As the trade show season begins with CES in Las Vegas, Active Network (NYSE: ACTV) will get to work with automated, integrated systems to identify prospects, invite people who have shown an interest by logging into webinars, register attendees at their hotels to reduce lines at convention centers, track their attendance at seminars, record interactions with vendors and followup after with calls, email, social media and webinars.
Even in the internet age, events are big, and important, business. The Aberdeen Group finds that 9 percent of an organization’s total budget is spent on events and that figure is expected to climb 20 percent over the next two years.
“The original evolution of the event was a point in time,” said JR Sherman, senior vice president of business solutions at Active. People showed up, had a great time, maybe the organizers did a survey and then it was “See you in 365 days.”
The next step was to engage with prospects and customers before the event and maintain contact after. Leading firms have learned to integrate social tools, mobile, and virtual content before the event and to stay in touch longer after the event
“That is where a lot of organizations have gotten to now. The next step, where we are unique, is to have the event itself no longer be the center of the universe. Instead, the participant is the center and the participant will drive the balance of virtual vs. physical engagement.”
Active has worked with Cisco for several years and helped launch Cisco 365, an online community aimed to understand participants to better personalize their experience at Cisco Live or one of the smaller regional events.
“If the content is driven by participants, it can lead to more aggressive participation,” said Sherman.
It seems a little paradoxical that Cisco, which promotes high end teleconferencing to reduce business travel, should be a leader with Active in something as arcane as physical conferences. Sherman said Cisco is a leader in both virtual and physical events, always ready to apply new technology to conferences.
Virtual conferences have driven higher participation at events
A few years ago when virtual events launched with a big splash, event planners thought their jobs were in danger, he added.
“Almost the opposite happened. Virtual participating through teleconferencing, Web casts and Skype drove deeper engagement and more participation in physical events. It is hard to replace the value of a handshake.”
After Salesforce teamed up with Facebook to offer content from its Dreamforce conference, the company found that many who had logged in to watch showed up in person for the event the following year.
Sherman said that around the time of the financial crisis events were falling out of favor, partly because firms didn’t know how to measure their return. In fact, most didn’t even know how to measure their spend. Active Network has made a number of acquisitions, most recently StarCite last January, to form a Business Solutions group that links to hotels, convention centers and suppliers as part of a comprehensive event management tool.
One of the reasons that events got cut was that firms couldn’t aggregate their spending and drive efficiency with their vendors. Marketing would run a conference, procurement would handle the suppliers, but they didn’t necessarily coordinate well. That can be costly.
Software leads to significant savings
The 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) runs more than 200 annual events, including 4,000-person conventions. It was tracking meeting RSVPs in Excel spreadsheets. With Active Network’s StarCite’s Strategic Meeting Management solution, the union was able to identify savings opportunities, source venues more efficiently, and reduce event costs by 48 percent in 2011.
As Aberdeen put it: “Organizations must focus on a full cycle of processes within what is now considered an engagement, and with this evolutionary notion comes a vast array of phases, including social media outreach, increased marketing and promotional activity, deep-dive analytics and consistent messaging to attendees.”
This is such a fast-moving field — even the leaders are just beginning to explore all the uses of mobile and social media — that the vocabulary struggles to keep up with developments. While Active refers to its business as Strategic Meeting Management (SMM), The Aberdeen Group says organizations should move from thinking about managing meetings to “engagement management” and talks about measures of success such as emotional ROI.
Still Aberdeen’s report says that good SMM leads to 48 percent higher compliance with internal meeting management policies, a 44 percent higher rate of meetings under management, and 30 percent high frequency of events on or under budget.
Nestlé in the U.S. has expanded from managing 150 meetings with Active Network to more than 500 meetings a year and has seen savings year-on-year. The meetings management team provides detailed meeting analytics on spend, savings and forecasting to their key stakeholders on a regular basis.
“With the centralized portal and data collection, we’re able to see our event spend as a category versus having to track it throughout various expense reports,” said Nancy Teresa, procurement manager for travel and event planning at Nestle.
Integrating event software with ERP and CRM
Aberdeen focuses on budgets and control issues, such as integration of SMM with a company’s CRM system and travel and expense management, plus the ability to analyze the attendees and the ROI after an event. The best in class organizations are significantly better, often twice as good, at project management, registration and tracking, internal approval of meeting, marketing and formalized processes for payment of meeting related expenses.
“Best-in-Class organizations (40 percent more likely than all others) are actively instituting centralized budget management for meetings and events. This factor allows them to understand where planned meetings sit against both an overall events budget and the corporate budget.”
Organizations have a lot more focus on total spend for meetings and events, said Sherman, as CFOs look for much better information and firms look to drive efficiency in marketing.
The rapid evolution in SMM shows up in areas such as analytics and reporting, which Aberdeen says are in place in 46 percent more Best-in-Class organizations. It is often the weakest link in strategic meetings and events management, said the consultancy.
“Only two years ago, this program attribute was a low-level priority.”
In the SMM category Aberdeen calls Next Generation, the gaps between best practices and all others can be huge: 70/24 for post-event analysis, 64/33 for centralized database for contacts, suppliers and content, 60/14 for persistent engagement with audiences, 50/22 for ongoing collection of intelligence on attendees, events, and suppliers and 30/10 for consistent use of mobile apps and portals.