AEO - Association of event organisers

Digital Events: Turning The Ugly Truth into Something Beautiful - Ruth Carter, Red Fox Advisory


Digital Events: Turning The Ugly Truth into Something Beautiful - Ruth Carter, Red Fox Advisory


The newly branded AEO Technology and Digital Events Group gathered together senior-level representatives from pretty much every major exhibition organiser (socially distanced of course) to talk ‘all things digital events’, and I wanted to share with you the key discussion areas, learnings and light bulb moments.

If you question whether digital events will play a part in your annual event mix once physical is back up and running, stop reading now and go back to sticking stamps in your Green Shield Stamp book and finish making a romantic cassette mixtape for your significant other. 

Although, I genuinely can’t imagine many of the events tribe thinking this, as - with the exception of my 90-year-old mother-in-law who has successfully avoided all technology - every part of our lives is a mix of physical and digital and therefore, events are no different.

Most events companies have tried some sort of digital event.  Many have dabbled in the webinar world (we used to run about 700 a year when I was at UBM), and many have tried the online content route to keep engaged with their audience or as a lead gen tool whilst events are grounded.

But, there are precious few examples of where organisers have generated meaningful revenue from digital that would stand up in its own right once proper headcount costs were allocated.  There is the odd exception where we see some punchy numbers coming through from print media who drive significant sponsorship as part of advertising bundles within the newspaper.  But for most organisers, the ugly truth is that digital events are…..well…. basically ‘a long walk for a short drink’. 

So, time to share what was discussed at that meeting, what was questioned and what was shown as some interesting best practice. 


Is it worth going digital when physical will be back next year?

Simply, yes.  Our customers still want to get to buyers.  They still want to attend our shows.  But in the absence of any shows running, they are going to turn to alternative channels and platforms to fill that need and if we don’t provide them with solutions, then our customers are going to go elsewhere.  When the time comes to reengage, it is going to be doubly hard to win them back if we have lost that engagement.  Digital has to be one of the key solutions in maintaining that connection.


Why have digital events, specifically virtual exhibitions, failed?

‘Doing something’ for the sake of ‘doing something’ is not why we should look to digital. And in many cases is the root cause of why a virtual show doesn’t work.


Don’t replicate:  There was an overwhelming consensus that the main reason a virtual event – particularly an exhibition - fails is because organisers are trying to ‘cookie-cutter replicate’ the physical product onto a digital platform.

Don’t. It simply doesn’t work.

Replicating a content-based event (training course, conference etc) on to an online platform is less difficult.  Audiences are increasingly comfortable gaining information and learning online and therefore the product is easily delivered virtually. 

However, translating an exhibition - a transactional experience, mixed with networking and some serendipity thrown in for good measure onto a virtual platform has presented real challenges. 

The solution being used by many organisers is to take a more lateral approach.

Look at the buying curve you are serving; then - on that curve - where your exhibitors and visitors really need support; then decide the best digital solution to meet that need.

In the live world, you don’t get the venue tenancy secured first and then decide what show to put in it (although I know a lot of us have in the past!).  You develop the product and then you decide the best way to deliver it.  It could be an exhibition or it might be a newsletter, a hosted buyer event or a matchmaking directory etc.

Therefore, it makes sense that we instinctively look at what we are familiar with and attempt to deliver it virtually. But I am here to tell you to try harder. This is an opportunity to uncover what customers core needs are and we should be listening to them.


Try harder:  I have attended a lot of virtual exhibitions recently and have been left pretty cold by most of them.  I ‘visited’ one last week and it reminded me of standing on the balcony of the BDC about 20 years ago and looking down on a public sector event with wall to wall grey shell scheme.  No energy, no pizazz, dull! 

Dare I say it (and sorry to be rude) but if organisers put even 70% as much effort into creating vibrant online exhibitions, we would see far more success. You wouldn’t simply throw together a physical exhibition and not worry about the user experience so why do that with a virtual show?


So - how can we address this?

  • Digital exhibitions benefit from a human face at the opening.  So, when you log on, have a recording of a person welcoming the visitor and talking them through how to use the site in brief.  Just because we have lived and breathed the technology for months doesn’t mean that a visitor will be as au fait with the platform, and we need to make the process as easy as possible so we don’t lose them.
  • Don’t accept second rate stands.  As with a physical exhibition, the quality of exhibitor offerings on a virtual event vary wildly.  However, a digital audience is much less forgiving than a physical one.

It helps visitors to have some consistency on the stand landing page, so product background, contact, questions etc. keep the overall structure of each exhibitor’s landing page the same, but you should encourage creativity from each to make it feel unique and engaging.

You wouldn’t have a grey landing page on the company website so why would you have one on your stand’s site.

  • Educate, educate, educate.  Exhibitors are essentially new to virtual exhibitions and so you really need to take them on a fully hand-holding journey.  Invest time and energy in warming them up to virtual and helping them understand how to stand out, how to promote themselves and what to include in their space.  Every hour you spend pre-educating them will reap benefits for them and therefore for you.


How do you engage the audience and does the profile differ between physical and digital?

There was much discussion about the length of the event and format needed to engage the audience.  At one extreme there were 3 full days of virtual exhibition and at the other, an ‘industry month’ where the show ran an hour a day for a month.

Of course it is horses for courses but the key driver seemed to be dwell time and engagement length.  In some instances, organisers saw a virtual show as a lead/ data generator and therefore dwell time was not the issue - as long as the visitor turned up and their data was captured.  If this is the requirement, then the more intense 3 full days seems to be the ideal solution for you.

But the truth seems to be that, if you want deep and meaningful engagement then the short sharp burst appears to be the winner.

I have long been a fan of Pecha Kucha (20 slides / 20 seconds per slide) but I was blown away by the idea of the 247 lectures used at the IgNobel Prizes - the alternative Nobel Prize awards - where a concept has to be explained in 24 seconds and then summed up in 7 words!  Whilst I think that is a little fast, it does give you some idea on how to make engagement punchy, meaningful and valuable to those that attend.

All of the members sat around the table have seen significant changes in the profile of their online visitors vs. virtual ones, with the latter driving 50% new to show attendees on average. 

In some cases, this was as high as 75%!

Why? The general consensus was two-fold.

Firstly, significantly more social and digital marketing was used for promoting a virtual event and therefore you could assume that the more digitally engaged would respond.  Secondly, the quality of the audience was generally more senior as individuals were able to visit for an hour whereas, with a physical show, they would have to commit to significantly more time.  Instantly, organisers were seeing the potential for incremental revenue through the larger data sets and the increased numbers with newly engaged customers.


What is the best way to take a hybrid approach?

The general thought process was that, if you are running a physical show, why would you run a digital event at the same time?

You have full engagement onsite, and you can extend the life of that show by running a virtual alternative on a different date.  More opportunity for incremental revenue and more opportunity for those diverse audiences to be serviced. 

Most importantly, the inside opinion was that, if you were capturing a physical show, its content and streaming it live, you needed a minimum of 6 cameras plus a full production team for it to look slick enough for sharing with a wider audience.

A costly exercise at the best of times.

Instead, do the physical event well (when you are allowed to do them again!) and use logical and affordable technology to do a virtual one at a different time – extending engagement throughout the year with your clients.


Final thoughts

Don’t replicate.

Educate and guide your customers.

Think pace, and deliver shorter, punchier content to engage your audience.

Be better!

And finally, test and learn, test and learn and then test and learn some more.

Pick something, trial it and then embed that learning into your next event. 

Our physical exhibition business was not invented overnight and therefore our virtual one may take a few iterations – but let’s stick with it.


  • "Broadway Events joined the AEO on the Enterprise Membership. We’ve already taken advantage of the many benefits including the excellent FaceTime Masterclasses and training guides for exhibitors."
    Emma Barrett
    Broadway Events
  • "We are a member of the AEO because it is a proactive association for the events industry. As an organiser it provides us with high value ideas, networking, guidance and information."
    David Harrison
    PPMA Group
  • "This year, the association has led working groups to address industry issues and put on some amazing events full of insightful content for both organisers and, through the AEOs FaceTime initiative, exhibitors. In addition, the AEO has represented the industry at a Governmental level to raise awareness of the importance of events to the UK economy."
    Paul Byrom
    Upper Street Events
  • "I genuinely believe that if you’re involved in organising events you should become a member of the AEO."
    Simon Kimble
    Clarion Events
  • "Our membership of the AEO represents real and tangible value for UBM - it provides fantastic networking opportunities, practical training for our team as well as valuable insight into the state of our industry."
    Simon Parker
    Informa Markets
  • "As an Association business, we appreciate the excellent work the secretariat of the AEO do for our community. From the events side of our business, the AEO provides an excellent return on investment, providing thought leadership, fantastic networking, brilliant awards, excellent research and FaceTime, a valuable tool to tell our markets why exhibitions and events should be an essential part of the marketing mix."
    Neil Felton
  • "AEO’s networking and member meetings are valuable for individuals at all levels within our organisation. The promotion of our sector to the outside world, to government, authorities and business at large is another vital aspect of the AEO’s purpose for members, many of whom, like my company, work on events throughout the world."
    Stephen Brooks
    Mack Brooks Exhibitions
  • “Knowledge is power and the AEO dinners are certainly powerful, there is always a wealth of knowledge at the table. Insightful presentations make for a constructive and extremely social way to learn from the experts who’ve done it before. I attended the Japanese evening and gained really valuable insight about the culture and how best to communicate with a local audience.”
    John Whitaker
    Vice President Marketing, Data & Digital , dmg events
  • "We have the opportunity to contribute positively to the industry as well as gaining valuable insight and advice. There’s no need to spend valuable time and money reinventing the wheel when you have so many experienced professionals in AEO membership to learn from”
    Emma Cartmell
    CHS Group
  • "JOINING THE AEO HAS BEEN FANTASTIC! Being able to gift our customers with free places at the FaceTime masterclasses, learn alongside industry peers and seek advice to common challenges is invaluable”
    Sharon Azam
    GovNet Communications
  • I just wanted to send my most sincere thanks for everything that you and the AEO team are doing to help navigate the events industry through the pandemic. The working groups and communication from the AEO have been excellent and I’m really appreciative of being part of such a wonderful organisation.
    Simon Burns
    ICHF Events
  • I think what the AEO has been doing during this tough time has been exceptional.
    Greg Cherry
    QD Events LTD
  • It is so useful to hear from your peers at this time. Please pass my thanks to Ruth and the BTIG panel
    Dan Assor
    CloserStill Media
  • Just wanted to thank you and Ruth this morning for the Zoom meeting - it was really interesting to hear how things are moving along in the virtual/hybrid meeting/exhibitions. All very new to me, so a lot to digest.
    Maureen Wright
    Optic UK
  • The session this morning was fantastic. We are right in the midst of this and the information was so useful. We can apply it immediately
    Claire Adams
  • The AEO provides an opportunity to make a difference, to work with other companies for the good of the industry as a whole, but beyond that, it provides it’s members with valuable insight and tangible benefits to grow your business, upskill and engage your teams. For those reasons, our membership is in indelible ink on the each annual budget. In short, if you aren’t a member, you are missing out.
    Ed Tranter
    73 Media




AEO news