A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Harvard Business School course “Competing in the Age of Digital Platforms,” based on the book, The Business of Platforms by Michael Cusumano, Annabelle Gawer, and David Yoffie, who did a fantastic job presenting their thesis during the course.  

Some stats from the HBS course are staggering. More than 60% of today’s billion-dollar+ unicorns are platforms, and, the top five companies by market cap are also platforms. It’s no wonder investors love them. 

Successful platforms enjoy network effects. However, building these platforms is extremely difficult. We are experiencing massive growth in transaction platforms (Alibaba, Amazon marketplace, etc.), innovation platforms (Apple IOS, Google Android, Force.com, etc.), and Hybrid companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Tencent. This growth is not slowing down in the future and will be affecting many industries. 

As a B2B event entrepreneur and investor for almost three decades, I couldn’t isolate the course content and case studies from my ideas and questions about the future of the events industry, as well as what we could learn from the “platform revolution” and hopefully how to apply some of those lessons.  

The book that I co-wrote with Denzil Rankine, Reinventing Live, is focused on the future of the events industry. We analyze different case studies and discuss our ideas with the most innovative and intelligent individuals in the live events industry. Some of these ideas involve “platform concepts” and ways to increase the impact and engagement of events as part of a 365 approach. But, events are certainly not tech platforms, and we must understand ways to use tech as a critical tool and partner while focusing on other vital parts of the business to succeed. 

Suppose you think that B2B events (conferences, trade shows, corporate events, etc.) are just “events” where people get together for a couple of days and interact with education, networking, and commerce opportunities going back home satisfied with results. If you think that this is enough and will continue to be enough, you probably should stop reading this blog post right away and save some time. 

Suppose you think that “events” could and should provide additional added value to their industries and communities, engaging digital platforms that will increase ROI and provide a 365 engagement opportunity that is constantly moving from online to offline activations. In that case, you should continue reading and join this conversation, sharing your ideas and suggestions.

Can events transform into a platform for the communities that they serve? What is the correct way to change the value proposition and mindset from a couple of day’s events into a platform model servicing industries all year long?

Business to business events are transaction platforms created during the ancient bazaars days. For centuries these events supported their industries and represented an essential marketing tool connecting buyers and sellers. But modern events, particularly “post-Corona events,” will need to evolve into a new model and value proposition if they want to remain relevant. Some of the ideas and case studies discussed during my HBS course are concepts that could and should be used often by event organizers serving their communities with a broader and deeper purpose and engaging different marketing activations all year long. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that events should transform into digital platforms. This idea is probably unrealistic and almost impossible to execute for practically all event organizers.

But, I think that successful events can and should engage digital platforms (on their own or with strategic partners) as a way to increase content, data, and networking opportunities for their stakeholders. Like any other big corporation that analyzes building, buying, or belonging (partnering) platforms as alternative options, event organizers should use the same logic and analysis. 

Why?

Because having a platform approach into the specific industry you service will provide a better experience and return of investment for your customers (visitors, exhibitors, sponsors, speakers, etc.). As simple as that. 

Unfortunately, the execution is not as simple, especially since we are still in the very early days of trying to figure out the right formula. That’s why I say that the time to unlearn and learn again is upon us, particularly if you want to apply some of these innovative concepts to your company. 

Modern events will need to measure success as digital platforms and marketplaces do. Success should go beyond the event size, revenues, or profit and be measured by community engagement, loyalty, and the ecosystem created around that particular event and platform. 

Events as “just events” are probably not going to be sustainable in the future. Stakeholders will demand way more than “events” and a broader menu of buyer-seller interactions. Events as industry platforms will offer more and better opportunities for innovation and commerce. The combination of digital platforms, their data, and marketing with the power of face-to-face connection will deliver magical opportunities.

I mentioned many times that I’m convinced that face-to-face events are not going away. But, I’m also convinced that virtual and hybrid events are here to stay. The combination of virtual and face-to-face activations is a natural path to create a platform model that remains active and relevant all year long. If you think that your event could be part of a platform model, you will be thinking like a football team captain. However, all team members matter in your team in order to win the game. 

We must start thinking about a “phygital” (physical and digital) experiences. Every single new relevant technology like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Blockchain will continue to enable the existing platform business model in the future. Again, the platform model is not slowing down. 

In summary, if you are still reading, believe that “event platforms” could be a great opportunity, and are building or want to build one of them, please reach out. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and happy to share my ideas and brainstorm potential collaboration opportunities. And maybe, who knows, some of those future unicorns could be interested in joining us.