Then there was that time Starbucks set up a huge unmonitored digital conference display, featuring live tweets with a certain hashtag, which was quickly exploited by disgruntled tweeters. #PublicRelationsNightmare
Or, when tech attendees all but rioted at a VMworld conference over who was the rightful winner of FalconStar’s Segway giveaway. The company didn’t follow their own contest rules and sheer chaos ensued. The devil is always hanging out in the details.
When it comes to conference planning—with money, time, and your company’s reputation on the line, you have to plan for the worst. But, when there’s so much to consider (and reconsider), it’s easy to overlook some of the more fundamental aspects of conference planning. This is about that.
1. Don’t assume, “if I plan the event, they will come”
People are busier than ever before—or at least that’s what they keep telling themselves and anyone who’ll listen. You can’t bank on them attending a conference that sounds self-serving or like a veiled attempt to hold prospective customers captive for an endless line-up of sales pitches billed as informative presentations.
Instead, as the wise business guru Simon Sinek espoused in his acclaimed book, you should always “start with the why.” Why are you holding a conference in the first place? Is it to build awareness for your company and offerings? Is it to position your organization as a thought-leader? Is it to scan badges, drum up leads, and feed your hungry sales team with fresh contact meat so they can hit unsuspecting prospects with “Thanks for stopping by” emails on Monday morning?
Well, none of these reasons will fly on their own. Conference goers—regardless of industry—want to know why they should show up. You have to clearly answer the age-old WIIFM (What’s In It for Me?) question before they get a chance to subconsciously consider it. And, to drive this point home, it’s also important to fully consider the answer.
2. Don’t start on design until your content is finalized
Your event messaging impacts every aspect of your conference, from the name of the event to the signage for your breakout sessions to the clever little chotchkies in your giveaway bags. Your messaging architecture is like the cement foundation, framing, and beams of a house. If any one part is weak, it can affect the whole structure.
We’re talking about solidifying the name of your event and the overarching theme that every presentation, brochure, article of booth signage, and piece of stage decor will eventually map to.
Yes, even before you book the space, you need to fully define your “reason for conferencing.” Does your event have a tagline? Have you outlined your major value propositions? What are five things that you want attendees to remember? Does your conference have one or more follow-up calls to action? You have to s-p-e-l-l it all out.
Everything should be pre-determined and defined in a messaging doc that is socialized with your design agency. Not only will this help you cut down on the number of review cycles (saving you money, already), but it’s the only way to ensure that everyone is on the same proverbial page and designing pieces that look like they’re from the same happy branding family.
3. Don’t try to be a DIY conference hero
Once your content is final, put your feet up, GrubHub some pad thai, and bust out the rosé from your mini fridge… if you want to fail.
Even after you settle on a date, book the venue, hire a caterer, and hit the send button on your fancy invite, you still have to produce the deliverables for your event. And, by produce, we mean work with a professional agency. The last thing you want is to get down to the wire and realize that your small team still needs to build 25 presentations and assemble 4,000 goody bags. That would be like trying to pull off a last minute potluck in place of a white table-cloth networking dinner. And, there’s not enough rosé in the world to make that OK.
In other words, don’t try to do too much yourself. Rely on conference vets to take on the big tasks. Hire an event-based logistics company to ship your booth, stage, and AV equipment. Work with an experienced caterer who has successfully fed thousands of hangry event attendees. And, always use a design agency capable of handling all of your visuals—everything from your pre-event Save the Date postcards to your conference guide, directional signs, and post-event follow-up email campaign.
4. Don’t forget to “always be closing”
“Wait, I’m not in sales. That’s not my job. I didn’t even see Glengary Glen Ross.”
You’re right, but at the end of the day, a conference is not about entertaining the masses and throwing stacks of cash out the window. It’s about converting warmed-up prospects into loyal customers. And the more you consider this in advance, the more popular you’ll be with sales and the head honchos and honchettes.
However, when you’re in panic-mode a month before the event because you forgot to include a gluten-free dessert option or your Austin Powers look-alike entertainer ungraciously bowed out, you’ll be too distracted to focus on the monumental opportunity before you.
Well in advance of your event, huddle with your team and create a plan to approach every event-related marketing touch as a golden opportunity to leave a lasting impression. Because, every point of contact matters.
To prove it, consider the Rule of Seven (also known as the effective frequency). This is the notion that a prospect needs to see or hear a message at least seven times before they take action. And, there’s no better forum than an event where every attendee has metaphorically raised their hand to learn more about your products and/or services. Make sure that the event-related copy that you created in that super valuable content exercise is woven throughout the very fabric of your event.
(You might be thinking, “I wonder why she didn’t include a link to that iconic sales scene from Glengarry Glen Ross? Well, the answer is “Holy heck, that clip is NSFW. You’re welcome.”)
5. Don’t let the conversation die
Lastly, if you don’t send your beloved conference goers home with a handy tote bag full of ways to connect with your company and get more value from your event, you’ve missed another prime relationship-building, lead-converting opportunity.
Consider all of the ways that you can keep the conversation going. Use vanity URLs to give attendees easy ways to find more information on your website, urge them to join the conversation via your social media channels, and include ways that they can access your presentations. This is an easy way to avoid post-event frustration, especially for those in the tech space who—trust us—want to pore over every detail in your fat presentation.
Bonus: You can extract more value from the content you made for the conference through presentation sharing.
Just those five things...
Whether you’re the Mary Poppins of perfect conferences, or a grizzled veteran of the event-trenches, take a fresh look at how you run your events. Revisit the fundamentals, test and test again, and plan for the worst but don’t expect it.
Also, we’re here to help. We’ve designed humungous volumes of marketing materials for many conferences around the world — we like to think our project management team is pretty darn good at it. Contact us for details on producing all of your design-related deliverables. It’s what we do—all day, everyday.
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Shana Champion is a Bay Area–based writer, marketer, and art fanatic who’s most at peace in water.