Conferences: Are They Worth Your Precious Startup Time?

The first thing to check: Are the people going to that cool-sounding event the ones you need to meet?
Conferences: Are They Worth Your Precious Startup Time?
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The summer solstice went by last week, signalling the (early) start for us all of shorter days, and, for entrepreneurs, the start of the fall countdown -- because entrepreneurs plan early, right?

Related: 10 Marketing Conferences Entrepreneurs Must Attend in 2017

But amid the preparations for the coming fall season's back-to-school, Fashion Week and final-quarter launches, the burning question for many entrepreneurs is their event schedule. This means, specificially, the conferences, conventions, trade shows and industry showcases they might choose to attend.

It's impossible to deny the impact of event marketing. According to the Events Industry Council, in the United States alone there are over 1.8 million meetings, trade shows, conventions and incentive events and other meetings held annually.

In the early stages of your startup journey, you may find it easy to be drawn into the hype of a conference, especially when its promoters promise networking and a level of brand exposure that you've never encountered. Who doesn't like a curated room full of potential buyers, investors or industry partners? At the least, if you attend, you're bound to find people who "get" what you do and are just as enthousiastic as you are about your vision or industry.

Unfortunately, though, these pricey events are not always what they're cracked up to be, so discerning the ones worth your time versus those which are better off to skip can be challenging.

What's more, if you're bootstrapping or running tight on cash flow, you'll find the pressure to secure a return on your investment even greater. From travel costs, to exhibitor fees, to booth materials and promotional items, conferences are not the most cost-effective events for a startup.

It's not uncommon, in fact, for an exhibitor booth to cost a company $3,500, and that doesn't include the supplementary costs like booth materials, lodging and wi-fii. If you are looking to attend the major conferences, expect costs to set you back five or six figures: To attend CES, for example,fees, lodging and extra expenses for one exhibitor reporting these sums (to Inc.) added up to over $150,000!

Related: Conferences Are Good for Networking but Great for Marketing

Rarely does a startup have the cash flow to cover outrageous exhibitor fees. Yet, early-stage startups can benefit tremendously from attending these events. Conferences, when they are a good fit, offer an entrepreneur a curated audience to test his or her MVP, and opportunities to network with key influencers that can help their startup to grow.

So, when you get an opportunity to attend a big industry conference, how do you know if it is worth your while? How do you pick out the events to make the most of your precious startup dollars?

Having personally attended more than 30 events over the past year -- the good and not so good -- here are some tips and tricks I've learned along the way for mastering the conference game and building a positive conference schedule:

Understand the attendee profile.

When looking at upcoming industry events, make sure they align with your customer profile and venture needs. Depending on the stage of your venture, you'll be interested in networking with different attendee audiences. One important distinction to make is to determine if you need a B2C or B2B audience.

For instance, if you have a clean-tech startup, attending some of the biggest environmental shows and conferences may seem like a perfect fit at first. If your sales are concentrated in the B2B market, however, recognize that many of these shows attract a consumer market made up of families and environmental enthusiasts, which won't be ideal for you.

Similarly, if you do have a B2C product or service, but are looking for seed funding, an attendee profile at a smaller clean-tech investment conference with a curated audience of angels and VCs may be more desirable than a consumer exhibition.

Picking conferences that will put you in front of your ideal audience should always be the first criteria in ensuring you get the best ROI for your time and investment.

Look at the numbers.

Many conferences advertise awesome stats and attendee numbers. And getting your ideas in front of 30,000 people may seem like too good of an opportunity to pass up. But these numbers can be deceiving if you don't look into them with a deeper lens.

Yes, 30,000 people may attend a conference, but this is a total figure, meaning that there will be 30,000 attendees across two or three days. Broken down, that's 10,000 or so per day, which is certainly a lot of people, but still a far cry from what the promotional materials are advertising. Then there are family head counts to consider -- a family with two kids counts as four even though that foursome counts as one customer to you!

Spread that number out over an eight-hour event and you are down to 1,250 people at any given time, spread out across what's likely a large physical venue. Don't be surpised if the venue is not as crowded as you originially imagined.

Study the conference set-up and schedule.

Even when you find a conference that connects you with the right market influencers and has a proven track record of good turnout (with the numbers to back it up), the results you are looking for aren't always guaranteed. One hidden factor that took me a few less-than-desirable conference experiences to understand is the importance of event set-up and schedule.

How is the event structured? Are there breakouts/workshops, main stage keynotes, and, most importantly, a scheduled exhibition time?

I have attended several conferences that boasted fantastic turnout, but was taken aback at how attendees never found time between keynotes and seminars to schedule exhibitor-booth visits. If you are investing in a booth, make sure that time has been allotted for attendees to browse the exhibition and talk to you.

Related: 10 Conferences You Should Attend As A Business Owner

The key to a successful event experience, then, is research and taking the time to dig deep enough to make an objective decision.

This task may take some extra time, but putting in that time before you book your flight or take the day off for a conference -- will save you an incredible amount of time and money. Running a startup is hard. Attending conferences and events doesn't have to be.

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