A growing business should employ tactics and have overall goals that drive its event marketing strategy. Since the fall and spring months are an extremely popular time for conferences, expos and events, how can you make sure you’re planning ahead effectively in the off months, and getting the most out of your efforts during and after the event wraps up?
In the past, we’ve discussed how to throw a memorable event for employees, users, partners, influencers in your community, etc. But, attending, speaking at, and sponsoring established conferences and expos is another huge component of a solid event marketing strategy that businesses should account and plan for as they grow. These strategies differ slightly in approach and execution, but there are definite tactics and goals that should always be part of your marketing strategy.
In our day-to-day discussions with businesses, we often help them plan and find solution providers for event marketing strategies. To put our learnings to use, we created this checklist to get you through the planning, execution, and follow-up period of a conference or event.
Create an event tracker — You need to identify the conferences that your team should be at in some capacity. Source events by conducting simple Google searches with your keywords, searching for event calendars at top conference venues, looking at industry or local publications and websites with event calendars, seeing if your target outlets have proprietary conferences, and researching other key trade groups, influencers, investors, etc. to see if they are participating in or hosting events.
From there, create a spreadsheet that organizes and prioritizes your event calendar by goal (speaking, attending, sponsoring), by topic (consumer tech, on-demand economy, clean tech, etc.), by location (Boston, New York, SF, international), by demographic (founders & C-level, directors, entry level), by audiences (customers, partners, investors, etc.), by budget (a meetup is free to attend, a conference is pricey to sponsor, and so on) and by marketing goals (lead-gen, awareness, learning, recruitment, etc.). Once you start to map out all of these factors, you’ll realize your event marketing strategy is perhaps more complicated than you originally thought.
Want an event tracker for your business? Here is a template you can start using today.
Finalize event angles and speaking abstracts — If you have a compelling spokesperson (typically founder or C-level), you can attempt to secure free speaking opportunities at key events or conferences which can result in excellent awareness and lead-gen opportunities. These speaking sessions typically also include a free ticket or two to the rest of the event. Identify the conferences that you’re interested in with educational tracks (some conferences might just have an expo without many sessions or opportunities for learning) and research past sessions to understand the topics and formats that are of interest to conference organizers.
Typically, a conference with a large speaking track will have an entire page on their website dedicated to its speakers, publishing requirements for sessions and online applications with due dates (add those due dates to your event tracker!). Depending on the overall theme of the conference, organizers might put preference on industry influencers and big name companies, investors, or vendors that can bring a customer panel for third-party validation. Generally, it helps to have a few different submission abstracts based on topics of expertise that you create ahead of time so you can simply customize them as submission deadlines approach.
Finally, for some of the larger events that you find particularly critical for your event marketing strategy, you should always try to communicate with organizers and big players at the event, so that they throw your name into the ring as a speaker. Spend some time researching and tracking down the person responsible for choosing speakers or a moderator of a really relevant panel in order to introduce yourself and ask questions that might help you create a more compelling abstract. More often than not, these conferences do not want you to pitch your company’s services or products. They want you to talk about larger trends and high-level industry issues that affect the average person in the audience. Keep in mind the type of content that you like to hear about when you’re at a conference – actionable tips, case study lessons, practical advice you can implement the day after the show.
Determine your budget — Part of your event research should obviously include the costs associated with attending, sponsoring or speaking. Costs can come in various forms – for instance, a Boston startup might think that securing a free speaking session at a conference in San Francisco is a huge win, but there are less obvious costs to consider to determine if it’s worth it. The less obvious costs include, but are not limited to, travel expenses and accommodations (for yourself and anyone else that has to accompany you, such as a customer for a panel), time out of the office, time and resources that go into planning and perfecting your session, etc.
If you can’t secure a free speaking session, the next step is to determine how large of a presence you want to have at the conference. Simply attending an event is great if you plan on learning, walking around the room, and networking. But if you’re looking to make a splash and have a big presence, you should consider the costs associated with exhibiting or sponsoring. You might think that you can get away with event coverage from one or two people that simply buy general admission tickets, but it’s also worthwhile talking to the sponsorship team to see what sort of packages they’re willing to offer your company. You could potentially secure a booth, have signage on the show floor, sponsor a party associated with the conference, or even qualify for a special sponsorship discount based on your size/stage.
For instance, TechCrunch Disrupt costs $3,000 for one ticket, but if you have a few team members attending, you could potentially get added exposure through a sponsorship for 2-3x the cost, which might be worth exploring & testing. And, if you are an early stage startup, you should always ask if there are any opportunities to exhibit in demo pits, etc., at a discounted rate. To continue with the TechCrunch Disrupt example, startups with less than $2M in funding and less than 2 years old can apply for their Startup Alley Exhibitor Package which includes 2 tickets and one day to exhibit for $1,995 — considerably less than one ticket, with much more exposure.
Determine which events you must be at and determine your strategy for those events first. From there, determine your availability and budget for the rest. Don’t be afraid to negotiate on exhibiting and sponsoring costs. Depending on the conference, these packages are often just a flexible framework, especially as the conference date nears and they’re trying to fill the expo floor.
Create event timelines — For any event where you’re investing lots of time, manpower, or traveling, you should keep track of important dates and deadlines, and make sure you build in enough time to plan accordingly. Attending or sponsoring an event with no plan to seed the conference ahead of time and follow up after the fact can actually become a waste of time vs. a good use of your time. For a small local event, you might need a week or two to figure out your plan of attack. For a larger conference with a big price tag, allocate for month(s) of planning. Build in extra time for hiccups from other parties too – the conference might be delayed in planning or your booth design vendor might run into unexpected delays. The last thing you want to do is run out of time and show up to the conference without a critical aspect of your plan, such as a booth, or AV-compatible presentation for your speaking session, etc.
Find out who’s attending — Some event staff will make this more readily available to you than others but try to find out who will be at the conference. You can typically get a good sense from the type of sponsors, conference demographics on the site, and by simply asking. If you’re sponsoring, you might even have access to the attendee list ahead of time or following the event. Get creative with how you can learn more and lean on your network if you know others who have attended in the past. How did their goals match your goals for the show, and did they have a good experience?
Plan for collateral, swag, and booth materials — The marketing collateral and swag that you bring with you to a conference is really important for creating awareness, leaving a good first impression, showing your brand’s personality, providing educational takeaway materials, and more. How can you create swag or giveaways that make attendees talk about you and generates buzz about your brand?
Some companies spend thousands of dollars on their booth alone, making it a destination in a sea of other tables that attendees have to wade through. And, these decisions and purchases require design approval from stakeholders and time for the actual creation process. If you’re working with a third-party provider, make sure you ask how much turnaround time they need to create various aspects of your collateral and booth design. (Do you need help with collateral? Sign up here, submit a request to event marketing materials and we’ll connect you with the best vendor to meet your design goals and budget.)
Consider announcing news or launching your company — This is not a fit for every company and every industry, but some conferences are designed specifically to surface company launches or big news developments (think LAUNCH Conference, TechCrunch Disrupt, VMWorld, Interop, CES, etc.). While we don’t recommend delaying any big company developments just for the sake of pairing a conference with the news, it can be beneficial if the timing works out.
It’s one of the few instances where a lot of the bloggers, reporters, analysts, and investors most relevant to your industry might all be in the same room. If you’re demoing at a conference dedicated to launching companies, you know what you signed up for. But if you’re considering announcing other company news at a typical conference… that’s a separate strategy. You will need to bring in other stakeholders for this – your product team, your CFO, your PR agency, etc. – and it adds an entirely new layer to your event marketing strategy.
Depending on the show and the reporters’ beats, having news could really help you schedule onsite briefings, attention, and coverage from reporters. Their calendars will fill up fast, especially if they want to attend sessions at the conference, so reach out to them a few weeks ahead of the conference.
That being said, large industry conferences can be extremely noisy with many announcements from many companies all hitting on the same day from the same room. Reporters and bloggers, for instance, will be very overwhelmed by all the activity at the show and their ability to cover your news could be limited. Given this, your PR executive or firm might consider announcing your news and scheduling phone briefings with reporters a week before so that you have strong momentum going into the show and are more likely to get included in conference roundup articles. Reporters that already covered your news can swing by your booth at their leisure and you can take the pressure off getting coverage on a very busy news day. This allows you to treat the show as another touch point and demonstration of the momentum you announced the week before.
The strategies and successes vary by company, by industry, and by conference. Consult with a PR expert to determine the best strategy for your business. (We can connect you with one, btw – sign up here)
Determine your own promotion strategy — You want to let your own network and community know that you’ll be at the show. Plan out the proper marketing strategies that will support your presence there – draft relevant blogs, plan for social engagement with hashtags and handles of attendees, sponsors, and speakers, throw your own party or host an open bar for attendees to learn more about you during off hours at the show. The companies that go above and beyond what is offered at the conference will be the ones that shine and make an impression with attendees.
At the show
Create your show schedule — The week of the conference is approaching, do you have something planned for every 30-60 minutes that you’re at the show? You should attempt to fill your calendar to optimize your time away from the office and get the most from the conference. Whether it’s attending a session that is relevant to your business, a briefing with a reporter, exhibit booth hours, strolling the demo floor, networking events, or dinners with local investors or clients – make the most of it and make sure it’s organized and detailed so you don’t miss an appointment or come unprepared.
Allot time to set up your booth or conference presence — As I mentioned above, companies put a lot of time and effort into their booth. Get there early so there are no last minute surprises to deal with.
Presentation preparedness — If you’re speaking, make sure you’re planning for time to run through your presentation, check with the conference to make sure its compatible with their AV system, get a feel for the room you’ll be presenting in, and anything else you can do to make sure your speaking session is a success.
Make time for networking — One of the biggest benefits of conferences is the opportunity to network with professionals you normally wouldn’t meet. Stock up on business cards and put the time into hitting every area of the show where you can meet new people. This includes associated offsite events that maybe aren’t put on by the conference organizer but that everyone knows to attend.
Make the most of your travel — If the show is in a major metro city, meet various constituents based in that city. Add on an additional day before or after the conference if it will give you the opportunity to put in some face time with a big customer, partner, or investor.
Engage digitally — Look for opportunities to engage socially by creating a conference specific stream in your social monitoring tool that tracks the conference name, topic, and event hashtag, etc. And, walk around the show floor to see if there are other digital opportunities. For instance, is there a conference podcast or a video interview series that you can make a guest appearance?
After THE SHOW
Follow up — If you did a good job, you’ve met a lot of people at the conference. The amount of people you’ve met is completely relative to your business and the conference – for instance, if you’re speaking at the event, you’ll likely meet and a have a conversation with a few dozen people after your session and on the trade show floor. Try to remember individual conversations (even jot down a quick note on the back of their business card) so you can personalized follow up correspondence. If your team has collected hundreds of leads at your booth, you should bucket those leads as best you can by category and execute a highly relevant email drip to re-engage those booth visitors. However, whenever possible, best practice calls for individual emails to personally build those relationships you forged at the show.
Capitalize on trends and learnings — Did you learn a lot at the show? Did anything surprise you? What new trends surfaced or what old trends seemed tired? One great way to become a thought leader is to begin to comment on these topics based on your expertise. Blog about them, complement the speakers or engage with influencers on social channels, pitch reporters on trend pieces, etc. This is also extremely useful for those in your industry that couldn’t make the show – let them know what they missed.
Recap and get better — Something likely didn’t go as smooth as you would have wanted during the conference. Make a list of things that went well and things that didn’t, and create takeaways for your team for the next event. You can always do better.
Sleep — You’ve worked hard to make this conference a success. Sleep on the plane, regroup over the weekend, and pat yourself on the back. Good job!
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