The startup marketing playbook has been rewritten in recent years to include a new program at the core of the strategy -- industry conferences. Now, user and partner events have been driven by customer marketing or business development for quite some time. But for the first time, companies of all sizes are moving the strategy up-funnel as a means of establishing thought leadership in their respective markets and generating sales pipeline.
Want to inject humor into your content marketing? There’s a conference for that. Graph database enthusiast? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Even interns are finding a community in the conference circuit to connect with each other and prospective hiring managers.
We’re no stranger to the strategy at Gainsight. Our Pulse conference for the growing "customer success'' community in its third year. But planning and executing a conference in the early days is radically different than scaling it from 300 attendees to 3,000. Beyond getting people there, how marketers express their company’s culture and ultimately measure success radically differs at scale.
When going from a niche conference that serves a small (but growing) community to a large-scale event with thousands of attendees, here are a few key tactics that no one talks about.
Scaling your attendance.
Email marketing is still the biggest driver of event registrations, but creating a compelling program that sells tickets without exhausting the database is more science than art. People respond best to urgent CTAs that are baked into a well-crafted promotions strategy. Early bird registration ends tomorrow! Tickets almost sold out! These types of messages drive registrations more than non-urgent announcements.
If your conference is truly about the industry rather than your product, then there’s no reason any of your attendees should come alone. Invest in programs that incentivize incremental registrations from each attending company. Whether that’s volume discount pricing or exclusive sessions for teams, build the viral triggers for referrals into your model.
At Pulse, we printed t-shirts for attending teams of 15 or more to help them stand out at the conference. We wanted people to feel that an investment in Pulse was an investment back into driving their own team culture -- like an annual offsite that impacts individual career development as well as business planning.
Scaling your culture.
Planning an industry conference is also a great way to align your company culture with the broader community that you’re building. With that said, most marketers still default to vanilla hotels or convention centers to host their event. Why? An argument can be made that those venues typically have existing infrastructure to support events, but in a market where everyone is hosting conferences of their own, standing out may be the difference between a prospect attending your conference over the competition.
There are a number of event venues popping up in each city that allow for a more creative conference experience. Conference food is typically terrible -- so why not bring in gourmet food trucks? There is almost always nowhere to recharge your phone -- so why not build out a massive charge lounge with ample power drops? Remember that your prospects/customers are people, and people love to be entertained. Building a conference experience that entertains as well as educates will serve you well in your after event survey.
The dark side of creativity is forgetting the basics, so a sharp attention to detail can be the difference between success and failure. We hosted our Pulse conference at a massive pier in San Francisco right on the bay. The venue was really cool but, unfortunately, so was the weather. There were a few uncomfortable hours while we rushed to bring in heaters. The excitement at the conference carried the event, but it’s an important detail that we’ll surely never forget.
Measuring success at scale.
Your definition of success will change as your conference evolves over the years. In the early days, the primary concerns I typically hear are oriented around registrations. Will people actually buy tickets?
Although the metrics that define success will vary across company and industry, here are a few of the foundational data points to track:
Growth in registration and attendance: Especially important for industry conferences in contrast to customer or partner events, your registration numbers are often perceived as a lagging indicator of overall category growth. Are you doubling your event attendance every year? Those efforts may very well reflect on your market development efforts in the previous year.
Net Promoter Score (NPS): In the post-event survey, ask your attendees if they would recommend the conference to a friend or colleague. That allows you to quantify the overall success of the program. Typical response rates will be negatively correlated with growth in attendance, but best-of-breed conferences of 1000+ attendees are recording an NPS in the 40-50 range.
Spend-to-pipeline ratio: An important measure at scale is controlling your net cost as a direct proportion to pipeline generated via the conference. Sponsorship and ticket revenue will certainly increase year-over-year as the event brand awareness and registration numbers grow. Make sure you can attribute the pipeline impact, whether the event served as an acquisition or nurture program, to prove that the conference did far more than improve your brand. At Gainsight, more than half of our signed contracts in 2014 came from companies represented at Pulse.
While it seems like there’s a new tech conference popping up every week, only a few will figure out the right way to scale their program every year to drive more attendance, spend less budget and ultimately generate more pipeline for their sales team. Everyone wants to be the next Dreamforce, but for now, we’re all still figuring out how to get there.