Event marketing

Brands like HBO and IBM rethink live events marketing strategy in detail

  • Advertisers are poised to resume marketing through live events as pandemic restrictions relax.
  • They change their approach to events with virtual and interactive elements.
  • But spending may not return to pre-pandemic levels, and some events will remain virtual.
  • See more stories on the Insider business page.

The event marketing business collapsed in 2020, and marketing managers who rely on in-person events to reach customers have dramatically shifted to virtual gatherings.

But now the advertisers are planning to start the live events all over again.

  • Marketing directors are planning new in-person promotions for the coming months as states ease pandemic restrictions and consumers tired of the lockdown look to get out, said Alison Delzell, senior vice president of experience to The Marketing Arm advertising agency.
  • Chris Weil, CEO of event agency Momentum Worldwide, which works with Walmart, American Express and Verizon, said all customers have spoken about events in the past month. He predicted the second half of 2021 would be the busiest in the agency’s 38-year history.
  • Rich Goodstone, co-founder of Superfly agency, said he saw big brands securing sponsorships for live music festivals like Outside Lands in October on the basis of stronger than expected ticket sales.

Half of marketers spend 21% or more of their budget on events, so any increase in the coming months will be significant, even though 65% of those interrogates said they did not expect spending on events in 2021 to match pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, in-person promotions have been curtailed to comply with local regulations, and executives have said all events will retain some virtual elements.

Marketers Always Plan With Health Risks In Mind


An event promoting “Lovecraft Country”.


Some advertisers are actively planning indoor and outdoor events while taking into account changing regulations and recommendations, like the warning from CDC Director Rochelle Walkensky that Michigan should tighten restrictions.

The Marketing Arm and the Cleveland Clinic have created a QR code that allows all attendees to watch a safety video before entering an event space.

Many big brands have used the drive-in format to promote new offerings while respecting security protocol. In March, Amazon took over the Rose Bowl with an interactive exhibition and a driving projection of his new animated series “Invincible”.

HBO also set up drive-thru showings to promote “Lovecraft Country” last summer, but had to reschedule and shift focus from the show’s premiere to its finale when coronavirus cases increased, said Patrick Jong, executive director of HBO’s advertising agency Giant Spoon. As a sign of the direction HBO is taking, the company has created an interactive display adapted to the pandemic,


Orbit, for the SXSW Virtual Festival in March, and plans to bring it to select AT&T stores this month, said Jim Marsh, senior vice president of program marketing.

FX Networks is designing more contactless displays and studying reservation systems to manage capacity and minimize health risks at its events, said Kenya Hardaway, senior vice president of integrated promotions. The network canceled plans for the dancers and signed the spinners to a car wash behind the wheel he set up to promote his crime drama “Snowfall” in February and diverted some of the money to coronavirus testing, Hardaway said.

Colleen Bisconti, vice president of events and conferences at IBM, said the company was looking for contracts with more flexibility. “We ended up losing a ton of money with things that had to be canceled and other unseen costs,” she said.

IBM has started planning gatherings with 10 or fewer people in the Asia-Pacific region, where the pandemic has largely passed, so that it can collect data such as attendee contact details while managing risk, Bisconti said.

“What happens when someone tries to enter your booth without a mask? We can control a lot more at an exclusive event,” she said.

Advertisers Are Not Quitting Virtual Events Yet

Satya Nadella Microsoft

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Reuters / Lucas Jackson

Some B2B advertisers are keeping virtual events at the heart of their strategy after their footfall exploded last year.

IBM, American Express and Microsoft have each seen signature conference attendance increase by more than 300% year-over-year. More than 179,000 people attended Microsoft Build, a two-day conference for software engineers and web developers, up from 6,200 the previous year, said Bob Bejan, vice president of global events at Microsoft.

Microsoft has moved all of its events online for the foreseeable future following the success of these efforts, he said.

Jess Ling, vice president of business-to-business marketing at American Express, said her Business Class Live event for small businesses last year saw attendance triple to 3,000, with Shaquille O’Neal and Venus Williams leading the way poster. Ling attributed this to the fact that the programming was more accessible and no one had to travel.

The bar is also getting higher for virtual events. Bisconti said IBM has increased its spending on content production for its first all-virtual Think Summit to retain its 175,000 attendees.

“When we started turning everything digital, people were very forgiving of the speakers that were obviously sitting at their kitchen tables,” Bisconti said. “Now the expectations are higher. The tolerance for 45-minute opening speeches is gone forever.”

Collecting data from other organizers’ virtual events is a challenge for advertisers, however. In the case of this year’s virtual CES, Bisconti said IBM couldn’t measure its ROI because the data belonged to the event producer, Microsoft. So IBM sent wine to potential customers and held virtual wine tastings with them where it was able to track its sales efforts.

Regardless of how they look this year, advertisers have agreed that events will never be the same as before the pandemic.

“As we plan for 2021, the only certainty we have is uncertainty,” Ling said.