President / Chief Revenue Officer — Hanley Wood
Face-to-Face programs are claiming an increasing share of many B2B media companies’ budgets and revenue. David Colford, President / Chief Revenue Officer of Hanley Wood is excited about the opportunities that will come with the growth he sees just ahead for his company, for events and for the B2B media community as a whole.
Could you tell us a little bit about your events at Hanley Wood?
Events are easily one of the most exciting platforms evolving at Hanley Wood. We’ve gotten a lot of press over the past few years about our digital transformation, but what has been happening very quietly in the background is we’ve uncoupled our event business from the print platform. When I arrived here, events were big and powerful, but were largely considered an extension of the magazines. What became apparent during our digital transformation was that we had a strong audience that wanted more of what we were doing, so we stopped treating events as an extension and started treating them as their own business.
This led to the creation of our Executive Program Group which is where all of our events now live. Initially, that group was largely based on our Branded Events that were aligned with our market brands. But we’ve also launched a custom business which we call our Corporate Event business which includes on-demand events where we create and manage everything from content to logistics to audience acquisition strategy for, and on behalf of, building product manufacturers. In about 5 years this has gone from being about 4% of the company’s revenues to approximately 15% this year, and our goal is to see it become 30%, 40% and 50% of revenues both through organic growth of our branded and corporate events portfolios, and through acquisitions.
Events are the physical manifestation of the promise of B2B. Not to over-simplify what we do, but our job is to connect buyers and sellers. The best way to do that is in a face-to-face environment. There are two reasons people attend face-to-face events, at least in the B2B world; for networking with peers that they don’t see often during the year, and for the educational aspect. The educational aspect is of particular interest to us because it lends itself to the evolution of our digital portfolio as well. We have strong plans in place to offer a digital on-demand, 360 degree, always on, educational platform that maps directly to each of our events.
How many events do you conduct in a year and how do they range in attendance?
We have approximately 25 Branded Events as well as a number of Corporate Events including road shows that travel to multiple locations for product demonstrations and how-to’s, and “Lunch & Learn” educational events. With some events that visit many cities we’re easily looking at a total of more than 300 events in a year. We see attendance from 15 to 20 people at live educational events, and from 750 to 1000 people at our four marquee events.
We also have our Connections business which is loosely based on the speed-dating model that arranges appointments for procurement people with product manufacturers in our different markets. Buyers can come and, over the course of 2 or 3 days, have 20 or 30 meetings that would normally take them a month to accomplish. And we are careful to invite the right manufacturers to ensure that buyers will benefit and want to return next time. Here we turn to our editorial staff members who have relationships and market knowledge of, for example, who is going to build/buy what in the near future. As a media company in our industry we have an advantage over companies that are strictly event providers.
This has turned into opportunities for us to set up much longer-term, private meetings between key stakeholders that want to spend more than 20 or 30 minutes together and to start conversations around contract relationships as well. Here the face-to-face business has given way to a concierge marketing approach that provides a manufacturer access to specific customers that they are targeting. We set up these meetings and bring higher level executives to events where contract negotiations actually take place. It has turned into a great business for us and for our customers. That’s where we want to be. We want to see problems being solved and deals getting made.
How do you see events evolving in the next year?
There is a lot of heat and positivity surrounding events at the moment, and I certainly believe this is going to continue. But I think we are going to see an inordinate amount of pressure on extending the value of events going forward. Especially with destination events, I think there has always been an element of “boondoggle” in events in addition to what might be learned to help someone do their job better. But attendees who are spending their budgets and their valuable time are expecting more now. Events must not only provide a great experience, but a great experience that attendees can monetize with quantifiable value worthy of their dollar and time investment. Educational elements and extending the lifetime value of a singular event with a digital perspective is where I see the single biggest evolution coming.
A second area of evolution revolves around tradeshows. We are not currently in the tradeshow business, but we aspire to be. We divested of our tradeshows some years back, and it’s an area that we are keenly interested in re-entering. The role of tradeshows is changing in the way that events and conferences are changing. What the new models for tradeshows will be is anyone’s guess, but they are moving beyond the current format. Education is playing a much larger role. You can simply look at the tech media and pharmaceutical markets to see the accreditations and levels of training being offered on-site at shows. While the footprint of shows – the actual floor size – may be shrinking, the actual attendance is in record growth just because they are offering more on-site training more efficiently. They can provide high levels of education, in an efficient way across 2 or 3 days, and attract larger numbers of attendees that will leave with continuing education units.
This is a little bit different than what is currently happening in the B2B trade show market, but I think we’re looking at times of disruption ahead, and opportunities for those who have the ability to become education providers. The trade show becomes the mechanism to attract the audience to educate them. This is turning the model on its head a little bit because it’s no longer just about marketing.
Education has always been a critical element for event attendees, but it’s beginning to rise to the top because they have to justify the use of their time and expense account. As and attendee, if you’re not coming out of an event (that’s going to pull you out of the office for 2 days) with something demonstrable that is going to help you do your job better or help your business do better, it’s hard to justify the expense. That’s where smarter event providers are starting to double down, so I see that increasing over the next year or two.
That’s the new hook. It used to be that you were having a great event with a great keynote speaker in a cool place. That’s table stakes today. People will not sign up to come to an event just because of those 3 things. Now there’s got to be a great educational or a great business hook to get them there. And that’s an opportunity for B2B media industry leaders. What can you provide from an educational perspective that the audience is not going to be able to get elsewhere, and more importantly, that is going to be more impactful if they come to a face-to-face event vs. reading a .pdf online vs. watching a webcast, and so on. That’s the great challenge that everyone is facing in getting people to register.
Once they register and come, you need them to come again… and again. So, you have to layer a great experience – the “Wow! Factor” — on top of the educational promise you’ve made. The little things can make a difference in whether they come again or not, and whether they recommend the event to a colleague. You must do this in a market that is ultra-competitive with lots of events, but also with digital providers that are not doing events, but that are providing digital ways for audience members to educate themselves. One of the biggest challenges for event providers is explaining the value of coming face-to-face vs. obtaining similar information in a digital format. That’s cultural – that’s demographic – that’s psychographic. These are the type of things we’re living with every day.
It’s exciting at Hanley Wood because we know more about our audience now than we ever have. Not only through tracking what they do with us digitally and the kinds of events they go to, but through the information they share with us about their other interests and the other kinds of events that they go to. We have data on how they got to our site and where they go next. This allows us to do a better job at marketing. It allows us to target and provide better content relative to individuals’ preferences for magazine, website, newsletter, and/or event. We’re not just competing for someone’s attendance, we’re competing for their time, the most precious of all commodities. Providing better marketing and content has increased attendance at our events. But it is a constantly changing target. The way we market an event this year will change next year because people’s jobs, profiles, preferences and behaviors will change. Analytics, data and our editorial connections with our audiences have made all the difference for creating great events and driving attendance to them.
Are there other challenges with events that you have faced and overcome?
There are two major challenges specifically related to events. The first is that experiential piece; providing all the educational information that we’ve promised while giving attendees a great on-site experience. This requires a different set of provisions for every audience that we serve. Not only is it not “one size fits all”, it’s not even “ten sizes fit ten”. It’s a never-ending, year to year challenge to create best-in-class experiences for all our audiences at all the events we offer to keep them returning.
The other challenge is not only keeping attendees returning year after year, but also attracting fresh ideas and participation, both from new attendees and sponsors.
So how do you market to attract those new attendees and sponsors?
One of the benefits of being part of a large media company is that our events do not take place in a vacuum. Our branded events have brand alignment and we have access to these audiences on every single channel where they participate. We market across all of those channels based on their behaviors, the content requests they’ve made, and what we think they might be interested in. The data allows us to target them very specifically as opposed to sending a general message out to everyone. And one of the biggest efforts we make in the company is to grow our database. We aspire, somewhat egotistically, to have every member of the builder community in our database. We don’t today, but that’s our goal, as incredibly lofty as it might seem. This enables us to send meaningful messages that are right for individuals. We also use a fair amount of telemarketing depending on the event.
Then, for sponsors, we have a large sales organization that focuses on the entire building manufacturing marketplace and sells across the print, digital and event platforms. But we are more interested in solving sponsors’ problems than selling them on events. Events aren’t going to be right for every manufacturer. But we’ve had great success in selling integrated programs that have events as an important piece of the whole. And our Corporate Events business began as a result of discussions when sponsorships at branded events didn’t seem to fit manufacturers’ goals. We were able to design custom events for them, under our name or theirs, that targeted just the customers they were interested in, even if that was just 10 or 20 companies. They leveraged their brands and we managed the logistics.
Are there other challenges?
Another challenge is related to how quickly we can grow our business both organically and through acquisitions. Three of our four large branded events are poised for incredible growth and could double, triple or quadruple in size in the next five years. But acquisition – buy, build or partner – can fill gaps that become apparent in the portfolio. There is always the challenge of knowing how quickly to acquire what you need and there is never enough time or money in the bank to do it. We are keenly focused on this.
Do you have any other thoughts on trends or things to consider that would be helpful for B2B media companies as they plan their own events?
There are certainly interesting trends and things happening in the broader B2B marketplace to consider, but I think that it’s your specific audience that is the key to tell you what you should build or do next. I rely on the audience analytics, but also need the intelligence gathered by our events operation and editorial teams for evaluating both the critical and positive feedback that our audiences provide. We pick up the phone and talk to event customers to find out what worked and what didn’t work for them. We need both the quantitative and qualitative information to understand what makes face-to-face events different and better than digital ways to get what they need.
You’ve got to be willing to try things and to budget for mistakes. The great truth is that you’ve got to be able to succeed fast and to fail faster. And you have to have a process – a real process – that enables you to acknowledge that something didn’t work and to move on. It may be time to reconnect with your audience. An event that has been successful for 5 years may need to be reworked because something has changed. Audience engagement is essential.
I promise you that things will be different a year from now than they are today. And that’s ok. It’s even exciting. In our industry, the construction audiences are passionate. If you’re right, they will tell you right away. And if you’re wrong, they will tell you ten times faster. That doesn’t just guide us event-wise, that guides our content overall. Sometimes we get the content right but the experience wrong. That’s where the conversations at and after the events are so valuable. Those simple surveys will give you some of the most meaningful information. We also survey people who registered but didn’t come. Of course, people’s schedules change and things happen, but we want to know if we did something wrong that caused them to stay away. For those who come, we also ask what they think and what they’d like to see in the future.
If you would have told me five years ago that an event we hadn’t even launched at the time would become one of our most explosively successful events, it would have been difficult for me to believe. That kind of possibility makes the job fun. Everything doesn’t succeed and not every day is a good day, but when I get to see what is important to our audiences and help them solve their problems and grow their businesses – I love that!