This is a guest post by Cassandra Phillipps, an event producer for the Bay Area startup community. She produces FailCon, co-produces Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference, and production manages SF Beta, SF MusicTech Summit and Finance4Founders. She also keeps a blog on upcoming startup events and event advice at webwallflower.com You can follow her on Twitter @webwallflower. She has been a featured guest on The A-List podcast.
As the economy improves, more companies have been approaching me asking about the costs associated with producing a conference or a series of evening panels, and what the benefits would be for them. It’s as if something in their entrepreneurial brains tells them this is a good step for their businesses, but they just aren’t sure why.
Events Increase the Power of Social Media
As social media grows and connects businesses, communities, and individuals on a global scale, the time given for in-person interactions dwindles. While I 100% endorse companies using twitter to connect with customers, or LinkedIn to talk with clients, there will never be a stronger way to develop a loyal bond with your users and community than through events. SnarkMarket puts it well: “The great virtue of events today … is that their value seems durable in a way that the value of super-abundant copies of digital media does not. They pro vide ’embod i ment,’ to use Kevin Kelly’s taxonomy – and that’s some thing you can still charge for.” Done right, events can work with social media to empower and engage users on a smaller but more effective scale.
Many entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers know that users want to feel empowered by technology, not bound by it; they want it to help them create, discover, learn, and succeed without hindering their progress. Creating a regular evening or weekend forum where your users can learn about the newest technologies, discuss problems with one another, share industry tips, and meet other professionals associates your company and brand with this proactive energy. It shows potential and existing customers that you care not just about positive cash flow but about their experiences and needs, while teaching you exactly what those needs are. It also gives them a reason to stay engaged with your product: a community they can continue coming back to. Beta tests and user surveys will NEVER match the feedback generated through the discussions that happen at an industry event. You just need to be there to listen.
Make Customers into Fans
Events also put a face to your company, which is invaluable to securing loyal customers. I used to check various ticketing sites regularly, jumping on the best deals and lowest fees. Since I met the Eventbrite team in person, I’ve stopped this, even turning down cheaper options. Yes, the service is great and the rates are comparable to competitors, but meeting them and learning they actually cared about me personally instilled invaluable loyalty. This also happened when I was searching for a new mailing list host. I switched to Flowtown partially for the social media statistics and rates, but also because I met both founders and saw that they were not only skilled entrepreneurs, but also good people. Hosting an event and meeting your customers face to face, responding directly to their feedback, and giving them the real individual(s) behind the technology moves them from just customers to fans. (F.E: I have been to customer dinners hosted by both invoice service Freshbooks and social game company HitGrab, and watched people go from being just users to outright fans of the companies, endorsing them to others in the room.)
Brand Your Business as The Expert
People tend to associate microphones with experts. Now, anyone who regularly attends conferences knows that this is not always the case. However, if you know little about the topic being discussed, you will probably still assume that the presenter is sharing valuable advice, honest tips, and valid information. So when you or your business hosts an event for the industry – be it for online payments, cloud computing, social games, or any number of topics – people begin to assume you are the expert (regardless of whether you actually are. FE: While producing FailCon, I received dozens of emails asking for advice to avoid business failures, what I watch for in new businesses to predict the likelihood of failure, etc.) Hosting an event (or sponsoring one at a co-host level) associates your company or person with the topic, essentially guaranteeing that whenever an attendee needs information on that, they will go to you. Not a bad place to be.
The Practical Questions
First off, let’s rephrase the initial question “How would an event benefit my business?” into “Why should my business spend time attracting potential and established clients into a room together, talking with them about their needs, teaching them about the industry we work in, and branding ourselves as experts in the field?”
I hope that makes the answer a little more obvious. Next.
“How much will an event cost?”
Your first full day conference that is nice without being formal/fancy will run you about $15k – $25k. It will take about 3 months of 10 hrs/week, 2 months of 20 hrs/week, 3 weeks of 30 hrs each, and 1 week of hell: 60+ hours.
Obviously, not all businesses will be in a place where they can dedicate this sort of time and energy, and be guaranteed a high enough ROI.
“What should a business have before hosting events?“
- An established and engaged user base or group of followers.
- Specialization in one industry or market (I’d question your very business plan if this is not the case…)
- Access to the blogs, press outlets, and influencers in said industry.
- $15,000 they are willing to spend on the event. (Even a mediocre event can make this back, but if you do not have that sort of money to invest yet, you probably don’t want to take the risk.)
- Have or be able to hire someone who can dedicate the time above to this event.
- A stable enough business that you can invest in marketing that may take 6 months to a year to pay out. (A single event will not do as much as one smaller event every 1-3mos or an annual conference, and continuing to nurture the attendee community is key.)
Even if your business does not yet meet those points, I would still strongly suggest partnering with a few others to host regular happy hours or evening panels; any way to get your company into the community and engaging face to face with your users. Events provide companies with a way to connect not just with clients and businesses, but with people and their unique communities.