What we learned from hosting our virtual customer event, Ascend B2B
It’s no secret that in-person events have been hit hard by the pandemic. Scrambling to make decisions about their events, marketers and event planners have three options: postpone, cancel or brave the storm and move the event online.
Our world is a bit different now, yes. But we didn’t want anything to stop us from bringing the Episerver community together. So we opted for the third option and hosted a virtual edition of Ascend B2B.
Though we missed shaking our customers’ hands, drinking too much coffee and tearing up the dance floor at the after party, gathering online was the next best thing.
On August 25 and 26, we traded airports for laptops and smart phones to host the event. Over the course of two days, about 800 Episerver customers, partners, employees and other industry leaders joined us for two days dedicated to learning about commerce, content, intelligence and digital experiences.
We’re grateful to the 52 speakers who shared their perspectives, 15 partner sponsors who made Ascend B2B possible, and each and every participant who added something special to the high energy felt throughout the conference. Attendees enjoyed more than 20 hours of relevant, actionable content, virtual networking opportunities and exhibit hall exploration.
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After hearing from our speakers and attendees, we recognized a few common themes that B2B practitioners can take with them beyond Ascend B2B and back to their organizations.
Digital is mandated, there’s no going back
The pandemic tossed budgets out the proverbial window. Companies quickly pivoted to invest heavily in technologies and build out seamless digital experiences for their customers. If the necessity of building out virtual experience in place of in-person events tells us anything, it’s that digital is mandated.
In the Great Brand and Marketing Pivot Panel, Karmen Willhelm, VP of Marketing at Van Meter said, “Digital is here to stay. We won’t go back.”
Even as brick-and-mortar facilities start opening back up, digital will remain a high preference for customers across B2B industries. Digital is the new way of life. It’s one of the sole communication methods that companies now have with their customers. Your digital experience has now largely replaced your storefront, and it’s the first way your customer connects with your brand.
In B2B, the pandemic has accelerated investments in digital and has changed the buying and selling journey, perhaps permanently. Digital plays a huge role in how companies are going to plan for the future.
As Alex Atzberger, CEO at Episerver said in his day two closing remarks, “The digital genie is not going to be put back into the bottle.”
From a global pandemic to civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, 2020 has been hard on everyone, both in business and in our personal lives. Our conference theme, Onward Together was birthed for this very reason. The way to move forward is together. It’s all about showing empathy. We have to listen and understand our customers’ greatest challenges. Then, we need to work to be part of the solution.
In his keynote presentation, Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing said, “Your job is not to know your customer, it’s to know your customers’ problems.”
The best way to know your customers’ problems is to listen. Don’t just listen to respond, listen to understand. Of course, listening to your customers is one part of this. You can do that through 1:1 interviews, voice of customer surveys and feedback loops. But you also need the right technology and tools to better understand your customers’ preferences and behaviors. It’s no longer just about building out an online presence, it’s really about having the intelligence embedded in your solution to enable you to better understand your customers.
This isn’t just the job of your customer success managers, either. Every person in your organization has a responsibility to the customer. Every person in your organization is capable of displaying empathy.
Though showing empathy starts with this internal mindset, it often falls on marketers’ shoulders to display empathy through messaging. Marketers quickly shifted their playbooks and their messaging during the pandemic.
My colleague, Kate Murphy refers to it as Empathy 2.0. Marketers are doing their best to mimic human experiences across digital channels to fill the physical void and customers are starting to expect it. Companies need to be able to read their customers’ digital body language in real time. Today and well into the future, your messaging needs to be authentic and empathetic to every human behind the interaction.
Episerver’s Deane Barker left us with this nugget about empathy in his session, The Power of Tribal Content Marketing:
“Empathy is the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings. It’s different than sympathy. Sympathy is just, ‘I feel badly for you’ while empathy is about deeply understanding your feelings and understanding the situation you are in.”
When your content is empathic, you create a tribe around an identity, you resonate with customers and you most likely, earn more customers.
B2B companies need innovative, resilient leaders
At the risk of sounding obvious, now is the time to lead. Now is the time to instill hope in your team and celebrate resilience in the face of uncertainty.
Executives already have essential responsibilities for their team and their organization. Add a global pandemic to that, and leaders’ jobs become even more challenging.
In a panel with three executives from distribution companies, each panelist discussed the notion of people and change, and how important it is to bring your sales organization, your internal projects teams, and others along any transformational initiative. It’s not just about technology or processes, it’s also about the people.
Through change and disruption, you need the right mindset and buy-in from your entire organization. It’s often leadership’s responsibility to build the right mindset. You have to seize the moment and you have to dig deep to find the will to make changes.
Now is a better moment than ever to lean into change and examine your business. How can you come out of 2020 stronger than ever? How can you make internal adjustments to better serve your customers?
Leadership doesn’t always require long, complicated business strategies, or even an executive-level title. Leadership is about being able to understand the future and the big picture and knowing that you can affect change with what you bring to the world. You don’t need the title to be a leader. You can lead by example.
Hosting a virtual event of your own?
If you’re playing the physical to digital game, our Chief Marketing Officer, Kirsten Allegri Williams has some recommendations to get digital-marketing events just right. Plus, our Ascend B2B planning committee compiled a short list of our top lessons learned. From our committee to yours, good luck on your event.
- Improvise, adapt, overcome.
- You won’t be able replicate an in-person event, but there are tons of ways to engage your customers and prospects digitally.
- If you’re using a third-party platform, understand the full scope of what the capabilities are. You’d be surprised to find some hidden functionality available in most virtual event platforms that you might not think about right away. Ask your vendors about what’s possible! Chances are there’s a way to pull it off.
- Find ways to encourage virtual networking. Unfortunately in a digital environment, it doesn’t happen as organically as in-person. Come up with conversation starters and inform people about what’s coming up in the agenda.
- Pre-recording is a lifesaver! Always say yes to pre-recording sessions and content. Think of this like broadcast television. You record all the great stuff in advance, then you broadcast it on live day. Recording content in advance takes away the stress of unpredicted technology issues.
- Set expectations with your larger organization about how this will be different than an in-person event and how it will be similar.
- Clearly define roles for your event committee. Decide who is responsible for creating the agenda, working with outside vendors, organizing sponsorships, promoting the event, and more. There may be hiccups along the way, but working together as a team will get you through them!
- Ensure your entire event experience is ready to go at least 2 weeks in advance for testing and optimizing the experience. We’ll admit, some things came down to the wire for us!
- Set weekly goals for registration and report on numbers consistently and transparently, reporting is key.
- Don't be afraid to try new technology, just make sure you test everything!
- Digital is always on.
- Scheduled breaks during a virtual event are not necessary - use the gaps to promote on demand content.
- Networking is critical - people want to connect now even more. Make sure your virtual event platform has solid networking tools built-in.
The pandemic will go down in history as a watershed moment. We are humbled to stand beside our customers and partners as they embrace a bold new digital reality. What’s the next big thing for Episerver now that Ascend B2B has come and gone?
On the heels of Ascend B2B, we are proud to announce some major continued momentum. We’re bringing the B2B Commerce Cloud by Insite product to the U.K. and yesterday we officially announced that we have entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Optimizely, the leader in experimentation and optimization.
If you missed any sessions or want to go back and review content, we’re now streaming the content so you can access it anytime, anywhere. Thank you to everyone who joined us for Ascend B2B and helped to make this one-of-a-kind virtual event a success. Until next time!