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30 Jan 2023

Marketing learnings from the AEO Forums 2023 - Mark Parsons

Marketing learnings from the AEO Forums 2023 - Mark Parsons

In late January 2023 I attended the AEO Marketing Forum held at the Business Design Centre in London. Chaired by Kate Disley of TEMBO Impact, it was a packed day, attended by hundreds of exhibition marketers. Here are my takeaways session by session.

Finding confidence and clarity in an uncertain world
The keynote by Karen Blackett OBE, CEO of WPP UK, started with the sources of change, through organisational design, to techniques to deal with change and uncertainty.

My biggest takeaway was when Karen shared some of Edgar Schein’s research on organisational design; exploring how individuals react to change. When we do something new there is a competence gap while we learn. Time and practice are required to work out how to get the best out of new technologies. During this time our productivity falls and there is a “learning dip”.
This learning dip is a source of anxiety – a speedball of fear linked to temporary incompetence, fear of being punished for this incompetence, and wider angst over personal and group identity. Karen's suggestion was to use an “I can’t yet” framing while in the learning dip.
I also had the simpler realisation that when you roll out any new technology it’s important to just push through the learning dip rather than cut your learning short and muddle through at a lower level of productivity. Sounds silly, but I realised how many of the tools I use each day I've never really studied. Lemlist, Pipedrive and Tableau you’re next on my learning agenda!    
One nugget from Karen which I loved (and gave me hope) was the results of recent research by WPP on how values had shifted after the pandemic. This identified that a more altruistic focus had emerged for many. This was echoed in a later session where Alison Church explained how support for a rare disease charity had really helped build credibility and industry goodwill as part of a pharma launch by Easyfairs.

Expecting the unexpected
Next, Sarah Waterfall of Hyve and Helen Omoh-Mensah of TEMBO Impact shared a hands-on marketers guide to how to plan for the unexpected. They explored how Macro (weather, train strikes, heatwaves) and Micro (technology failures, queues, speaker cancellations et al) factors can be capitalised upon with a bit of flexibility.
As an outsider, it was insightful to listen to the art and craft of event marketing when things go wrong. Sarah shared how, in the face of the largest heatwave in recent years in the UK, the "Pure Chill" campaign underpinned visitor attendance at their Pure show last July. This also drove home the ‘in it together’ relationship between the organiser and the venue in making exhibitions a success. Kudos to Sarah and the team for creating a campaign which explained that Olympia was the coolest(!) place to be in the height of a heatwave – made even better with free ice cream and iced coffee!
I also found useful the exploration of how to speak to an audience when you have nothing new to say (within the Q&A session). There are moments when there just isn’t a “news peg” to hang content on. Clever repackaging of testimonials, videos of the show and sessions from the prior year can go a long way to fill the gap.

Kill your darlings
Tim Tucker of 23 Digital gave us all a copywriting masterclass. His presentation is giving me significant angst as I write these words now. Tim made the case that – in a world where only 28% of the words on the page are read – simple, tight text using five simple rules makes the difference.  

  • Kill fancy words – research has shown that simple words are more credible, while longer words may hide ambiguity and complexity.
  • Kill abstract words – don’t talk about things you can’t see (e.g., ideas, solutions, …) as they are harder to relate to.
  • Kill redundant words – English has a lot of unnecessary filler and glue words which are unnecessary.
  • Kill the “we” – good copy talks about “you” 3-4x more than “we” or “I”; this reminded me of the phrase 'No one cares how much you know until you they know how much you care'.
  • Kill generic copy – it’s just bad. Period.

He recommended the Reader’s Brain by Yellowlees Douglas – on the psychology of writing. This has now found a place on my Kindle.
Tim finished up discussing how we’re at the start of a new era, as large language models like ChatGPT transform the industry of making content. He encouraged us to start playing around with these tools – identifying them as useful tools for that difficult first draft. The skill of the marketer will be those tweaks to turn good copy into great.

Building an audience from the ground up
The afternoon began with two titans of the event marketing industry sharing their experiences of building audiences from the ground up. Jo Tyler of Raccoon Events and Alison Church of Easyfairs talked about both B2C and B2B communities. This session was one of my highlights. Alison shared how Easyfairs approach their pre-launch research using 3 key areas:

  • Shape (and refine) the value proposition – understanding the communities' respective needs for Networking, Educational, Entertainment and Order writing.
  • Understand the value chain and key stakeholders (her category A, B & C customers).
  • Define the event mission and statement.

It was fascinating to hear how Jo and Alison went about Database development for a launch. From a data perspective, I was surprised how the focus was still on data sources, rather than the ability to merge, refine, enrich and understand companies and potential customers in detail up-front. In my world, the secret sauce comes not from having the biggest list but from being able to use big data and machine learning to cluster companies and find those which matter the most. I'm secretly hoping that's what they'll talk about next year :).
While expected, it was interesting to hear it confirmed that for a recent launch 48% of the attendees had come through referrals from the exhibitors. Stats like this drive it home how important it is to have the right exhibitors from day one to create the flywheel effect of a successful show.  

Inclusive marketing matters
Fab Giovanetti of the Alt Marketing school ran a high energy session on how to be more inclusive in event marketing. She opened with an Apple campaign on accessibility which was inspiring and worth rewatching. A quote from Vema Myers of Netflix framed the difference between diversity and inclusion for me - “Diversity is being asked to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance”. Fab made a clear case that marketers' most powerful skill is building communities. The strongest shows have the most diverse communities.
One tip which I really liked was her concept of building a 'speaker bank' – asking existing speakers to recommend others and growing the pool of potential speakers organically throughout the year rather than on an ad hoc basis when required. Of the events I go to each year, more than a few which could do with some new voices, and slightly less of the usual suspects. This felt like a great way to expand the pool.

Demystifying Google Analytics 4
As someone who has no clue about web tracking, I greatly enjoyed Kunal Pattany of Digital Human's presentation on the migration to GA4 from Universal Analytics. It was a call to action to organisers to ensure they have GA4 up and running before June 2023, as well as downloading their prior data before it gets deleted.
As a consumer, I was pleased to see how privacy legislation is reducing the scope of tracking by third parties. However, I can imagine the frustrations this can cause for marketers when these third parties provide the tools to understand customers journeys on the web and via apps.  

Kate Disley of TEMBO Impact, the marketing chair for the AEO Forums this year, wrapped up with a highly interactive session where the room explored current issues. My group focused on wellness, and I greatly enjoyed the discussions with marketers from Informa, Montgomery and Nineteen.
Kate wrapped up the day summarising the sessions. I learnt a lot, met many interesting people, and really look forward to attending next year.