Mitigating the damage of mega-event cancellations due to coronavirus

Linda J. Dodson

The following is a guest post from Jessica Ekholm​, VP analyst​ at Gartner. Opinions are the author’s own.

On Feb. 12, Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona was canceled just over a week before its planned start date for fear of coronavirus spreading at the event. Last-minute cancellations of mega industry events, which have now expanded well past MWC, are causing major disruptions for new product launches and marketers at large.

Respondents to the 2019 Gartner Product Marketing Benchmarks Survey with more than $50 million in revenue ranked events, including third-party trade shows and first-party hosted events, as the second best performing call-to-action in delivering marketing qualified leads. Although all vendors will be impacted by this unforeseen and uncontrollable scenario, small and midsize vendors will be hit much harder. Event cancellations mean lost investments, lost product launch exposure and lost opportunities to drive new partnerships and sales leads.

Vendor product managers must be prepared to nimbly react and pivot to Plan B if they can no longer use industry events as launch pads for new products.

The trend of canceling industry events is not slowing down at this point, so tech vendors need to brace for impact and implement the following recommendations to prepare for uncertainty.

Create a formal disaster fallback plan

All organizations must create a formal disaster mitigation fallback plan within their wider event and product launch planning. Product managers who planned to launch products onsite at events should quickly turn to digital launches and communicate this change in a timely manner.

Organizations might consider creating a small, dedicated workgroup to monitor evolving pandemic situations and regularly assess possible impacts to the product launch. Gartner has even seen such workgroups add to the remit of the existing global risk management function.

The disaster fallback plan should include, at a minimum:

  • An emergency communications strategy with designated channels to notify stakeholders of pertinent impact information.
  • Plans to reduce the loss of media coverage with journalists and a media plan on writing stories around new product launches. They will otherwise need to fill the void without the physical event being held. Take advantage of this situation and find new ways of engaging press following a sudden cancellation. For instance, send out invitations for webcasts and live demos that will take place within a week of the original event dates.
  • Timing of the launch: Consider launching a product during the pre-event window to avoid getting lost in the conversation. Bigger vendors are shifting away from larger, multi-vendor events and instead hosting their own. Launch your product a week before the actual event is scheduled to gain traction before “PR fatigue” sets in. This way, product launches are still timed around the specific event but are controlled in a way that reduces exposure to disruptions.
  • Quality and reusability of product demos: Work with your marketing and events departments to lay out a plan on how to create the best possible virtual experience in lieu of face-to-face demos. This might mean using video streaming platforms in an imaginative way that immerses media, partners and prospects.

Be fast and inventive to avoid losing project launch awareness

Vendors should continue with their product launch, but in new ways that harness the audience’s interest. Act fast and smart to reduce lost opportunities. While big vendors will only receive a small dent in their product launch awareness that would have taken place at a mega-event, small vendors will suffer more. They lack the reach and scale of their larger counterparts, and usually spend a disproportionately large amount of marketing budget to be onsite. Survey respondents said they spend an average of 10% of marketing program budgets on third-party trade shows and an average of 6% of the program budgets on hosted events.

To that end, small vendors must act fast to enact alternative approaches and activities to engage with global media in the immediate aftermath of the event cancellation to showcase their new products. Beyond press outlets, smaller vendors should also approach prominent industry commentators covering their sector to create clout around the product via the reach of their social channels and high visibility in the industry.

Adopt alternative engagement approaches with partners and investors

Organizations will no longer have the opportunity to network and demo product prowess once in-person events get cut. After cancellations, small vendors will need to quickly research, identify and connect with corporate venture capital arms of larger vendors to leverage social networks like LinkedIn or shared investor contacts from other startups and small vendors. Big event cancellations also hamper smaller vendors from being discovered by potential investors, further hindering growth.

Reach out to each prospect, client and partner within no more than one working day of the event cancellation and offer them options to see the product demo in action. As vendors will have to increasingly rely on their ability to pitch ideas in virtual settings, create an ad hoc portal or data room specifically for partners and investors as a repository for key technical, business, financial documents and investor pitches.

Organizations can also reduce risks by looking at smaller-scale events that cost less and might bring less risk of cancellation due to localization. Because these events are far more specialized and vertical, there may be fewer attendees, but a higher quality of attendees versus quantity.

The time has come where tech vendors — particularly smaller ones — must revisit their plans of launching new products and features to coincide with international industry events. Although time will be lost and some costs likely nonrecoverable, organizations can still mitigate the large-scale damage of mega-event cancellations through ample contingency planning and swift responses.

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