Event Tech Talks: What does the Internet of Things mean for events and what will the impact be?

Event Tech Talks is a series of events by Event Industry News, which ignite debate surrounding technology in the events industry. In April, we saw Matt Hayward at an Event Tech Talk discussing AR and VR, and last month our Senior Digital Project Manager at drpdigital, Kirk D’Cruze, debated over websites and apps. Last night, I took my seat on the Event Tech Talk panel for “What does the Internet of Things mean for events and what will the impact be?”

Internet of Things (IoT) is a confluence of both digital and physical, but what does this mean for events? Discussions were focused around the physical elements of an event and how they connected digitally and, from this, how organisers harness forms of IoT. Hosted at 1 Wimpole Street in London, I was joined by Tim Manning, Co-Founder of SWARM (marketing comms agency), Clemi Hardi, founder of Noodle Live (event technology company), alongside Adam Parry, Founder of Event Tech Talks and Event Industry News (media outlet for the events industry), who moderated the panel. Here’s a brief overview and top-line points of the discussion.

To start, what exactly is the ‘Internet of Things’?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a broad term, and you may not realise how many objects it refers to. Objects we use every day; devices such as FitBits, Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple Smart watches. Even the Uber you caught at the weekend falls into the IoT category. These devices collect data about what you do, how you do it, what you like and what you don’t like. IoT is simply internet-connected devices that are able to gather data, whether that’s the quality of your health, the weather, or how long you slept for last night. Scary, or brilliant? Either way, these devices will, and are already, revolutionising the ways in which we live our lives. Gartner, Inc. forecasts that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2017, up 31 per cent from 2016, and will reach 20.4 billion internet-connected things by 2020.

Digital vs. Physical

IoT enables connection between our digital and physical habits, movements and preferences. It’s not so much a ‘vs.’, but a partnership and, in the case of events, that is how it should work. The interaction between a physical environment and the digital hardware needs to be seamless. I argued that facilitation is the key word: the way in which things communicate with one another. It has to have a purpose and it has to be tracked. Also, IoT isn’t really a new thing; in 2005 there were more devices than humans, just as there is now. However, it was in 2012 when things really could speak to one another without our intervention to make them happen – that’s when the cross-over between spheres started.

At an event, IoT can help the outcomes such as data, effectiveness, any human challenge we face at an event; IoT can come together to solve those issues. However, what we are waiting for is the devices to be something we can all have. We cannot benefit from the devices if only half the people at the event own one. It’s a chicken and egg situation. If they tried it, maybe they would buy it, but how do we get them to try it when they don’t yet have it?

Similar to the way the Oyster works on the tube, delegates at an event would ideally tap their devices at touch points, such as posters – ‘Tap here to see when the next session is’, for example.

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The Experience

Either way, what we want at an event is an experience, and the data tracked to this needs to be quantifiable and accessible. With clients, there can be a challenge, and they must put trust in the agency to harness the technologies to do the job right. The challenge is mainly a case of either: they know they want something, but don’t know exactly what they want, or they know what they want, but may not realise it isn’t suited to them.

Our task is to ensure that whichever IoT is used, or not used, aligns with the objectives of a client’s event and has a purpose. Sometimes, it can be a case of convincing them that they need it. Not so long ago, people loved the experience of going to a video rental shop, picking out a film and choosing their sweets. Now, we can go online, pick a film and not even have face-to-face interaction, especially if you then go to a shop and use the self-service machines to buy your sweets.

This was an experience people had but, when it was no longer available, that was that. It’s better to be prepared for the changes as they are happening, rather than when they have already happened. As IoT become further integrated into the home space, when it becomes integrated into everyday life, then it is not going to be a choice, it is going to be a must-have, so how far are you going to be behind when it does become that must-have?

RFID, for instance, has been used for years within retail for boxing and tracking produce. Whereas, an expo hall has looked the same: there’s the paper catalogue, the stands, and a physical map. You might get an app now – apps are almost at that “must-have” stage – but not everyone is using them yet. Where are we digitally and physically exchanging stuff? It isn’t happening yet. But, there could be so many opportunities for this experience at an event. With IoT, the possibilities are endless:

  • Exchanging business card data without the physical business card
  • Touch points to grab information
  • Directing down different paths on the floor plan
  • Notifications to say how long it will take you to walk to the next session from where you are standing
  • Voice recognition to sign into an event
  • Data about who is stood at the stand before you visit it
  • Weather report about the location before you get there
  • And so much more…

Data: Opting In and Out

How do you position your IoT to your delegates – they have to share their data, so are they willing to or not? It’s almost a marketing exercise to encourage them to opt-in. If they do opt-in, it might need to be a ‘download this, so you are going to get x, y and z’. However, if they opt-out, should they be told what they are missing out on? Is it a case of the ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out)? People are privacy conscious and it might be better to give them the option, at the risk of losing their data.

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I’d argue that it’s a cultural and generational thing. Most millennials are used to, and quite happy to, share data and share what they do, where they do it and with whom they do it. We have windows into their lives and they’re okay with us looking in (figuratively). Increasingly, there is an understanding that the services aren’t free, social media and the internet might look free, but we pay for them with our data. So, could we trade with attendees?

There is a misconception about the data too. Marketers and event planners don’t usually care for where you live, what your name is and what colour hair you have (although, I’m sure it’s lovely). The data we collect isn’t about finding out who you are, it’s about what you like, or what you choose to buy. In the case of an event, we like to know the sessions you’ve been to, how much you engaged, and to keep you engaged post-event. In our terms, in the case of data, you can be nameless; we just want to be able to use the data to analyse it. People think it’s us snooping on who you are and where you live – that digital is dangerous and scary. However, back in the day, when you booked a holiday you had to give up your name, address, and telephone number, and this would be sold on. Also, would Thomas Cook rob you while you’re away? Of course not. Essentially, we are using the same data – just served up digitally and more fluid.

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Overall…

Technology and IoT has the ability to do incredible things, and with AR, VR, and Artificial Intelligence becoming even more intelligent, tech is paving the way for innovation in all industries. The starting point for executing these things is the belief and trust in trying something new and leaving that video rental shop behind…

Callum Gill – Head of Insight and Innovation

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