You wouldn’t embark on an online advertising campaign without defining clear goals, designing a strategy, and then evaluating your performance with metrics... right?
Of course not. That would be a waste of money.
So why do most companies treat their event marketing initiatives more like “fun excursions”, and less like marketing campaigns with real costs and expected returns? Most people buy a table, print some flyers, bring along an intern, and “wing-it.” Then they come into the office the next day with a nasty hangover and a few business cards - and call it money well spent.
This. Is. Stupid.
Like any marketing campaign, you should take the time to plan, define goals, and evaluate your performance. After being to more tech events than I care to admit as an exhibitor, sponsor, and now Producer of the Founder Showcase, I’d like to share a simple framework for planning and executing an event marketing strategy that should help you avoid flushing money down the toilet.
Do the Research
1. Understand the tools you have at your disposal. Find out everything there is to know about what your package entails - including the physical details (table/booth size, location, number of power outlets, access to internet, etc), and anything else that may be included (how many tickets you receive, branding on stage, email mention, bag insert, etc).
2. Analyze and understand the event’s audience. The Founder Showcase, for example, is clearly a B2B event attended by startup founders, CEOs, and investors - yet I constantly see tables that are consumer-focused and designed to get users. Understand the audience from the outset and you have a much better chance of success.
3. Figure out your budget. The cost of your sponsorship or exhibitor package is just the beginning. Other likely costs include marketing materials (signage, flyers, schwag, etc), travel, and other incidentals. And that’s not counting the time your representatives at the event will be out of the office and off other projects.
Once you have these details, you have a good “map” of the playing field, and are ready to start planning.
Establish the Gameplan
1. Establish Measurable Goals. “Spreading the word” is not a goal - it’s a concession of laziness. Simplify your efforts into one primary goal, and one secondary goal. For example, “build momentum towards my seed round”, and “recruit mentors or formal advisors.”
2. Establish Measurable and Meaningful Metrics for each of Your Goals. These metrics don’t need to be measured in real-time, because a true event performance evaluation is not done for several weeks thereafter. Therefore, your metrics can be something like “investor meetings,” vs. a vanity metric like “number of investor business cards collected.” Depending on your goals, other metrics could include meetings with domain experts, press articles, promising partner leads, gathering useful product feedback, collecting useful competitive intelligence, and so on. Just make sure your metrics are measurable and meaningful.
Design Your Presence
This boils down to two main elements: (1) Attracting the Right People, and (2) Converting to Your Goals.
1. Attract the Right People. Anybody can do something outrageous and get people’s attention at an event - the hard part is attracting the right people, and for the right reasons.
Particularly with B2B events, I see countless companies running consumer-focused promotions. I think it’s part laziness, and part trying to emulate a cool SXSW promotion they read about. If your goal is to build momentum towards a seed round or recruit advisors, then how are “booth babes” or free candy going to help?
Design a presence that will lure in your target audience, and that thematically fits the message you are trying to convey. There is no reward for being the most popular table or booth - you should just be trying to catch the attention of a few, highly targeted prospects.
2. Convert to Your Goals. Once you’ve lured in the right people, how do you convert them towards your goals? Like any online conversion process, you should design a funnel where the goal of each step is to move the prospect closer to conversion. Also, be sure to understand that this funnel extends past the event.
For example, if your goal is to recruit advisors who are domain experts in your space, then a simple funnel might look like something this;
- Qualify target as a domain expert in my space
- Demo Product
- Share interesting data point
- Discuss biggest roadblock you are facing and ask for feedback
- Propose meeting
- Exchange contact info
- Schedule meeting
Think about your conversion process as methodically as possible, and I think you’ll be surprised at what you uncover.
Note: Everything You Do at the Event Should be Focused on Executing these Objectives.
If any of the tools at your disposal are not being used for the preceding two objectives, then you are doing it wrong. This includes any signs at your table, branding opportunities you are entitled to, or conversations you strike.
For example, unless your goal at the event is to build brand recognition, why would you create signs with just your logo? They should each contain messaging and a call to action that drives people towards your goals.
I’ll give a quick example of a booth I once ran at GDC (the Game Developer’s Conference) in 2005. At the time I was running marketing for an online gaming startup named Game Trust, which developed a platform that enabled competition and community across online casual games.
Our primary goal at the event was to recruit more developers to build games on our platform. Our tagline at the time was “Evolve with Game Trust” - which was a reference to the inevitable market shift to online games and to platforms like ours (when at the time downloadable games were dominant).
So, In order to attract game developers (vs. the big wig corporate types), we kept things fun and inviting. Our booth contained a 12 ft tall inflatable albino gorilla, holding a big “Evolve with Game Trust” sign. We paid somebody off Craigslist a couple hundred dollars to wear an albino gorilla costume (with a sign that said our tagline and booth number) to walk around the event and reel people into our booth. In the booth itself was a polaroid photographer taking pictures of people with the gorilla in front our signage. We then gave people their polaroids in a branded cardboard holder that contained our developer-specific URL.
Once we got the developers engaged at our booth, we discussed the benefits of the platform, and gave them small cds with developer documentation, API keys, and other assets to get them playing with our tools right away. We also had adorable banana pens to give away as well (with a custom "Chiquita Banana"-like oval sticker containing our logo and developer-specific URL).
The event was a huge success in terms of raising the number of developers using our platform. In summary, we attracted the right people with a theme in line with our message (Gorilla -> "Evolve"), moved them down the conversion path by giving them the developer tools, and then ultimately converted many of them to write and port their games to the platform during the follow-ups after the event.
Choose and Prepare Your Team
1. Don’t play office politics with events - make sure you are sending the best people for the job, who have the best chance to execute on your goals and plan.
2. Streamline their communication. Everyone needs to have a clear, succinct answer to “so what do you guys do?” It should include two things;
a. A simple, one sentence answer
b. A statement of what you are looking for.
For example, “We are app that connects parents and family-friendly events, and we’re looking for investors interested in consumer applications to close out our seed round.” By doing this, not only are you qualifying the people you talk to as leads, but also creating an army of “connectors” who know what you want and can refer other people to you during and after the event.
3. Reinforce the goals, and plan to “divide and conquer” if needed.
Now that you have your plan set, it’s time to lay the groundwork with your targets. Find out who is going through social networks or other tools the event may be using. Get intros. Engage them on social networks in the weeks leading up to the event, and then send them a short email a few days prior. Get to know their faces so you can spot them at the event.
At the Event
1. Get there early.‘Nuff said.
2. Bring an Emergency Kit. I would always bring extension cords, surge protectors, scotch tape, painter’s tape, plain paper, sharpies, granola bars, etc.
3. Make friends with your neighboring exhibitors. There is usually some time between when you are set up, and when the event begins. Take a walk around and get to know your neighbors. They are in the same boat as you, and are likely willing to refer people to you during the event if you make it clear to them what you’re looking for.
4. Once the doors open, put the chairs aside. A person sitting behind a table is uninviting, and evokes the image of a cashier. Stand in front of your table and reel people in.
5. Quickly disengage with unqualified attendees. If you are talking to an attendee who can’t help you achieve your goals at the event, politely wrap things up and exchange business cards. Maybe you can collaborate in the future - but right now you are focused on other goals.
6. If you have time, utilize social media. Many conferences display the Twitter streams around event hashtags on big screens, which is an opportunity to publicize your table and reel people in.
After the Event
1. Ride the wave. Conversations around an event tend to last for a few days. Take advantage of this and contribute to the conversation through social networks, or better yet, by writing a blog post about the event. Many small and medium-sized events will appreciate the gesture and share it across their networks.
2. Do Your Follow-Ups within 48 hours. Like anything else, these emails should drive people towards your goals - and that can be a meeting, call, introduction, etc.
3. Evaluate. Right after the event is too early to evaluate, because your leads will need some time to work themselves out. So, schedule a meeting about a month later with everyone who was involved in the event, and review your progress and ROI. Topics would include;
a. Progress against your original goals. Where are you with the metrics? Be honest with yourselves.
b. ROI - Was it worth the time and money? Was the audience a good fit? Are events in general a useful marketing tool for your company?
c. Areas for Improvement - How can you do better at future events?
There you have it. I hope I’ve provided a framework that will help you make the most out of marketing at event - or maybe save you some money if events just aren’t in line with your goals.