How Drift thinks about B2B online events: an interview with Mark Kilens

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Doug Kessler

30. 11. 2020 | 8 min read

How Drift thinks about B2B online events: an interview with Mark Kilens

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Drift is a B2B marketing juggernaut. The creator of the Conversational Marketing category—and now Revenue Acceleration—the brand is famous for the focus and energy of its marketing, delivered with consistency, confidence and a sense of mission.

Events—like HYPERGROWTH—and communities—like Drift Insider—have always been a big part of Drift’s success. So, as we watch the B2B world move from in-person to online events, we thought, who better to talk to about all this change than Mark Kilens.

Mark is the VP of Content and Community at Drift. He partners with Drift’s marketing, sales, and customer success leaders to develop the right content, programs, and community experiences to accelerate revenue and grow Drift’s brand. And boy is he smart about it.

We grabbed a half-hour on Zoom with Mark and asked him how Drift is managing in this brave new world. His answers will help every B2B marketer plot the course of their future event strategy.

Before COVID hit, what was the role of in-person events in Drift’s marketing mix?

HYPERGROWTH was our flagship physical event. It was originally launched as one, annual event, but quickly expanded to multiple locations. 

HYPERGROWTH events are all about brand-building and community-building. They brought together our customers, potential customers, agency channel partners – really the whole Drift community. Their purpose wasn’t to sell Drift, but to inspire, engage, and educate people on the future of marketing and sales. Something we’re really passionate about.

Over time, we started using these live events to drive pipeline and revenue. In 2018, we began looking at HYPERGROWTH as a demand generation opportunity. We got smarter about who we invited and how we equipped our sales team before, during, and after the event to connect with the right buyers. 

That said, we never want to run the typical B2B event. We didn’t hold our events in trade show halls or typical conference venues. And we never had a trade show floor or the other B2B things—because that’s not who Drift is. And it’s not what people enjoy. People want experiences and conversations. They don’t want to just move from booth to booth, swapping business cards, and then getting harassed afterward. 

What about the role of third-party live events? Again, before COVID hit.

Third-party events were always more of a demand gen focus for us. We’d use them to reach new audiences or new segments or to move up in seniority with decision-makers.

For example, Drift’s Revenue Acceleration Platform isn’t just for marketers—it’s a sales platform too. That means we need to engage not just with marketers, but with sales leaders as well. When we launched our new Revenue Acceleration category, third-party events were a good way to meet new sales audiences and introduce them to our brand.

Of course, it all comes down to both the audience and the brand of the event you’re going to partner with. Making sure a third-party event is the right fit, matters. 

Okay, so HYPERGROWTH is thriving and the events strategy is building momentum—and then COVID hits. Did you see a potential pipeline gap? 

Sure. Everyone did, I imagine. I was actually on paternity leave when this happened. Right when we were planning our London HYPERGROWTH event, which was, of course, canceled. 

The event and the demand gen teams pivoted fast to transform our physical event content into a virtual experience. This led to our first virtual event at Drift: RevGrowth.

I think we were one of the first SaaS businesses to do anything like this because we executed fast. We leaned into the speed, learned quickly from our failures, and got our audiences the content they wanted. 

But we didn’t do it alone: For the first RevGrowth, we partnered with 21 other businesses. And we got 9,500-plus people registered. 

Now we’re on our fourth virtual event. 

So what are the new considerations for a virtual event compared to a live one?

When you think about the virtual event experience, content and two-way engagement are probably the most important things to consider. 

Going online means rethinking how you deliver event content and create a sense of community across multiple days. You need to curate a virtual show differently. And rethink how people want to experience your event. For bigger events, this might mean breaking an event into smaller segments, instead of having a long five-, six-hour Zoom meeting. 

The way you promote a virtual event vs. a physical event is different too. Typically, with an in-person event, the brand hosting that event drives the vast majority of registrations. With virtual events, that shouldn’t be the case. For our first RevGrowth, we worked closely with our 21 business partners to attract the right audience with the right content. 

How important was the Drift Insider community in making the first virtual events work for you?

Drift Insider, and its 35,000 members, power our content strategy. Since relaunching our new website, all of our events are now part of the Drift Insider community and branding. 

Drift Insider became key to generating value long after an event was over. On-demand event content extends the value and life of virtual events. By turning recordings into courses and other content on Drift Insider, our members got even more out of RevGrowth.

The other benefit of Drift Insider is the community-building aspect. Attendees, marketers, and sales folk can chat and come together in one place. We’re now bringing all of our content and events under the Drift Insider brand. 

It all comes back to how you build a relationship with people in a one-to-one way, whether it’s during these events or across digital channels. 

Can you give any examples of this kind of connection during virtual events?

Sure. There are a few ways to bridge more connections during a virtual event. The first is simply making real-time communication possible. Drift partners and integrates with the ON24 event platform. This allows attendees to connect and chat with us during an event. This has become a necessity for both us and our customers when running virtual events.

Already we’ve had thousands of people in with questions and comments. Using the Drift integration with ON24, we can connect those attendees with a salesperson, account manager, or support person instantly. We can also guide them to the right content, ask them what they liked about the event, and what they want to see at the next event. 

A second way to promote conversations and active participation during a virtual event is to use breakout rooms during the show. Zoom allows for this and it’s an amazing feature. You can set up conversations between, say, 20-25 people—typically by invitation—and get people talking.

A third way is to engage with your event community on something like a forum pre-, during, and post-event. We do that in Drift Insider during events, and it’s always a lively conversation.

Finally, it’s important to enable your speakers to engage with attendees. This can happen before an event, where a speaker teases their session on social or a forum to get people excited. Or during and after an event, via a Q&A session. (Or, if it’s pre-recorded, through a chat function.) 

Those are just some interactive plays companies can build into virtual events. It’s kind of silly to think of an event as a one-time thing. It’s part of a continuum of relationship building that’s so valuable for your brand. I think all of us that are moving to virtual events need to get better at this.

Are virtual events in B2B still holding on too much to the old in-person event paradigms? Is that legacy thinking holding back all that online events can do?

I think it’s more the webinar model that people are clinging on to. In B2B, we’ve skewed too much towards webinar-thinking versus what an in-person event should be. We don’t consider things like where you are physically—what’s around you physically impacts you so much, right? 

In an in-person event, you control a lot of things that are very sensory for your attendees. But the sensory elements of a virtual event are hard to manage and you’ll never completely manage them. You’re also competing for a lot more attention digitally than you are at a physical event. If someone is watching or participating in a virtual event on their work computer, it’s really hard to keep them focused at all times.  

I don’t have good answers around how best to do that yet, but it’s definitely a gap. So we need to create more immersive experiences that keep people engaged. 

Are you seeing a drop in actual engagement in virtual events? Have we lost something important?

You can think of it like that. But, at the end of the day, did you go to more events in 2020 than in 2019? I know I did. If we’re all signing up for more events, aren’t we more engaged? 

What’s challenging is real-time engagement when it comes to virtual events. Part of it is the personal investment in an event. Say you go to Hubspot’s Inbound, and you buy a ticket versus getting a ticket for free. Maybe you get an all-access pass or VIP ticket. The actual dollar amounts and the actual value you put on the event, in your mind, matters a lot. 

One of the things I think we’ll see is that we need to charge real money for virtual events. And, of course, you’re going to need to do some really cool things to justify that. But you’ll have the budget to do those cool things. Charging more allows you to add more value. But that value needs to be apparent to your potential audience. 

Entertaining people at a live event seems easy. How do you do that in a virtual event?

We do some level of entertainment. We’ve brought in a great DJ. We’ve brought in amazing performance artists. These are some of the things that made our in-person events unique, and something we’re working into our virtual experiences now. 

We all need to think a bit more about the entertainment side of virtual events. Depending on the purpose of the event and the audience, you may need to segment carefully and give each segment the entertainment that’s most appropriate for them.

Will live events in B2B come back? Will they be different?

They’re coming back. People are social creatures.

But it’s going to change. People are going to consider their attendance a lot more. What’s the business investment? What’s the ROI from me taking this time away from work? 

I think there will be some interesting innovations in hybrid events. But there will still be straight-up, in-person events that, if you don’t attend, you will miss out. FOMO will come back to in-person events—big time. In fact, FOMO will probably fuel the re-introduction of physical events. 

See why we invited Mark?

We’d love to hear about your own experiences—as an attendee and a brand. How are you finding the new, online event experience?

Published in:

  • B2B online events

  • online events

  • virtual events

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