Once upon a time, in-person interactions were an important part of B2B lead generation. Trade shows, face-to-face meetings, live product demos, and the like were all considered a typical part of the B2B marketing arsenal, in fact in mid-2019, events were cited as the most effective way of generating leads. Reading this in 2021, that notion seems pretty crazy, right?

Because, boom, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us all, wiping clean the events calendar that was so essential to many B2B companies’ strategies. Companies quickly had to adapt their tactics, putting a much bigger focus on content and digital marketing. Digital events and webinars became the norm and lead gen became almost entirely digital.

At the time of writing at the start of Q2 2021, many countries are in the midst of vaccine rollout plans and have begun easing the lockdown restrictions put in place to combat the pandemic. However, the return of large-scale trade events still seems quite far off, with major international events being an even more distant prospect.

But the question is, will they return, even when they’re possible? And if they do return, will they be on the same scale and frequency as they were pre-pandemic?

In this article, we’re going to compare the pros and cons of in-person and digital networking, as well as discuss both the boundaries to the return of in-person events and the reasons why people might want to bring them back asap.

Why were in-person B2B events so popular?

As we said above, prior to the pandemic, in-person B2B events were cited by marketers as being one of the most effective means of generating leads. Here are some of the main reasons why this was the case.

The pros

It’s a concentrated audience of people you know are potential leads.
If they’re attending an event you’re at, chances are high they’re in an industry related to your products/services. They’ll also be focussed on ideas to do with that event, not distracted by other tasks which might make them harder to market/sell to in other circumstances.

It’s easier to be personal with face-to-face.
Personalization is one of the hottest topics in B2B digital marketing, with 77% of B2B marketers believing it builds better customer relationships. But while doing this in the digital sphere requires data collection, copywriting skills, tailored UX design, content placement algorithms, and much more, a person can do this straight away.

Being able to talk directly to your potential leads allows a skilled direct marketer or salesperson to tailor their pitch and explanation of their products and services directly to their audience’s needs. It also builds a direct connection between you and your leads that could be difficult to cultivate digitally.

It gives you an opportunity to engage with less tech-savvy leads.
While we might like to think everyone is on the digital bandwagon now, there are many people resistant to the idea. Not every person or company has a social media presence. Senior executives in some companies might have assistants who check their work emails for them. Some companies don’t even have a website. You can’t market digitally to companies without a digital presence, and events are often the best way to get access to them. Or maybe some people just respond better to face-to-face engagement than they do to a screen!

It’s extra publicity.
Being featured at an event means that your brand will probably appear in its marketing materials, meaning the event organizers will be promoting you, extending your reach into their wider network. Other attendees might promote it as well, giving even further access, especially if you’re featuring alongside some big-name companies.

But with these advantages, there doesn’t really seem to be a huge rush to get back to B2B events, despite the roadmap to a post-pandemic world being laid out in many countries. Well, let’s take a look at some of the downsides as to why we might not be in a rush to get back to face-to-face events.

The cons

They’re time-consuming.
Even just attending an event as a guest can take up a whole day, and that’s just local ones, not even taking into account travel when it comes to long-distance or international events. This can be especially frustrating if there’s only one particular speaker you want to hear or only a few businesses you’re interested in connecting with. Digital events make it much easier and less time-consuming to access the parts of an event you’re interested in without travel time and costs.

Things are even worse when it comes to featuring at an event. You’ll need event materials for your stand if you have one, materials for sponsorship positioning (which had been becoming increasingly multi-media in recent years), and it would require your staff to be on hand for the entire event, and perhaps longer either side if they’re required to setup and takedown themselves. Events can be very busy, which means the staff you assign to them will be unlikely to complete any other tasks, which means if you’re sending senior people there could be a bottleneck if they’re needed to sign off on anything.

They don’t have an amazing ROI.
While they might have been cited as being a major source of leads in the pre-pandemic times, even then they weren’t considered to have the same ROI as digital marketing strategies like content, social media, or email when it came to generating leads.

While there’s an argument to be made that the leads you generate at an event might be more likely to be MQLs (marketing qualified leads) or even SQL (sales qualified leads), it still takes more investment than a digital channel, all of which can be set up to run concurrently. A small-scale business can run an effective content, email, and social media strategy with just a few people, while an event would require people dedicated to taking part in that event and only that event.

You’ve got a limited audience.
Yes, we know we said that a concentrated audience was a plus, but it’s a blessing and a curse. At the end of the day, the only people who you can market to at an event are the people at the event, and even then you’ll be limited to the people who actually see you there.

They’re really bad for the environment.
A major marketing event can have attendees from pretty much every continent, all jetting in or driving long distances, which makes for a pretty hefty carbon footprint. And that’s before we get into all of the materials that might be produced for it, from swag to marketing materials and more, most of which will be produced with quite a large amount of plastic, and often will be branded with that specific event’s logo and the date it’s on so they can’t even be used again! Then there’s the catering, the energy needed to power big (often air-conditioned) event spaces, disposal of trash after they’re finished, and more.

Like, seriously people, international in-person events were terrible for the environment.

All of the above were the downsides to events that people were seeing even before the pandemic, with many people predicting a big shift towards digital events over the next few years. COVID has just sped the process up. Digital events and marketing are easier, have better ROI, can have a much bigger audience, and are generally better for the environment.

The future

This is all before we look at how the long-term effects of the pandemic could result in us never returning to the same hectic B2B events landscape we once knew and… loved might be a strong word… tolerated?

One of the biggest long-term effects on the way we work as a result of the pandemic is a much greater increase in remote or work-from-home policies in a huge number of roles and industries. With companies being spread across much greater geographical areas, the logistics of both hosting and attending in-person events might just be too much hassle to bother with unless it’s for an absolutely essential event.

Digital events allow anyone, anywhere to attend, from the comfort of their own homes if they like. No need for travel expenses, no need for overnight stays away from friends and family. You can wear your sweatpants while watching a keynote speaker, get up go to the bathroom whenever you like (which is always in the place you know it is, no mad scramble trying to find one in a huge arena), and you know for sure you’ve got food you like.  

Advances in digital event platforms mean that one of the key benefits of in-person events, interaction, is reduced, as the majority of platforms allow for live discussions on subjects. In fact, the interactions might even be more effective than in-person events, as you can maintain multiple threads at once, rather than having a load of voices shouting to be heard in an event space.

And yet… maybe we’re all getting a tiny bit sick of digital events? Are we starting to yearn for a life beyond zoom calls? Zoom fatigue is real, and it’s likely many people will jump at the chance to go out and rub shoulders once it’s safe to reduce social distancing and travel.

From a broader societal perspective, major B2B marketing events can be an important factor in local economies. There’s an entire industry built around the production and hosting of said events. Plus, people visiting a location for a business event aren’t robots. They need places to stay, they need to eat (and drink), and it’s likely they’ll want to go out and experience a bit of the local culture. All of which can be a big boost to local tourism and hospitality. There are many people from all sectors and levels of society who have a vested interest in the return of in-person events, so it’s likely we’ll see an attempt to bring them back in some form in the not too distant future.

But only time will tell if we ever see the same huge calendar of B2B events every year. There will certainly be a lot of complications to organizing and attending international events in the future. For now, digital and remote networking is here to stay and will likely be a major part of many brands’ strategies for much of the near future.