Marketing Analytics Uncovered

The Pros & Cons of Virtual Events in Challenging Times

Marketing events have gone digital. Get the drawbacks and untapped opportunities of virtual events from the founder of Marketing Analytics Summit – Jim Sterne.

Diana Daia
October 06 · 4 min read

While the world is in flux, the need for establishing connections and learning is greater than ever. We’ve asked Jim Sterne, the founder of Marketing Analytics Summit, what advantages and disadvantages do virtual events bring

Who is Jim Sterne

Jim Sterne is the founder of the Marketing Analytics Summit (former eMetrics Summit) and co-founder and Board Chair of the Digital Analytics Association. An internationally known speaker and consultant, he is the author of numerous books, including Artificial Intelligence for Marketing, 101 Things You Should Know About Marketing Optimization Analysis, Social Media Metrics, and The Devil's Data Dictionary. He has spent more than 35 years selling and marketing technical products and has devoted all his attention to the Internet as a marketing medium since 1994.

D.D.: This year, Marketing Analytics Summit has gone virtual. What was different & what have you learned? Looking ahead, are we going to see more virtual conferences instead of physical events? What are the pros and cons of either?

Humans like to gather

J.S.: It’s a yes-and answer. Humans like to gather.

Here’s an example: for the purposes of this interview, the fact that we have specific questions that we want to talk about, we want to record the answers so the content can be changed. In a real-world environment, if we were to meet at a conference, we would have this interview live in a quiet corner, and we’d record it. We would still publish it, but then we would probably also chat afterward. I would learn more about your company, your background, find out what we have in common, do human social stuff. And that would be lovely.

I am afraid that the virtual zoom thing – this is yet another meeting, not a casual conversation, and I have another one following this and another one following that, and I don’t have the time so I don't have the desire to ask about any of those human interest things. But if 10 of us went out to dinner, I could have that conversation with 3 or 4 people. That is just human, and it will never go away.

Learning about something specific is easier online

J.S.: Collecting information, learning - that process has changed. I can find a lecture on YouTube or a webinar because I need to learn about a specific thing right now. Because my boss just handed me this problem and I need to find out more about it. The Internet is great for that, and we’ve just proven that this is the way to do it. But it doesn’t help us with the social side.

That’s actually a realization that I made 20 years ago when I was dedicated to starting a conference called the Marketing Analytics Summit. And my wife said, “Wait, it’s all about the internet, why don’t you do it virtually?”. And I said: people like to gather. And she responded, “You’re right, we’re social animals, by design and DNA.”

Physical events are less distractive

J.S.: There’s a difference between what you present in person and what you present online. How people learn is different. The value of going to a conference is that I’m in that space, for that specific period. I am not distracted by everything that’s around me on my desk that’s calling for my attention. And when I am looking at the screen, right behind you there’s my email with my inbox notifying me. I don’t have that space to let my mind cogitate.

The value of going to a conference is that I’m in that space, for that specific period. I am not distracted by everything that’s around me on my desk that’s calling for my attention.

Physical events incentivize creativity

J.S.: At a conference, if I’m looking at a presenter and hearing something that’s not really impactful to me at the moment, it gives me space to let my mind wander. They can talk about something that I like, but I am not specifically interested in - migration of whales for example, but it makes me think of this other conversation and another problem, etc. Two seconds later, I am already writing a note. Because that’s how the mind works.

Networking is easier in person

J.S.: I’ve personally been going to events for 40 years and I have found out that one of the best things is that I tend to run into the same people. And that’s fabulous. My professional network is very strong because I come across the same people often, we form relationships, I convince them to serve on the board of directors of the Digital Analytics Association. We work there and then we run into each other again and say “Really, your son is already going to college? I remember when he was small”. It’s that classic “we’ve known each other for a long time” thing. That’s never going to go away.

Online events offer more reach

D.D.: I agree, it’s definitely valuable going to physical events and meetings, as well as seeing people or stumbling upon the same people. But meeting more or new people is also interesting. That’s where online events have something to offer because you reach a new audience that you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.

J.S.: I agree from a business perspective, that I’m reaching new people and that’s terrific. I am also able to educate more people. But when I go to any conference, there’s maybe 25% of the same people and 75% of people that I haven’t met. And that’s an opportunity.

D.D.: Exactly, it depends on what your purpose is, right? If the purpose is volume, sure, you can reach more people online. If the purpose is establishing relationships, physical events are probably better catered for that.

J.S.: If I put on my vendor hat, I am going to a conference and I set up a stand – then it’s volume: I want to talk to as many as I can. But I also get to talk to the person standing next to me and three years later we meet at the same booth again and this is a different level of relationship. It’s not just the “I’m here to find more prospects for my company”, but “I am also doing the tradeshow thing for getting to know who else is in my industry or maybe even hiring them”.

In a nutshell

J.S.: We’ll always need conferences and meetings when we’re allowed to again, but they will also be virtual. We will have events that you can come to in-person or online depending on what your needs are.

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