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The New Must-Have Skill for Event Planners in 2022

November 1, 2021
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Beth Surmont

Planners need to start thinking like product developers.

One of the silver lining effects of the past two years is that we now know how to deliver our events in multiple ways. We have in-person products and digital products, and those who learn how to think in a strategic product development way will find success. Those who get stuck at the hybrid livestream level will lose audience, revenue, and opportunity.

Product development starts with understanding the audience at a fundamental motivational level, knowing what they want before the audience even knows it themselves.

Steve Jobs famously said, “A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." He’d had a vision of a touchscreen device for years; it had appeared in earlier Apple products. But the gamechanger was understanding the job that a phone could do for people. Beyond making calls (remember when we used to use phones for that?) to carrying their phone, their music, their cameras, and the internet in a small device that fits into their pocket.

Apple develops its products through a combination of surveys, customer feedback, analysis of internal data about what is driving sales, paying attention to what drives competitors’ sales, and beautiful, simple design that removes all friction.

This quote from their Careers page says it all:

“Apple products work beautifully because our designers maintain an intense focus on simplicity and usability. They judge the success of their work not by everything they put into it, but by everything the user gets out of it.”

So how does all of this apply to events?

Product developers are focused on the customer, and they build for what the customer needs. We’ve done a great job the past few years of understanding what our events do for our organizations, and why we have them. But we haven’t put as much focus on what our audiences need – and what they don’t even know they need.

We’ve made assumptions about credits and booths and networking, but when was the last time you took a step back and really thought about the job your event does for your audience?

So how do we translate all of this into new thinking for events? It begins with five steps:

  1. Use the data you’ve been able to gather in the past two years. What types of sessions and topics were most popular? What is the average watch time of a session? Are more consuming live or on-demand? Look for patterns, insights, and gaps.
  2. Survey your audience. Not a post-event survey asking how they liked the venue or the speakers, but a proactive survey to understand their sentiment, top challenges, issues they want to solve, and their ambitions and motivations.
  3. Look at what your competitors are doing. Now, more than ever, you must be offering the very best product in your category to survive. Budgets are getting smaller, audiences are getting more selective, and there is a lot of noise to compete with. If your event isn’t the best offering, then next time I’ll attend it digitally and save my travel money for a more interesting experience.
  4. Look holistically across your portfolio. How many events and educational components are you offering? Are they all designed for the same type of audience, or do you have specific events tailored toward specific audiences? Apple has 25 different iPhones listed on their product page. And while there are similarities across all of them, they all have very specific features to appeal to different audiences.
  5. Design your event to meet the needs, fill the gaps, and reduce the friction. Pilot test, collect feedback, refine, and test again. You aren’t planning an event; you are developing a product.