Events powerful, even in digital age

Look over the pages of the business press for the first weeks of 2007, and it's hard to escape the fact that, so far, the top stories of the year have one thing in common: events - and, in particular, their power as a marketing and communications medium.

Look over the pages of the business press for the first weeks of 2007, and it's hard to escape the fact that, so far, the top stories of the year have one thing in common: events - and, in particular, their power as a marketing and communications medium.

That power can be negative, as in coverage of Bob Nardelli's departure from The Home Depot. From The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, many articles cited one event as a nail in the now former CEO's coffin: the 2006 stockholders' meeting with "enormous digital clocks" that further alienated key constituents and a mysteriously missing board.

But the power of events can also be extraordinarily positive. Consider the top three business stories of the first full week of January - Microsoft's Vista launch, GM's awards, and Apple's new iPhone - and note that all occurred at high-profile industry events (Consumer Electronics Show (CES), North American International Auto Show, and Apple's Macworld).

It's a fascinating paradox. Although our world is increasingly digital, the best-known executives still choose events to build buzz. Events can be the pivotal centerpiece to telling a story about a product or brand in a way that creates broad media awareness and inspires people to become word-of-mouth advocates.

Face-to-face marketing, the most "analogue" medium, is perfectly suited to the digital age. News of the "death of the trade show" now appears to have been greatly exaggerated. Many of the key conferences have, in fact, grown. CES claims 150,000 attendees; it's now the world's biggest tech show.

The resulting critical mass of media attention, as witnessed by the almost 7,000 credentialed press at the Auto Show in Detroit, is invaluable, notably in GM's case, with its strong, upbeat message and positive reception, which saw careful management and high production value in product presentations and VIP and press events.

Events also deliver on two of the most sought-after qualities in marketing: the ability to reach the right audience while they are in the right frame of mind - ready, willing, and interested; and the ability to deliver and track measurable results. Again, it's an interesting paradox that these two qualities are prominent at both ends of the digital-analogue extremes, online and experiential marketing.

Interestingly, best practices for standing out online and on the show floor are also parallel:

Make it easy. Industry events can be a brutal sensory overload, and, therefore, brands should respect attendees' patience through user-friendly clarity of presentation, information, navigation, and overall brand experience.

Engage me on a human level. Staff acting as "brand ambassadors" in a booth must welcome and steer attendees - providing the offline equivalent of online's split-second clarity of navigation.

Live and learn. Tracking and delivering ROI is easier when you are obsessive about data capture, a common practice of the most effective exhibitors.

With so much coverage of events in the business press, why the relative absence in the top marketing and communications trade publications, particularly given the fact that applying events in the most impactful way requires smart integration and synchrony with PR, online, and traditional marketing? Based on what our clients are reading about in the business press - and what they're actually doing - it's time to shift our focus.

Josh McCall is CEO of Jack Morton Worldwide.

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