Three Experts Speak to the Necessity of Person-to-Person Marketing in the Digital Age

In the age of social media, when brand success may be measured by friend and follower counts in the thousands or even millions, it seems almost quaint to think of actually meeting individuals. In person. In the flesh. Nonetheless, trade shows are slowly bouncing back, and live event facilitators, like the fast-growing Eventbrite, are flourishing. I reached out to several experts to see what’s working, and not, in person-to-person marketing.

Face-to-Face: More Valuable Than Ever

Gini Dietrich is a rising presence in the world of new marketing: author, speaker, educator, and agency founder (of Arment Dietrich). She commands healthy speaking fees for addressing large conferences yet there she was, sitting in a smallish room, getting up close and personal with perhaps sixty people in a local event hosted by Chicago web specialists Orbit Media. I was a bit mystified. Gini – it seems as if everyone uses her first name – is largely making her mark via the adept integration of new media with old school marketing insight, and yet she was being literally social, not simply online.

I asked her why she thinks person-to-person marketing still matters for brands, large or small.

Branding Magazine: In your book Marketing in the Round, you and your co-author state “Face-to-face engagement is still the best way to build relationships, even though technology allows us to network everyday. Being able to read body language, hear inflection in tone and even pinpoint sarcasm helps build those relationships even more quickly than daily online communications.” It’s easy to see how that applies to smaller organization, like your own, but how do you see that applying to larger marketing organizations?

Gini Dietrich: I don’t think it has anything to do with the size of the organization. It’s why large organizations still have sales teams and regional reps. The face-to-face engagement is always more valuable because of the reasons you mention. But we’re in an interesting time right now. The Baby Boomers in business have always worked directly with customers and prospects, in person. They’ve always closed business (particularly on the B2B side) by looking someone in the eyes. The Millennials, however, are accustomed to doing all of their research and “meeting” people online. So we’re straddling different ways of doing business. Technology allows us to be more effective with our time and meet more people, but the in-person meetings (even if it’s via video Skype) are more valuable.

BM: Your book states that trade shows, the grand daddy’s of in-person marketing, have “Return on investment lower than other marketing tools.” Do you feel that applies to both short-term and long-term ROI?

GD: Boy. Based on our experience in the last five years, the ROI is gone for trade shows. We’ve seen a big shift in attending shows and conferences for education and the networking value at the cocktail parties and dinners, but not having a booth or spending lots of money on those kinds of things.

BM: Do you feel that’s an inherent limitation, or could newer approaches boost that ROI – use of social media, better integration in “the round,” etcetera?

GD: I’m not sure the newer approaches could boost the ROI. About 10 years ago, I worked with BASF on their agrichemical business. We attempted to do satellite trade shows that were driven through a television station. We were way ahead of our time and our customers couldn’t figure out why they’d want to attend a show online instead of going to it in person. They didn’t see the value in not having to leave their farms, but still have the networking and learning opportunities. We see a little bit more of that today, but it still doesn’t replace the in person events.

Should Brands Trade in Trade Shows for Something More Intimate?

I also contacted Scott Goldman, President of Eaton Hall Exhibitions, who had a different take on the value of live events, noting that there are still over 2000 trade shows annually in the United States.

Branding Magazine: “In a digital age, are trade shows still relevant?”

Scott Goldman:Online information is, in many ways, amplifying, not replacing, the live experience. Buyers come into an event more well-informed, so they can make better use of their time at a show. They ask better questions, and are able to dig deeper.

The massive, horizontal show is less important now, since there’s more information out there online. But buyers are saying they place value on the targeted, niche events that serve them more directly. 

 Where live events used to be the place to get a broad overview of what’s new, that information is now online. So buyers are using live events to get more in-depth information about specific products. At my company, we’ve changed all our events from the exhibit hall format to more intimate, up-close invitation-only programs where buyers get appointments with exactly the vendors they want to see. A smaller event allows buyers to drill deeper.”

Person-to-Person Marketing: The Irreplaceable Human Touch

The move to smaller-is-better in live events benefits not only attendees, but also presents new opportunities for brands of all sizes.  Orbit Media sponsors a semi-regular “Wine and Web” evening of education and socializing – the event mentioned above.  I asked Orbit’s founder, Andy Crestodina, why an agency so thoroughly digital would invest in live gatherings.

 Branding Magazine: What do you find that in-person communication can accomplish that digital contact can’t?

Andy Crestodina: The real connection between you and the other person is always going to be higher after you’ve met. There is no replacement for face-to-face. Can you ever truly know someone, understand them or love them without having met? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. The connection and memory will be stronger if you can make the jump to an in-person meeting.

BM: What’s been the biggest value realized by your Wine and Web event?

AC: It turns out, teaching people how to get the most of web marketing is a good way to be relevant for web design. As long as we just try to teach everything we can, people are more likely to attend an event, read the blog, signup for the newsletter and hopefully, think of us when they need a new website. Or they may refer someone they know. And having a mix of current clients, potential clients and friends helps to show that we care enough to stay involved.

Yes, it’s a marketing event, but everything we do here has an outcome for someone. There are real people behind these businesses. Being connected with those people is what makes the work worthwhile! Like every service company, our job is to help people. And being closer to the people we work for makes our jobs so much more rewarding. Web design isn’t just about design or technology. It’s ultimately about people. So why not have a glass of wine with them!

That seemed to be the common threads through all three interviews – that no matter the level of digital sophistication, marketing, to be effective, must ultimately be human-to-human. In her book, Gini Dietrich succulently sums up the bottom line benefit of person-to-person marketing this way, “Always remember, people buy from those they know and like.”

What is your current experience of marketing via live events, for big brands or your personal brand?