By Abby Sorensen, Executive Editor
A successful event means treating the planning process as importantly as your next feature deployment.
If you’re one of the 80 percent of B2B companies with marketing dollars allocated to events, keep reading – especially if you’re a software company that hosts its own partner/user conference. If you’re not part of the event world, you should know Forrester ranks trade shows and events as the second most effective marketing investment behind your company’s website (but convincing you to enter the events business is another article for another day). When done right, partner/user conferences are a proven way to reduce churn, generate revenue, increase engagement, gather feedback, and create excitement about new products or features.
Your event doesn’t have to be the next Dreamforce to be considered a success. In fact, I don’t recommend you try to take over a city for a week and figure out how to corral 150,000 people. Paying attention to minor details can make your small event look and feel every bit as professional as a massive trade show, and it will save you money too.
If you want to see ROI from your 2018 user/partner conference, then you need to treat the event preparation process as importantly as the next batch of features you’re getting ready to deploy. The Software Executive team has a combined 30 plus years of experience orchestrating conferences and marketing campaigns, and we’re happy to share some of our favorite event hacks with you.
- If you think you’ve sent too many reminder emails to registrants, then go ahead and schedule 10 more. In addition to emails, your team should be calling registrants, connecting with them on LinkedIn, and sending reminder mailers. People are busy, and a handful of emails aren’t enough to keep your event top of mind, reduce attrition, or build excitement for the event. I recommend an “engagement” email every two weeks after someone registers, and then weekly (or even twice per week) in the month leading up to the event.
- Food matters, but it doesn’t have to bankrupt you. Don’t skimp on breakfast (attendees can’t eat a granola bar at check in and then be expected to stay alert and engaged all day). Know that cheese trays and cut fruit trays are wildly overpriced. Remember to ask attendees up front about allergies and dietary restrictions. The food you offer attendees can’t make your event, but it can break it.
- Treat your speakers like your best customers. Make sure you’re selecting the right members of your internal team to take the stage, and make sure they are well prepared with professional presentations. Little things like speaker thank you gifts, hand written notes delivered to speakers’ rooms, personalized music during introductions, and bottles of water near the stage can make a big difference.
- Negotiate with venues. Finding venue space and hotel rooms is getting harder and harder as the economy improves. You’re going to have a hard time signing a contract with favorable terms if you event needs less than 100 hotel rooms per night. One way to address this problem is to leverage the collective buying power of a meeting procurement/site selection consultant (like Helms Briscoe, for example). You might have to think outside the box and book non-traditional venues other than hotel ballrooms – just be sure it has the technical capabilities you need.
- Know that your users/partners see right through thinly veiled vendor sales pitches. If the purpose of your event is to educate your audience about your offerings, then this advice might not apply. But if you are advertising any kind of “thought leadership” or “professional development” sessions, don’t disguise those with a clever title and instead allow sales pitches during this time. When sponsors or vendors take the stage, most attendees automatically default to email checking mode.
- Purchase (not rent) what makes sense to ship. Buy your own wireless Power Point slide advancer, and then thank yourself every time you save up to $50 by not having to rent one. It will pay for itself the first time you use it. The same goes with laptops, audio recorders, easels, video cameras, and power strips.
- Bring in more chairs. No speaker likes being on stage in front of an empty room, even if the room is full but feels empty. The atmosphere of an event is significantly improved when you have 175 people sitting in 200 chairs versus that same 175 people spread thinly among 400 chairs. Plan accordingly, and don’t expect 100 percent of your attendees to show up – or to be seated for the entirety of your event. Whatever your anticipated attendance is, subtract 20 to 25 percent when you plan out seating, and then have extra chairs stashed nearby in case turnout exceeds expectations.
- Don’t overpay for WiFi. Ask for free WiFi access when you are negotiating your venue contract. If the venue won’t budge, ask yourself if your attendees really need it. If you need attendees to log on and follow along with a live demo, then yes, fork over the cash for WiFi (but still don’t expect it to be reliably fast). But if you just want to provide basic email access and web surfing capabilities, then save yourself the expense and tell attendees to take time to unplug and network. Or, get someone to sponsor the WiFi and use that sponsor’s name as a customized password or network name.
- Give someone ownership of the event. Event planning should be treated as an important part of your operational success, not a side project. If your event isn’t large enough to justify a full-time or even part-time person to own the process, make sure an on-staff person who is organized, has high attention to detail, and who knows how to execute is put in charge of the event. Consider hiring outside labor to help with the more tedious tasks like printing collateral, verifying marketing lists, or stuffing mailers so your team can focus its energy on bigger and better things. Farming out those jobs is worth the extra expense and will prevent your team from getting event burnout.
Have more tips about planning a user/partner conference? Want to share your story about why you decided to host your first partner/user conference? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear your story, and maybe even write a case study about it to share with our audience of software executives.