What’s the killer app in B2B marketing? Face-to-face events

I was teaching B2B digital marketing recently, and found some of my students to be dismayed by one data point that came up again and again in the course: of all tactics in the B2B marketing toolkit, the most valued, the most used, and the most effective is face-to-face events. It’s not digital, except tangentially. But, year after year, events like conferences and trade shows consistently show up at the top of the list.  Why is this the case, and what does that mean for us marketers?

Interestingly, my savvier students got it immediately. They intuitively understood the power of face to face in B2B marketing.  “Business buying is done through relationships,” said one. Bingo.

It’s all about personal connections. Business buyers buy from people they know and trust. Business buying is based on people as much as it is on specifications and product requirements. Even when we are buying on behalf of our companies, we are social animals, and we want to look the seller in the eye before signing a big contract.

We need a conversation. Events are very efficient at conversations. Hundreds of qualified prospects have flown in, to talk with you, under one roof, in an intensely productive series of days.

Some people argue that business events are dead, or dying. Trade shows certainly suffered after 9/11, and the comeback has been slow. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, “Reports of my death are exaggerated.”  This is still a $12.2 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

As an element of the B2B marketing toolkit, business events are actually thriving, even in a digital era. Let’s look at some numbers.

  • Year after year, events and trade shows clock in as the single largest line item in B2B budgets. 20% on average, according to Forrester.  I’ve seen companies that devote as much as 60% of their spend to face to face.
  • Events are also at the top of the heap based on lead generation effectiveness. A 2015 study showed events way ahead of other media channels—online or offline—at 84%. Events ranked higher than even the company website, at 81%.
  • Even in content marketing, where digital and social are the darlings, events are named the most effective content tactic in this year’s study from Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. It was the same for the last two studies, too.

Three ways to improve your event marketing results

Okay, so you are convinced. But how do you get the most value from business events? I have three ideas for where some extra focus can drive vast improvements in the productivity of your event marketing spend.

  1. Put the event to its best use—meaning a place to have efficient and productive interactions. Know why you are there. Select metrics consistent with your objectives, and put them in writing, so you can’t cheat. And don’t forget: If your objective is to have lots of conversations with prospects—which for most people it is—encourage your teammates to make appointments in advance.  This extremely effective technique is often overlooked.
  2. In face to face, your teammates are the medium at the event. And the message. So make sure your people are trained up on how to engage—and disengage. These are not sales conversations. But they can be learned. A bit of pre-event training can dramatically improve your productivity at the event.
  3. Put the event in its larger context. Post-event is where the real revenue-driving activity happens. So make sure you focus on how you will capture contact information, and make a record of what happened during the conversation, and what your team should do to follow up. If you don’t have a solid lead management process in your company, don’t spend a penny on events.

About the author

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, teaches marketing at business schools in the U.S. and abroad, and is a guest blogger at Biznology and Target Marketing Magazine, and a contributing writer at AdAge.  Crain’s BtoB magazine named Ruth one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing.  Her newest book is B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results.  Ruth has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM and holds an MBA from Columbia University.  Learn more...