Gareth Dimelow

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Are you listening?

George P Johnson’s Gareth Dimelow discusses the importance of listening to your audience.

There’s no doubt about it. Budgets are a pain in the neck, whoever you are.

If you’re an agency, it seems there’s never enough to realise the creative vision you’ve developed for your client. If you’re a supplier, there’s a risk that someone else with greater economies of scale might undercut you to win the business.

And if you’re working client side, you’re always trying to define the cost and value for every project. Spend too much, and you’ll have to justify it to your ‘higher ups.’ Cut too many costs and there’s a worry that you’ll have less to work with next time around.

In the end, everything is reduced to line items on a spread sheet. Sixty hours of a person’s time. Twenty units of that furniture, venue hire, catering and travel. Everything all accounted for and thoroughly negotiated to ensure best value.

But there’s one hidden cost that rarely gets factored into proceedings – usually because it’s not something that has to be paid for out of the project budget. It’s the cost to every business of having their people out of the office at an event.

Think about an internal communications event for a minute. Let’s imagine that a company is inviting 300 of its senior management from around the world to a three-day conference. Chances are, there’d be a day’s travel either side of the event itself, which means that every attendee will be out of the office for a full week. Now just think about what that would do to the event budget, if those costs were factored in.

It never fails to surprise me, when B2B events end up being a just a platform for content delivery. Day after day of presentations, panel discussions and keynotes, with little or no opportunity for the attendees to really get involved.

This isn’t just the case for conferences, either. In the rush to fill every minute of an agenda with ‘content,’ many event organisers forget the old adage about two ears and one mouth, and using them in the correct proportions. When you’ve got your target audience all together in one place, you should be listening to them, and not the other way around.

They can tell you the future of your brand. They can solve your problems. They can validate your strategy and refine your messaging. As the mystical shop-keeper explained at the end of Gremlins: “To hear, one has only to listen.”

The fact is, it’s never been easier to listen to your audience. There are apps, throwable microphones, web browser-based solutions, and all manner of other technologies designed to help you understand your audience better.

And it’s not just about encouraging them to speak up while they’re in the room. Listening to your audience also means filtering the information they’re constantly pumping out into the universe. A smart social media strategy can give you unprecedented insights into what makes your delegates tick. It’s all there in the public domain – you just need to know where to look. Once you do, you’ll realise that there’s a wealth of valuable information out there.

When people ask me what the future holds for events, I try not to think in terms of technology. For me, the future is about opportunity. So the events of tomorrow aren’t about gadgets, widgets and three dimensions. They’re about insight and understanding. Tailor-made experiences. And intuition. Giving every attendee an effortless experience that anticipates and meets their every need.

All we need to do is put down the microphone and start listening.

The curse of content

One of the problems with having a blog is thinking of a topic worth writing about. The log-in details sit in your inbox, quietly taunting you about your underwhelming output. “Write something. Anything!” your brain implores you – the blog needs content. And it demands to be fed.

Bill Watterson, the much-missed creator of Calvin & Hobbes, once illustrated this burden using a fine analogy, drawing a strip about his six year-old protagonist throwing garbage under his bed to silence the hungry monsters that lived there. In his notes, he admitted that, every once in a while, he’d churn out ‘content’ in order to fill the void, even when he felt like he had nothing to say.

And that’s the problem with content. We’re all in a constant struggle to fill an infinite void.

Perhaps we should blame the internet, and its ability to instil in us an insatiable hunger for stuff? Or maybe it’s the fault of the 24 hour news channels, which now routinely stretch the stories that could be covered in a half-hour bulletin, into a full day’s worth of coverage.

Actually, let’s point the finger at the word itself. Content.

What is content?

In my previous blog, I talked about the need for greater consensus around the language we use as an industry. The response I got after posting it suggests that I’m not alone in shaking my fists at our collective inability to clarify our terminology. And there are few more troublesome examples than ‘content.’

Technically, anything can be considered content, once it’s given a context. It’s simply a word that defines the material that fills an empty vessel. Inspiring stuff, eh?

If we apply that notion to our sector, content becomes the material we indiscriminately gather to fill the agenda, once we’ve decided to stage an event. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person left feeling disheartened at an industry seminar recently, when the audience was asked: “Is content always important?”

In a communications medium like ours, content isn’t just important; it’s the reason we exist.

To be clear – we’re not the only industry that sometimes views content as the after-thought. Look at any media platform and you’ll find examples where the technology was invented first, only for people to then scrabble around for enough stuff to fill it. TV, radio, cinema – they’re all guilty.

Championing storytellers

So let’s try and view things differently. Let’s champion the storytellers, rather than their chosen medium.

Imagine a writer, hunched in his studio flat. His brain is itching with a story he needs to tell. As he grabs a pen and paper, he begins to map out the narrative. Once his tale starts to take shape, he’ll probably begin thinking about the best platform for helping it find an audience.

Will it be a book, or a magazine article? A TV documentary, a dramatised mini-series, or a blockbuster movie? Maybe it’ll be a radio play, or a piece of performance art. The fact is, those are all secondary considerations. For now, all that matters is the story.

This is how we all communicated before we even had the written word. It’s how we entertained and informed each other, and passed on the things we’d learned. No-one ever sat around a campfire and asked if anyone had got content to fill the silence.

It stands to reason that I’d be banging this drum. After all, as a planner, it’s in my nature to want to get back to the original objectives of the brief. And as a writer, I value the importance of storytelling over everything else.

So let’s focus on the reason why our events exist. It’s because someone, somewhere, has a story to tell. It just so happens that a live experience is the best way to share it with an audience. If we do it right, they might even be able to get involved in its telling.

The content as king is dead. Long live the story-teller.

More Blog – Watch your language

Watch your language

Does it matter whether we define the thing we do as events, experiential activations or experience marketing, asks George P Johnson’s Gareth Dimelow in his first blog for Event.

I was lucky enough to be invited to chair a panel discussion about the events and live experience industry, as part of the SohoCreate festival this month. I was joined by David Zolkwer, Debs Armstrong and Cat Botibol, and together we spent a lively hour discussing the inspiration, perspiration and frustration that makes ours such a uniquely challenging and rewarding industry.

To kick things off, I asked the group to talk through the distinction between ‘event’ and ‘experience’. Opinions varied, but generally it was agreed that the event is the moment in time that we’re tasked with delivering, whereas the experience is usually the fusion of interactivity and content that we create to entertain and inform our audiences.

Of course, our life is made up of experiences, from the coffee we buy on our way to work, to the frustration of trying to find a parking space at the supermarket. So context clearly also has a part to play.

Now, I’m sure this all sounds like a needless exercise in semantics. It’s 2015, after all, so does it really matter whether we define the thing we do as ‘events,’ ‘experiential activations’ or ‘experience marketing?’

In a word, yes. Yes it does.

The fact that there are so many different terms and definitions relating to our industry, suggests that we’re lacking a universal language. There’s no common vernacular to connect us all, and that means that misunderstandings can occur.

Social, viral, content, digital, engagement – I’ve listened to extensive debates about the meaning of all these words, specifically within the context of our industry. And at the end of it, no one seems any clearer.

Arriving at some kind of consensus for the way we talk about our work helps us define our respective points of difference, as well as helping our clients to brief us more effectively.

It’s not for me to arbitrate the language we use. This is just a call for us all to start thinking about consistency. And where no consensus exists, being sure to define our terms along the way.

Who’s with me?

Check out more Event blogs on everything from Secret Cinema and drones to retail experiential marketing.