By Justin Meise and Bibb Strench
The ETF industry has seen its share of crisis in its relatively short history, yet Covid-19 certainly presents unique challenges and will test the industry’s ability to adapt and innovate. Among the challenges, how does an industry that relies so heavily on a sales and marketing model based on personal interactions and education through conferences and events adapt to the current Covid-19 environment and post Covid-19 world?
Social distancing and health concerns are going to keep professionals from traveling and congregating in large numbers for the foreseeable future. John Swolfs, CEO of InsideETFs, said his team is hopeful for a “normal” InsideETFs in 2021, but they are prepared for the near-term reality of virtual conferences. The challenge he says is to identify the best ways to adapt or consolidate four days of content into perhaps four hours of content and give advisors and other conference participants the choice of tuning into the sessions in real time or later at a time more convenient for them. “Even if some advisors can’t take three days out of the office, maybe you can give them an ability to pop in and pick and choose the session they want to see.”
As the world moves towards normality, he foresees a hybrid model where some participants attend a physical event and others can experience portions digitally. “People are getting more comfortable with digital and embracing it,” he says, acknowledging there will be some trial and error on how best for conference providers to facilitate networking in a virtual program.
Al Neubert, Executive Managing Director and Chairman of MCC Forums, one of the largest producers of Indexing events, says that organizations that delivered the highest quality content prior to Covid-19 can carry over that success to virtual conferences. His formula in either environment is to use his firm’s know-how and deep industry relationships to assemble a panel of top experts, such as leading academics, who in turn attract high quality attendees, which makes it more appealing for sponsors despite their tightening marketing budgets. In his view, events with organizers without such capabilities may be the first to vanish. He adds that “the trick is can I get an audience engaged and keep them in a virtual setting. If you deliver good value, cater to the audience, provide great experts, execute effectively, you will have an audience and therefore sponsors.”
Tom Lydon, ETF Trends founder and President of Global Trends Investments, agrees that quality of content is paramount. Lydon argues that after the financial crisis and the run up for ETFs, particularly index ETFs, the portfolio management responsibilities shifted to advisors. “Advisors are looking for guidance like everyone else – do I rebalance? How do I deal with clients while working from home? What ETF should I consider for volatile times? It’s all on the advisor, they feel it more than ever, and they want to know what other advisors are doing.”
ETF Trends has seen a 4x increase in traffic over last quarter and a 2x increase in the number of webcasts, and he credits that to their ability to tailor content to advisors. Lydon said traffic data they capture from the ETF Database side of the house provides them with the type of information advisors are seeking, enabling them to precisely tailor content to their audience, nearly in real time, and share that with issuer partners. “We typically saw 600-700 registrants for webcasts. Now, we are getting over 1,000 registrants, about half watching live and the rest on demand.”
But information access is just part of the conference equation. There’s also the technological challenges of enabling virtual networking. All agreed that while Zoom, Microsoft Teams Rooms, Cisco WebEx and similar virtual conference offerings are good, they need to be significantly enhanced to be effective medium for large virtual conferences.
No doubt that the greatest challenge is addressing one of the main reasons for attending conferences: the opportunity to bond with colleagues and prospects. Will participants be as likely to meet virtually?
Swolfs thinks so. He said that his firm is talking with numerous technology providers that are working on solving the digital networking challenge. InsideETFs attendees are likely familiar with Brella, which Swolfs said participants used to set up over 1,000 meetings this year at the conference.
“Those InsideETFs attendees who embraced Brella gave feedback that they got plenty of meetings and each year the number of attendees taking advantage of Brella has gone up,” adds Swolfs.
Lydon agrees on the value of connecting virtually and sees too many failing to take advantage of the opportunity. “Most people are opting out of video conference calls [to just use voice], it’s a mistake. You see someone face-to-face, you commiserate about not having a haircut for six weeks. You connect on a more personal level than before, and you will be better off coming out of this for it.” His colleague Dave Nadig recently offered more detailed advice for how to up your video conferencing game – definitely worth a look.
So, does this all spell the end of conferences as we know it? Not so fast.
Neubert sees a Darwinian impact on conferences, the result of too many events that aren’t top quality. “We’ll see a huge shakeout because of the expansion of events,” he adds.
Swolfs agrees that many events will disappear but expects the largest, most popular events to endure. He says that while quality content can be delivered effectively in a virtual model and expects that to be part of the conference model moving forward, he points out that in-person conferences provide different content and an overall experience. “People love to watch sports on TV but being at a game is a very different experience.”
Digital delivery and virtual events were already growing in popularity, and the impact of Covid-19 is accelerating the trend. For marketers, the lessons here are clear; accept the challenge by applying and adapting classic marketing and strategic communication principles to the new virtual medium; take the time to understand your audience and what they need; and craft quality content that will resonate by addressing an educational or informational needs. And then, embrace digital and innovate around delivery. Conference organizers that learn these lessons will not only weather Covid-19 but after that storm clears end up with a virtual conference business that compliments their traditional in-person events.
Justin Meise and Bibb Strench are two of the co-founders of ETF Bild, an ETF industry think tank. Justin is also Founder & President of Buttonwood Communications Group, a financial services PR firm, and Bibb is a Partner at Thompson Hine’s Corporate Transactions & Securities practice group where he focuses on exchange-traded funds (ETFs), closed-end funds, mutual funds and investment advisers.