How data and digital are transforming the live events opportunity for brands

Changing expectations of attendees, digital and data capability and the desire to get back to physical experiences are all driving a renaissance of live events. But it's also an evolving landscape for brands and sponsorship. We find out more

Two-and-a-half years ago, the entire live events industry, from touring concerts to major conferences, was forced into a digital transformation unlike anything experienced by any industry before.

But as Australians once again leave their couches and home offices in search of mass human connections, the question now is whether 2020's digital pivot will have lasting consequences in terms of what audiences want and how brands can engage with them. Even as concerns of a fourth Covid wave are brewing, Australians are showing eager willingness to engage in large-scale shared experiences.

According to the latest Audience Outlook Monitor from the Australia Council for the Arts in October, 71 per cent of Australians were ready to attend live events, up from 65 per cent in August. However, 44 per cent were still attending performing arts events less than they did pre-pandemic.

Not surprising, general manager of Live Nation special events, Damian Costin, describes the current state of the industry as one of flux.

“We’ve had two-plus years of no major events, so people are really excited to be out again, fan demand is super high, and artists have never been keener to get back on the road and onto stages," Costin tells CMO. "Digital had that rise in lockdown and although we made the most of a staying at home, there is nothing quite like being among friends and having a tangible experience with live music and the roar of a crowd.”

It's a is similar story across other parts of the events industry, including conferences and exhibitions. As Australian director of global brand experience agency, Imagination, Heath Campanaro is currently helping his team deliver two of 2023's largest corporate events – AWS Summit and Telstra Vantage. He believes we are yet to settle on what 'normal' looks like, let alone have a clear vision for the future of events.

“We're seeing a lot of excitement,” Campanaro says. “Our big clients are recognising nothing builds pipeline like these events, where they are pressing the flesh, solving client problems in real time and building relationships. It is human nature and how we build trust and relationships."

What Campanaro also observes, however, is the changed expectations of attendees. There’s less enthusiasm to sit through endless presentations and a greater desire to participate in workshops, tutorials and more engaging scenarios.

“People are having a great time getting back to what they love doing, which is socialising with people and chatting about their business and what they have to offer, and building relationships," Campanaro says. “They are looking for something much more tactile, solution-focused and personal. So as we start to move into 2023, we are looking at bringing a lot less stage content into these things and a lot more experiential content.”

Digital reverberations

Another change is rapidly declining interest in digitally delivered content. While Campanaro expects some events will continue to broadcast their content, especially if audiences are large and geographically dispersed, many will focus back on the live experience itself.

“People want to be there, they want problems solved in real time, and they want to do that face-to-face,” he says.

In addition, Campanaro notes a lack of attendee enthusiasm for integrating technology into the event experience itself. Despite the predilection for carrying mobile devices everywhere we go, neither organisers not attendees are showing interest devices for anything more than scheduling and wayfinding. Mixed reality such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) solutions are not on the radar.

“It is still a little bit clunky, it is also quite expensive and it is also not necessary,” Campanaro claims. “We are in an environment at the moment where our clients' budgets are not what they used to be, when there was an innovation budget sitting over a logistics budget.”

The upshot is evolutionary strides towards mixed-reality and metaverse styles events are unlikely to be taken any time soon.

“‘Metaverse’ is something a lot of our clients are talking about. But when they see the reality of what it costs to stand up a metaverse experience with a full 3D environment, considering all the UX requirements and what your delegates might do in that 3D world, you are up to big dollars straight away,” Campanaro adds.

The shared experience

Where digital is playing a big role in shaping events is by allowing people to share experiences outside of the physical location. That presents interesting opportunities for brands.

According to live entertainment specialist agency Rifle managing director, Andrew Christopher, the propensity for attendees – especially younger ones – to want to share their experiences is the next great opportunity.

“The question for brands is how can they start to tap into post-event experience when fans are sharing and amplifying content,” Christopher says. “If you are sponsoring a concert, you have a three-hour window to maximise the opportunity from an event experience. But in reality, you have an additional 48-hour window when consumers have filmed that experience and are cutting it up for social media.

“So how can brands get around amplification in a real way and continue experience post-event?”

Solving this challenge may require brands to work a lot harder than just slapping a logo on a ticket. For example, forging more meaningful partnerships with the artists they support. Christopher cites a recent example where his team worked on a sponsorship between McDonald’s and The Kid Laroi.

“If you want to do it well you need their [the artist's] buy in and their collaboration to make it authentic,” Christopher says. “If you are prepared to roll your sleeves up and incorporate all the various stakeholders in that scene… well, the feedback from McDonald’s was that was the most meaningful thing the brand had done in years.

“It's a lot of work to put into one campaign, so if you can make it sweat for a longer period of time, you should definitely look into that. But if you are prepared to put in the work, you will get rewarded.”

Data-driven event horizon

Luke Bould has spent most of his career working in live sports and entertainment. He’s now the commercial manager at global live entertainment, ticketing and technology business, TEG. He agrees digital sharing represents the new frontier for brand engagement and suggests solutions for brands are already embedded in the data companies like TEG are acquiring on their customers.

For Bould, the next technology revolution to sweep live events won't be in the venues themselves, but in the back-end systems gathering and analysing attendees' preferences and behaviours. When done well, this can lead to a very different approach to sponsorships and a more personalised experience for attendees. He points out TEG now has 15 million Australians on its database.

“We know their live entertainment preferences and we also know their behaviours around a whole range of other things,” Bould continues. “The proposition to a sponsor is not only can we give you the ability to connect through traditional brand elements, we can connect you directly with fans, track behaviours and interactions. We are providing rich data insights, which is pretty critical to most brands and the way they spend. That is a real change in the value proposition."

This focus on data is music to the ears of companies such as Nielsen Sports, which provides several of Australia’s largest sporting bodies with data about their fans and audiences to enable a better and more mutually beneficial experience. According to Nielsen Sports NZ director of research, Andrew Ross, data will become increasingly critical as inflationary pressures cause consumers to worry more about the cost of actively backing their favourite teams.

“That’s why we measure all factors involved in the relationship between fans, rightsholders and sponsors, from the price of entry to food and drinks to parking," Ross says. “More than ever before, this is a key factor in how Australians engage with rightsholders and sponsors.

“And increasingly, its impact on different genders, ages, family demographics and other societal groups is impacting the effectiveness of sponsorship and event attendance.”

Christopher agrees data held by ticket sellers today provides an enormous opportunity, in terms of how they can segment data and make it available to brands. “That lifecycle of the ticket purchase has become a lot more sophisticated, and brands can leverage that data,” he says.

For Ross, concerts and live events give marketers unique learnings about an individual through what live events they are willing to spend their money on, rather than how much money they earn or where they live.

“I don’t think they [the events industry] have maximised the potential of how to make that available to a brand, but it is certainly much more developed than where it was four or five years ago,” he says.

Blazing the brand trail

Having seen the same opportunity, Bould believes it is now up to the live events industry to provide ideas and opportunities back to sponsors and create the use cases and evidence to support greater investment. He indicates such thinking will be on display at the forthcoming South by Southwest Festival staged in Sydney for the first time in 2023. Both attendees and sponsors already have a high expectation for creativity.

“It is allowing us to have really rich conversations which are different from the usual ones,” Bould says. “Clearly people value experiences, and we are lucky, because we are in the business to deliver those experiences. That creates an enormous opportunity for brands. It requires some more thinking, but the outcomes can be far greater."

Campanaro is another who expects data to play a much greater role in the future of the conference industry, as a means of ensuring events are better tailored to the needs of individuals. While this has been done manually for high-value clients through the work of sales teams, Campanaro says the next opportunity is to provide it in an automated fashion for all attendees.

“Whether that is done for you manually, or at an AI level, it is very possible and can provide you with a better, more tailored experience," he says.

But Campanaro cautions brands and organisers to be mindful not to let their ambitions and technology get in the way of what attendees are seeking out in the first place.

“It is storytelling in thoughtful, clever, memorable, physical ways - that are what people are engaging in, and what they are excited to come back to events for,” he says.

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