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Marketing in a virtual world

Lessons learned in 2020

Marketing in a virtual world
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Very soon after the pandemic forced us to abruptly shift to 100% remote work, my team and I realized that we had a game-changing marketing opportunity on our hands. OpenText, like many other software businesses, relied heavily on physical events, conferences and trade shows, all venues where we could introduce ourselves to prospective and current customers. But in-person was clearly out of the question, and so we found ourselves thinking through what the new world of all virtual events looked like, how they felt, and what that experience created from a participant’s perspective.

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Here are some of the lessons learned over the course of 2020.

1. Digital events are now the norm

We quickly transitioned our signature event, OpenText World, into an all-virtual format and then launched the European event in early April 2020, just weeks after global lockdown rules came into effect. Other events followed, and we began to see some fascinating trends.

The most obvious benefit of our move to digital events was the reduction in cost, with our flagship events costing approximately 95% less per attendee. But we also saw an increase in sales pipeline and customer engagement compared to previous in person events, with 3.5x higher pipeline yield resulting from our global digital event alone.

And as we gained more experience with digital events, other patterns came into sharper focus.

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For example, we found we were drawing from a wider pool of participants. In the past there was what I describe as significant `calendar risk’ for individuals travelling to conferences: not just the travel expense, but the time commitment for busy executives. The virtual events, by contrast, removed those uncertainties, and have allowed participants to be more selective about what sessions they attend based on what they want to learn.

2. Customers expect new (digital) experiences

We’ve also observed that attendees are looking for different experiences from virtual events than what they expected at in-person conferences. In the place of live seminars featuring panel discussions and PowerPoint presentations, we’re seeing much more interest in highly compelling product demonstrations and trials. We’ve created “click tours” that allow people to check out the look and feel of our products, with training embedded in the experience. While this may have been commonplace for consumer tech for some time, in the world of enterprise software this is a much bigger challenge.

The training element is critical as we see many attendees coming to our sessions to learn, not just to buy. It’s also the case that prospective customers are self-educating; they are arriving at our virtual events having done their homework and are now eager to test out the products.

An unintended (positive) consequence of the shift to digital events has been the “long-tail” benefit of the content. Previously, most of the content was only available to those people sitting in the room at the time. Now the content is available anytime, and on any device, to our customers worldwide. In the world of virtual marketing, we’re providing continuous access to conference content, so those digital assets become a permanent resource.

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3. Invest in the right content, at the right time, on the right channels

One especially salient learning from this shift has involved our marketing spend. In recent years, OpenText has invested $20 million annually in its trade shows. We’re redirecting that investment now and in future years into high quality content, new virtual experiences, and online access to a wide range of resources for new and existing customers.

The nature of the interaction has also changed in important ways. We’re meeting prospects virtually, and so there’s a greater sense of the individual, in their own spaces, as opposed to impersonal meeting spaces. They want information tailored to their specific needs, and we’re using our own OpenText Experience Cloud to deliver against these expectations by providing contextualized and consistent customer experiences across every channel. On our end, having a more personal connection helps us understand where potential customers are in the buyer’s journey, and how we can apply the right information at the right time.

4. There is still space for face-to-face

A  recent McKinsey & Company 2021 trends forecast noted that while business travel will come back post-pandemic, it will be much reduced compared to pre-2020. However, “digital fatigue” is real, as anyone who spends their days on Teams or Zoom calls will know. And this is something as marketers we must keep a close eye on and avoid becoming an obstacle in this new world of virtual marketing and engagement.

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As the world resets to a post-pandemic reality, I see a hybrid model becoming the norm. Employees will likely spend more time working at home, with time in an office being used for meaningful, in-person, well-planned gathering. The same is true for customer interactions, a mix of digital content—maybe for training or remote learning—and in-person events for networking, discussing trends and collaborating on new solutions.

The core learning comes down to one key point: we’re not going back.

Lou Blatt is OpenText’s senior vice-president and chief marketing officer. He joined the company’s executive leadership team in April 2020.