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How Covid fast-tracked digital transformation of Informa’s Global Licensing Group

If the past 18 months have proven anything, it’s that technology has greatly increased the speed at which markets are able to adapt to a sudden downturn.

But when the world’s leading brand licensing event was forced to close in the wake of the pandemic, few could have predicted it would bring the world’s largest organiser closer than ever to one of its key markets. 

Anna Knight, Vice-President of Licensing at Informa Market’s Global Licensing Group (GLG), provided one of the standout sessions at the second 2021 Exhibition Think Tank Club with her account of the Licensing Expo, and of the opportunity arising from crisis in the exhibition industry.

From experimentation with the digital offering, through destabilisation and the emergence of new exhibitor and attendee requirements, her team’s journey was not without jeopardy. But while the pandemic forced GLG’s hand, the result was no temporary measure; instead catalysing a new strategy and an enriched proposition for a rapidly evolving audience. 

Here, we provide a closer look at Anna’s presentation – given online in partnership with ExpoPlatform – as she documented event technology’s ability to adapt to the changing needs of exhibitors and organisers in an event industry landscape forever changed.

The licensing universe

The brand licensing marketplace is a global, horizontal market that spans hundreds of verticals, with customers including consumer brand owners, manufacturers and retailers (in-store, online and omni-channel). The team’s licensing portfolio boasts major brands including Disney, Amazon and Formula 1, just three names from a potential universe of around a million organisations. 

informa licensing universe

Digitally, GLG reaches around 150,000 of these, with 20,000 people attending the licensing portfolio’s physical licensing shows, the largest of which is Brand Licensing Europe – an event geared towards brand and IP discovery.

Back-to-back meetings comprise the bulk of activity for the three-day physical event and Anna’s team doesn’t complicate this with simultaneous conferences, instead presenting two standalone conferences on licensing news, associated trends and analysis. 

GLG’s KPIs are built around enabling IP owners to showcase their brands and allow potential buyers to identify which of these are available to license.

As an overall proposition, Anna categorises her division’s events in three ‘buckets’; content, matchmade meetings and the marketplace (essentially a directory for IP and brand discovery).

Out with the old

In 2019, a clear separation existed between the media and events operations at GLG. Despite physical attendees constituting just a small fraction of the potential market, GLG’s sales team derived 95 per cent of its business from the in-person trade show. Print and digital media activity was limited to a news website, print magazine and email newsletters.

marketing and sales strategy

So when in-person attendance gave way to online alternatives in 2020, Anna’s team began experimenting with different types of online events and products. Their goal was common to all international event organisers; replacing the loss of in-person revenue with online revenue. 

Digital content replaced print. Podcasts, white papers and webinars-on-request grew out of this reactive strategy, all with the aim of improving the proposition of an industry forced to operate remotely. These supported two online events in 2020, the latter and largest of which was the month-long Festival of Licensing; four sequential events tailored to key licensing territories, each supported by the Global Licensing Group’s regional event brands.

The online strategy required a rethink of the sales team’s duties. A single manager was put in charge of each account, responsible for both event and digital media sales. This carried with it a number of complications, not least the fact that the account manager was now managing the dichotomy between physical and digital event spend. And while the former was historically the more lucrative revenue generator, the latter had the legs in a world still doing business remotely. Nonetheless, the feedback from Anna’s customers was that they wanted to deal with a single account manager.

In with the new

The pivot to digital also introduced new efficiencies. Anna’s team’s digital media output changed in accordance with new online behavioural data, products becoming more personalised for the individuals they were trying to reach. 

“We now have touchpoints with our customers all year round,” she explained. “This could be anything from a podcast to a webinar, to an in-person event or an online event. But it’s very much about making sure that we do something every month, and that we make these connections.”

The team’s strategy is of course conceived to align its offering with the spending habits of its audience. Organisations were forced to re-distribute their marketing budget in the absence of physical events, and if GLG couldn’t provide alternatives then this money would be channeled elsewhere. 

“Over the three-year period things have changed and we’ve tried to adapt to where the market itself is going,” said Anna, adding that she was using “the strength of that community” to both drive extra monetisation opportunities and keep customers engaged. 

The main event

By the second half of 2020, Anna’s team had begun asking questions of both its exhibitors and attendees to establish what they would want from a hybrid event in 2021

“We talked about the idea of a simultaneous hybrid event and it tested poorly,” Anna recalled. “When customers are onsite they really only want to concentrate on those meetings, they don’t want to have virtual meetings at the same time. 

“What came out of that was that when they are at in-person events, they miss out on certain connections, they miss out on people that kind of walk past their booth, or perhaps have a five-minute conversation with someone but wanted that conversation to be longer – or to involve other team members.”

This is a virtue of the live event medium as we know it. The ability to engage one another while under the same roof and with interests piqued. But the accessibility and sustainability of online interaction, coupled with widespread familiarity of online meetings, has now given credibility to transmuting those conversations and content into the digital medium.

Long gone are the days where we rely on the chance encounter, as former Reed Exhibitions chairman Mike Rusbridge once observed. However, we can now emulate them to some degree in the digital space.

GLG developed a system for its 2021 event that enabled follow-up by tracking activity throughout the event; an integral part of its hybrid trade show model. By combining lead-retrieval data from the in-person event with the accountability of the online system, you can grant attendees the best of both worlds.

“The online event now has a dual purpose, the first purpose being for those who weren’t able to attend in person to still have some kind of event experience. And secondly, this follow-up idea where perhaps you only had a very short conversation with a customer, and you want to use this online event to follow up with them,” said Anna, adding that by doing this very close to the in-person event, “you’re able to still have a very relevant conversation”.

It soon became apparent that conversations could also be sparked via the online event. By keeping the platform open for three months after the in-person event, releasing on-demand seminar content and presenting directories, attendees could be drawn back to the platform.

Making money

By combining the serendipity of a live event and the accountability of an online event with an unprecedented degree of personalisation, the value of the hybrid proposition was becoming clear to attendees. 

The question soon became how to monetise this, and specifically to align GLG’s pricing with the event’s newly perceived value.

A flat-rate pricing model had been in place for October’s Festival of Licensing. But Anna’s team soon found a clear correlation between the square metres an exhibitor would take at a physical event and the number of meetings – and therefore representatives – the exhibitor would typically field. It was clear that when shifted into the online medium, the value was greater for an exhibitor or attendee capable of completing a higher number of meetings. 

“We hadn’t changed the charging model, it was a flat charging model for everyone, which meant that a one-man-band able to have a maximum of 250 meetings was charged the same as someone like Hasbro, which could have had 30 people in the system and therefore 30 times as many meetings,” she explained. 

“The value was incorrect from that point of view, so we decided in the hybrid world to correlate the two, a different tier of cost depending on which square foot bracket you fall into.”

For online-only exhibitors, Anna’s team tied prices to the number of people that they wanted to put in the system. It also offered a concierge/hosted buyer service, helping exhibitors to arrange the most potentially valuable meetings. By mining the system and identifying the best people to meet, the return on investment could be increased – particularly for smaller exhibitors with smaller teams. 

The Global Licensing Team also moved to annual subscription packages, providing platinum, gold and silver tier services including both online and physical marketing components. 

informa subscription packages

Anna’s team had now made a compelling case for virtual attendance, and in convincing attendees of the value of online events, they had paved the way for monetisation. 

“We’re putting something out there that says we believe in the value of virtual, and that we will be charging for this in the future. So we want you to know that there is a value to it, even though for 2021 we’re actually including it in the price of the exhibition,” she said. “In terms of the opportunity, online events are driving bigger audiences, and new audiences as well, given that trade shows aren’t meeting.”

The way forward

GLG’s digital licensing journey has enabled it to reach a much larger audience, a significant percentage of which had not attended a licensing event in two years. 

As we outlined at the start of this article, Anna’s team’s digital reach is about 150,000 of a potential universe of one million, with 20,000 of these attending the event in person before the pandemic. Excluding sister events from the portfolio, there’s a huge number of customers already in the market that not all of GLG’s trade show exhibitors are benefiting from. 

The bigger marketplace that Anna’s team is not yet penetrating, but which they are now going after, can only be reached through online activity. Of more than 11,000 pre-registered attendees for the 2021 event (the number at the time of Anna’s presentation in early May) almost 8,000 had not attended a licensing event in the past two years. More than half of those were new to GLG. 

With these new attendees spending time building their online presence and making business decisions on the fly, the situation demanded a year-round online community platform able to provide increased networking options. Anna’s team jumped on this realisation, exploring hybrid event models that extended their reach beyond the traditional event crowd.

“There is always going to be a place for face-to-face, but we’ve got to work harder than ever to deliver return on investment and improve the relevance of those events,” says Anna. She further adds:

anna knight quote

The innovation and opportunity offered by digital alternatives is too significant to ignore. While still a work-in-progress for GLG, the move to annual subscription packages providing platinum, gold and silver tiers covers a range of benefits. A year-round directory listing showcasing brands and IP, matchmaking and a dashboard with live and digital leads and analytics is virgin territory for the world’s largest organiser. But one thing’s for sure; creating an integrated online experience will drive more value for customers than they would get from just attending in-person events.  

Organisers that can join those two together and offer their audiences something that’s aligned and integrated, are definitely going to be the ones that win out.