Conferences are Back! 4 Takeaways for 2023 Event Planning
“The vendors, the prospects, people wanted to get together. Not just for demos but to talk about business over a beer.” — Levona Simha, Cymulate
Conferences returned in-person and in full-swing this summer after more than two years of cancelations, postponements, and a hard pivot to virtual. The Cybersecurity industry saw three of its largest events: RSA Conference (RSAC), AWS re:Inforce and Black Hat USA conference take place back to back between June and August. We asked three senior marketing leaders in the DTC portfolio about what they learned from this summer’s events and how that’s influencing 2023 planning.
- Varun Kohli, CMO, Cequence Security
- Levona Simha, VP of marketing, Cymulate
- Luke Tucker, VP of marketing, Lightspin
- Man, it was great to be back in person. Pent up demand led to solid, high-quality lead generation opportunities.
- Virtual engagement is (probably) not dead. With the right assets, there is opportunity for experimentation and positive ROI from virtual programs.
- Be bolstered by engagement results from the large 2022 conferences but consider that 2023 might be a year of tighter travel and conference budgets across the board.
- 2023 will see a refreshed focus on in-person experiences at the big shows but also at smaller regional events. Targeted activities and novel approaches to sponsorships can lead to higher ROIs.
WHAT WE EXPECTED, WHAT WE SAW
“The quantity of attendees was lower across the events but then the quality went way up. People had been missing that human connection over the last two years. Coming through the booth, they were more patient and much more receptive to interactions.” — Varun Kohli, Cequence
Planning for 2022 conferences was challenging. RSAC was rescheduled from January to June as Covid persisted. The question if people would feel safe enough to travel to and attend the events persisted. Turns out, plenty of people were excited to get back together in person. Those who were willing and able to travel this year were highly motivated to meet and engage.
“I’m a personable person. I like to talk to people,” shared Levona Simha. And that was true for this year’s conference attendees. “The vendors, the prospects, people wanted to get together. Not just for demos but to talk about business over a beer. And the quality was very high, at Black Hat especially. There were a lot of decisionmakers there.”
“The RSAC tradeshow floor was as chaotic as I’d ever seen it; the energy was really positive. People were excited to be back together. Our Innovation Sandbox session was oversold by a few hundred people. The organizers had to turn people away,” said Luke Tucker. He added, “and at Black Hat, it really did feel like it was 2019 energy levels. It was really dense, good traffic, and a lot of opportunities to meet people and have high quality conversations.”
Varun agreed, “It was something we all were waiting for. The quantity of attendees was lower across the events but then the quality went way up. People had been missing that human connection over the last two years. Coming through the booth, they were more patient and much more receptive to interactions.”
All three marketers walked away from the summer’s events with strong lead-generation results from their in-person efforts.
THE FUTURE OF VIRTUAL
“These aren’t random badge scans or people stopping by for giveaways. The virtual engagements are motivated people who legitimately want to learn more about their products.” — Luke Tucker, Lightspin
While RSAC and AWS re:Inforce focused on the in-person experience, Black Hat offered a full array of virtual sponsorship packages that included digital booths and advertising. For this year, the marketers believed that the meaningful engagements would happen in person. While all three companies participated in Black Hat’s virtual booths, it was mostly a repurposing of existing content.
Luke at Lightspin did spend against some of the digital “bells and whistles” available upgrading their virtual booth presence to add rotating, programmable banner ads. This allowed him to promote more content and product features to virtual visitors.
That one experimental upgrade paid off well beyond expectations. Lightspin’s virtual booth garnered well over 1,100 leads during the conference. Luke considers this a win, especially for a company as early in its journey as they are. These aren’t random badge scans or people stopping by for giveaways. The virtual engagements are motivated people who legitimately want to learn more about their products.
“Our email campaigns are performing well against this list. Definitely better than against a standard cold list. I think we are going to have some very good conversations and will definitely generate some pipeline from the virtual booth visits,” Luke said.
With a relatively small investment in a virtual presence paying off, Lightspin will likely invest more in experimenting next year, potentially creating purpose-built content that will live on beyond the conference. Luke observed, “when you’re at a conference, people want to see your product, meet your community. They don’t care much about content in the present. They will catch it after the conference on YouTube.”
Keeping “content with legs” in mind, instead of chasing speaking opportunities or bigger sponsorships that come with branded panels Luke suggests creating content you can own. “We hosted the Purple Cloud Summit that we hosted the day before RSAC, pulling together a panel with Lightspin, a couple of CISOs, and a partner that’s a cybersecurity unicorn. I can use that content at a digital booth and across our social channels for as long as we’d like. It’s a stronger, longer brand play for us.”
Varun is taking a slightly more conservative approach around virtual events for Cequence. He believes the emphasis on creating rich virtual experiences for the major conferences will fade give the world is “open” again. “We saw a 50/50 split in in-person conference content versus virtual at the start of 2022 but by next year, we’ll be back to 80/20 or 90/10,” he predicted. Part of that is because the virtual experience never really delivered during the pandemic. Another contributing factor is proving out ROI. With a finite marketing budget, it’s hard to justify investing in virtual engagements haven’t proven to be as effective as in person. Especially in the cases where virtual events are commanding sponsorship fees upwards of $50k.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2023
“You don’t always need a booth to have a presence at the big events,” said Levona. “Depending on your objectives, a smaller, themed, curated event can achieve a lot more.” — Levona Simha, Cymulate
Covid-related event cancelations may be behind us but a combination of increasing costs to attend and the potential for slimmer travel budgets next year means having to be extra thoughtful on budgeting. All three senior marketers agreed that attending the cornerstone events are a given. What’s up for debate is how big of a booth/how much of a spend they really need to have impact. And, they’re experimenting with smaller, more bespoke experiences.
“You don’t always need a booth to have a presence at the big events,” said Levona. “Depending on your objectives, a smaller, themed, curated event can achieve a lot more.” For example, this year at RSAC, instead of having a large booth, Cymulate hosted a successful speakeasy-themed dinner for 30 VIP attendees. Next year, she plans to have a presence at all the major security events but to also focus on smaller, more regional roundtables in support of the company’s sales objectives.
Luke agrees that smaller format events can have an outsized payoff. He’s found that “there is a real hunger” in cities like Denver or Nashville for content and community. It takes more legwork to create a presence in those geos but if done right, it can lead to a higher ROI than spending $30k on a conference roundtable sponsorship. There’s some risk, he cautions, that a new city might flop. He’s hoping to try outreach in a few cities in 2023, heading into the effort with a tight handle on spend and well-defined success metrics.
Given Cequence’s successful return to in-person events this year, Varun is not likely to commit the company to larger, flashier booths for 2023. At Black Hat, they invested in a 20 ft x 10 ft booth – the same size as ZScaler, a scaled public company with a market cap of ~$25B, Varun noted – and in unique engagement experiences that generated a high volume of quality leads. “I’m not convinced that going bigger, even doubling your booth size will net a proportional increase in leads. It’s more about focusing on the preparation and strategic outreach leading up to the event and creating interesting engagement experiences once you’re there,” he said, “The ‘spray and pray’ approach does not work for events. You can actually “be bigger” without going bigger.
On booth giveaways, Luke at Lightspin is looking forward to experimenting more with the virtual booth features in 2023 but he’s also considering a more sophisticated take on swag. Instead of shipping boxes of t-shirts and tchotchkes to conference venues, he’s engaging with an online platform to create a more tailored digital experience. The goal is to cut down on waste while creating an instant digital relationship with strong leads. “You don’t have to scan every badge that walks in the booth. If they’re there for the free notebook, let them have it. For people genuinely interested in our solution, we can invite them to a more bespoke experience.”
The return to in-person conferences has been a welcome change across the board. The cornerstone events have been revitalized, maintaining their pull for vendors and decisionmakers alike. Virtual platforms never really delivered as a 1:1 replacement for scaled in-person events but they offer ample opportunity for augmenting, extending, and amplifying a company’s conference presence. The two-year, COVID-enforced in-person events pause gave marketers time to rethink event strategies. In 2023, we’ll see a return to big conference engagements but also a greater emphasis on smaller, more curated experiences on and off the conference circuit. And new technologies supporting smarter content distribution, hyper-targeted ads, and bespoke branded swag experiences will give marketers avenues for getting more sophisticated with their programming.