I have a few event launches under my belt, having been in the business for the past 28 years. Many elements of a launch are the same, regardless of the event, and there’s a proven formula for success. But first-time events are a different story. What is unique there is the need to get enough knowledge and ‘control’ over the prospective attendance. Oddly enough, the plan to get these future, first-time attendees is often the weakest part of a launch, with decisions based on gut feelings rather than a systematic approach. The irony is that quality attendance is one of the most important outcomes of an event, but actions often bely that importance. Frequently the philosophy is ‘if we build it, people will come.’
For me, that’s not good enough. So, I sought out one of the best event-marketing minds in Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes of mdg for comment on how the marketing of a launch should be done. She and her mdg Partner, Vinnie Polito, recently spent some time with me to discuss event launches in general, and their event marketing strategies more specifically.
Warwick Davies (WD): What’s your strategy in launching an event and what steps on the marketing side are necessary?
Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes (KHG): The first step in launching a new event is writing a detailed, comprehensive strategic marketing plan. And I’m not talking about how many emails will go out or when your website will go live. That’s the tactical execution. I’m talking about identifying and quantifying the market opportunity that you perceive and how you plan to seize it. This is where you take a deep dive into the competition to see what needs aren’t being met. It’s where you’ll define and segment the target market. It’s where you’ll study the industry in terms of its size, growth, makeup, as well as the trends driving it, etc. You’ll talk to key suppliers, buyers, media, influencers, and ask a lot of questions. If you end up uncovering a solid opportunity, this plan will then serve as the foundation upon which the event will be built.
WD: How do you go about creating the attendee revenue and volume goals that will be necessary to have a successful launch?
KHG: We will usually get this from the clients with whom we work. They are usually familiar enough with the budgetary limits and revenue necessities to be able to calculate those. Actually, Warwick, that’s an area you are pretty well versed in. What would you say?
WD: You’re right about the budget and revenue side. I would say that giving a thumbs up on the quantity metric would depend on doing some testing of your database to see whether the concept you developed, at the date and time you picked, is compelling enough to calculate educated guesses on the number of paid/non-paid attendees and, therefore, your revenue and likely attendance numbers. There are various ways of doing that, and until you ‘know’ and feel confident about these numbers, it’s hard to get sufficient confidence to know whether the event will be well received. Best to do this before you spend lots of time, effort, and non-cancellable contracts with facilities, hotels, etc.
WD: What constitutes ‘research’ from other perspectives that can give the team a ‘thumbs up’ that the stated revenue and attendance goals will be met?
KHG: Let me bring in Vinnie to answer that.
WD: OK Vinnie, what do you think?
Vinnie Polito (VP): I think, as you well know, you can answer this a variety of ways.
For me, the key drivers are an ability to clearly answer ‘who is this for’? And what are the options for your target audience to garner this elusive “x”, whatever it might be, that represents the show’s focus? There obviously can’t be an easy alternative.
We counsel those managing these projects to achieve certain milestones prior to launching. These would be in the area of exhibitor participation, partners (media/association) willing to ‘actively’ support, and influencers/speakers demonstrating a desire to speak/actively promote to their networks. For each of those groups, a willingness to have their name attached to an event in some fashion is as strong or stronger indication than would be financial commitment during the pre-launch Although I wouldn’t refuse any pre-launch financial commitments either. Depending on the risk tolerance and size of the proposed event, the level of necessary commitment will vary.
Personally, I like a mildly crowded and fragmented marketplace. That tells me that the interest is there on both the attendee and exhibitor/sponsor side, but that no one has yet sorted out how to address the opportunity successfully.
VP: Other questions I’d like to know:
Why hasn’t someone else seized this opportunity – what’s the competitive landscape?
Does this event have a life span worthy of the risk? I’d say if you don’t comfortably feel this has at least a 5-year run to it, other opportunities might be better.What likelihood is there that a category killer might change the game in ways that are to your disadvantage? Examples are plenty if you need them.What’s the likelihood of an economic incident changing the landscape? For example, cheap natural gas cost me $$$ when I was in the energy space.
WD: Great stuff, Vinnie. Now Kimberly, once the plan is set and you’ve made a decision to move forward, what’s next when launching an event?
KHG: Next comes the development of the brand or identity of the event – including the name, the event logo, the creative platform on which the campaign will be based, the messaging planks, etc. This step is essential in ensuring that attendee and exhibitor prospects receive the right messages, those that create the perceived value needed to drive their decision to participate. The importance of this step is often underestimated by event organizers, but it’s not easy building a compelling case to attend a brand-new event. Why take a chance on a new event when it’s so much easier not to? It’s easier to stay home, not travel, and not book a room, not leave the office that day, or not drive into the city, etc. Despite these hurdles, many organizers still don’t allocate enough budget and effort on attendee acquisition as compared with speaker acquisition, picking the right venue, and managing every other detail. And those details are HUGELY important, don’t get me wrong, because if the experience isn’t right, then we won’t get attendees to come back. But if we haven’t made the necessary investment in marketing, it’s unlikely we’re going to get them there in the first place.
WD: What do you believe are the required deliverables from the non-marketing team members to assure a successful launch?
KHG: Clearly, the roles of sales, content, operations, etc. are all vitally important to a launch. What’s even more important, though, is that the launch team takes a truly holistic approach to event planning and promotion. This means that if the sales team is selling a lot of space to exhibitors that want to see a certain kind of attendee, the marketing team should ensure they are making a concerted effort to attract those buyers. And the content team should be developing educational programming that will attract them. Teams need to be communicative, collaborative, and agile – as plans may change and several pivots may be required based on actual versus perceived performance.
WD: Are there any other tips to get outside support?
KHG: In addition to your internal team, it’s important to look to industry partners, too. We’ve learned that you can’t go it alone when launching new events. The more that groups out there – associations, industry suppliers, media brands, etc. – feel some sense of ownership in the new event, the more success you’re going to have in achieving critical mass. That’s why identifying strategic partners is an essential step in launching an event.
WD: I mentioned earlier about testing your database. In your opinion, how big should your database be for success?
KHG: It depends. mdg launched a successful conference aimed at brand marketers a few years ago with a tiny database. Instead of working to build a comprehensive network of prospects, we instead identified influencers who would be willing to serve as event evangelists. Once identified, we offered non-paid admission to the top 10% and variable admission rates based on influencer scores to the next 30%. We also used sophisticated digital tools that allowed us to provide the influencers with financial incentives for signing up members of their networks. The event was small (about 1,000 attendees) and the admission price was high, so this strategy ended up working well. For other events, I would assume a .5 to 1% rate of return on your database. So, you should expect one attendee for every two hundred in your database to show up, provided your list is of high quality.
WD: What is the optimal time frame from launch to the event?
KHG: In our history of marketing new events, I can assure you that we’ve never complained about having too much time to launch. Ideally, planning will start at least 18 months out. An awareness-generating campaign should begin about 12 months out, with a strong conversion campaign starting at about 4 months out.
WD: Any other items that I have missed?
KHG: I would just add that event launches aren’t for the faint of heart, the unimaginative, or the ‘traditional’ direct marketer. Launches require teams with special skills who can make fast-on-their-feet course corrections, who can craft messages that overcome objections and convince prospects to take a chance on attending an unproven, unknown entity. Being able to pivot when things need changing make all the difference.
WD: Great stuff! Thanks, Kimberly and Vinnie!
KHG: You are welcome. Good luck to those would-be launchers out there!