If you like predictability, you may be the wrong person to put together a tech conference. For months, you’re bombarded with uncertainties. Will people show up? Will they stay throughout? Can we keep to budget? If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you can totally relate. Except unlike a wedding, there’s no honeymoon at the end.
Most marketers can plan an event, but how do you create an experience that wows versus bombs, especially considering you can expect to spend at least $500, and up to $1,000, per attendee? According to the Convention Industry Council, total direct spending on trade shows and conferences topped $280 million in 2012, and has been steadily growing.
Ray Wang, principal analyst and founder of Constellation Research, says that the weeks between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day are among the busiest for enterprise software conferences. These are the last few, focused weeks of business before summer officially kicks off. Deals that began in Q1 and Q2 can be accelerated to close with a conference during this time.
With high stakes, you need to get it right. How do you separate your event from the countless others happening within the same timeframe? If your last conference was ho-hum, here are three things you might be ignoring:
1. Thinking "attendance" and not "a-ha.” Sales opportunities certainly exist at conferences but a conference built to explicitly promote your product or service is destined for disaster. People don’t go to buy technology, they go to learn and network. Planning a conference is about more than drawing attendance. Your audience wants to be inspired. They want to get smarter. Make it about the movement, not the product or company.
A well-planned conference will inspire, educate and connect your prospects with your vision. Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference is a model of event success for most technology businesses. Dreamforce is about so much more than CRM product and ecosystem partners that it has grow to be the largest and most important cloud computing event in the world.
Education is central to event programming. All keynotes and panels should be actionable and focused on industry best practices. Build networking opportunities into the event by organizing “birds-of-a-feather” meetups, publishing Twitter accounts and things as simple as adequate breaks between sessions.
2. Limiting your scope around keynotes and speakers. This always is the first agenda item at our initial planning meeting. The speakers page on your conference website is a crucial first impression on your prospective registrant. The challenge is finding a speaker with enough celebrity to be a “draw,” yet with business relevance for your attendee profile. These speakers generally come at a high cost, but a cost easily and directly justified in registration revenue.
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 leading voices in your industry, while your event will benefit from the brand equity that their logos bring to the table.
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 not easily declined.
3. Forgetting the fun factor. Sitting in a cold hotel conference room for long hours, listening to speakers, is not fun. If you fail to inject humor and fun to boost low energy, you’ll lose your audience.
Typically, the crowd starts to fade after lunch once the food coma and caffeine deficiency kick in. At our conference last year, we had a stand up comedian take the stage pretending to be the former CFO of SuccessFactors. He caught the crowd off guard, maybe offending the entire front row. This year, an a cappella group broke out with a pumping rendition of “Shout.”
You will also be challenged with attendee retention. How can you keep people in, 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 your attendees will look forward to next year. Hosting a conference has, seemingly, become table stakes for technology companies everywhere, but can serve as a very effective program to build your brand and pipeline.