No matter what business you’re in, there’s probably a conference, trade show or convention that brings together the biggest names and brightest minds in your industry – and you’ll probably go to at least one per year… or at least you should. We’ll get into why conferences are important to the growth of your company later, but for now the primary question is: how do you get the most out of attending these types of industry events?
How do you make sure that you recoup the $2,500 or more (especially when you add booth space, marketing material, travel and hotel expenses) that you spent just to get entry, either in new sales, leads, professional contacts or media exposure for your company? This is a question we’ve asked ourselves – and our clients have asked us – many times. Over the years, TCF has managed PR and social media for both conferences and the business owners who attend them. In the process we’ve learned a lot about event-based marketing for companies and products, as well as chasing down and delivering ROI at trade shows and conferences.
This guide will break event-based marketing and PR down for you, step-by-step, so that you can leave your next conference feeling great about the investment you made to attend. The good news is the odds are in your favor: according to a recent survey of professional marketers, 70% agreed that marketing at in-person events tends to have the biggest payoff (at least for B2B).
Step 1: Outlining Your Company's Goals for the Conference or Trade Show
Before you do anything, you should figure out what you want to get out of the conferences, conventions and trade shows you attend in the first place. Professional development is a given: for the purposes of this post it’s assumed that you’re going to see benefit from attending the lectures, but that isn’t as likely to immediately translate to more cash in your pocket.
With that said, there are multiple paths to achieving a return on investment at a conference, and there’s no rule that says you have to pick just one of them. Here are a few possibilities:
Meeting and networking with movers and shakers in your industry
Developing marketing collateral (like pictures and video) for future use
Pitching potential clients and investors
Increasing your exposure by leveraging the media in attendance at the conference (read: score yourself some interviews with reporters)
Using social media to raise your profile and get new followers
Build up your marketing lists (newsletters, etc.)
Using speaking opportunities to become a thought leader in your industry
Some of these will get you to ROI faster than others. For instance, networking with thought leaders in your industry can be good in the long run, but isn’t likely to be a cash generating machine in the short run. Pitching potential clients and investors at conferences can make even the most expensive ticket worth it, but only if you pitch in a way that people are receptive to (don’t bum rush your target in the lobby and roll right into your pitch, or you’ll look like an amateur AND waste everyone’s time – and you don’t want to be that guy).
Obviously, it helps to know your target – and if your target already knows you. This is how the other goals can help you to achieve ROI, even if achieving the individual goals themselves won’t. Becoming a thought leader in and of itself won’t immediately get you new contracts, but it can if you leverage your status correctly and consistently.
Media coverage, on the other hand, is a very quick way to get a return on investment. It only takes one interview with a major media outlet, and you’re there! The value of media coverage is usually calculated at three times ad rates – meaning that if you get a 2-minute interview on a TV program that charges $100k per minute of ad time, you’ll score $600k worth of media coverage for your company.
Step 2: Choosing the Right Conference, Trade Show or Convention to Attend
Before you can get to the event-based marketing prep work for for your business at a conference, you have to figure out which one(s) you’re going to attend. You don’t want to wait until the last minute to decide which conference you’re going to, because you’ll end up screwing yourself out of the time required to effectively prepare for it. Generally speaking, you want to give yourself (or your PR team) at least 60 days lead time, if possible – but 30 days is still better than 10.
If you’re not sure where to start looking for events to attend, you might want to start with TSNN.com, which is a pretty extensive database of trade shows that you can search through by date, industry and location.
There are some conferences and trade shows that are must-attends because they’re consistently successful: CES, SXSW, etc. These types of events are gimmes, in that you know there will be the promotion in place on the their end to draw the speakers and media outlets you want to see at these things. But if the conference is new, or is only in its first few years, it can be difficult to tell if it will be worth your while…this is where the points below come into play.
Here’s what to look for in a conference or trade show that's worth attending:
Relevancy – Is the conference in your industry? Will there be potential clients/customers there who will be in a position to buy from you? In short: do you think it’s possible to get a return on investment from attending the event?
A solid website – The conference’s website is the first indication that you have as to whether or not attending will be worth your time and financial investment. If the website is crappy, the organizers didn’t choose to put enough time and money into developing it – and it’s a sign that they’ll treat the conference with a similar lack of attention to detail. Although this isn’t always true, it generally is. Does it look like the conference is a fly-by-night operation, held at a third-rate hotel by an airport? If so, you might want to pass and save your money for a bigger, better conference.
Active social media channels – Twitter is an integral aspect of any solid event-based marketing plan, and if the conference doesn’t even have an account set up it’s a bad sign. If they don’t market themselves effectively, they won’t be able to help you market yourself effectively. Check out what they did via social media during the last conference – did they use their networks to add to the conversation, as well as increase the exposure of the event, speakers and attendees? Take a look at their Instagram and Facebook photos – do they hire professional photographers and videographers to capture the event in action? If the conference’s social media is on point, it means that they’re invested in getting the most out of the event (which means that you’ll have a greater chance of achieving ROI out of it).
Check Reddit. Reddit is a great resource for trade shows — especially for determining which ones are worth going to. While Reddit is usually seen as a website for killing time, it's also a great site for networking, and many professionals discuss their work lives on Reddit. Likewise, Reddit tends to be a hub for marketing, meaning that if a conference is being mentioned on Reddit, it's probably worth your time to show up, as at the very least there will be a built-in PR stream for you to take advantage of. As an extra note, make sure you write down the usernames and subreddits that discuss the trade show you're researching — that way you can get a head start on your Reddit marketing efforts once you come home.
Big name speakers – Big name speakers will draw big name media outlets, which as we outlined above can translate to big-time ROI. The more impressive the lineup of speakers, the more likely it is that high quality attendees will show up as well – and these are people you may be able to convert into clients or customers.
Past media coverage – Did high profile media outlets flock to the event last year, and the year before that? If so, there’s a good chance the media will be in attendance this year – and if you play your cards right, you might even land yourself a few interviews.
Who else is attending – Will your competition be there? VC firms? Make sure that the other conference attendees fall into one of your target categories: potential investors, potential clients, potential partners, etc.
Step 3: Preparing for the Conference or Trade show
Once you’ve chosen a conference, it’s time to start preparing for it. About 80% of the work required to maximize ROI at conferences is done before the conference even starts – this is where you (or your PR team) puts in the real time and effort. And trust us, it’s A LOT of work.
Because this takes quite a bit of time and effort, you’re going to want to give yourself at least 30 days to do it all. You may need even more time, if you have to order another set of business cards, signage or other marketing material.
Try to Get a Speaking Gig
If you’ve spoken at conferences before and have something interesting to say, see if you can get yourself a spot on the lineup as an individual speaker or on a panel with others. This usually takes quite a bit of preplanning, but if you have an idea and a speaking proposal it never hurts to ask. At the very least, it puts you on the radar of the people who organize the event. If you’re not considered for this year’s conference, they may keep you in mind for next year.
How it maximizes ROI: Often, speakers get free or discounted booth space and/or tickets to the event. Depending on what you bring to the table, you may even get paid for it.
Scope Out the Competition
Which of your competitors are attending? Will they have a booth? Will it be bigger than yours and in a better location? Does it look like they've implemented an event-based marketing plan yet? These are all things you should know before you write the check, so that you can write a bigger check if necessary to snag the best booth location possible.
Don’t just stop at the competition, either – ask the organizers how many people are attending the conference, if it’s expected to sell out, what media are expected to attend, and any other questions your inquiring mind wants to know. The more you know about the conference or trade show itself, the better.
How it maximizes ROI: Speaking as a business owner for a minute here, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how much fun it is to beat out the competition. Whether you’re first to market or the one to get the most media coverage at an event, kicking a competitor’s ass is always a good time. Sun Tzu taught us that you need to know your enemy in order to beat your enemy, and it’s fair game to finagle better booth space (like near the elevator everyone takes). This will give you more access to more attendees and reporters, and might even lead to more sales.
Get Your Signage Situated
TCF’s tip of the day: invest in good signage. You’ll be able to use it over and over again, and it’ll find its way into lots of photos (and cheap signage does not make for good photos). If you’re getting a booth, find out in advance what kind of signage you’re allowed to have. If you’re able to bring a step and repeat or something that will function similarly, do it – and make sure your lighting game is on point, so people look good in the photos.
If you don’t have a step and repeat made with your company name and logo, order one. Don't know what they are? We've got you covered. Here's a guide to everything you need to know about ordering and using a step and repeat. You’ll be surprised at how often you’ll use it. As a rule, the more signage the better! You can always leave it packed away, but you can’t magically create more out of thin air if you need it.
How it maximizes ROI: Step and repeats make for great backgrounds for Facebook profile pics. For one, they look fancy and important. For another, they make the person in standing in front of them look fancy and important by association – a must-have for any profile-worthy pic. At the very least, they’ll get shared. This is like free advertising, and is great for brand awareness.
Order Your Printed Marketing Material
First, bring enough business cards. You can never have enough business cards, ever. When you think you’ve packed enough, add about 100 more. If you’re going to hand out branded tchotchkes, they should be relevant to what your company does. Consider creating a digital press kit, so you don’t have to pay for printed versions.
How it maximizes ROI: On the tchotchke front, if you’re just going to order a bunch of branded pens or letter openers, save your money. Digital press kits can be emailed or given away on branded USB ports, often for less money than glossy printouts.
Will You Be Breaking News at the Conference?
If you’ve done your homework and picked a good event, there will be reporters from major media outlets in attendance. How are you going to capitalize on that? Consider breaking big news at the event, so that you can piggyback on the media coverage the conference is already getting.
How it maximizes ROI: You’ll get more for your effort and money if you’re able to piggyback on a larger event or story. Sometimes reporters will cover news that wouldn’t otherwise get picked up, just so they can follow up on a story they recently covered. This tends to happen a lot at conferences and trade shows.
Ask Event Organizers for the Media List (and Use It!)
Tell them about the news you’ll be breaking at the conference and ask if they’ll share their media list with you. Then, contact the reporters you think will be interested in the news and let them know what you’ll be announcing at the event. Say that you’re available for interview, and would be happy to schedule one. This probably goes without saying, but it’s important that what you’re pitching is actual news, not something insignificant or inherently self-serving. A reporter from the New York Times probably won’t care about your new ebook launch or the fact that you’ve rebranded.
How it maximizes ROI: Free reporter contacts, just for asking! This also does a lot of the homework for you when it comes to building out your Twitter list of reporters.
Familiarize Yourself with Hootsuite
There are several social media management tools available, but we’ve found that Hootsuite is the most feature-rich at the best price. You’ll need a tool like Hootsuite to monitor streams for keywords related to the event, the conference or trade show’s hashtag and the lists of reporters, speakers and sponsors you create. Figure out which keywords you should target for the event, and add them to your streams. Promote the fact that you’ll be at the conference or trade show via all social media channels, and don’t forget to tag the event’s social media pages!
How it maximizes ROI: You’ll catch opportunities that you never would otherwise. Here’s a really good case study/example: at CES Las Vegas this year, one of our clients had a table at an event called Startup Showcase.
While using Hootsuite to monitor for “CES”, we found and responded to this tweet, from a senior writer at Wired:
Note that a hashtag wasn’t used, so if we were only monitoring for that we would’ve missed it. We sent Mat a pitch via email and followed up with a tweet, which led to the Wired team doing a really awesome review of our client’s product. In this case, being organized and monitoring for conference-related keywords within Hootsuite directly led to coverage on the Gadget Lab section of Wired.
Build Twitter Lists
This takes a long time, but is well worth the effort. In fact, you should create Twitter lists for every trade show, conference and event that your business is represented at (for more info, check out How To Use Twitter Lists for Marketing Your Business: The Ultimate Guide).
Ahead of the event, start interacting with the key players you’d like to meet and mingle with – this way, when you introduce yourself they’ll already know who you are. Don’t be a stalker and don’t pitch via Twitter, but retweet, favorite and interact with the tweets that people in your lists send out. You should do this for a solid 30 days before the conference. Also, you might want to make those Twitter lists private instead of public.
How it maximizes ROI: Unfortunately, there’s only one of you. This means that you can only be in one place talking to one person at one time. With social media, and Twitter in particular, you can talk to multiple people at once – without even being in the same room! Being organized about Twitter, list building and interacting with the people you want to target enables you to be in several important conversations at once. This can lead to more media coverage, in-person networking opportunities, etc.
Consider Sending Out a Press Release
Let’s say that the news you’re breaking at the event is a new product or updated product design. A week or two before the conference, send out a press release announcing that you’ll be unveiling the new product/design at the event.
This should get you some pre-conference buzz to augment your event-based marketing, as well as promote the event itself (which the organizers will be happy to see). At the very least, publish a blog post announcing that you’ll be at the event and discussing what aspects of the conference you’re most looking forward to.
How it maximizes ROI: If you generate buzz for your company before a conference or trade show, those who pay attention to industry news will already know who you are before you show up – meaning the hardest part of the battle has already been won. Pre-conference buzz leads to more media coverage, the event organizers tend to like it, and when properly leveraged it can create sales and networking opportunities.
Another case study from CES Las Vegas: this piece of pre-conference news coverage buzz at Entrepreneur was a great write up for our client, but also mentioned the Startup Debut event. Several people at the conference had seen the Entrepreneur article, and made a point to find the client’s booth as a result.
Does all that pre-conference social media and PR prep seem like a lot of work? Because it is – there’s a reason it took be around 1,500 words to explain it. Trust us, this is nothing you want to try to cram into a weekend, which is why pre-planning is an important part of this process.
On top of all this, you’re going to want to make a list of everything you could possibly need – because there’s a good chance you’re going to need it at the conference, and you won’t have time to run to the store (or even know where the store is, if you’re in an unfamiliar city).
Your shortlist should include items like:
Several kinds of tape
A backup of everything
At some point fairly early on, you should decide how many people you need to represent the company at the conference or trade show – and then outline exactly what each person’s duties will be. Generally speaking, you need at least one person on social media duty and at least one person to interact with everyone. Somebody’s going to need to take photos, and maybe a video or twenty. We recommend sending at least two people to conferences, conventions and trade shows. In most cases, four people staffing the event seems to be the magic number.
Don’t have the staff to send that many team members to represent your business at an event? No problem – we’ve got you covered! Contact us today to learn more about our event-based marketing and PR services.
Step 4: Getting Press, Making Connections and Marketing Your Business at Conferences, Conventions and Trade Shows
The good news is, if you’ve gotten this far it’s mostly downhill from here. Besides, the actual event is the fun part! This is all you have to do at the conference itself:
1.) Tweet regularly, and monitor the event’s hashtag and relevant keywords. You know those Twitter lists and Hootsuite streams you spent hours putting together? It’s time to put them to use! Have somebody on your team monitor your Twitter lists and streams within Hootsuite, and respond, interact, retweet or favorite as necessary. Create your own content for the conference, too – tweet your own photos, quotes and commentary. It might even be worth it to host a Twitter chat before, after, or during the event, as chances are people will want a chance to speak their mind about whatever is going on during the conference.
2.) Don’t forget to show some love to the other social networks. You may not want to post 50 updates per day on Facebook the way you would with Twitter, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t update at all. Make sure you post what’s happenin’ at the conference on Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, tagging all the relevant people along the way. Maybe even write a quick blog post, including some of the photos and videos you’ve taken that day.
3.) If you’re breaking news, send out your press release mid-conference. If part of your strategy involves breaking company news at the conference or trade show, have your PR team distribute a release at the event (and make sure all the reporters from the media list are included, as well). This should get some interviews lined up.
4.) Promote all of your media coverage. Promote your coverage immediately via social media, but also file it away for later for future use (such as including in a press page on your website, sending out via an email newsletter, etc.)
5.) Shake hands, rub elbows, talk about your company – and have fun! Collect business cards, and remember that you’re going to have to follow up with these people after the conference. Write down details on the backs of business cards if necessary, but remember who they are so you can remind them who you are after the event. And, of course, always be closing.
6.) Take more photos than you think you'll need. If you have a booth, take pictures of people interacting with your team and using your products. There will be a ton of industry people at trade shows, and you should get photos of and with them if you can – it's great for social media fodder, but you can also use the images in blog posts and other marketing collateral. The goal is to come away with usable content, so err on the side of taking more photos than you think you'll need (when you get home, you may find that some are blurry or otherwise unusable). You'd be surprised how far a few good pictures can go – but they won't go anywhere if you don't take them.
After all this is done on the first day, rinse and repeat daily until the conference, trade show or convention is over. If you geek out over your company, like many business owners we know do, you likely geek out over industry events. In your quest for ROI, don’t forget to have fun! At night, feel free to go out, mingle and have a few drinks to celebrate all of your hard work – but in the morning, make sure you get your hustle back and continue marketing your business at the event.
Try to get enough sleep to stay perky and friendly, because nobody wants to go out of their way to network with a grouchy person who looks hungover. When the conference is over, there’s still some work to do – but it’s all low pressure, and you have a couple of weeks to do it all.
Step 5: Marketing Your Business at a Conference or Trade Show (After it's Over)
The work involved with marketing your business at a conference or trade show isn’t over after the closing reception. Once you return from your trip, there’s still a short to-do list for you and your team to go through in order to make the most of your efforts and maximize ROI.
Here’s what you do next:
Promote your media coverage. Put it on your website, share it on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest and anywhere else that’s relevant. It’s okay to share your excitement about your company being famous.
Follow up with the reporters who gave you media coverage. Thank them for their coverage (or interview, if the coverage hasn’t gone live yet) and let them know that you’ve promoted the content via social media – and tagged them in your updates. Also let the journalists know that you’re available for follow up questions or to be interviewed about (insert your area of expertise here), so that they know they can reach out to you with questions in the future. This can lead to more coverage in the future.
Follow up with all the business cards you collected. Let the people you met know that it was great to have connected with them, and remind them how you met and who you are – something to jog their memory, like how you enjoyed your conversation about (insert what you talked about here). Add them on LinkedIn and follow them on Twitter, and maybe even add them on Facebook if you think it’s appropriate to take your relationship to that level.
Analyze the results and determine if ROI was achieved. This is the most important part of your post-conference work – you have to figure out if in the end the juice was worth the squeeze. Take at the following, and put a dollar value on everything you can:
Increases in social media following and engagement
New backlinks to your site
Increase in brand awareness
Professional development from the conference lectures
The quantity and quality of potential clients you met
The quantity and quality of potential partners or investors you met
Tally everything up, and then subtract your total expenses for the convention or trade show (including travel, meals, etc.). If you come out with a number that’s in the black and you have positive feelings about the event itself, RSVP early for next year and take advantage of an Early Bird discount if one is offered.
Once you get the hang of it, marketing a business at a trade show or conference isn’t all that difficult – the first few times are always the most challenging. However, it is ALWAYS a lot of work, no matter if it’s your first conference or your fiftieth. And to be honest, many of small businesses don’t have the staff of the time to effectively execute an event-based marketing plan.
Outsourcing Event-Based Marketing and PR
Outsourcing the marketing of your business at a conference or trade show can be an attractive option, especially after reading through a guide this long. But before hiring an agency to take the work off of your plate you should insist on seeing a portfolio of previous event-based press coverage and social media case studies.
The costs involved in outsourcing event-based marketing work vary, depending on how many people you need to help you at the event and how many days the conference or trade show spans (and also, which agency you hire). At The Content Factory, our rates for a 2-day conference start at $5,000 plus travel expenses, with 2 TCF staffers sent out to handle all the work listed in this guide, including full social media management services for 30 days. All told, it’s about 45 days of work, assuming 30 days notice to prepare. Please contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about our event-based marketing services.
The tips and tricks listed in this guide will work well for just about any conference, trade show or convention – try them out and let us know which ones worked best for you in the comments section.
And if you know of a business owner about to go to a trade show or convention, please pass this article along to them!