For Duda, It's the Experience and Humanity That Have to Stand Out

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Listening to Robyn Duda for 45 minutes gets you charged up—and a little emotional. While her talk at SIIA's BIMS event in November focused on customer experience and events, it really spoke to a certain kindness and simplicity.

After taking over a legacy event called Seatrade Cruise Global a couple years ago, she focused on how to steer it back to success. "We looked at the whole picture—stats, survey data, [comments from an] insights lounge, so we could see what was happening. We realized that while folks can Google a shipbuilder, ports and destinations, the heart of this event is it's 33-years strong. It was [the attendees'] homecoming every year.

"The survey said, 'we love networking, we love networking.' We did in-person interviews where they said, 'I feel so connected to this industry. This is my home, where I live and breathe.' So we got beautiful tales from folks on video. 'Tell me how you love the industry.' They started talking about their magical moments—'I steered the ship into Venice'—and how gorgeous a scene was. I realized then that we needed to humanize what we were doing; we were trying to automate everything."

Duda, who just formed Robyn Duda Creative after seven years at event giant UBM—the last four as VP of brand strategy & experience design—believes that experience trumps efficiency and ROI. And having a sound customer mission will lead to a much greater ROI. "Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to what the needs of the customer are," she said. "We had teams of folks developing different website platforms, live-chat functions, but everyone was working in different silos. They weren't on the same mission."

So she led a major initiative to make sure that the customer is at the heart of everything UBM is doing. Two statistics convinced her:

  • 96% of buyers will pay more for a better customer experience;
  • by 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.

Duda believes that our ability—or sometimes it can feel like a given right—to have everything we want now has changed the playing field. "I firmly believe that instant gratification is the biggest disruptor we have in our businesses right now, especially in B2B. I remember the first time I binge-watched Netflix. It was snowy in February, and House of Cards was on, I watched the first one. It was great. Automatically in like 20 seconds the next one started playing. I was hooked and watched every episode in a week.

"That mentality—from companies like Uber, Netflix and Postmates—is today's expectation of society. 'I want it now, I can get it now, watch it now, eat it now. It's B2C but it transforms into the B2B side too. When I sign up for an event, I want to know what's going to happen, how to get there, who's going. It's forcing us to get ahead of how we choose our customer and what their interactions are going to be like."

Duda also believes that every touch point a customer has with a publisher should be special. Experiences evoke feelings so events must do the same. It makes you want to be a part of it. "Every touch point, every encounter, every transaction matters," she said, from a website visit to a webinar sign-up to an event promo.

After giving an example of a food conference—Catersource—whose marketing is "beautiful" and gets "to the heart of a great customer experience," Duda was asked what she would do with an industry that may not be quite as beautiful.

She told about a specialty chemicals conference that she took over. "Finding the beauty in that was difficult," Duda said. "I decided to make the trip to Cleveland, Tenn., to visit the chemical plant there—HAZMAT suit and all. "I ended up sitting at a table with a grandfather, father and son of this company, hearing why they weren't happy with the brand." There had been a 20% year-to-year decline.

"They didn't feel like we cared about them," she continued. "We were the big, bad company that took over and ate up this event they had and raised prices. Nobody had ever talked to them about what mattered to them. That was all they needed—to feel like we cared. This was a salt-of-the-earth, American family, and we have to appeal to that. This year we launched an event on pharmaceuticals and held each of their hands, and made them feel like they were on the journey with us... and part of the family."

Duda's goal at UBM was to make sure an inter-dependency existed across all of their products, as well as a clear customer commitment. In the past, she said, they had all these amazing initiatives and a council for this and that, but no one was talking to each other. Things were being built that didn't fit in. So they took a step back and created a customer roadmap—by product—and made sure every event fit in. Every action a customer had with UBM became an exchange.

Even then, it took about a year before changes kicked in. "We had to evangelize," she said. "We started doing training across every one of these departments and initiatives, making sure everyone in the company understood where we were trying to go and what that journey should look like." Prioritization was also vital, she added.

"The biggest piece of this is you need the entire company to commit, so that your customer and event experiences [become] an essential part of the business."

When the commitment was made, numbers jumped. One event, she said, was currently 400% ahead of the previous year's registrations. And she even found something beautiful at the heart of a pharmaceuticals conference. "The cure is really sexy when it comes to what pharmaceuticals and chemicals do. If you can find that [piece] and connect it, then that's what you do."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…