The struggling economy may have put a damper on the number of live events taking place in the last few years, but marketers that are considering deleting in-person shows from their event portfolio might want to think twice before switching to the virtual event space entirely. Despite the growing popularity of the digital event space, face-to-face still has value, as it provides marketers with a unique way to reach customers, business partners and clients.
A white paper released last September, “The Future of Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face,” found three reasons live events continue to be an essential part of the marketing mix: in-person events are better-suited for capturing attendees' attention, inspiring positive emotions and building networks and relationships.
The paper was based on a study conducted jointly between Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, and Maritz, a sales and marketing services company that specializes in travel and research. The authors perused social psychology and neuroscience papers, then amalgamated data found there to try to discern trends detailing the benefits of face-to-face interactions.
According to Mary Beth McEuen, VP-executive director of the Maritz Institute, a network of thought leaders, and one of the authors of the paper, capturing the attention of visitors is a main benefit of in-person events. “If you're sitting in a virtual environment, you filter things out,” she said. “It's very common to multitask in a virtual conference. In that case you engage a different part of your brain, and information doesn't make it into long-term memory.”
Engaging memory has big implications, McEuen said, when it comes to in-person meetings. The total experience of live shows—from keynote speeches, to meals, to networking during breaks—creates novelty. And that stimulation allows people to think differently, making their minds more open to taking in and retaining new knowledge, she said.
The second reason live events have more impact then virtual ones, according to the study, is that a whole event—that is not one that is simply a few hours on a computer, but several days of networking and being around other people—creates a positive emotional experience. “A key area we studied was emotional cognition,” McEuen said. “As humans, we pass our emotional state to the people around us. Our emotions are quite contagious.”
As people pass positive feelings around a meeting they begin to attach those feelings to the company sponsoring the meeting and the people that make up that company, she said. Additionally, emotions play a huge role in how we learn and our curiosity. “Face-to-face makes you more open in general to new thinking, new relationships and new ways of doing things,” McEuen said.
Finally, the research revealed that networks and relationships were easier to build and ultimately stronger when forged in person. “People that go to the same meeting year after year look forward to seeing colleagues they only see at that meeting. So those relationships keep being strengthened year after year,” McEuen said. “Relationships are built during coffee breaks. Business cards are exchanged, trust is being build and that trust is more effective face-to-face.”
The researchers found that information exchanged at a live meeting turned out to be more valuable than information exchanged virtually. “The quality of relationships is really important and they are facilitated much more effectively face-to-face,” McEuen said.
Victor Torregroza, event marketing manager at Intel Corp., a maker of computer processors, said the quality of communication and sharing is why his company will continue to invest in face-to-face meetings. “The impact of people coming together for a common cause is extremely powerful. The quality is much more everlasting and impactful.”
In fact, Torregroza unknowingly echoed many of the white paper's examples of the impact of face-to-face by describing an event he recently attended: “I just returned from a sales and marketing conference earlier this year,” he said. “I'm still reeling in positive emotions, connections, memories and the business call to action from that gathering. It was amazing.”
And though Torregroza said he's seen a reduction in face-to-face meetings over the last few years, he said he believes that in-person events are essential for the marketing industry and will eventually make a comeback as a result. “I believe face-to-face marketing will actually come roaring back and improve with new innovations and considerations of the people attending,” he said. “They will be easier to attend and leave a more powerful impression in the end.”
Chris Gaia, senior VP-marketing at Maritz Travel, the meetings, events and incentive travel arm of Maritz, said that for marketers to take full advantage of the benefits of in-person events, they need to start measuring ROI in new ways. “The industry in general needs to do a better job of beginning to take measurements beyond the standard attendee satisfaction scores,” he said. “Marketers need to ask how the event relates to behavior change—what are the specific goals that they are going measure on a pre- and post-event basis—and then figure out how they are going to create value.”
Beyond that, marketers must remember that the full impact of face-to-face events isn't necessarily created in a single meeting. “We have to think about the regular rhythm of bringing people together because these benefits are all built over time,” McEuen said. “Think of it as building the social fabric. Businesses are social structures. If you stop holding a meeting, over time you will erode the social fabric.”