Will there be a virtual open bar? Addressing the challenge of B2B financial services events during social isolation

Thousands of people flying in from all over the country. Hotels filled to capacity. People packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an enclosed room. Handshakes and exchanges of business cards. Buffet dinners.

Almost everything about conferences seems foreign in our current reality. Indeed, most fall conferences have already announced that they will not take place in-person. Some have been postponed, some cancelled, many turned virtual. In a few cases, such as some recent investor conferences and a Forrester conference, the switch to remote has been seen as a success. In most cases, however, the decision to waive registration fees betrays a lack of confidence on the part of both sponsors and attendees about a virtual event’s ability to deliver value. But, you say, registrations and log-ins have increased as no travel expenses, no missed work and no registration fee lowered the decision bar almost to the floor. The problem: Any quantitative improvement likely masks a significant qualitative drop in engagement.

If we take a step back and think realistically about how conferences provide value, the situation becomes clear: Conferences create an opportunity for sponsors to get concentrated exposure to and interactions with their prospects; attendees get a break from their daily routine with the valid justification of an immersive opportunity to learn from experts and peers. Move the conference to the web and all those things disappear. Indeed, a virtualized conference in the form of a series of presentations becomes almost indistinguishable from a thematically-connected series of webinars.

As the threat of COVID stretches into the foreseeable future, it’s incumbent on all parties involved—the conference organizers, the sponsors and the prospective attendees—to think creatively about how to fashion virtual events into something that takes advantage of the positives and mitigates the negatives. Nothing about greater registration volume and potentially greater expert participation for a virtual event inherently leads to lower attendee engagement and fewer sales prospect interactions. In fact, it’s potentially quite the opposite. The first step down a path of creating valuable virtual events is to identify and isolate the key components of live events that people find valuable:

  • For sponsors: The value comes from getting their name and capabilities in front of their target audience and being able to engage with them directly to generate sales opportunities.
  • For attendees: The value comes from the opportunity to learn from industry experts and their peers, as well as the potential to find solutions to their business challenges.

Having identified these elements of value, the question then becomes: How can we create this value virtually, irrespective of the way it was generated in live events? The answers should produce a framework that would be more productive than putting two days’ worth of presentation sessions on the internet and offering virtual networking lounges that will never be used. Here are some of our ideas.

Generate marketing and sales value for sponsors:

  • Sponsored structured virtual chats and roundtables that create opportunities for peers to discuss topics of high relevance and interest to them, moderated by sponsor representatives
  • Sponsored virtual group icebreaker activities to help forge connections between peers from similar businesses and/or geographies
  • Tinder-style (“swipe right”, “swipe left”) sponsor pitches for 1:1 meetings to enable attendees to choose the sponsors with whom they want to interact, thus ensuring higher-quality conversations

Generate learning value for attendees:

  • A greater number of shorter sessions, spread over more days, because nobody will sit through multiple 45-minute online presentations
  • Asynchronous Q&A spanning the entire duration of the conference so that attendees have an opportunity to reflect on content, discuss it with teammates, and then pose questions
  • Multiple instances of live sessions to increase the options for attendees to join (thereby also increasing exposure for sponsors and presenters)
  • Small, structured breakouts to create substantive opportunities for attendees to learn from each other

We believe that these ideas serve as a good starting point and also enable a wide variety of iterations, depending on the specific sponsors and attendees and topics. They represent a sincere effort to do more than bide time until the business world “returns to normal” because at this point, it’s doubtful that anyone can accurately predict when that will really occur.

“…after they’ve seen Paree”: The challenge for financial marketers post-pandemic

There was a popular song at the end of World War I, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” about how soldiers returning to rural America might be restless after having seen the wonders of Paris (“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree [Paris]”). We believe financial marketers should be feeling a similar anxiety about their customers today, who during the new reality of our social isolation have experienced very different ways of interacting with their financial vendors.

There’s absolutely no question that none of us want to continue living the way we have since mid-March, but customers’ experiences with new ways of conducting business are changing their expectations and needs with respect to financial services companies. Certainly, some of these experiences have been far from positive, but the forced disruption of the status quo has opened people’s eyes to new possibilities and has elevated new and different attributes to important and valuable parts of their financial services relationships. For example:

  • Financial advisors and brokers may not welcome as many wholesalers into their offices after finding that virtual conversations work just fine.
  • Small businesses may set a higher bar for their banks to provide digital support and services after going through the pain of PPP.
  • Middle market companies may not welcome one-on-one conversations with prospective commercial lenders.
  • Consumers may place even more importance on the availability and quality of phone and online customer support — enough to overcome their normal bank-switching inertia.

EMI is currently conducting research, in partnership with The Gramercy Institute, among asset management firm marketing leaders to understand how they are providing support to socially-distanced sales teams. This research has revealed many different approaches (which we’ll share in future blog posts), but a common thread is that these marketing leaders believe that many of the adaptations forced by social isolation are likely to drive greater alignment between marketing and sales. Whether or not rose-colored glasses are playing a part in these assessments, this positive outlook indicates that at least some of the new approaches will carry on even when our world begins to open up.

On the one hand, it’s a good sign that firms may be more inclined to challenge assumptions and “standard operating procedures” in favor of new ideas that could better serve client needs. On the other hand, there is danger in greenlighting even well-intentioned new ideas if they aren’t subject to any more validation of their effectiveness than the old ways of doing things. It is therefore vitally important that financial marketers treat our current reality as a testing opportunity, not just an exercise in making the best of a bad situation. The key to this testing mindset will be analyzing data for answers to questions like:

  • Has the volume of sales opportunities gone up or down?
  • Have salespeople had more or fewer direct interactions with customers and prospects?
  • Has the quantity of inbound inquiries increased or decreased?
  • Have customers and prospects interacted more or less with digital communications?

Many or even most of the new virtual and digital approaches have the virtue of being cheaper than their pre-pandemic equivalents. That is why it is so important for financial marketers to not only “feel” that a new approach has been a success, but also quantify the increases or decreases in sales performance and customer satisfaction. Failing to do this runs the risk of marketers waking up in a world of lower budgets (“you proved that you don’t need to do as many expensive things”) and even more unobtainable objectives. In short, unless marketers can provide an alternative narrative, senior management may easily assume that marketing really can do more with less — and make budget allocation decisions that are disastrous for financial marketers and their companies.

You Complete Me: How Marketing Can Boost Change Management Outcomes

In previous blogs, we highlighted six questions common to successful marketing and change management initiatives and common communication requirements across the five stages of audience journeys in adopting change. Now we want to go into the tactical implications of those communication requirements for change management.

There is a trope in love stories and RomComs of one character professing love for another through the words “you complete me.” Like many clichés, it has currency because it’s grounded in an experienced truth: In successful relationships, each partner possesses attributes that shore up weaknesses in the other so that together they are both stronger. That’s how it is with marketing and change management.

As we discussed previously, the similarity of the audience journey in the ADKAR framework to the customer decision-making journey is in the key communication considerations within each framework. Based on this foundation, marketing can help “complete” change management by offering communication best practices and ideas for each stage.

AWARENESS. Communications must highlight the need, bringing to light the pain that needs to be addressed. To be compelling, communication of that pain must be both credible and empathetic.

Examples of marketing communications at this stage:

  • Emails and presentations that explain the change in terms of its impact on all team members, coming from executive leaders
  • FAQs that capture and provide honest answers to real questions likely on the minds of team members

DESIRE. Communications must define the proposed change as the solution to the need, i.e., the best way to relieve the pain. To be successful, these communications must reach the “heart” and the “mind” of the audience by appealing to emotions and logic.

Examples of marketing communications at this stage:

  • Case studies of early, quick “wins” that highlight the benefits realized through the change
  • Infographics presenting the need for change and its potential benefits in simple, visual terms

KNOWLEDGE. Communications must create a solid understanding of the world after the change, in contrast with the current state. To be effective, these communications must make the case that the future state is close at hand and that the path to get there is very simple.

Example of marketing communications at this stage:

  • How-to videos and one-page quick-reference guides that make the path to implementation seem easy; brevity and visuals take priority over words and detailed use cases

ABILITY. Communications must minimize the perceived effort involved in change and reduce friction to take the first step. Successful communications at this stage offer a helping hand—not condescending but by providing clear, simple guidelines that encourage the audience to move down the path.

Examples of marketing communications at this stage:

  • Training materials and tools that provide comprehensive information about how to accomplish current tasks in the new state and instill confidence that change can be achieved
  • Gamification that turns mundane change into activities that confer status or create excitement for team members

REINFORCEMENT. Last, but definitely not least, communications must continue to celebrate the benefits delivered. Many change initiatives fail because they are thought of as a “one and done” proposition in which a single, intense effort suffices. Instead, the initiatives need to be promoted over an extended time period to bring along laggards and solidify the changes already made by early adopters.

Examples of marketing communications at this stage:

  • Success stories/testimonials highlighting the benefits achieved and improvements gained, not only in quantitative terms but in human, emotional terms
  • Awards to bring attention to change-driven achievements and, in the process, elicit feelings of aspiration and potentially competitiveness

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re not thinking about change management like a marketer and marketing like a change management leader, you probably missing something that could elevate the impact of your efforts.