Business-to-business marketers have long debated whether B-to-B events sponsorships and other event marketing are effective only for boosting sales in the short term--or also have longer-term, brand-building value.
Results of a new Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) study, conducted in partnership with Gallup & Robinson and Exhibit Surveys, claim to have put this question to rest.
And the answer is ... Yes, B-to-B events have significant brand-building power.
In addition, according to the researchers: "Contrary to the traditional advertising model, B-to-B event and sponsorship marketing is driven concurrently by thinking and emotion, sustained by reason and quality of experience at the event, and closed by action (intent or purchase). The unique value of event marketing is its ability to foster positive attitudes via a focused combination of marketing, relationship building, and event experience."
Specifically, the study set out to determine "how and in what ways the bond between the customer and B-to-B event marketing is incremental and unique to other marketing activities."
About 2,000 pre- and post-event interviews were conducted across four diverse B-to-B events, with both attendees and non-attendees in the events' target universes. This was followed up by a sales conversion study with those who had indicated purchase intent. In addition to purchase intent and "emotional connection" indicators, study participants were queried on imagery and "likelihood to recommend" indicators.
ARF had conducted a previous, similar study in the business-to-consumer events sector.
Highlights of the B-to-B study results:
- Event engagement in the B-to-B arena, as in the B-to-C arena, is driven by a combination of emotional and brand elements that "can create significant positive outcomes," such as likelihood to recommend and purchase intent. However, cognitive and transactional elements come into play more with B-to-B events than with B-to-C events.
- How people feel about the brand experience--their emotional connection to the brand--as well as the cultural fit with the brand, are key elements that work together in the B-to-B event sponsorship/marketing engagement experience. In the B-to-B space, "fit" primarily means cultural affinity between the company and the brand.
Attendees may trust claims in B-to-B ads, but the additional learning gained at events tends to be an important added driver in their consideration and purchasing decision processes.
- Study participants said that learning and building/maintaining relationships at events is just as important as selling.
Take-aways from the research include:
- The initial stages of event engagement "have extraordinary power--emotion and brand are powerful motivators that bring people to events." B-to-B adds "an additional thinking and consideration stage that is not as evident in the B-to-C space."
- Emotional elements should be considered for inclusion in interpersonal relationship building, education, and selling activities for both B-to-B and B-to-C events. Some customers need to experience a product before deciding whether to buy. Emotional connections drive purchase intent and consideration, as well as brand demand.
- In terms of customer retention and acquisition, event-related B-to-B advertising provides more reach, while exhibition activities provide more lift. However, at some point, both influences exhibit diminishing returns.
- The Web is an increasingly important follow-up component for trade show effectiveness.
- Reactions to exhibits are more important in driving purchase intent than reaction to the overall show, but both are important factors in driving factors that influence purchase intent, such as brand fit and whether the participant becomes a "promoter" of the brand.
- Trade shows have a unique viral effect. They influence attendees--large numbers of whom also influence their peers
--something that advertising does not do. "Like pass-along audiences for magazines and out-of-home TV, event reach calculations should go beyond just direct attendees," conclude the researchers.
- B-to-B marketers should focus on capturing measures of emotional and "engagement-rich" activities that create awareness and attract people to events. They should develop metrics that "proscribe the connection among brand, event and experience"; capture the "strength and variability of the connections" (ideally, developing multiple metrics for these factors); and account for viral effects, even if these must be estimated.
- B-to-B marketers should also understand and capitalize on events' socialization, learning and experience outcomes, both through follow-up contacts with attendees and other relationship tactics. The goal is to reinforce the emotional, cultural fit and brand elements established through event marketing/sponsorships.
- Key scorecard metrics should include: likelihood to recommend and intent to consider or purchase; brand-demand measures; exhibit and event experience, attitudes and perceptions; and ad/brand awareness and customer/prospect "connection" measures.
- Marketers should test the engagement-purchase intent link to ensure that it's sufficiently predictive of their industries, products, sales dynamics and competitive situations.
- They should stress follow-up and pricing/availability on the back end, to develop the brand and make the sale. This should include tracking sales conversion to relate post-event metrics with predicted and actual sales, as well as dashboards/scorecards that generate debriefing information that enables learning and improvement of future event marketing/sponsorship investments.