For those of us who work in technology, the months of April through June are generally bombarded with conferences seemingly occurring every week. The practice has become routine to most—fly to random city airport, check-in at hotel, keep crumbled receipts in your pockets or purse and caffeinate just enough to get through a series of lectures and solicitations in time for the coveted happy hour. Some people anticipate this hallowed season with great promise. Others dread the time away from both family and the office.
No pressure for the technology marketer.
Being in charge of planning your company conference comes with a great deal of uncertainty. Will people show up? Can we keep to our budget? How can we ensure that people will have a good time? If you’ve ever planned a wedding, the sentiment is the same, except there’s no honeymoon at the end.
If you want to plan a conference that radically improves your brand impression and sales pipeline, you have to create an event experience that people will love. Your prospects have a decision to make, and in order to separate your event from the countless others happening within the same timeframe, you have to rethink your approach to planning.
My company, Gainsight, hosted our sophomore conference for the Customer Success industry last May called Pulse. We had over 900 executives arrive in San Francisco for our first two-day effort, coming off the heels of a successful inaugural event last year with 300 attendees. The event led to over 12M impressions on Twitter and harnessed the attention of all in our industry—including our competitors.
Here are three things we focused on early in the planning process:
1. Find a truly great keynote speaker. This has always been the first agenda item at our initial planning meeting. Before the event can happen, the speakers page on your conference website will make a crucial first impression on your prospective registrant. The challenge is to find a speaker with enough celebrity to be a “draw,” yet with enough business relevance for your attendee profile. These speakers generally come at a high cost, but a cost easily and directly justified in registration revenue.
As you build your speaking agenda around the keynote speaker, find relevant executives within the same market profile as your prospects and customers. Attendees will benefit by learning from some of the leading voices in your industry, while your event will benefit from the brand equity that their logos bring to the table. Also, the snowball effect of committed speakers is a real thing. A pitch that starts with “…are you interested in joining Malcolm Gladwell and the CEOs of 5 public SaaS companies on stage…” is one that’s not easily declined if schedules permit.
2. Make it about the movement, not the product. A conference built to explicitly promote your product or service is destined for disaster. People don’t go to conferences to buy technology, but rather to learn and network. Don’t get me wrong—a very real sales opportunity exists at your conference, but it ought to be subtle and adjacent to the agenda. An obvious but relevant example is salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference, arguably the model of event success for most technology businesses. Dreamforce is about so much more than CRM product and ecosystem partners, but has been recognized as the largest (and most important) cloud computing event in the world.
A well-planned conference will inspire, educate and connect your prospects with your vision. Inspiration in this context is each attendee realizing the value in their careers, and how their efforts are integral parts of a larger movement. Education is central to the programming of the event, as all keynotes and panels should be actionable and focused on industry best practices. Ensure that you’ve built the infrastructure into the event to support networking opportunities, whether by organizing “birds-of-a-feather” meet ups, publishing Twitter accounts, or even something as simple as adequate breaks in between sessions.
3. Overinvest in “fun” programs to differentiate. Most conferences have become commoditized experiences with the true differentiating lever being the strength of their agenda. Although that matters (see #1 above), marketers are also challenged to keep the attention of their attendees, who after all are far more than merely employees, but also human beings who longs to be entertained. Find ways to inject humor and fun in times of low energy. Typically, the crowd starts to fade after lunch once the food coma and caffeine deficiency kick in. At last year’s Pulse conference,we had a stand up comedian take the stage pretending to be the former CFO of SuccessFactors—catching the crowd off guard and maybe offending the entire front row. This year, we had an a cappella group come out of the audience and break out into a rendition of “Shout”. In both cases, our strategy was to leverage the element of surprise to offset the hour with excitement.
You will also be challenged with attendee retention—how can you keep people in their seats (or bring them back to their seats) for the duration of the conference? One idea is to create a giveaway that is announced right before the closing keynote. Be sure to announce it in the morning and make references to it throughout the day.
The list of ideas can go on forever, but the thesis remains the same: invest in the experience of the event as a differentiator and give your attendees a reason to look forward to next year. Hosting a conference has seemingly become table stakes for technology companies everywhere, but can serve as an incredibly effective program to build your brand and pipeline.
A negative conference experience, however, can just as easily provide the inverse effect.