The Future of Content Episode 20: Creating Connections, Not Just Events

Key ideas:

  • Most event organizers and attendees think about the “what” when considering an event. Dana challenges them to think about the “why.” Why are we dedicating time and resources to this event and how will it create lasting meaning?
  • “Leave more connected.” Even in a virtual setting, setting the stage to make connections that can continue after the event should be top of mind.
  • When we get back to in-person events, they need to change. There is far too much waste generated in powering modern events.

Dana Pake’s history in event strategy prepared her for a much-needed shift in the event industry when the pandemic hit last year. The switch to all-virtual let Dana refocus her attention on human connection events, which coincidentally became all the more important without IRL opportunities on the calendar. 

“[Attendees come to an event because] ‘I want to leave more connected,’ right? ‘Who am I going to meet at your program or at the program who is going to help me further my career or somebody that I can just kvetch with,’ right? I think about why you would go to an event sometimes. I feel like they’re group therapy.”

Dana Pake, events strategist and executive producer

The motivating factor for Dana to continue with events despite travel limitations is that they each provide a forum to converse. We all have ideas on how to measure event success, but for Dana, it’s all about creating meaningful conversation that can continue well after the event has concluded.

“As humans, we want to gather, and there’s a reason behind why we’re gathering. So the content piece in that is, what’s the conversation starter? As many events as I have produced, people need boundaries and guidelines for ‘how do I interact?’ And some people are gregarious and extroverted and know how to do that. Some of the most inspiring people are the quiet ones, the introverted ones who don’t necessarily want to have small talk. So how do you create a space for them to have meaningful talk?”

Dana Pake, events strategist and executive producer

Dana Pake

Dana Pake is an events strategist and executive producer.

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Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!

[music]

Todd: Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On this podcast, we explore content—it’s creation, management, and distribution—by talking with the people who make content possible. Our goal is to learn from diverse perspectives and industries to become better creators. The Future of Content is brought to you by Four Kitchens. We design and develop digital content solutions that get results. Today, I’m joined by Dana Pake, and we’re going to be talking about events and event strategy. Welcome to The Future of Content, Dana.

Dana: Hey, Todd, good to be here.

Todd: Thank you. So what does an events strategist and executive producer do?

Dana: Well, before times or these times? [laughter] In these times?

Todd: Let’s start with, well, whichever you like.

Dana: Yeah. In these times, as a strategist, it’s really defining that blueprint and articulating for the client. Or if you are the strategist internally, why are you producing the event? What problems is it solving, first, for your audience, your attendees, and then how does that help move the needle for the business? And then knowing that, then defining, “Okay, so what’s my minimum viable experience? And then how do I need to design my tech stack to that? What speakers do I need to get to an even higher level?” And more importantly, it’s really defining, “What’s the story I need to tell to help these people solve their problems?” And then at the end of the day, also thinking about, “In my role as a strategist, what is the story I need the attendee to tell after they leave the program?” So—

Todd: And so the program being the event like a conference, or a virtual video event, or something like that.

Dana: Yeah, exactly if it’s a user conference, is it a roadshow? Is it a roundtable discussion? Is it a dinner—a forum? But it’s just not a dinner, right? So every moment has intention in terms of it’s a story point that leads to a particular outcome you want at the end of the event. It’s more than just— I think events get a bad rap. And I’ve worked really hard to try to work against that, where people see events as tables and chairs and logistics, and they’re handed, “Hey, we’ve got a new product we want to launch. Go find us a venue and put it together.” It’s so much more than that. It’s so complicated if done right.

Todd: So the kinds of work that you do as an event strategist and executive producer range from helping to produce an entire event like a conference, tradeshow, where there are multiple speakers, and there’s maybe a trade show floor in booths and sponsors and all of that stuff all the way down to a dinner, or I don’t want to say meetup because that tends to be self-organizing, but something that’s smaller in other words.

Dana: Intimate.

Todd: Intimate and intentional, right. So that’s the full scope of what you do. Everything from this “big, broad, lots of players” to maybe working with one company that is attending or sponsoring an event and needs some help with their presence.

Dana: Yeah. And you talk to any event person at a zero, right, so if I am doing a dinner for 10 or I’m producing a conference for 10,000, there often are as many pieces to think about and touch points you need to tell. And, yeah, I mean, so less doesn’t necessarily mean less work.

Todd: What are some of those touchpoints that a lot of people probably don’t realize exist, or as they get into it, they realize, “Oh, I wish I had— That’s where I stumbled,” or, “That’s something I overlooked?”

Dana: Yeah. I think what happens is people start with the “what,” right, when they think about events. So they’re like, “What venue? What food? What’s the decor? What’s the sound?” And all of that is important, but that happens so far down the line. And I go back to my point about, “Okay, but why are you doing this, and who’s going to be in the room?” I’m stealing this quote. It’s not mine, and gosh, I can’t remember her name. She heads up events for IBM, I think. But she had this really great quote about— and they have a 350-person internal event team, and they do thousands of events across the globe and in the same spectrum we just talked about—large and small. And she said, “The thing you need to remember is you’re not hosting an event, or creating one experience for 20,000 people. You’re creating 20,000 individual moments, each moment differs, right, depending on who’s in the room. They’re not all the same people. They’re all coming for different reasons. They have different jobs to be done. They have different things they want to learn. There’s different people they want to meet. So there’s so much good conversation about who’s in the room before we even get to what is it that we’re going to do, because then when I can identify, “Okay, well, there’s five types of people that are here, and this is their different various levels of their knowledge with our products or our company. And so knowing that, then I can get to designing. “Okay, what’s the program itself need to look like in terms of the content? How do we create what I call serendipitous moments?” It’s manufacturing serendipity, really, but creating space for these people to find one another. Yeah, and then you can talk about what’s this technology that I need to use to help facilitate that for them, whether that’s networking with the right people or what have you, and then thinking about space design only after you understand what your program design is. What I see happen so often is people move to logistics before they really talk about, “Well, why are we doing this and how is it going to matter to the people that we’re gathering, whether virtual or in person?”

Todd: That really resonates with my experience in the open source community, because there were many years when we— So we’re very active in the Drupal community. It’s an open source content management system. And there are these big annual conferences. But for a long time, until the now times, there were these local camps, so Drupal camps. And we were one of the the main organizers of Drupal Camp Austin for many years. And I hate to say it, but towards the end of that stretch, when we put that together, it started to feel a little bit more like you’re just kind of checking a box and you’re fulfilling an obligation. And it’s like, “Well, you’re a Drupal company headquartered in Austin. You need to do a Drupal Camp Austin.” And I think towards the end, we kind of lost sight of “Why? What’s the point?” And in retrospect, I can see that the point was to bring the outside of Austin Drupal community into the Austin community, like to bring those people into that space and to have the people within Austin meet each other, or in central Texas, or Texas as a whole. But towards the end, we lost sight of it, and as a result, I think the event itself kind of sputtered out because it just sort of— It felt like logistics, like you said. It’s just like, “Okay… ”

Dana: It loses its soul, right?

Todd: Yeah.

Dana: If it doesn’t have a soul—

Todd: We’re doing it again— Yeah, well, okay, what venue can we afford? How many people can— What are we going to do about lunch? It just became that, and it wasn’t about like, “What’s the intentionality? What’s the purpose?” So you—

Dana: What conversations do we want to have, right?

Todd: Yeah. And so you really focus on that, as opposed to an event organizer or somebody who does event logistics.

Dana: So I partner with people who do the ops and logistics part, not to undermine it. I mean, events people are some of the best problem solvers that you will ever meet because they just always have to find a way to make it happen. And I’ve worked for software companies for most of my career, and software dates slip. But you know what never slips, is the event date. [laughter] And so these people know how to make shit happen, right?

Todd: Mm-hmm.

Dana: And I have joked with event friends with counting of ballots, man. “Well, they should have called us. We would have had that organized.” [laughter] Or I have two kids in school and had complained to my husband about I don’t know why Seattle Public Schools doesn’t talk to events people who understand ops and logistics. So I want to put a pin in that, that it’s super important. But as I mentioned at the top of the conversation, what my role is, is to hand ops and logistics people a blueprint of where we’re going; context around why it matters. So that then the parts of the event that are logistical are still intentional, right? And go back to, “Oh, okay, so we want to make sure that the attendees after a main talk in a breakout room can still break out into smaller groups to have small moderated group discussions. Okay, so that means we ought to set the tables in rounds instead of rows.” So that’s just a really simple way to think about that. I’ll go back to the example you said about what happened to the meetup and it kind of lost its soul. One thing, my North Star when I go into planning, that’s true of any event if you’re B2B, B2C, nonprofit, is that folks— the attendees come for three main reasons. So they come because “I want to leave smarter in some capacity.” So there’s your education. What’s the actual content of the program going to be so that they do learn something, something actionable that they can take back to their roles or their jobs. “I want to leave more connected,” right? “Who am I going to meet at your program or at the program who is going to help me further my career or somebody that I can just kvetch with,” right? Like I think events— I think about why you would go to an event sometimes, Todd. I feel like they’re group therapy. I feel seen—

Todd: Oh, yeah.

Dana: I feel heard. I feel understood. “Oh, I’m not nuts. You people get me.”

Todd: These are my people.

Dana: Yeah, these are my people. [laughter] So that’s the other reason why people come to events. And then I think about that they come because they want to leave more motivated, more inspired to do what they do, or be inspired to have this recognition that, “Oh, I actually don’t want to do this anymore. I want to go do that. And gosh, I met this great guy, Todd, and he works in the open source community. And that actually really aligns with my values and where I want to take my— ” So creating those moments for that connection to happen and to make sure that you’re attendees, after giving you time, money, resources that they leave having met some goal in each of those categories.

Todd: One of the reasons why I wanted to focus on events in this episode is that events are known for a lot of things, but I think the kinds of professional events that you largely help strategize and produce are really content-oriented, meaning there are presentations, keynotes, roundtables, discussions, right? Or trainings or things like that, right? It’s that when you mention three reasons why people attend an event, it’s the “leaving smart” part of that you’ve learned something, or maybe you’re leaving inspired to do your job differently, or better, or whatever. Besides things like keynotes and sessions—that’s kind of the obvious aspect of content—what are some other content-oriented aspects of events that you’ve seen or that you try to imbue in what you do?

Dana: So I really think about, yes, events are a content channel. And yes, there are those keynotes and those breakouts that you mentioned. But what makes an event an event and not just another content piece is conversation, right? And in that, it’s the peer-to-peer learning that comes from it. So really thinking about and designing how does peer-to-peer learning happen outside of, “Oh, here’s another customer case study, stage on stage, I’m going to tell you, here are my slides,” and really challenging clients to rethink that format, because why can’t I just go on YouTube and download that and watch that, or read a white paper, or listen to a podcast—which I love—but what makes an event is the people, right? Whether you’re gathering virtually or you’re gathering in real life—and gosh darn, hope that someday soon, here safely, we can do that when it makes sense. But it’s really about connecting the people. And as humans, we want to gather, and there’s a reason behind why we’re gathering. So the content piece in that is, what’s the conversation starter? Because people still need— As many events as I have produced, people need boundaries and guidelines for “how do I interact?” And some people are gregarious and extroverted and know how to do that. Some of the most inspiring people are the quiet ones, the introverted ones who don’t necessarily want to have small talk. So how do you create a space for them to have meaningful talk?

Todd: We’re going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we’re going to continue talking with Dana about how everyone is adapting to the now times—to virtual events since you mentioned that. So we’ll be right back in a moment.

[music]

Todd: Hey, everyone, Todd here. We’ll get back to the episode in just a moment. But I wanted to quickly tell you about Four Kitchens. You probably know that Four Kitchens makes websites, but we do so much more than that. For example, we’ve been working for a long time with New York University, and in particular, New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. When they came to us, they needed to do a web design. But we really wanted to dig deep with them, so we took a hard look at their business goals and organizational goals—what they were trying to achieve over the next several years. And by the end of it, after their new site had launched, they saw an increase of 25% prospective student inquiries and 15% new started applications from potential students. We really love addressing business goals. If that’s something that you need help with—merging your business goals with your digital ecosystem and your digital strategy—I hope that you will consider reaching out to Four Kitchens. If you want to learn more, you can visit us at fourkitchens.com. Now, back to the episode.

[music]

Todd: Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Dana Pake, events strategist and executive producer. So when we left off, we were starting to talk about virtual events. Here we are in November 2020. A lot has happened in the last eight, seven months [laughter].

Dana: Feels like a lifetime.

Todd: Feels like an eternity. Yeah. Yeah. Usually, my work-travel dance card is pretty full with in-person events. And I, in a typical year, would be traveling probably about a week out of every month to go to conferences. I haven’t traveled for work since early March, maybe late February 2020. It’s the longest stretch that I’ve just stayed at home and worked. And that means all of these events that I wanted to attend in person either were deferred or canceled or, more often, were translated into a virtual-style event. And I’m sure a lot of people listening have experienced some version of that, whether it’s getting together with your family over Zoom or attending a 10,000-person tradeshow online. How are you and your clients adapting to this new world of virtual—as opposed to in-real-life—events?

Dana: Yeah, and where to start. So the first thing—and I figured this out pretty quickly—that these are broadcast events. These are broadcast programs, but we’re not in the business— Again, going back to my comment about the events are about gathering. So it’s not one-way transmission of information or an infomercial. So I bring broadcast in cautiously to just say that you need to have broadcast-level production now. So that means being mindful of in your sessions and in the story that you’re trying to tell in this program, how do you enhance that with visuals to make your point? But it’s not to be distracted by the shiny pretty things that broadcasts can bring to the table, because you still need to be a storyteller. And I’m going to rip off from a friend I work with a lot, Damany Daniel. He’s a great guy who has a company called The Event Nerd. And he says to clients, “Everybody is talking about that Zoom fatigue is for real. So think about all of the virtual events you’ve signed up for in the past eight months. How many have you actually showed up to? And other ones you logged in, how many did you actually stick around and watch?” And the thing that—

Todd: Especially, live.

Dana: Especially, live. Although I—

Todd: Because you usually record it and you can watch the video later and then—

Dana: True. We can talk later about my very passionate opinions about whether to record live or do a pre-record. But Damany talks about— So Zoom fatigue is a condition that people have. But why isn’t Netflix fatigue a thing? And why isn’t ESPN fatigue a thing? So it’s not the screen that’s the issue.

Todd: Right.

Dana: It’s the storytelling. It’s the design of your program. People think that they can take their in-real-life event and shoehorn it into a digital one. “Oh, so my event in Austin was three days. I had two keynotes—top of the day, bottom of the day—and had six breakout sessions in between there. And then, I had lunch and I had a party. And that’s what I want to do virtually now.”

Todd: And it’ll all just be done in Zoom, where everybody’s sitting in front of their computer, laptop, or webcam, and somebody is just speaking probably from their home office, or bedroom, or basement, or something. They’re not on a stage. Yeah. You get that sort of flat screen and “Zoom, the great equalizer” makes you no less like— I don’t know, presentational than anybody who’s watching.

Dana: Yeah. And for me, it’s not even the delivery mechanism so much as what is it that you’re delivering. So think about the formats. And I’ll be the first to tell you. I got into events because I love seeing when people connect, what happens. And it’s a very visceral feeling when I get to see that in person, and there’s no other channel where you get to immerse somebody in the brand and all five senses are activated. So I miss events. I do. So much. But I think creativity— Or excuse me, constraints breed creativity, and there’s so much opportunity right now of people walking into it. And so what I mean by that is virtual really affords this opportunity to re-freaking-define the relationship between the speaker and your audience. Why do I need sage on stage, 40-minute conversation, canned talk. I paid the speaker $40,000 to tell my audience the same thing that they did at XYZ event and then ABC event six months ago. Right? Why can’t I demand more of my speaker? I’m paying you $40,000 to be here. I want a conversation. I want you to invite a conversation because the virtual event is the great equalizer. It’s egalitarian. We all have a front-row seat. And I’m now speaker. You’re not on a big stage with lights. You are in your home office. Your cat just came across your screen. Your dog barked like mine did. “Oh, I can really relate to you now. So why can’t we make it more relational,” right? Or if I think about, “You’re not in a breakout room, so why do I need to have a speaker podium? Here’s my screen. Here’s my little square. Here are my slides. I’m going to do it just like I would have if I was in the breakout room at the Hilton Hotel in Austin.” Why can’t you have fun? And it’s like saying that this is a broadcast program now. Take your inspiration from television and tweak some television programs to deliver your content, create some tension in the moment so that you are what I call edutaining people. That’s how you get them to stick around. Oh, what happens next, right? And then also think about the design of the agenda itself. You can have big breaks and breathing room in your agenda. And I actually learned this from Kristina Halvorson, because I worked with her on her event. She’s a CEO. For your audience who doesn’t know her—if you don’t know her, you should know her. She’s hysterical. From Brain Traffic. And when I first was designing the agenda with her, she’s like, “Man, people need way more breathing room in here just to tend to their lives. We can’t ask someone to just sit on the screen so long.” And we had big, big breaks like hour-long here, two hours long there. So it was a 10-hour back-to-back day, but it was six hours of programming with four hours of breaks to give that breathing room in between. And we saw the numbers—they stuck around, man. They came back.

Todd: So Confab, which is the event that Kristina Helverson runs—and she’s been a guest on our podcast—she focuses so much on, I guess it is production value. So I’ve attended a couple of Confabs myself. And perhaps production value actually isn’t the right phrase, because that usually implies a video production, right? But the physical production or the quality of content that they demand at a Confab event— Of course, it’s a content strategy event, it had better be pretty good, right? But I’m making this up here, but it might be harder to get into Harvard than it is— Or harder to get into Confab than it is to get into Harvard, just in terms of percentage of talks being accepted, right? And the talks are of extremely high quality because they’re really thought-provoking, really entertaining, very engaging speakers. And by engaging, I don’t mean Tony Robbins jumping around the stage. Just like they’ve got good things to say, and they articulate well, and they know how to tell a story around their idea. And that’s really, really effective. That’s good content. It’s good content strategy, right? The thing that makes me a little, I guess, nervous about these virtual events and what you’re talking about is— First of all, I fully agree with everything that you said. I could not agree more. If you really want people to sit down and sit through a two-, three-, four-day conference as we used to imagine them and just sort of replace the stage with a video screen, the only way you’re going to be able to to keep people’s attention is to have extremely high-production-value video and really good stories. You mentioned, though, this relatability of, “Well, maybe it’s very low fidelity, and it’s low production value where I’m just sitting here in my office and I have to go, ‘Hold on a second here. My dog’s clawing at the door. I got to go open the door,'” or “Bad connection, ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear me?’” That kind of thing. And that’s relatable. But how do you— ?

Dana: That’s distracting.

Todd: Yeah, it’s distracting. But how do you find the right— I don’t know. Is there a middle ground there? Is there a blend of the two? How does that work?

Dana: Yeah. So I think the tolerance level eight months later is not what it was at the beginning, where some of what I just talked about was a little bit charming, right? I did a program where I didn’t have time or the budget to bring broadcast graphics in. And did the Jimmy Fallon style, and I had my kids draw my transitions screens, right? That was charming then; totally not acceptable now. And I think there is a fine line in terms of you still need to have the broadcast-level production and have a really good camera, really good sound. That all matters. And I think even in the virtual world, people forget about the sound design. It’s super important. Even things like just audio mnemonics in terms of cluing the audience in that, “Hey, a transition’s happening,” or, “Oh, I know that ding means we’re going to a break, but this longer lovely chime means, ‘Oh, content’s about to happen. I’m going to pay attention again.'” Right? Sound plays an even bigger part than most people— They’re thinking only too much about the visual. But to your point, your setup at your office, Todd. That, I think, is acceptable. And you have really great technology behind it and that we’re using graphics in a way to punctuate what you’re saying instead of just being, “Here’s a little square, and here’s my face,” Right? And you’re working with transitions. There’s a way to do that. And I will tell you, working on just Kristina’s program, again, too, it was high production in that it was thoughtful production, right? And another fun thing that she did is—and I’ve advised some other clients to do this—sometimes there’s the real cerebral content, and it has to be 45 minutes or it has to be an hour long. Well, think about what can I just pre-record and host on a video on-demand library, right. And then think about anything that needs to be live. That then means you can get your audience to come there because it’s going to be conversational, and you want to come because we’re going to take questions from the audience. We’re going to ask you in advance, what do you want to hear from Todd today from Four Kitchens? And that you’re having a live conversation around this instead of just the learning opportunity. Or I’ve thought about— No one’s done this yet, but I have been thinking a lot about this. Why not pre-release that video on-demand, give everybody two weeks to consume it, and then we’re going to come back and have a conversation about what you learned.

Todd: Oh, so this is the idea of where a lot of schools, even before the pandemic, were headed, where classroom time was not teaching time, it was homework time. And the time at home in the evenings was spent watching the lecture. So the idea is you do this. I think it’s called a flipped classroom or something. There’s a name for it. There’s a pedagogical name for this. The idea is then that the value is not in somebody standing at the front of the room speaking at you, the value is, “Okay, you don’t get it or you need clarity or you need examples or you need practice. Let’s do that, live together, and all help each other. And then tonight, rather than you doing a worksheet, you’re going to watch a 15-minute video that I already made. That is the lesson. And then we’re going to work on it tomorrow.” 

Dana: Exactly.

Todd: Interesting.

Dana: Yes. That’s totally what I’m talking about. There’s also— Was it Lee Rosenfeld? He came up with this really great idea that I’m such a fan of, too. And it’s this idea of watch parties, and you take cohorts who have similar problems they need to solve. And think about, again, why does it have to be one speaker speaking to 10,000 people, and now I’m just one of 10,000? So the upside of virtual programs for many companies is their reach, right, AWS re:Invent is happening here in a few weeks. They’re projected to have 350,000 unique logins. So awesome reach, but as an attendee, I’m like, “How am I going to connect with 350,000 people?” Really great content will come out of that. For me, that is a Netflix viewing experience. That’s not an event, right, because I’m not gathering the people and having conversation. Where this watch party idea is, “Hey, well, why don’t we organize based on problems we’re looking to solve and let’s watch that content together or commit to, ‘Hey, we’ll watch that content. And then on Friday, November 13th, at 1:00, we’ll hop on to Zoom.’ It doesn’t have to be high-tech, man. It just needs to be well thought-out and designed. And then let’s talk about our takeaways.” Because one of the things I think we chatted about in previous conversation starters is that when I think about the design of an event, right, the content’s super important, but it’s not the thing. The content is serving as a catalyst, right. So it’s serving as a catalyst for conversations you and I just watched something before times. Maybe we’re sitting next to each other. I turn to you, Todd, and say, “Hey, what do you think about what so-and-so speaker just said on the stage?” And so now I’ve had a conversation with you, and now I’ve created connection. Right? So I go back to what I said earlier about smarter: I want to leave smarter, more connected, and more inspired. So we’ve had conversation. I’ve created a connection with you. We continue to have conversation, connection turns to community.

Todd: It sounds to me then that one— Well, okay. I’m of the opinion that this shift into virtual events is not entirely going to go away.

Dana: No.

Todd: It’s not going to rubberband back into like, “Oh, we’re just doing all in-person events.” And I have lots of thoughts about just the waste of people getting in airplanes and all the stuff at tables and the popup banners and the vinyl things and—

Dana: That’s one-time use.

Todd: [crosstalk] — giveaways and one-time-use plastic that you hand out to people who just go from table to table and collect things and put them in their tote bag that they’ll never use again. Right? So let’s shed that maybe just for the sake of the world. Let’s shed that. But also convenience. And not everybody can get on a flight. Not everybody can afford the time off emotionally, financially, familially. It’s just not something— It’s very privileged to be able to go to a week-long event or even [crosstalk]—

Dana: 100%. Yeah.

Todd: Yeah. So these virtual events are either going to maybe be an adjunct to an in-person event or still be exclusively virtual. Right? So do you see there maybe being a future as a result of the need to try to solve creating connection, creating community, creating human interaction in a virtual environment that will lead to some kind of technology or methodology or, I don’t know, algorithm that connects people at events? Like maybe a cheap, dirty way of saying this is like there’s like kind of speed dating networking things where you hop from one call to another every two minutes. Right? I’ve done some of those. Those exist already, but they’re also scattershot. It’s just—

Dana: Yeah, those chat—

Todd: — You land with somebody, right?

Dana: The chat roulettes. I’m not a fan of the chat roulette for a couple of different reasons. I mean, I know right now a lot of people are using them because they’re trying to recreate those serendipitous moments in the hallway, but it’s just not intentional. And you go back to different personality types, too, and like, “Oh, man, I’m with some random. This makes me feel uncomfortable.” Or I’ve been in situations where I’ve contributed to the conversation and then, man, that makes me feel really good, but then I didn’t get anything out of the conversation. There’s a program that I love that exists that does what you’re asking or you’re thinking about. They are called— It’s e180, and they have a program called Braindates. So it was born out of— They worked with event producers who actually produce Cirque du Soleil and this really great program in Montréal. It’s called C2MTL. So it’s like where creativity meets commerce. But they put people in these really inspiring situations like a swingset or a pool. This just would give you shivers now during COVID, but before times, you would go into a pool of plastic balls and have a 20-minute braindate with someone, and you were matched based on your profile. So there’s some AI in here. So I fill out this profile, and I say, “I would love to talk about remote work, being a mom during COVID, and traveling,” or whatever my interests were. And “Oh, look at this. Todd had this interest with you in travel.” So I could either reach out to you. You could accept. Sure, sounds like we’ve got enough in common, and then we have this braindate. And they have figured out how to do this virtually. I think what will happen— I don’t think events are coming back next year in a meaningful way. I think it’s overly optimistic to think that they will. But virtual is not going to go away. Even when we do come back online, I think the reach and the impact is still there. You will see more hybrid models. And what that looks like for me right now is that you should be thinking digital first. Digital first, and then how do I augment with IRL? So, if I’m working in a B2B company, this is where field marketing really gets to shine right now. So they’re usually the quiet ones who are moving the needle with lead generation and getting those MQLs and SQLs, taking a backseat to the corporate events that get all the attention and all the money to do something splashy. Well, imagine that that splashy stuff actually has to go into smart design, into your virtual event, but then your field event managers, based on CDC recommendations in those markets, can do watch parties, IRL, have a dinner, have conversation, right? I just think it’s going to be, instead of one big, massive event, you’re going to take your— If you have an ABM strategy or where your key markets are, and then you’re going to also curate the agenda based on, well, where’s the market at. So if you are going to have an event, if you’re a multinational company or have a global customer base— Okay, well, in Germany, they don’t really know who we are right now. So this is going to be an awareness conversation and here, we’re going to design a bespoke agenda for these people that are really about baselining who my company is. And then, in the United States, the conversation really needs to be about, “Okay, great. I know who you are, but how are you going to scale with me?” And so we’re going to curate an agenda from the big virtual event. “Okay, on Thursday at 2:00, we’ll meet and have this co-located event. We’re going to watch these sessions that are really particular to the problems that your region needs to solve.” So it’s not throwing something out there and seeing what sticks, but being intentional about what are the problems these people need to solve? What’s the story I want them to tell later? So what’s the story I need to tell them now about who we are and how we’re going to help them when they leave this event? Because I think the biggest mistake most people make with events is they are so focused on what happens at the program that they don’t think about what happens when you leave, when the attendee leaves.

Todd: Let’s talk about after the event. But to summarize what you were saying, it sounds like what you are thinking will happen, or maybe what you’re advocating for, is in the before times, when we had these big events, so much time and money was put into splash—like big booths and fancy, high-top tables, and interactive displays, and all of these things that would impress somebody in person because of their scale, or their design, or the look and the experience of it, the physical experience of it. Well, that’s secondary now. Primary is the digital virtual experience. So you’d redirect your efforts in this big, splashy kind of mindset. You’d redirect that into intentional, smaller, targeted groups, each of which has a certain intention. So there might be a group that you want to go after for awareness reasons, or a group that you may want to go after for partnership reasons, or to deepen an engagement. Let’s get our current customers in a room together. That’s valuable to them because they’re going to talk to each other about using the product or what they have in common, so that’s cool for them, and everybody wants to go to a room where you have something in common, right?

Dana: Yeah, group therapy.

Todd: Because at least you can talk about that.

Dana: It goes back to group therapy.

Todd: Yeah. It’s a group therapy thing. Yeah. So it sounds like you’re advocating for redirecting the thought of big, splashy, enormous sort of force, and instead splitting that into, I guess, more intimate experiences rather than one giant impressive experience.

Dana: Yeah, thinking about it in terms of a number of co-located events and the tentpole program being the virtual one.

Todd: Got it.

Dana: Right. So your keynotes would still happen on the virtual stage. But imagine in these markets where you’re having the smaller, co-located, more bespoke experiences, they watch that all together. So there’s still the shared experience globally somehow. But then you’re breaking it down back to that watch party idea, that cohort idea. “Okay, what am I taking away from this? What context did you get from the content we just had? And let’s break it down together.”

Todd: Well, okay, back to after the event. So the event is over. If it’s an IRL event, you’re in the hotel, in the plane, on your way home, at home. If it’s a digital event, you’re closing your laptop. Now what?

Dana: Yeah, so before that happens, it’s always starting with the end in mind. So when we’re thinking about or when I’m working with clients on designing their program, well, what do you want your attendee to do after the fact? What’s the next thing you want them to do after coming to your program? So it’s setting up that meeting with your salesperson. It’s you want them to engage with this next piece of content. How are we going to stay in front of them so that then this massive investment you just made in the event is more evergreen? Right? I also think about it from, because it is a content channel, what content was produced specific for this program, and how are you going to go get more juice for the squeeze now? So how do you need to edit it? Where do you need to cut down some of the keynote? Oh, you know what, this audience only wants to think about this. It’s just how do you get more life out of your program instead of it just being one and done, and thinking about who are those people I need to continue to stay in front of, and what is the messaging I need to say to them, and how do I extract from this big program to get more longevity?

Todd: In other words, the event isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.

Dana: Yes, very much so, yes, and I don’t think enough people think about that. I think they really think about it in terms of its this moment in time. And just really quickly, the way I think about it is attendees come into your event with a belief system, right? That belief might be, “Oh, your product is too complicated. I can’t use it. It has too many bells and whistles for me, and I’m spending too much money or whatever.” So knowing that, but knowing that’s what your audience is coming in with, then the event needs to help overcome that bias or that perception. And you do that through those three touch points I talked about in terms of smarter, connection, and inspiration. And now they’re going to leave with, “Oh, there’s possibility here.” Right? And so now they’re leaving with a different belief system, and so how do you keep reinforcing that after the program? And then that’s just a cycle.

Todd: It reminds me so much of the web development cycle. So many of our clients—and sometimes we slip into this mindset too—think of the website launch as like, “All right. It’s launched. Good. We’re done.” No, you’ve just started. The website launch is now it’s in the world, and now it’s new to everybody else that hasn’t seen it yet. And it’s a thing that you need to keep tending to it’s not an ending, it’s a beginning. Time is a flat circle. So for the, just before we go, I mentioned it earlier because it’s kind of like a— I gripe about this and the pandemic and suddenly not going to physical events for an extended period, and not traveling for work as often as I used to, has made me think really hard about doing all of that and whether I want to kind of contribute to that further. There’s a lot of waste; there’s a lot of, well, pollution, really, that happens as a result of events. People getting on planes, people staying in hotel rooms, and like all of the cleaning in the work and all the stuff there. And then you go to an event, and you get your squeeze balls and your pens and your notebooks and you know how much— What do you really do with that stuff when you get home? And all of that. But yet there’s this feeling that if you don’t have something at your table, some piece of plastic for people to take, that it’s like, why come by? They’ll look at your booth and they might see some flyers and they’ll see you eager to talk to them. And they’re just like, no reason to stop, no reason to say anything. Because there’s that whole awkward exchange when you’re standing over at an event table. It’s kind of like a weird date. But what are your thoughts on just the amount of carbon and plastic and stuff that gets used at these events?

Dana: It’s really overwhelming. And, as an industry, people are looking at that and how do you reduce the carbon footprint? And as we think about smarter ways and ordering the food and also partnering with local charities, and how do you give more life to some of that stuff and partnering, like what I would do— It’s an incredibly wasteful industry, and what we would do is instead of rent furniture, because that would be expensive, and then also the delivery of it, etc.

Todd: Absurdly expensive. I don’t know if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, “Well, what does it cost?” Think of a sofa and multiply it by like 10.

Dana: 10. That was the number I was going to say. 10.

Todd: Yes. 10. That’s how much it’s going to cost you to use that sofa for three days.

Dana: Yeah, exactly. So what we would do— This is when I worked at Tableau and worked on a really huge conference. When we would go into a market, whether we were in San Diego or Austin or— that was actually … Austin was after me. But Vegas, whatever, we would find charities where we would say, “Okay, we’ve got all this inventory. Can we deliver it to you?” So that we felt good about what we were doing and that we weren’t just being wasteful. Because the honest truth of it, some people just throw it away. Because it’s like the other side of it is that you get charged massive amounts of material handling charges for someone to come in and especially in a union town, to just move your stuff from one end of the room to another and to throw it away has a really high— I mean, to ship it has— It’s so expensive, so they’re like, “Just throw it away.”

Todd: The economic incentives are so upside down when it comes to stuff like that, just as an example to put some numbers to it. I work in technology. So you need to have a display, meaning a TV, at your booth that shows at least a slide show of the work that you do or the things that you have coming up, or maybe some explainer videos or whatever. You have to. And these displays, you could go out and buy on Amazon or wherever a Roku, you know, enabled TV for 150 bucks. And it’s, I don’t know how many inches, but plenty big. Or you can rent it for a $1,000.

Dana: A day.

Todd: A day, from one of these AV companies that’s located like in the convention center. Well, if you’re a small company, obviously buy the TV, use it for two days, give it away, right? Financially it just doesn’t make any sense otherwise. But you walk away from the event with this guilt. And for anybody who hasn’t been around at an event trade show floor when they start shutting it down, just the mountains of stuff that gets thrown away at the end of these events, it’s kind of heartbreaking. And I’m not going to miss that. And I hope that this— I do miss in-person events. And you can absolutely have in-person events that don’t require you to buy TVs and rent furniture. You can do this. It’s possible. But I really hope that the entire industry sees this as a reset point where—

Dana: Oh, for sure.

Todd: Right? Okay. You don’t look stupid if you don’t have a 52-inch display or a three-person couch or a bunch of stress balls and other dumb stuff to give away. You don’t actually need that. You need substance. You need interaction. And so—

Dana: That’s exactly what I was going to say. You need intention, like, “What is that really serving?” And again, people just want space to have conversation. That’s what it’s really about. And you just need to make time and space for that. At the end of the day, that’s a successful event.

Todd: Yep. Absolutely. And of course, all that stuff, by the way, that you put on your table, the stickers and the notebooks and all that stuff, it’s there to bring you in to start the conversation, right? Nobody is at an event to hand out pens. And honestly, nobody looks at the pen and they’re like, “Oh, I think I’ll hire this web design company because I have the pen on the desk.” No, that never happens. I could talk about how much I hate all the crap we have to buy and bring to events for hours, but the one thing that really gets under my skin more than anything else is when people go from table to table collecting the vinyl stickers of the logos of all the companies, or whatever, and they always kind of want to justify it to you that they’re taking two or three or four of them. And they always—

Dana: “For my kid. But it’s for my kid.”

Todd: “It’s for my kids!” That’s what they all say, “Oh, my kids love stickers.” I’m so proud of you and your kids loving stickers. You realize these are— I don’t want to have to make stickers for your kids.

Dana: Yeah. It’s this weird psychology that people just like free shit.

Todd: They do. And they just—

Dana: And then what do you do with it? And I’ve been guilty of it. If my husband’s listening, he’s probably laughing right now. Because I’ll come home— And I feel like I’m selective about what I’ll keep. I’m like, “Oh, this is a really cool water bottle,” and he’s like, “Really? Do you know how many water bottles are in [crosstalk]?”

Todd: The cupboard of water bottles. Yes.

Dana: Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s true. And I think I’m seeing it. Those conversations are happening, and the scrutiny around, “Do we really need to do this event?” So you’ll see less of them. And I think, because we’re doing less of them, they’re going to be so better designed because you have the time to focus and really optimize. It’s interesting what you said about— When the websites are released, that’s just the beginning. My biggest takeaway working at InVision prior to going out on my own was that was the moment I realized that I was a designer and what I do is design as I think about— Event managers are some of the best problem solvers. But my point there is that I also learned that events are a product.

Todd: Oh, yes. Yeah.

Dana: They’re a product. And it’s just like that whole digital product cycle around testing some things out. “Here’s your prototype. Everyone’s a prototype,” and, “What do we learn?” and, “The next time we’re going to optimize.” But because they’re going to be such fewer events, I think you’re just going to get stronger products.

Todd: Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you again, Dana, for joining me today. And to those of you listening, I hope you learned as much as I did. I can’t wait to see the content that you’ll create next. Feel free to send it my way via email at future@fourkitchens.com. You can also reach out to me @FoCpodcast on Twitter. And, Dana, if anybody wants to get a hold of you, how can they reach you?

Dana: Just on the LinkedIns.

Todd: Oh, the LinkedIns?

Dana: You can find me at Dana Pake. I just went out on my own. It’s been a year. It’s been pretty crazy. It’s been a fun ride, but I don’t have another place but LinkedIn to come find me.

Todd: Gotcha. All right. Well you can check her out on LinkedIn. And to find out more about Four Kitchens and how we solve complex content problems, please visit fourkitchens.com and make sure to search for The Future of Content in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts—anywhere you get your podcasts—and click on subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Until next time, keep creating content.

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