Entrepreneurship

6 Steps to Planning a Free Startup Event and Making a Splash

As an ecommerce startup -- selling a socially conscious jewelry line from Kenya -- and a business with a limited marketing budget, we devote a lot of energy to thinking up ways to creatively (i.e., cheaply) yet effectively market our company and expand our customer base.

Related: Online Marketing Gets All the Buzz But Check Out the ROI for Live Events

We’ve found that planning promotional events is one of the best ways to meet our customers face-to-face and simultaneously control our brand messaging, thereby accomplishing something so important for a young company without an established brand: speaking for itself.

Viral marketing and word-of-mouth marketing are two of the most underrated and least costly marketing strategies. As we thought about how we could raise brand awareness and create buzz around our mission, we drew upon the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” and the Dark Knight Rises viral video campaign for inspiration.

When we launched a grassroots PR stunt in Central Park last year and asked people to share their dreams with us, we discovered how to deliver our message to engage with potential customers and also gathered behavioral data points to help drive our future marketing decisions. Here are six key things we learned along the way:

1. Set clear goals and objectives.

Thinking about what you want to get out of the event will help you. Are you hoping to acquire customers? Drive sales? Test out a product? Giving away samples would be a good way to test your product and get immediate feedback, but it may not drive sales, depending on what kind of product you sell. To match your objectives with the type of event you want to plan, brainstorming and doing your research on consumer behavior are key.

2. Plan, plan, plan your social media schedule.

To help us stay organized, we created all of our content ahead of time: Facebook posts, Instagram countdowns and email marketing blasts. Most of these can be scheduled to post automatically through sites like sproutsocial and help to generate buzz prior to the event. Of course, make sure your website and social media accounts are all on-message.

3. Reach out to the press through warm contacts.

One of the reasons we coordinated an awareness event was to increase our company’s press coverage. So, do as we did and reach out to publications that would be interested in covering your event; send them a special invitation (for example, try personalizing a message about some of their past writing that you enjoyed, and say why).

Be sure to follow up afterward to summarize the event, even if your invited guests couldn’t make it. Persistence and timely follow-ups get noticed! Using this momentum to our advantage, we secured our first feature in Forbes even though the journalist couldn’t attend our event.

Related: The Price Is Right: Turning a Profit in the Event Planning Business

4. Be a personal ambassador.

Event sites like Splash and Eventbrite are easy to use for event management, but don’t forget that you are the best (and no-cost) ambassador for your event. Tell your friends and family and ask them to support your event. You can even spread the word online through your own personal social media accounts and by blogging about your company and its mission on sites like the Medium.

5. Be creative.

We attracted hundreds of people walking around in Central Park through our energized and talented musicians (one of whom dragged a harp into the park!) Without their presence, we would not have collected as many dreams from people as we did -- 150, to be exact. Even as the music drew a crowd, it allowed bystanders to open up. Had we not turned this viral marketing event into a concert, everyone would have thought we were street peddlers!

6. Expect the unexpected.

Little did we know, reserving space in New York City parks is done several months ahead of time and there are many application fees and procedures to follow! Don’t let important things like a poor venue location get in the way of planning your perfect promotional event. Know that there will be plenty of unexpected mishaps the day-of and the best that you can do is face them with a calm and positive attitude.

With so much business happening online these days, planning a live event (and actually meeting people in person) is a daunting task. Even though we consider ourselves primarily a socially conscious ecommerce site, we’re definitely in the people business. We cannot stress live interaction with your target customer segment enough.

Some of our most loyal customers have been gained from these in-person events and summer craft fairs where we were able to put a face to our brand, have customers try on products and talk to us about their interests and aspirations.

While you’ll certainly reach a larger audience online, sometimes there are huge benefits from gaining a few loyal customers in the early stages of your start-up who will act as brand ambassadors for the rest of your company’s life.

Related: How Data Can Help You to Personalize Marketing Events and Boost ROI