

This isn’t maybe on a business level, but similar to the reference you made about the BBC Big Weekend, I was meant to be attending a festival. And the organisers tried to take that online. But it was a live streaming of some of the music. But they had everybody online, so everybody could see each other. And it was just basically people sat in their living room. So, it was a weird combination of kind of people listening to music, like Gogglebox, you know what I mean? Sort of sat in their kitchens or in their gardens, some people were dancing around a bit, but it was just sort of watching people in their own environment, maybe just having their own conversations, but to music, which I wouldn’t say was one of the best experiences. Whereas I could see that differently, where you could actually see the band or see the DJ, you know, and that actually works a bit better with the full setup, that’s much more engaging experience. But that’s very much from a personal level.

In terms of other pitfalls, I would say that thinking that online/virtual is an easy option is a big pitfall. I think that comes more from business stakeholders where we just think, “let’s make everything into a virtual event because it’s easy. We’ll just do it tomorrow because it’s easy.” That is not the case at all, even if you’re going virtual, you know, we’re thinking in-person events in the future, or virtual events, now, you still need an immense amount of planning time, thinking about all the different aspects that go into making an event great. And if as we all know, events are super detail-oriented, and if you don’t get every single detail, right, then it can just seem terrible, it can just bring the entire level of experience completely down if one of those details hasn’t been completely covered. So I would also say just working with, with the stakeholders to understand that virtual is, is again, not easy, because of the practice that it might take, or the technology investment that you might need to make, because to run one of these conferences that I’ve been talking about, which are the larger scale conferences, you do actually need a pretty advanced platform to be able to do that on. I wouldn’t ever underestimate the level of investment that you might need into those virtual platforms as well. Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it’s free, or it’s cheap. I think that’s one of the pitfalls that I’ve seen kind of businesses looking at as well.

And then I would say, just not thinking about customer experience, first and foremost. So, another area that, you know, I’ve seen people jump to because the virtual events are seen as, as fairly easy. It’s kind of “Oh, let’s just do this for this” and it might be something that’s very product-focused or very internal, we call it “inside-out”. So, it’s kind of “what we want to achieve as a business, let’s just do it because it’s easy, and we’ll put it on a virtual platform or whatever.” And it’s really not thinking about what the customer is actually wanting what that customer experience is. And just trying to kind of force-feed people information through virtual channels, which nobody wants. And I think, if we’re all honest, there’s so much going on virtually at the moment, there’s quite a lot of noise out there. So to stand out from the crowd, and to cut through that noise, you’ve really got to provide something that’s industry-beating, and that provides something exclusive, I think you’ve always got to think just from that customer aspect, which is “how are you going to get people to an event to a virtual event? And what is that customer experience? What is it going to give me as an attendee? Is it going to give me exclusive access to something that I’m not going to be able to get elsewhere, is it gonna provide some level of entertainment that you know, I can take away and feel good about? Or is it going to be something that helps me that trains me that gives me information that’s going to make my job easier and better? So can I make better decisions as a result of going to this as well?” So, different levels of value that I think people take away from this and if you don’t put those things front and centre, you’re sort of doomed to fail, I think.

 

I think that’s quite a nice point to wrap up on that when you go online, all the things about customer experience and value don’t actually change. And it’s still an investment. So, take your time to think about it. And that’s a good point to wrap-up on. So once again, thank you very much for being on, we’ll leave it there.

Great. Thank you so much for having me.


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