Let me begin by saying, don’t try this at home. It a grueling exercise – even for the most experienced event professional – and it has far more potential risks associated with it than benefits. That said, it is possible (been there, done that) but get ready for sleepless nights and uncertainty until the bitter end. However, if successful, you have a great story to tell (or blog post to write).
Know your market.
As with any business endeavor, you should understand the industry in which you will serve and be familiar with your competition. Today, industry thought leadership comes in many shapes and sizes including conferences, webinars, white papers, blogs and the list goes on. Knowing when and where to launch a conference will take research and planning. Having internal expertise and a strong professional network of potential and willing advisory board members, speakers, and sponsors is critical, particularly if you have very little lead time.
Promote heavily and regularly.
When I joined MobCon, our existing marketing efforts were almost entirely B2B focused with the majority of dollars being spent on digital marketing. Email marketing outside of our opt-in list was unheard of but we knew we needed to employ a few traditional B2C marketing tactics to expand awareness of MobCon nationally. Done thoughtfully, emailing relevant, weekly messages to targeted lists can be very effective. In our case, emails to outside lists accounted for over 60% of our registrations.
Establish mutually beneficial partnerships.
It is very difficult to make any meaningful headway with a new business without partners who can provide advice and influence. We aligned ourselves with a local non-profit organization with an extraordinary reputation in the vertical who could make connections and was willing to market our conference to their member list. They helped give our event the credibility it needed to get off the ground quickly. In return, we provided them with an in-kind sponsorship and agreed to help grow their member base by marketing to our lists and co-producing future events.
Build relationships with – and streamline processes for — presenters and keynotes.
You may have a great read on key thought leaders in your industry but reaching out to them, checking their availability and gauging their willingness to present takes a lot of work. Join relevant LinkedIn groups and post a call for presenters and sponsors in your feed. Then, streamline the process for submitting a proposal on your website. Don’t wait to get photos, bios, contact information, session titles and descriptions until after you accept them. Instead, make it part of the RFP process. That way you’re ready to update your website immediately after you accept their proposal.
Price accordingly. Give it away if necessary.
Presumably you’re in this for the long haul. The most important consideration you have in your first year is not revenue or profits — it’s that you’ve created a successful concept that demonstrates attendee and sponsor value. If you have to negotiate reduced rates to get participants in the door, do it. If you execute your event well, you will never have to discount again, and those same attendees will be back year after year.
Extend your thought leadership beyond the conference.
Social media is an outstanding way to engage attendees prior to, during and after the conference but make sure your speakers and sponsors are involved. There are a number of ways to do this, but it takes time. Reach out to speakers and ask them to write blogs and posts about the conference on their social networks. Either have the bandwidth on your team to accomplish this on a personalized basis or be ready to work with a dedicated social media agency.
A relevant blog, published research and articles, white papers, etc. are ways to demonstrate you’re in the game and more importantly, leading the way. It is often difficult to demonstrate the ROI on investing in content but most good leaders/funders will understand that content is king and dedicating dollars to extending thought leadership beyond the conference is the right thing to do.
Location, location, location.
Whether you are a regional, national or international conference, it matters deeply where you hold your event. Consider a myriad of factors including average cost for your attendees to fly to nearest metropolitan airport, hotel rates, the cost benefit and competitive analysis of holding your event in a 1st- or 2nd-tier city, union labor rates vs. non-labor, seasons and appeal of the destination.
Find the right team and zero in on a great attendee experience.
1. This goes without saying, but you will never be successful if you don’t have the right people in place to plan, execute and follow-up. Spend time on recruitment and talent development and where you cannot, find the right event production companies that know exactly how to create attendee experiences and ensure traffic to your exhibitors and sponsors. Prior to getting on site, make sure your team has mapped out every element of the attendee experience from the moment they have walked in the door until their exit.
2. There may be a tendency to limit the inevitably high cost of food and beverages at an event, but consider this: you can save big dollars with every meal you leave off the attendee schedule, but you sacrifice giving registrants opportunities to network and engage with important sessions and exhibits. MobCon event attendees have said networking is one of the most valuable parts of the experience. What you gain in the bottom line you risk by compromising the value attendees take away. You can save money by setting your refreshment expenses up to 20% lower than expected attendance assuming some attendees will venture out to other options.
3. Consider promoting other important (arguably expected) attendee benefits including free wireless Internet, charging stations, a mobile conference app and the ability to view all presentation videos and slides after the conference. You never known what incentive may motivate a potential registrant to sign-up.
Save your sanity. Go to market with your conference 12 months or more ahead of the day you expect attendees to fly in. Factor in another 3-6 months if you need to recruit a team or conference partner or haven’t fully shaped the concept yet. Like anything, success can be accomplished with dedication, creativity and resourcefulness. Good luck!