What retailers can teach exhibition organisers about technology and data

The exhibition industry has always had echoes of the retail sector—a relationship that has become even more relevant now that the need to employ digital strategies, processes and tools has become a business imperative for both. But more and more AMR is finding that organisers are behind the digital technology and data curve.

This topic was also addressed by retail and brand consultant, Martin Newman, during AMR’s Data and Digital Strategy Events Symposium late last year.

In this follow-up article, we ask Martin to share his insights from the retail world that could help event organisers with their digital transformation. Some of the key points include:

  • Using mobile technologies to engage with customers anywhere, anytime
  • Expanding the retail and exhibition environments to include online terrain
  • Leveraging proximity technologies to better understand visitor behaviors
  • Adopting omnichannel strategies to increase the number of buying opportunities
  • Building customer relationships post-event through content and mobile apps
  • Making structural changes to develop a single view of the customer

Where retail and exhibitions diverge on embracing digital technologies and data

In areas where retailers have used technology to enhance the customer experience, provide brands with more exposure, understand customer behaviours, and increase the number of sales channels, exhibition organizers stop short.

For example, retailers are increasingly using mobile devices to help them engage with customers anywhere in the store. “Rather than having a fixed point of sale where there is a barrier between you and the customer, you’ve got a mobile tool that lets you take their payment, check inventory, and talk about seven other things related to what it is they’re buying from you,” explains Martin Newman, chairman of Practicology, a London-based retail and brand consultancy.

Unlike retailers that encourage sales personnel to engage with customers anywhere and anytime, exhibition organizers are wedded to the idea that the engagement between exhibitors and attendees should remain largely (there are some exceptions) within the confines of the exhibit stand. Mobile devices, which could be the nexus of such expanded interaction, are underutilized.

Retailers have become adept at amplifying the physical space. “If you’re in a store, you might have a hundred square meters within your four walls. But you can put in an ‘endless aisle,’ where you create a version of your website in the store and offer customers a broader product selection than you have physically available in the store,” Newman adds.

The idea that a physical space can and should run in tandem with a virtual space has been only marginally successful in the trade show industry. A few retail shows have deployed virtual twins, some shows offer so-called virtual exhibitor booths, and a handful of events have extended access to their educational content post-show; however, any wholesale attempt to mirror online what is presented offline hasn’t taken off yet.

The retail industry is piloting the use of proximity beacons to send content, such as discount coupons or special offers, to customers’ smartphones while they shop and to track customer movements in the store. The objective of the tracking is to add yet another layer of understanding on what customers want.

Some exhibition organizers are experimenting with beacons as well, but many hesitate to take the technology any further than observing the aggregate behaviors of attendees on the show floor (via heat maps) versus tracking the behaviors of specific individuals (as the retail industry does).

Where retailers may have excelled the most is in the area of e-commerce. Retail eCommerce sales worldwide were expected to reach $1.915 trillion in 2016. Part of the success has come from retailers’ ability to extend the playing field to include in-store, online and mobile buying opportunities.

Delivering an omnichannel customer experience—via face-to-face meetings, digital, social, mobile, or (perhaps someday soon) virtual reality—in the way that retail does, hasn’t gained much traction in the exhibition industry.

What the event industry can learn from the retail sector

Martin Newman believes that exhibition organizers can still get around the digital and data curve by taking a page from the retail handbook.

Organizers need to focus as much on retaining customers as they do on acquiring them, something that retailers do well. “They’re great at running events and creating content that encourages customers to come, but they’re not so good at working out how to get people to come back or what you do with customers in the other 51 weeks of the year,” Newman says. Opening up year-round digital communication channels is crucial.

Exhibition organizers can do more to improve the attendee experience by using digital technologies to deliver convenience. Many retailers have developed a mobile-first strategy to give customers instant and continuous access to their products and information. Exhibition organizers can expand the use of mobile apps beyond in-event navigation to post-event exhibitor-attendee engagement.

To benefit from technology and data in the ways that some retailers have, organizers have to go beyond simply dissecting the customer journey or leveraging some digital technologies. The industry has to make structural changes, Newman says. Rather than keep critical customer data in silos, organizers have to work toward a single view of the customer by putting all of the information gleaned from customer interactions with the website, at the conference, and on the trade show floor in one place.

All of the work that retailers have done over the years is part of a larger digital transformation of the industry and one that smart retailers have relied upon to gain more customers, sell more products, and earn more profits. “Digital transformation,” Newman says, “is about how you become a more digitally-driven business, where you’re leveraging digital technology to serve customers more effectively, but also where you’re leveraging digital technology within the business to be more productive and more effective.”

Want to know more about the digital transformation of the events industry?

In partnership with Lippman Connects, AMR presented Transform USA – the conference for data, analytics and digital in events – on 20 July 2017 in Washington DC.

AMR will also present the Transform Europe conference at Savoy Place, London on 6 December. Register today.

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