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Can conference programming be as smart as Netflix? It’s already happening

October
2021

This article was originally featured on The Drum.

Live? Virtual? Hybrid? So many questions about events. It’s safe to say that the conference industry has seen its share of challenges during the past 20 months. That’s why organizers must adopt a Netflix-like approach, writes Maura Rivera, chief marketer at Qualified.com. They need to think of content not as live events they sell tickets for, but as on-demand, must-watch sessions that are available for years to come. Here’s how they can succeed amid this shifting moment in time.

The $15bn conference industry was decimated over the last 20 months. Brands were forced to chart a new course with virtual events, but all too often they’ve been half-hearted, hastily-planned online versions that lack the magic of an in-person experience. On top of that, companies struggle to extend their content and make it discoverable and useful past the day of the event. As a result, executives, marketers and technologists too often have spent 20-plus minutes searching online for a video of a keynote speech only to give up and move on to something else. That wasteful scenario shouldn’t happen in this day and age.

Industry conferences need to adopt a Netflix-like approach and think of content not as live events they sell tickets for, but as on-demand, must-watch sessions that are available for years to come. This subject is near and dear to my heart, especially as I think about Salesforce’s flagship conference, Dreamforce, which happened last week before a big online crowd and an invite-only audience in person. I was on the original Salesforce Live Team from 2012-2015. My boss at the time, Bryan Ebzery, who is still there as creative director, had a vision of bringing Salesforce events and other digital content to screens around the world. We started with Dreamforce, live broadcasting the major keynotes, and it was scary because so much could go wrong. It was a new adventure with significant technical pressure. We then took the same approach around the globe, streaming live keynotes from London, Tokyo, New York City and other cities. We were developing an online broadcasting system for viewers who couldn’t make it in person.

Fast-forward to fall 2021, and you are seeing the next steps in making conferences accessible no matter where someone lives – and also easy to find, potentially in perpetuity. Last month, my old employer announced Salesforce+, a new streaming service designed after the likes of B2C platforms such as Disney+, Hulu and Peloton have perfected the on-demand viewing experience. Dreamforce for the first time will be a digital-first event streamed via Salesforce+, save for a few hundred folks who will attend in person. And this month, Advertising Week New York (AWNewYork) will kick off and also be on demand for premium ticket buyers for up to one year later. On the other hand, The Web Summit, a large technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, plans to have 40,000 attendees in-person in early November and will not be available online or on demand. That’s a major missed opportunity.

What all event marketers and programmers need to realize is that Netflix didn’t just change our behaviors for viewing entertainment, it’s changed the expectations for how we consume all content – even when it’s B2B. The marketers behind Dreamforce and AWNewYork get it; they know that content needs to be online, needs to be on demand and needs to be available for many months or years ahead. Conferences are going through their ‘Netflixization’, and everyone in the events business should follow suit because behavior has changed.

The new attraction: original content

Marketers and programmers for industry conferences should think beyond their flagship events and start offering original content that subscribers will want on a regular basis. Salesforce’s marketers are leaning into original content and it’s not hard to understand why: their award-winning show Leading Through Change, which debuted in March 2020, has been viewed 700m times. With numbers like that, sooner or later many more B2B companies will start streaming not only live events but other relevant content on demand.

The streaming opportunity can not only drive sales among subscribers, but it can also build customer loyalty. If one of your key software providers is also helping you up-skill at your job via a free or reasonably-priced content subscription, it’d be hard not to become a fan who evangelizes what you are getting from that brand’s overall experience.

Up next: Recommended For You

According to a LinkedIn study, 45% of conferences in the UK are planning to be online-only going forward. While activities such as trading contact information at shows, shaking hands, fancy executive dinners, doing product demos and grabbing a beverage will still have their place in the conference world, the industry has to accept that the future is increasingly digital.

Conferences will not only be on demand as a customer expectation, but the next predictable step will be for them to be personalized according to subscribers’ shown preferences. Just like Netflix makes smart movie and TV show recommendations based on our past viewing behaviors, conferences will also more and more offer curated content for each individual.

After conferences get better at using subscriber data to improve the customer experience (CX), a ‘Recommended For You’ section will be seen on B2B content websites and apps. Indeed, a Netflix-like algorithm is coming to your most important trade shows in the next few years.

A subscription-based model: the ‘Netflixization’ of events is upon us

I remember a decade-and-a-half ago when Netflix began offering streaming as a more convenient distribution channel compared to its mail-order service. It seemed like only tech-savvy people used the digital option in the early years, but now everyone and their neighbor is binge-watching their favorite shows via the cloud.

When I was helping launch Salesforce’s livestream initiatives in 2012, I thought of it as a high-wire, pioneering broadcast for Dreamforce – the Netflixization of conferences wasn’t on my radar. But here we are, with the world changed forever due to the pandemic, and conference marketers and programmers have an amazing opportunity if they design a sophisticated channel for today’s on-demand world.

Maura Rivera is the chief marketing officer at Qualified.com.

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