There is no need for business-to-business events to be boring affairs, with business-to-consumer events leading the way in demonstrating how to entertain potential customers, says Pete Roythorne
It’s a common misconception that business-to-business (B2B) events must be sombre, dull occasions. Those falling into this trap often fear that more creative solutions will be seen as trivialising what they offer. True, the nature of business relationships can be complex, but companies need not be drawn into believing that a dry, bland approach will keep clients, suppliers and partners happy.
Business brands need to be brought to life just as much as consumer brands, so is it time for B2B to take a leaf out of the business-to-consumer (B2C) book?
Another common misconception is that consumer events are always more exciting than business-focused events. B2C events are all about grabbing the attention of the public, so they will use gimmicks and press coverage to make them appear more interesting when they are otherwise fairly uninspiring.
Consider the Motor Show in Birmingham: several hundred cars on expensive stands are not of much interest to anyone other than prospective buyers and petrol heads. Compare this with major phone companies laying on concerts featuring world-famous pop stars for clients or staff, or IT firms hiring whole theme parks for their business meetings. These are not sombre events, but they are also unlikely to achieve wide publicity, and in doing so dispel the myth that commercial meetings are dull.
A question of trust
“Of course, there are professions where adopting a more emotional content will necessarily come second to more commercial factors. For example, in areas such as the NHS, where trust is important, accuracy will take precedence over loudness and frivolity. And in City firms things have to be said in a certain way and honesty and accuracy are the key factors,” says Emma Swales, marketing manager for stand designer Nimlok. “Ultimately, the tone of your event will be set by your industry sector.”
However, in times where it is difficult to differentiate the best product or brand, major contracts can be won through innovation. “You need to get the right balance between information and innovation,” says Saskia Diemer, consultant at brand agency Dragon. “Often the split is 90 per cent information to ten per cent innovation, so why not try reversing these? After all, if you bombard people with information at an event, they may only remember 25 per cent, but if you grab their interest and send them away feeling inspired, they will be more likely to remember you.”
Diemer adds: “Companies need to adopt a much more human approach. They must get under the skin of what makes their audience tick and understand how to talk to them.”
Colin Sneath, managing director of specialist B2B agency Native, agrees: “The rule of thumb for success as we see it is to focus on true ‘you’ appeal. This is the ultimate blend of commercial and personal reasons why a potential buyer would be better off with your product or service than your competitors. Once you know what this is, the next step is to turn their visit to your stand or event into an experience they will not forget.”
The reality is that consumer and business audiences both have the same emotional buttons – you just have to know how to press them. As Ana Bolitho, brand, marketing and communications manager at cash-handling company VOCA, says: “Effective marketing is about hitting the right audience with the right message in the right context, so the B2C/B2B divide is actually an illusion. Understanding the segmentation of your audiences is vital if marketing is to succeed.”
Making life feel better
Excitement at any event is relative; a 50-year-old lawyer and a ten-year-old child will find very different things interesting. For B2B events to be successful, they need to get personal, taking the tangible benefits of a product or service and relating them to how they can make an individual’s life better or more convenient.
Sneath says: “Using this technique on an IT consultancy, for instance, means that it is no longer simply the company from which you buy your accounts package, it becomes the company whose IT package is so easy to use that you go home at 5pm instead of 6pm.”
George P Johnson executive director Kim Myhre agrees: “A successful event has to have the audience at its heart. The focus must always be on the attendee value proposition. What’s in it for them? Why are they coming to the event? Sadly, most business-facing events tend to land somewhere in no-man’s-land, between being informative and entertaining – where the event is not really that useful and not very entertaining either. Companies need to approach each segment of their audience differently. They then need to ensure that the event gives each and every visitor-type the right ‘journey’ to deliver the most valuable experience.”
Inclusion is something Nick Porter, director of events agency Fresh, believes should be central to any event. He says: “We believe that one of the best ways to persuade an audience to buy into an idea is to create an interactive event. For instance, one of the events we did saw the company directors put in a ‘dragon’s den’ scenario, where they were quizzed by their staff about the company’s plans. Something like this makes for a truly memorable event.”
And your point is?
It’s also important to remember the time constraints your audience is under, so keeping to the point is often much more important with B2B than B2C. “We only have a limited amount of time in the working day to get our message across, so it is important to get straight to the point in business communications,” says Livewire PR managing director Richenda Wood. “Consumer-style communication is geared for an audience reading in their leisure time. Businessmen and women have a limited time to respond, so communications must be engaging, factual and succinct.”
Joel Kaufman, managing director of field marketing and brand experience agency Link Communication, agrees: “At all times, communication with business audiences should be memorable and to the point, so that it can be recalled in the fast pace and often cluttered media environment in which it is viewed. Conferences and trade shows can be heavy going, so it’s important to remember that your clients, buyers and other business contacts are human too and appreciate an injection of humour or excitement into their day.”
However, VOCA’s Bolitho sounds a word of caution: “Adopting a creative strategy is a huge advantage, and if you can enliven quality content with wit, colour and a dramatic visual, you’ll stand out. The caveat here is that it must still be consistent with your brand and its values. You must remember that business audiences are end consumers and will experience your brand as part of an integrated marketing activity.”
Ian Scott-Bell, marketing and business development manager at recruitment and managing consultancy Nigel Wright, expands: “In essence, what a brand does, whether a consumer or B2B brand, is tell the buyer what to expect from the brand product or service, whatever it is. On the way to establishing the brand you have to be consistent with the promise, every time you are communicating about the brand, and this is what fixes the expectation in the buyer’s mind. So consistency is the key to both the promise and the delivery – and this should underpin any campaign or event.”
Entertain us like you mean it
Sledge founder and executive creative director Tom Beaumont-Griffin agrees: “If attempts at entertainment are token or if they don’t fit with the brand then they will appear trivial and out of place, and could prove to be an embarrassment for the company.”
“A consumer style may not be necessary for business conferences – and should certainly only be adopted if it feels comfortable for the company – but what is important is that people put the same level of creativity and thought into their business conferences and events as they do into their consumer campaigns,” says International Confex new event director Duncan Reid. “If you’re going to take business from your competitors you need to give yourself an advantage.”
You may see it as a risk to get too creative with your B2B events, but then business is all about risk and reward. Effective marketing, especially in the case of exhibitions and events, involves taking an element of risk and then using all the expertise and creativity a company has available to convert this into business. B2B marketers have traditionally been more risk averse than their consumer equivalents, but with increasingly crowded and competitive B2B markets and ever more knowledgeable B2B “consumers”, keeping one eye on your B2C