To this day, many organizations still use a hodgepodge of outdated tools and Excel spreadsheets to manage their corporate events.
That’s surprising because about 22 percent of marketing budgets at B2B companies are spent on professional events, such as user conferences and tradeshows, according to the annual “2019 State of IT” report on IT budget and tech trends, published by Spiceworks.
It’s also surprising because cloud software has profoundly transformed the sales and marketing function. But, for some reason, corporate events are left behind.
But not for long. Technology startups are finally starting to help organizations better manage and market their events, and they’re getting some well-deserved attention from venture investors.
Socio, a management platform that helps companies optimize their live events, recently raised $6 million in Series A funding, led by High Alpha Capital. RainFocus, another enterprise event marketing startup that measures things like event attendee engagement, raised $40 million from JMI Equity.
Meanwhile, Bizzabo, which calls itself the “Salesforce for events” raised $27 million, led by Viola Capital. And, Hubb, a developer of event management technology, raised $6.3 million, led by Five Elms Capital.
“Companies spend billions of dollars on their corporate events, yet it’s mind-blowing to me how inefficient they are in running those events and also in measuring the effectiveness of their events,” said Rafi Carmeli, a partner at Viola Growth, which invested in Bizzabo. “Companies measure every side of their digital initiatives, but these in-person events are still a black box. There is a lot of room for technology to improve the whole experience.”
Carmeli said he was attracted to Bizzabo because it is one of the few platforms that is approaching the market holistically. He said there are many point solutions that are trying to do one thing in event management space, such as creating white-label mobile apps for corporate events or managing the registration and payment process. But he doesn’t believe that is a winning approach.
“Bizzabo, by contrast, is building a full-stack platform that solves all these things and more for the event organizer and does not approach it from a point solution perspective,” he said.
Moreover, he said Bizzabo understands that corporate events are not just about the planning and execution. They are also about the data that is captured during the process—from the time people sign up for the event to when they actually attend.
“There is a lot of unique data about these attendees that hasn’t been properly exploited,” Carmeli said. “This category will really take off once chief marketing officers realize the value of the data at play here. When event data is connected to CRM and marketing solutions, it can have a material impact on sales conversion rates. That’s why Bizzabo is really focused on integrating with these other platforms.”
David Greenberg, a general partner at JMI Equity, said his firm has made several marketing automation investments over the years. But he recently noticed that events were one area where automation had yet to make a dent.
Once he dug into the event space a little deeper, he discovered that CMOs never really had good visibility into their event marketing spend, the ROI of these events, or the customer leads that originate from them.
“We saw that marketing was getting more and more data driven, but that events, which are a big piece of any marketing budget, weren’t well tracked or well understood,” Greenberg said. “That’s why we love RainFocus, because it is helping to change that. It is one of our best performing investments precisely because marketing teams never really had good software to manage their events and gain access to their event data.”
Today, large enterprises like Oracle, Cisco and VMware are using the RainFocus event management platform to plan their events.
RainFocus is also innovating on several fronts. For instance, it recently released a new machine learning tool called the Recommendations Bot. The bot uses demographics, behaviors and historical data to evaluate the interests of attendees and then makes suggestions about which sessions they should attend at a particular event. The goal is to provide a more personalized experience and increase attendee satisfaction.
Perhaps one reason why event marketing has not seen the same level of innovation compared to other areas within the enterprise is the belief that, in the digital age, physical events and conference would cease to be a channel for conducting business.
However, the opposite seems to be happening. The reality is that people still want to conduct business directly with other people, and one of the best ways to do it is to meet at professional events.
It’s not just big conferences like CES or South by Southwest. Today, every B2B company wants to put on their own events, large and small, to support their marketing efforts and engage with customers
In fact, the global market for professional events is growing at about 7 percent annually, according to Beroe Inc. And the overall event management software market is predicted to reach $11.4 billion by 2024, according to research firm Markets and Markets.
Another company trying to make life easier for corporate event organizers is Socio. Co-founder and CEO Yarkin Sakucoglu said he attended many networking events as a student and was amazed at how poorly they were organized. “I realized how inefficient it was from the organizer’s perspective,” he said in a recent podcast. “I realized how underserved the market was. There was a lack of automation and a lack of great products in the market.”
Socio’s goal is to fix that by building a complete platform for event management. Its first product is the Socio Event App that allows companies to build customizable apps to promote their events and publish relevant content.
The company is currently in the process of filling out its product roadmap and adding new features such as Lead Retrieval, which lets sponsors and exhibitors capture leads by scanning the QR codes on attendee badges.
Today, Socio boasts more than 400 customers, including Google, Microsoft, Harvard University and Pinterest.
Venture investors are confident the market will grow quickly precisely because there are many companies that should be using event management software but are instead using inefficient tools.
However, that speaks to the fact that, for many companies, purchasing event management software is simply not top of mind. “One big challenge in the space is that there needs to be a greater level of market education to capture all this greenfield opportunity,” said Carmeli.
Greenberg of JMI Equity echoed this sentiment, adding that one thing that gave him pause as an investor is that the people who run events in large companies like Oracle or Adobe aren’t typically the ones who have the most influence on the marketing budget.
“We did worry about how we could get to the C-suite to make the sale and get the attention of those senior decision markers,” Greenberg said.
Venture investors, however, are buoyed by several positive indicators in the event management market that seem to validate the opportunity. These include Eventbrite’s successful IPO and the acquisition of Cvent, a first-generation event management software company, by Vista Equity Partners for $1.65 billion.
Cvent, as the legacy incumbent in the space, has also been on an acquiring spree of late. For example, it purchased corporate event planning startup Social Tables last year.
“These are success stories that fuel more excitement in the market, and on the back of these developments, we will see more early startups came out and try to further revolutionize the space,” Carmeli said. “It is clear that there is still a lot of room for disruption here.”
Tom Stein is a VCJ correspondent from Palo Alto, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.