In his latest feature, EN guest editor Simon Parker says that data is something to be nurtured, not neglected
If I had a pound for every time someone in the events industry has said that “it’s all about the data”, when asked pretty much any question, I would have enough money to buy you all something very large and expensive.
My original intention was to demystify what has become the hottest topic in events and try to pull out the pertinent facts so that we all had a clear sense of the value and potential of our data, what best practice looks like and how we can put it to best use commercially. I lined up two experts in the field – Mark Parsons (pictured right) and Stephan Forseilles (left) to understand more – Mark runs a data business serving the events industry and Stephan is the CTO of Easyfairs, a pioneer of data and digital transformation.
In all transparency, talking about data for an hour would have never featured highly on my list of favourite things to do. What followed, however, was one of the most interesting and fascinating conversations I’ve had as guest editor. Not only that, but I have enough material to split into two articles so I will be picking up this theme with ‘Part 2 – The return of Data’ in the coming weeks.
Data is absolutely key to our future and the decisions we make about how we build our respective data strategies will define and shape our businesses and the industry for years to come. What was apparent is that, whilst we discussed several key topics, we only really skimmed the surface of what is a deep and expansive subject, an ever-changing landscape that can both inform, and – more concerning – deceive.
The discussion ranged from data ownership, whether we have too much or too little data, whether that data is still relevant post Covid and the risk of killing serendipity and appearing ‘creepy”’ due to micro targeting and hyper personalisation. What is clear is that the data world is highly complex but, if we make the right decisions and investments, it offers organisers massive opportunities to get even closer to our communities and ultimately drive business growth.
Paranoid about data?
I started by asking Stephan and Mark about the debate that is currently raging about ownership of data, did they think organisers are getting justifiably paranoid about who owns the data?
Mark began by saying: “Historically we’ve given over lots of data and achieved comfort over the data exchange with third parties, although we’ve mainly kept ‘ownership’ of this data. Registration, web, floorplans, mobile apps, post show survey companies etc. all have helped organisers provide better services in exchange for our data. However, the rapid growth of virtual event suppliers who offer integrated marketing and matchmaking solutions (which I’ll describe as ‘event platforms’ going forward) is more troubling to me, as they’re less ‘niche’.
“In a world where anyone can be found, it no longer matters that you know John Smith’s contact details, the real value is in understanding John Smith’s connections, interests and actions (the ‘interaction’ data). This data represents a powerful training dataset which can be used to find more people like John Smith. The leakage of this interaction data to the event platforms and the corresponding ‘patterns’ of what works (and doesn’t) can be identified by machine learning with ease – and this is a significant challenge for organisers.”
Stephan added: “As Mark said, we’ve been used to sharing data with third parties although Easyfairs have a tradition of developing our own tools. We don’t have a lot of service providers with whom we share data, so maybe we have been more sensitive about this issue that other organisers. The level of data ownership we give to the event platforms is a massively important topic and varies from platform to platform.
“It is true that most will give us access to the data, but not to the real underlying interaction data, which is the problem for us. While we can normally get reports about what’s happening and what people are doing, we really want the raw data to train our models. Recently some of the event platforms have pushed hard to become at least co-owners of the data so they can build profiles using data from across multiple events and organisers.
“This is a double-edged sword for us – it results in stronger more accurate profiles, but we must think hard about what we are giving away. I’m comfortable these companies aren’t direct competitors, but the data trade means they will be able to provide an experience and capture value that we will struggle to if we don’t have the data ourselves.”
Mark also thinks we should be mindful that these platforms have the ability (if not the inclination, yet) to build leading customer marketing platforms on top of their current offerings. He said: “At what stage do the event platforms start using their data and insight to build marketing products which deliver a superior outcome than we can deliver as organisers? This could create a gatekeeper role to the industries we serve. However, I think it is important not to become paranoid. Our industry is filled with lots of clever people doing things for the right reasons. I still am nervous of any business models which is reliant on vendors who tell us not to worry, because they’re ‘the good guys’”.
As I explained at the beginning, we have a huge opportunity to move away from the transactional to a more emotional, profile-based relationship with our customers – although the models that we need to build require large amounts of data to feed them.
Stephan points out that “the problem is that we’re not collecting enough data. Organisers lack enough touch points – historically, we gained understanding about our customers once a year at our shows, and more recently from our digital events held throughout the year – but the scale of this data is small at present. At Easyfairs we have been collecting and analysing data for 15 years and whilst we are absolutely certain that events will come back strongly over the next 12 months, we have concerns about how relevant our past data will be. Behaviours will have undoubtedly changed, potentially profoundly. How relevant is this historical data in a post-COVID world? We don’t know if the data and patterns which we identified before the pandemic will be valid afterwards”.
Will we identify new patterns?
Prior to the lockdown Stephan shared how Easyfairs had built models that could predict, with high accuracy, who would turn up to a given event. Covid has undoubtedly changed behaviour but to what extent: He said: “I don’t know that we can say with any certainty how much behaviour will have changed – it maybe that things get back to normal quickly, but the point is that the models we had may need some calibration as they are underpinned by what drives attendance and that is likely to have changed. For example, the size of an event or whether it is domestic or international may have different outcomes post-Covid as people may decide not to go to large international events with high visitor density, preferring smaller more intimate gatherings.
“I’m eagerly waiting for the next live events, not just because it is what we do, but also to see if behaviour has changed, how our historical models perform, and whether we can identify new patterns”.
Mark built on this point: “structurally Covid is enormous. The lockdown has led to massive changes in how we consume media and how we interact online. It feels obvious that new patterns will start to emerge and organisers like Stephan will discover new approaches to deliver successful outcomes.”
So, what should the enlightened organiser do now? Do you need massive teams and big budgets to build these data competencies? Mark has worked with several organisers and shares: “It is very easy to drown in data and, occasionally, I work with organisers who get excited about building complex data refining pipelines based on web data and/or APIs without stepping back and asking what they are seeking to achieve. It very easy to build massive datasets from publicly available data, but to be able to sequence these is often overwhelming for teams. Just because you can build out a universe of hundreds of thousands of customer profiles for limited cost, doesn’t mean we should. A targeted approach is likely to be more successful.”
Beware the rabbit hole
Stephan is keen to point out that “there is definitely the danger of falling into a rabbit hole of data. Many marketers are thinking about hyper-personalization and micro targeting based on profiling of people. The aim is to offer the best personalised customer experience. But there are dangers in personalization – the ‘creepiness factor’. We can know too much, especially when derived from passive observation. Ads or content can make our customers feel uncomfortable about something they just did. Without transparency, it is easy to become creepy.
Mark helpfully shared an example in the US, where a major retailer could work out whether their customers were in the early stages of pregnancy based on their purchases. But just because they could, it didn’t mean it was a good idea. “What started as a clever idea to build loyalty based on passive observation of the data and a marketing campaign of targeted coupons for mothers-to-be ended up becoming a step too far.
“The retailer ended up sending coupons to women who didn’t know they were pregnant yet, just because the pattern of the food they purchased changed. This is clearly a case of creepy, and something where explicit permission needs to be sought. In my experience people are happy with their data being used to personalise or for lead generation, but consent and opt in are required. As soon as you start treating people as leads without their consent, it’s easy to lose trust and permission.”
Stephan came back to the risk of hyper personalisation as a threat to what makes our events special – serendipity. He said: “Our events offer the opportunity for things to happen randomly. There is an aspect of serendipity and this is where we find new ideas, and inspiration. And if we think that everybody is looking for something specific and through profiling and data put that something in front of them, we may run the risk of over curating the experience. We have to retain and nurture this aspect to our events – the fact that I established a new contact or found a completely great product I didn’t even know I wanted is what makes our events so powerful. There is a real danger that by hyper personalisation and micro targeting we might lose one of the main ingredients that makes us successful.”
While it feels as if we have only just got into our stride, this seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect ahead of Part 2. I hope you agree that Mark and Stephan have brought a potentially dry subject to life and outlined some of the challenges that will undoubtedly face not only events, but society generally. There is an insatiable appetite for data, but responsible and thoughtful leadership is needed to ensure it is used in a way that ultimately benefits the customer – if it doesn’t, we run the risk of damaging our credibility and the value of our brands. Watch this space.