Taking stock: 5 years in the events industry

10,300 hours. Armed with rusty mathematics, that was the figure that I settled on.

10,300 hours spent running 19 events across six countries.

Malcolm Gladwell would be proud.

So now that I’ve officially passed the pre-requisite 10,000 hours required to become “world class” as a conference producer, there’s really only one thing to do. Restart the clock and go again.

On Friday I waved goodbye to Terrapinn and to my wonderful colleagues, and left the events industry.

Today marks my first day out of structured education or employment since 1993. It is a strange feeling to be so aware of the end of a personal epoch, and the start of the next.

And there’s no time to waste.

In the coming weeks I’m incredibly excited to be launching my very own freelance copywriting business. I look forward to keeping you all in the loop as we get going, both here on my website and via my LinkedIn page.

But before I fully close the curtain on my 5 years with Terrapinn and in the events industry, I wanted to take this opportunity to share 5 key ways that you can get the most out of the events that you’re participating in, whether as a sponsor, an attendee or as a speaker.

Having seen some 30,000 people come through the events that I’ve run over the last few years, I’ve developed a pretty good idea of what best practice looks like when it comes to squeezing every last ounce of value from events of all shapes and sizes.

So whilst I can still legitimately claim to be an “industry insider”, let’s dive right in.

Content

The remarkable success of events like Web Summit and Money 20/20 has had a transformational impact on the rest of the events industry.

The first event that I ran when I joined Terrapinn in 2011 had a bold strategy which centred on three simultaneous tracks of content.

Fast forward to the most recent event I worked on, EduTECH Asia, and there are no fewer than 12 tracks, with activities spanning four full days.

This approach has a wide range of advantages, and an equally long list of drawbacks, all of which could easily take up a full post in of itself. What it does mean however is that event organisers are hungrier than ever before for speakers, and more broadly for content of all forms given the inexorable rise of content marketing & nuanced email campaigns.

Even if your business counts under a “vendor” profile and whilst most event organisers operate on some form of “pay to play” model for certain, there’s almost always a way around it.

Whether that involves nominating your CEO or non-commercial executive to speak, or having a client speak on your behalf, so long as you propose a strong, non-sales focused topic, the producer is going to be interested.

Furthermore, producers are increasingly targeted not just on pulling together large, quality programmes, but also around a whole range of other content including blogs, e-books, podcasts and more.

If you can therefore offer either quality pre-made content for distribution on those channels, maybe with a short pre-event testimonial thrown in, or an executive to be interviewed on key industry trends, then you can be fairly certain the producer will get that content distributed for you at no additional charge.

Expectations

Events companies around the world are infamous for fudging attendee figures. This is something that happens pre-event, in marketing materials and on sales calls, and post-event in event reports and in follow-up conversations. Is this process ethically questionable? Undoubtedly. Does it matter? Not really.

In truth, total attendee numbers are vanity metrics. If any business goes into an event looking for 500 or 1,000 leads, they probably need to rethink what a quality lead looks like in the first place.

Having said this, many businesses use total attendee numbers as a shortcut to assessing which events will make their calendar. Ultimately, a booth at a 5,000 attendee exhibition is easier to pitch to senior management than a tabletop at a 200-person summit.

However, it is often at the latter where the real value lies. If you can get in front of a room relevant, engaged and senior attendees, with an explicit need, it really doesn’t matter how big that room is.

What does this mean in practice?

As a sponsor, take up any opportunity that gets you in an environment with qualified attendees. Private luncheons, pre-arranged meetings, pre-event workshops, evening dinners.

As an attendee, use whatever mechanism is at hand to identify and contact other relevant event participants, whether that be through the app, over social channels or simply by contacting the speakers listed on the event page.

Finally, as a speaker, ask the producer to provide you with a “job title & company” attendee list, which they’ll usually be happy to do. Work your way through this, identify those you’d like to meet, and then ask the producer for a limited number of introductions. They’ll likely be so happy you’re participating in the show that they’ll be happy to help you out.

From passive attendee to active participant

I’ll always remember the first conference I was ever involved with as an organiser.

I’d spent months putting the thing together. I’d built strong relationships with some of the most interesting leaders in their field, I’d written a unique and engaging programme, I’d compiled challenging and combative panel sessions. And then when game day came I realised the reality of the conference audience.

Passive. Mildly surly. Distracted.

This was an audience whose collective companies had spent tens of thousands of pounds to get them there, and yet when they were in the room itself they were glued not to the speakers but to their Blackberry devices.

Furthermore, when it came to the exhibition I saw not an engaged bustle of business, of gregarious sales people pitching to interested buyers. Instead, I saw disinterested staff hiding in their shell scheme structures, hunched over laptops or slouching with colleagues.

I was convinced that the feedback we’d get would be horrific. That our delegates would say that the programme bored them to death, that the sales staff of our vendors wouldn’t have collected a single valuable lead.

It turns out the reaction was quite the opposite. Glowing feedback, sponsors already rebooked or upgraded on next year’s show, and congratulations all round for a job well done.

How could this have been?
It turns out that most attendees don’t care half as much as I assumed they would.

And this is a huge, missed opportunity. Today, supported by technology, there are more ways than ever to interact and to squeeze value from those precious hours on-site.

Whether asking questions in sessions, out loud or via social media, or networking with attendees in the run up to and on-site using the event app, there are dozens of activities that you and your team can actively participate in in order to achieve your goals for the event.

Assessing success

Think about the last event you participated in. How carefully did you plan out what successful involvement in that event would look like?

I’ve always been astounded by the number of event participants, from leading sponsors down to conference delegates and exhibition visitors, who when quizzed about their objectives at the event, look back at you blankly.

I think one of the main reasons why people often come out of events with a sense of disappointment, or of missed opportunity, is that very few take the time to plot out their goals, their KPIs and their targets for participation.

This should not just be the reserve of those spending thousands of dollars on sponsorship either. Even those attending exhibitions on free passes should go through this process.

With clear targets to govern your activities in the run up to, on-site and after the event, you can then clearly define whether the show was worth your while.

Rinse and repeat.

Let’s take an obvious example. Lead generation. That’s your goal. The number of good quality leads, as defined by your sales team, is your KPI. Let’s say that your target is 20 good quality leads. How are you going to secure those leads? That feeds back into the point about activities in the section above.

Define your goal. Define your KPIs around that goal. Define the targets around the KPI. Plan the activities to help you reach your target.

It’s as simple as that.

Building your event calendar

One of the reasons many businesses don’t get the most out of their events is that they actually end up doing too many throughout the year. Not only that, but they don’t plan them out in an effective way, instead committing ad hoc to activities suggested by sales teams, senior management and different elements of the marketing team.

The challenge here is that each of those groups is going to have different objectives for the events they want to participate in.

Sales people will obviously want high quality leads. Senior management might want thought leadership opportunities. Parts of the marketing team might be interested in branding opportunities, for example.

This hotchpotch approach means that you’ll almost certainly end up with a confused event strategy, an inefficient application of resources, and ultimately a failure to achieve any goals that you set.

Instead, the most effective businesses plan their event strategy either semi-annually or quarterly. They select their activities at those events to be in line with their goals, as discussed above. They ensure that they are signed up in whatever capacity before the event business starts actively marketing the show, in order to get the most out of the participation. And they build effective multi-channel marketing campaigns around their participation, in order to further drive visibility.

This approach simply isn’t possible if you commit to an event in the days or weeks before the show.

The Future

Working in the events industry has been a remarkable way to start my career. It has taught me to think on the fly, and to deal with sometimes astonishing amounts of pressure and expectation. It has allowed me deep insights into a host of industries from retail to finance to education. And most of all, it has taught me the power of effective, compelling communication.

In the coming months I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to work with businesses here in Singapore and further afield to help them engage their audiences through outstanding copywriting.

If you’re interested in finding out more and discussing how we can work together, send me a message and let’s chat.

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