Best of 2011: Mary Ann Pierce on Using New Tools to Engage and Drive Business Goals

By Mary Ann Pierce December 5, 2011, 8:45 AM EST

Illustration: Hal Lee for BizBash

Corporate event marketing, like publishing and television, has experienced a digital communications paradigm shift from a brand-centric focus to a consumer-centric focus. As the iPod slew the music industry Goliaths, now smartphones, tablets, ubiquitous 4G, Wi-Fi networks, and social media have challenged business-to-business event marketers to rethink the traditional formula of content delivery. Instead of having a speaker deliver one message to the audience, event marketers must foster a forum for engagement with all participants.

There are countless blogs, tweets, and articles touting “Seven Steps to Social Media Bliss” or the like, but the information provided is usually tactical. For example: “Put up a screen of Twitter comments next to the speaker.” But is that engaging or distracting? How does the corporate event manager develop attendee-centric, engaging events that are compliant, manageable, measurable, and within a budget dedicated to logistical management? Frankly, it is nearly impossible without securing participation and funding from the marketing and sales departments. They are responsible for achieving strategic goals, which is where success is measured.

Scaling the silos that usually separate event management from sales and marketing can be daunting. However, I have discovered that the catalyst of change is an aha moment of strategic value.

My aha moment was at an investment banking technology conference. We built the wired and wireless networks, programmed the software that registers attendees, broadcasted content live online, and captured usage data. It was a robust digital event, but it was not engaging. Our client’s focus was the on-site one-on-one meetings, which generate revenue. There was little interest in the data we provided.

At that conference, however, we also introduced a digital conference book with dynamic Bloomberg feeds and a simple “Ask a Question” feature. It saved printing, shipping, and handling costs. Attendees could ping presenters and the bank’s representatives. When we reviewed the questions, we were startled to see the strategic information and insights the attendees shared. This got the attention of the sales department, and they secured the means to extend the face-to-face interaction into a constant conversation afforded by the digital conference book for every investor conference.

We were encouraged to dig deeper into the data to show trending presentations in real time. We also discovered that 10 percent of the on-site attendees accessed the live Webcasts. There were twice as many wireless IP requests as on-site attendees, indicating that attendees were using multiple devices. They were engaging digitally around us. As a result, in the future we will create a secure, permission-based conference network—a private LinkedIn. Community building will be managed by the marketing department, and we expect it to become a profit center. Content will be optimized to be searched, and attendees will curate it for their own needs.

Building an engaging event requires participation from everyone: attendees who require access to relevant information and each other, with the ability to shape their experience on site and via the Web; sales and marketing people to respond to a constant stream of strategic insight; and event managers who will pull it all together. Engagement leads to strategic insight, which leads to greater measurable success.

Mary Ann Pierce is president of New York-based MAP Digital: MetaMeetings, an event marketing agency with its own event management platform. @maryannpierce

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