When the pandemic kiboshed large physical gatherings, event technology providers stepped up to shepherd planners through the unfamiliar terrain of virtual events.
To do this, they closely followed the playbooks of major digital media platforms that came before them. Livestreams were enhanced with ‘likes’ and other reactions common to social media platforms like Instagram. On demand content libraries took familiar formats from media streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix.
But the influence of these platforms is not limited to engagement features. With investment pouring into the sector, many event tech providers are following suit in their business models as well, by adopting a growth strategy that focuses on maximizing the number of end-users, attendees — with some interesting consequences for event organizers.
The first step in this user-centric growth strategy is to give attendees user accounts that exist independently of the events they signed up for. Some providers even allow attendees to find events they haven’t registered for within the platform itself, and recommend new events to attend.
For well-established event brands with carefully and painstakingly cultivated audiences, the prospect of bringing them onto a platform that presents them with competing event content raises several questions.
- Will this shift lift virtual events up to a standard that popular social media and content streaming platforms have already set, or will it just create competition within event platforms?
- How will this impact the way event organizers acquire, build and retain their audiences?
Why Hadn’t Platforms Focused on End Users Before?
Event platforms have traditionally existed solely to facilitate and support the siloed event experiences of their clients, event organizers. But with thousands of attendees logging into their platforms, why have so few providers considered their own end user journey until now?
“Event technology platforms need to serve the end user, but many providers don’t think enough about the attendee experience,” says Baptiste Boulard, CEO of Swapcard. “They end up designing platforms to be sold, not used.”
Rather than taking direct ownership of the user experience, explains Boulard, event tech platforms have historically let the organizer be the medium for interpreting what the end user wants. This produces platforms that are designed to tick off the boxes in an RFP as the gateway to the sale.
“This is why so many platforms are not user-friendly,” says Boulard, which in turn contributes to the persistent lack of engagement and the decades-old problem of low adoption in the industry.
So Why Is the Number of Users Important to Tech Providers Now?
Boulard notes that low adoption killed any utility in boasting about users to prospective clients and investors: “There was often not much engagement on the platform, so [tech platforms] didn’t really bother to reference end users.”
But in 2020, the pandemic changed all that by relegating the industry to virtual events and forcing a near 100 percent adoption rate. Combined with a shift to remote working and on-demand consumption, the pandemic set the stage for a new and unsaturated virtual event tech market.
The incentive to gain market share drove unprecedented innovation fueled by a surge of investment, and perhaps no company is a better example of the trend than the sector’s current darling, Hopin — now valued at $7.75 billion after its latest Series D funding round brought it to over $1 billion in funds raised. Notably, Hopin now boasts over 10 million users.
While the numbers may be somewhat overblown (after all, vaccine rollouts are putting the largely housebound user base on a precarious path back to live events), it is important to consider the role users play in Hopin’s growth strategy. Here is an excerpt from the press release announcing their latest funding round:
“Since the beginning of 2020, Hopin has […] grown from a few hundred event creators using its platform to more than 100,000 organizations as well as millions of attendees showing up for events each month.”
Taking a page from the social media playbook, citing the number of creators and the size of the user base likely gives investors an easy success metric to understand. But more importantly, it relates to a paragon of pre-pandemic event tech success: Eventbrite.
Event Marketplaces and the Network Effect
Eventbrite was one of the first major event tech platforms to focus on its day-to-day end users. This shift towards becoming an event marketplace was marked by a key feature on the platform: the ability for any user to not only create but search for events on the platform. As an event search engine and ticketing platform, its business model was built for scaling its value alongside its user base, and it was immensely successful.
And while business event organizers might find the idea of their tech platform suggesting competing events a scary proposition, the event marketplace model seems to be the preferred approach for some of the largest new players in event tech.
Online streaming solution Zoom took its sweet time getting into virtual events, but when it did, its event solution leaned heavily into the marketplace model and user-generated content. The event marketplace model also seems to have inspired Hopin Explore.
“The idea behind Hopin Explore is clearly to bank on the network effect, and investors love network effect,” says Pierre Metrailler, CEO of SpotMe, who hopes to grow SpotMe’s user base from 2.5 million to 10 million users in the next five years. “You can put up any slides with that, and it will drive valuation.”
The network effect basically holds that a service becomes more valuable the more people there are who use it. By allowing people to search for events of interest on the virtual platform itself, Hopin and its investors are presumably banking on event organizers (“creators”) appreciating the marketing advantage of access to the platform’s user base. In turn, the more qualified content there is, the more people will want to have an account on the platform where it lives.
EventMB reached out to Hopin for comment, but did not receive a response as of the date of publication.
How Does this Impact Competition Within the Platform?
The issue with an event marketplace model, especially for well-established business events who already have a strong brand presence, has been a matter of some discussion: What event organizer wants their event platform to bring attendees one click away from the competition, let alone to feed their competitors’ attendee base with their hard-won audience?
During a recent debate over differing approaches to data management at 2021 UFI European Congress, Grip CEO Tim Groot raised precisely this objection regarding providers that gather and manage attendee user data independently from the events that brought them on the platform. According to Groot, this creates a scenario wherein major event producers like Informa effectively subsidize the attendance of smaller competitors by bringing enormous numbers of attendees onto the platform, only for the platform to then turn around and present the users with competing events.
Groot’s comment perhaps unfairly implied that this was a pitfall of Swapcard’s approach to user data management, but Swapcard does not allow the cross-pollination of users from one event to another. Platforms like Swapcard and SpotMe are quick to distinguish their M.O. from the Eventbrite / Hopin marketplace approach on precisely this basis.
“In Swapcard, it is impossible to find and join events that users have not already registered for within the platform,” says Boulard, adding that Swapcard removed that feature from the platform four years ago to focus on larger, more complex events that place a higher priority on protecting their attendee databases: “Small events want to grow their audience; large events want to protect theirs.”
Metrailler contends that while recommendations that add value for the user are an inevitable feature of platforms like this, they don’t have to create competition. “We do recommendations, but within a specific brand’s repertoire of online content,” says Metrailler, adding that “[recommending events is] a totally different value proposition from platforms like SpotMe or Bizzabo or Cvent.”
Both Metrailler and Boulard confirmed that there are no plans on either platform to promote or give access to competing events the users haven’t already registered for.
How Does Competition Impact On-Demand Engagement?
While content recommendations may be contained within a specific event on the platform, users logging into either Spotme or Swapcard can see all the events they have ever registered for from any organizer or event brand. If 80 percent of content will be consumed on demand (as Metrailler predicted in EventMB’s The Future of the Event Industry: 2021 Outlook report), will events sitting next to each other in a user’s personal content library create competition within the platform?
While this setup may be inherently more competitive than attendees accessing each siloed event one at a time, that doesn’t necessarily amount to a disadvantage.
Placing event content in a siloed on-demand library that requires a separate login forces users to either bookmark it or dig around their inbox to find that one confirmation email with the access link, assuming they remember it’s there. Compared to this scenario, a platform that presents users with your event whenever they return to any of the events they registered for could actually be an advantage for post-event engagement, on-demand consumption, and ultimately retention.
For Boulard, the key distinction is between acquisition and retention. Introducing competing events at the point of acquisition, when event organizers are trying to build an audience and get people to register, is much more problematic than displaying competing events the attendee has already registered for.
“Organizers have to think about how to provide the best experience, to reduce barriers, to create retention, and to build up year over year,” says Boulard. “Prioritizing the end-user’s experience is a commonsense way to do that.”
Giving users platform-level accounts rather than forcing them to re-register and create a new account for each event is one way to reduce friction. Though organizers using either Swapcard or SpotMe can use white labelled event containers to avoid appearing in a user’s personal event inventory, that may not be an advantage when it comes to on-demand engagement.
As event tech platforms continue to design independent user journeys and experiences that bypass specific event brands, there are bound to be some adjustments and compromises. But provided that user data privacy and security regulations are followed, event organizers shouldn’t be overly concerned.
While end-users might be gaining some control over their experience on any given platform, the benefits to engagement and adoption of being user friendly are likely to be a long-term advantage in serving an audience that prefers to watch events at their convenience — a growing demographic.