I still remember where I was when I first heard about Google AdSense.
It was the middle of the night in the Spring of 2003. I was browsing WebmasterWorld, an online forum where I (and thousands of other independent webmasters) went to get advice on how to build, rank, and monetize websites. Google AdSense promised the impossible – the ability to programmatically deliver the right ads to the right people on any web page, and critically, the ability for the site owner to share in the ad revenue.
At the time I was running a couple of websites out of a coffee shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco. There were lots of headaches back then in running an online business, but the biggest problem was monetization. As an independent webmaster, my options were limited. While I had high traffic websites, I had neither the network, time, or skills to to sell my ad inventory direct to advertisers. So my options were earning fractions of pennies by running terrible, run-of-site display ads (think: flashing banners) on my sites, or monetizing page by page by hunting down affiliate programs and placing the buttons on the appropriate web page. It was back-breaking and not very lucrative work.
Google AdSense changed everything. I was able to put a couple of lines of code on my high traffic sites, and Google would magically match the right ads to the right content, and the right buyers to the right sellers. All I had to do was wait for the monthly check from Google, and work on optimizing ad placement. Post Google AdSense, five figure revenue months were not uncommon for me. It changed my life and the lives of many other independents. And of course, Google did OK too.
Flash forward to 2015. The biggest marketing spend in the world, events and conferences, is still funded by the physical world equivalent of flashing banners. Exhibitors are still building their booths to the rafters and handing out keychains and pens galore, just like they did in 1975, all in the hopes of attracting people – anyone at all – to their booth. There is no targeting. There is no automation. There is no optimization. There is no measurement. The fact that events still command the biggest chunk of the marketing budget despite these limitations, is a testament to this channel’s power.
I believe that the event marketing spend is on the verge of its AdWords / AdSense moment, and that the reverberations will shake the industry to its core.
Let’s unpack why that time is now.
Events have always been about getting the right people into the building and hoping for the best. Once the attendees walk into the event venue, it is up to the exhibitors to find a way to get them to their booth. This dynamic has resulted in everything from booths that tower thirty feet in the air, to schwag, to booth babes. Solving the last mile has been a crass and inefficient problem.
Over the last few years, the infrastructure has finally arrived that allows event planners to digitize and instrument the show floor. Mobile event apps engage attendees as they wander the show generating digital exhaust that signal the content, people, and companies that resonate. Low-energy Bluetooth beacons allow attendees to vote with their feet, allowing organizers and vendors to heatmap foot traffic and to map people to places. Surveys and polls delivered right to the mobile device allow the capture of structured data at higher than ever response rates.
This instrumentation and digitization will allow organizers to match buyers and sellers in ways that have never been possible – at least not in the physical world.
An event attendee chooses to attend a breakout session about CRM systems. A low energy Bluetooth beacon detects her phone as she walks in and the software notes her interest in CRM. Later, when she is walking the exhibition floor, she is alerted programmatically to the presence of three CRM vendors.
An event attendee approaches an exhibitor and spends several minutes speaking with a booth team member and seeing a demo of the product. The booth team member scans the attendee’s badge with his phone, and scores the attendee as a hot lead. The badge scanning software offers to build a campaign made of 20 individuals that are similar to the hot lead by matching session preference, industry, and title.
An event is winding down, and a booth team that has traveled thousands of miles is faced with the realization that they simply have not seen enough booth traffic – or the right kind of booth traffic – to justify the trip. They decide to take matters into their own hands. They fire up an AdWords-like interface and create a campaign designed to reach attendees from ten companies that are in their CRM pipeline. In order to entice a booth visit, they associate a free iPad with the offer. Attendees at the show who fit the criteria of the campaign are delivered the offer directly to their smartphone inviting them to the vendor’s booth to pick up their free iPad. The event is saved for the booth team, and the event organizer just salvaged a certain churn.
All of these examples are possible today. Indeed, my company has just launched the first digital advertising network for live events: DoubleDutch Targeted Offers. No longer will exhibitor booths be the equivalent of flashing banners on a 2002 website. Event marketers will be able to target, iterate, and measure just like their digital marketing colleagues back at home base. Just as the dominant skillset for digital marketers shifted from creative to quantitative in 2003, event marketers will need to learn new skills in optimization and campaign creation to stay relevant.
The business model for events has remained virtually unchanged for 850 years. Exhibitors buy square footage and build a presence designed to lure attendees into a conversation. It took a while, but technology is about to blow this model up and the gravitational force of digital marketing is about to pull events into its orbit. The physical world is no longer an excuse for running blind.
Just as advertising dollars moved with terrifying speed from Yahoo! to Google when advertisers realized that they could pay only for the ads reaching their target market, event marketing dollars will shift towards events that embrace the new technology.
Just as Google AdSense empowered an army of webmasters to quit their day jobs and pay the bills simply by adding a few lines of Google code to their site, DoubleDutch Targeted Offers will enable countless event organizers to unlock new revenue streams for their events simply by activating a DoubleDutch event app for their event.
Digital marketing is arriving to the physical world with a vengeance and the reverberations will reach far and wide. The events industry is about to experience its AdWords / AdSense moment, so grab some popcorn; there will be fireworks.