Companies best positioned to make the transition from in-person conferences to virtual events have performed all the necessary legwork to form a strong brand and tap the value of the brand in each customer interaction.
This was an enduring theme at the recent Clean Energy Events Roundtable, where TerraCurrent and Cross Consulting Services hosted an expansive discussion with two dozen colleagues who work in clean energy.
In this post, we will feature highlights from the conversation, starting with examples of what has and hasn’t worked over the past several months. We’ll cover challenges and opportunities, whether you’re planning to participate in an event that’s gone virtual or roll out a new experience of your own. Lastly, we will talk about future implications for clean energy brands.
If you want more leading-edge ideas about interactive engagement in the midst of a pandemic, see our virtual events cheat sheet, another product of the Clean Energy Events Roundtable. We’re grateful to all participants who shared insights and gave us permission to republish them.
Some of the first events that tried to simulate the live trade show experience were received with a mix of positive feedback and criticism.
At Midwest Solar Expo, for example, Kyle Cherrick, vice president of business development at Solar.com, liked the ability to see everyone who was logged in to the virtual world and send direct messages or invite people to chat face to face.
But Anne Wright, vice president of sales at Pegasus Solar, said the use of avatars made conversation challenging because you couldn’t see any facial expression.
Several organizations represented at the Clean Energy Events Roundtable, including Pegasus Solar, Clean Coalition, and Green Empowerment, talked about developing virtual tours of projects or facilities, as Trina Solar has done on its website home page.
“We’re in the process of setting up a video studio with all correct lighting and everything so that we can engage our customers with our products and many roofs,” Wright said. “Also, we have roofs that fit in the back of pickup trucks that can be pulled out easily on rollers. So you can do a product demo. Mask up, wear gloves, have hand sanitizer, so you can actually do a product demo in the parking lot. Installers love that. They don’t like being inside.”
Some types of events translate to a virtual environment more easily than others. Brad Dore, director of marketing at SMA America, said of recent experience at Energy Storage Association’s virtual conference and expo that the educational aspect was “pretty productive” while the e-marketplace and exhibition booth were “a total and complete bust.”
Chalk it up to trial and error giving way to a few lessons learned. One observation Dore has made: distributors and installers in Europe and Latin American have been more enthusiastic about virtual events and the digital tools that enable them than B2B customers in the US.
There’s more experimentation and learning to come. “If anybody is saying, ‘I know exactly what we should be doing,’ I’m going to call you a liar,” Dore said. “Because how many of us have really been in a digital environment caused by a global pandemic before?”
Challenges and opportunities
A lot of small and mid-sized companies lack internal capacity on the marketing side, noted Cross Consulting Services principal Robert Cross. As a result, the difficulties go far beyond keeping up with industry leaders. It’s challenging for companies of that scale to even keep track of everything that’s happening in the space.
“You’re worried about your sales team. Do we have enough master electricians on the install side? It’s really tough for them to think about marketing,” Cross said.
It’s not just a front-end engagement issue, either, noted TerraCurrent CEO Glenna Wiseman.
“It’s moving that lead through an operations pipeline. It’s a software issue. It’s a training issue. It goes all the way through to installation or delivery,” Wiseman said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the industry to get much more savvy on the marketing side all the way through to delivery.”
Roundtable participants who have hosted events of all sizes, in-person shows before the pandemic and now virtual events, talked about the need to redefine what success looks like.
One of them, Courtney Nagle, vice president of business development and director of renewable energy brands at WTWH Media, the publisher of Solar Power World, said in-person trade shows will eventually return, but attendance won’t be what it used to be. “People aren’t going to spend the money that they used to because they’re going to realize how much money they’d saved,” Nagle said.
On the bright side, this will lead to a more discerning group of event sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and attendees who sharpen their focus on goals and accountability before they agree to participate. And when businesses achieve their goals, the industry grows.
“One of the biggest opportunities in this is to better align marketing and sales,” Cross said. “I think with the environment the way that it is, companies that really excel at that and gain alignment between those things are going to make headway.”