How Do You Manage Unrealistic Event Sponsor Expectations?

Here’s a quandary for many conference organizers: How do you manage sponsors when you’re trying to put together a credible, authentic conference program that doesn’t leave attendees rolling their eyes at the thinly disguised sales pitches?

It’s a never-ending struggle and, of all the things that keep me awake in the nights leading up to an event, my most extreme anxieties are over any potential outlaw sponsor who has paid for a keynote spot and may decide to ignore everything they promised me they’d do to keep their content sales pitch-free.

We’ve all dealt with this dilemma. A company is willing to buy a hefty sponsorship package that includes some combination of opportunities to interface with your attendees: a keynote speaker position, roles as session moderators or speakers, maybe even an entire session or track that they take responsibility for themselves – and they have different ideas than you have about the definition of unbiased, neutral content.

Your first line of defense is always your own sales force. You have to make it clear to your salespeople that “no sales pitches” means “no sales pitches.” 

They have to communicate to the potential sponsor that it is in their best interest to have attendees walk away from the event with the idea that they just got some sound information from a smart speaker representing a credible company, that they did not pay their registration fee to sit through a canned presentation. You do not want your own salesperson making promises you aren’t willing to keep.

Next, as early in the planning process as possible, you must develop a rapport with the sponsor’s speakers and marketing staff. Schedule routine phone calls and meetings well in advance of the event during which you reiterate your event’s policies on conference content, get a better idea of what their goals-slash-motives are, and learn as much as you can about what they want to communicate.

Then you set some simple ground rules to make it clear that you’re serious. You insist on the opportunity to review their slide presentations in advance. You establish a limit on how many references they can make or slides they can use to hawk their own products and services. And you enforce these rules.

Creating quality conference content is as much an art as a science, but nowhere is that more true than in the care and handling of sponsors.

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Where Do You Find the Best Speakers?

Happily, I had a large number of responses to my last blog post regarding the challenge of coming up with a conference program that would be so exciting potential attendees would sign up early for your event.

I left off with this question: Where do you find that scintillating only-available-at-your-conference content?

It’s both easier and harder than you think.

I spent much of my working life as a newspaper reporter, so I know what it’s like to start out with the least bit of information (often wrong) about something that has happened or might happen and then work methodically to create a breaking news article that thousands of people will read.

You start with a list of names of people who “might” know something about what you’re writing. You call them and simply say, “Talk to me.”

Along the way, you’ll get advice like “You should call so-and-so and ask her.” So your list of potential sources grows and, eventually, you have enough people telling you enough facts to weave together a credible, true story.

The same thing with creating a conference program. You start with a short list. If you’re fortunate and smart enough to think of it, you’ve got a conference advisory committee who you can ask what’s going to be important to their community by the time the event rolls around and who else you should talk to.

But you also talk to last year’s speakers, names you come across in the media, attendees at previous conferences, strangers you overhear and, before you know it, you’ve got some good ideas.

That’s the easy part: You talk to people.

The hard part is doing it. We have all lived long enough now with digital technologies to have the impulse to reach for ways that will automate processes. But this is one case where you must spend the time to talk to people on the phone and in person if you are going to get a sense of what’s important to the community they are part of and what they will care about 10 months or a year down the road.

And you must do it with a sense of urgency that others will not be sharing, since it is not their responsibility to create a marketing calendar – filled with timely news about exciting conference speakers and sessions – far enough in advance to be successful.

But that’s not all you have to do. While you’re doing your job of putting a relevant conference program together, somebody on your team is also selling sponsorship packages to companies who have their own ideas about how your event should be programmed – and are willing to pay for the opportunity.

How does the conference content professional manage that wasp nest?

Once more, I’ll be back.

Creating Compelling Conference Content: How Hard Could It Be?

It doesn’t have to be, of course. The problem is that event organizers don’t always put the programming they will offer attendees at the top of their earliest to-do lists.

The challenge of successful attendance marketing seems to grow more serious all the time. If you’re one of the many event organizers who are concerned, you’ve been diving into all the blog posts and articles popping up about applying data analysis to attendee marketing and starting to feel your way around the concept of using machine learning.

Of course, none of these new ideas will work if you don’t have something compelling to market. 

Here’s the conundrum: Two forces in conference content creation are colliding with one another; most of us already know this, even if we don’t act on it; and it’s possible only the swiftest and smartest among us will survive.

First, we know that the traditional slate of conference sessions, each with its own set of panelists and a clicker to manage their slides, does not get it. There are new ways to engage attendees, new formats, new ways to deliver information – and many of us are responding to that.

Second, we know people do not need to go to an event to get topical information any more. There are plenty of channels to get much of the content the slowest-changing organizers among us are still trying to peddle to their potential attendees. 

And if you don’t believe me, just Google a handful of the speakers at your next conference and see if you can’t find most of what they’re going to tell your attendees already available from them somewhere online.

That is not to say your attendees don’t want content and to hear from live human speakers. But what they want – and what they’ll pay for – is cutting-edge insight that they can’t get anywhere else but your event.

Where do you find that scintillating only-available-at-your-conference content?

I’ll be back.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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How Hard Could It Be to Build an Event Brand?

It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet I know that many of you have spent thousands of dollars going to conferences and workshops to learn what you think is the secret.

In fact, the secret equation is simple: The promise + delivery on the promise = an event brand.

The promise is whatever you tell the community you serve that you’re going to deliver to them with your event. 

What have you promised? Is it to deliver to sponsors and exhibitors the people they may want to do business with? Is it the information potential attendees can’t find anywhere else? Is it the chance to meet people with similar interests?

Whatever the promise is, deliver on it. Do what you said you would.

This is uppermost in my mind because of circumstances I have become aware of with two completely different event organizers in which they recently made a decision to not deliver on their promises at virtually the last minute. One of these cases could be considered unethical.

In the first case, an organizer decided a couple weeks out to cancel an off-site networking event that had been mentioned in marketing materials for months. Perhaps more egregiously, another organizer canceled the order for a branded lanyard when it was learned the sponsor would not be present and would not learn about it.

It may be these two different organizers get away with what they consider strategies to save some money on event expenses at the last minute, but what if they don’t?

What do their event brands become then?

The promise + delivery on the promise = an event brand.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

What Any Show Organizer Can Learn From SXSW’s Mistakes

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: <> on March 10, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic for HBO)

Huh? The organizers of SXSW make mistakes? Well, once in a while.

As the event that has become all things to all people wrapped up its 31st edition last week, Adweek asked its advisory board what it thought of one annual event that every show organizer wishes they had launched.

Interestingly, the advisory board’s consensus was that the event’s two greatest assets were inextricably linked to its two greatest faults. Their discussion might offer some wisdom for those of us whose event goals are a bit less ambitious.

First, the Adweek advisory board noted that, while SXSW offers attendees the opportunity to network across a wide cross-section of industries, the atmosphere is sometimes so chaotic it is logistically difficult to connect with specific individuals one may want to meet with.

One of the first impulses of anybody looking to grow a new show is to find new categories and interests that might not be central to the original purpose of the event. The rationale is that it gives more people and companies a reason to sign on. However, doing so too quickly can dilute the original community that gathered around the event in its earliest days and cause first-time attendees or exhibitors to say to themselves, whether it’s true or not, “I can’t find anybody I was hoping to meet here.”

Next, the group Adweek surveyed found that while SXSW remains an excellent venue for an established player to activate a new brand (like this year’s high-profile introduction of HBO’s Westworld), to some extent the event’s original desire to be the place to find next-generation innovations has dissipated. (Who remembers now that Twitter was introduced to the world at SXSW?)

If you’re running an event that, after a few years, is just starting to take its rightful place in the consciousness of the industry it serves, you’re thinking, “I want to be both the show where the biggest players introduce their new products AND the one where the newest start-ups can find their first big deal.”

But are you quite ready to pull that off yet? Maybe your confident answer is yes, but there will be trade-offs to consider.

Everybody wants their event to grow, but the key to doing it successfully is remembering why sponsors, exhibitors and attendees were so excited about what you were doing in the earliest years. Find new ways to serve more of those people successfully, and they’ll bring their peers and colleagues along with them.

Don’t ever put a long-time fan of your event in the situation where they look up from the showfloor one day and say, “I can’t see anybody that I care enough about to meet.”

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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How Tribalism Can Work for Your Event

We hear “tribalism” blamed for much of the political and cultural dysfunction in the world today – and probably rightly so.

By tribalism, I mean the attitude or behavior exhibited when loyalty to a certain social group represents a higher value than other values, i.e., truth, facts, what’s right for the country.

There are many explanations for why this drive toward tribalism is sweeping, not just the United States, but the entire world. Among them are the advent of social media and, with it, the accompanying ability to only receive messages that affirm your views and ignore those that contradict what you already believe.

However, a Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report indicates a few truths associated with tribalism that could work to the event organizers’ advantage as they compete against other forms of marketing – if they are willing to change.

After surveying 28,000 Internet users in 56 countries, the report found that consumers trust recommendations from families and friends above all other forms of advertising. And 70 percent trust consumer opinions posted online by people they don’t know.

That is in contrast to the 29 percent who trust text ads on mobile phones, the 33 percent who trust online banner ads and the 40 percent who trust ads served in search engine results.

So, who would be the best person to promote your event – the blogger with a small but avid audience who has been to, trusts and loves your show, or the high-profile speaker you try so hard to get but for whom your show is just one of many he or she will speak at this year? The Nielsen report indicates it might be the former rather than the latter.

The Nielsen report, I think, has one more lesson for event organizers, this one dealing with conference content. I have been working with one fairly young – albeit so far successful – conference that adopted and stuck with a philosophy that conference speakers should be practitioners in the field itself rather than high-priced third-party experts, consultants or, heaven forbid, motivational speakers.

The attendees at the conference have spoken with their registration fees: They want to hear from people like themselves – whose experience they trust – as opposed to advice or sage wisdom from somebody with celebrity status but who is disconnected from their own profession.

Yes, it could be the world is becoming more tribal, but that might offer new opportunities to event organizers who have the courage to adopt new ways of doing things.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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So You Want to Be Gary Shapiro

If you are not the president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Assn., now is the hour of your discontent.

You are looking at all the media attention driven by International CES last week, watching the news reports telling you that the show drew 180,000 people and wishing that was you and your show everybody was talking about.

You’ll keep wishing that until July, when International Comic Con will capture the public’s imagination. Then you’ll be asking yourself why you couldn’t have been the one who thought of that.

Why do we wish it was us running those mega-shows?

If your show was as big as CES or drew as many celebrities as Comic Con, would you be accomplishing the goals your stakeholders have set for you?

And, while we’re talking here, what are the goals your stakeholders have set for your event? Do you even have any?

Certainly, you’re looking to the metrics: How can you make more money with this year’s show than last? What can you do to grow attendance? To get all of last year’s exhibitors to re-sign?

Other than revenue and profit goals, do you have any other clear idea of your event’s purpose, its reason for existing?

Here’s what I see too often in the association event world: After the event, the staff member charged with running it gives a report to the association board, which feels it has more important things to worry about and really doesn’t want to devote too much time to the annual show that took place last month.

If the report is rosy, they say, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” If it’s a little less than rosy, they say, “Try harder next time,” and move on with their agenda.

But do they ever ask themselves what the purpose of their event really is?

Is it to get as many of those associated with an industry together at one time? If so, are you doing everything you can to make it both attractive and easy for as many people as possible?

Or is it your idea to reach the influencers and thought leaders who will then spread the messages you and your exhibitors offer them? If so, what are you doing to achieve that goal?

Or do you want to be – as is the case with CES and Comic Con – a venue for your speakers, sponsors and exhibitors to reach the larger public? And, if that is the case, what are you doing to make sure that happens?

By the way, these are not questions for the event organizer alone, unless that happens to be the person who actually owns the show. They are fundamental questions that your organization’s governing authority – be it a board or a single individual – must seriously consider and then answer.

Once you do figure out what your event’s real purpose is, and then execute a strategy to fulfill it, you’ll feel just like Gary Shapiro does right now.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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Do You Have an Event Brand?

Last weekend I visited our local Whole Foods and saw some big changes underway: Temporary walls were placed around a large portion of the main floor with signs making it clear that renovations are underway behind those walls and that “The Amazon Store Is Coming!”

With its acquisition of Whole Foods, the company that started out a mere 23 years ago selling books online will now have a brick-and-mortar presence a mile or two from my house. This week, Amazon also announced a new technology it’s experimenting with that will allow them to enter your house when you’re not there to deliver packages in a secure place, all the while videotaping the visit for your safety.

In other words, the Amazon brand now permeates most parts of our lives as consumers. Can you say the same for your event and the lives of the people who might and should attend it?

Looking back, for Amazon it all started out so quietly. The online book seller took more than a decade before it was the technology disruptor that would destroy most of the book store chains once in existence.

Eventually, it would become one of the first companies to make cloud computing accessible to large numbers of small companies and now has its own branded apparel labels, snack foods, consumer electronics, television shows and movies.

Amazon has taken another step with this next phase, moving beyond online retailing, “back to the future” and an earlier era of retailing that involves personalized, face-to-face customer service with live employees in its own stores.

So, it has come full circle, from offering an alternative to the traditional book store, to practically destroying that entire business model, to a new version of the old-fashioned book store down the street.

Jeff Bezos is always looking for the next opportunity to extend the Amazon brand; this time, it just happens to be back to the past.

Let’s say you started out with a single trade show in 1994 and, even though you might not have known what you were talking about, you called it a brand. Twenty-two years later, how far have you extended that event brand?

There are ways to do it, starting today.

Jeff Bezos is no smarter than you and, if he can do it, so can you. Besides, if you don’t extend your event brand, and fast, somebody else will read this, do it for you, and make it their brand.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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SSmall Event Organizer, Meet the Micro-Influencer

If you’re the organizer of a 50- or 60-booth trade show, what do you say when an exhibitor asks you what kind of media attention you’ll be able to get them?

Typically, there’s a lot of clearing the throat and changing the subject. After all, this is not International Comic-Con you’re running here.

You don’t have the star power to attract the attention of television and newspaper reporters. There will be no reality TV stars making show floor appearances. You don’t have anything a blogger would want to write about.

Or do you?

It’s true that the digital age of marketing has given rise to the celebrity blogger, the person who wanders around the world writing about what he or she observes for millions of faithful readers.

But the evolution of social media, with its infinite diversity, has introduced us to the “micro-influencer,” the blogger who has earned the trust of a small but passionate audience, the writer who can draw that audience’s attention to your event, and who would be flattered by an invitation.

Here’s what micro-influencers can offer even the smallest event and what they can do to deliver your event’s message to a further-flung audience.

First, engagement. Studies – and common sense — tell us that as a blogger’s number of followers rises, the likes and comments, the number of people paying close attention to what they’re writing, diminishes.

On the other hand, the micro-influencer of a smaller niche audience is “just like one of us,” can make a deeper personal connection and engage in a conversation with his or her followers, not just make readers aware of a brand.

Second, authenticity. Readers know when a message is insincere and are quick to reject it. The micro-influencer, who is on the ground writing, has that authentic voice. He or she is “just like one of us” and their insights can be trusted.

Third, affordability! How much would it cost you to get a celebrity or a high-profile speaker that you hope would draw some media attention to your show? And how many free passes to the show could you give to micro-influencers for the same amount of money?

Fine, you say, but where do these micro-influencers come from?

Look at your own social media activity. Who’s following you closely and frequently posting insightful comments?

In your own social media messages, use hashtags and keywords related to your industry. If you run a plastics show, for instance, try “#plasticsblogger” or “#plasticsgeek.” See who you hear from.

Roam around Google and look for the niche bloggers who are covering your show’s field of interest and your exhibiting companies.

Finally, there are influence-marketing tools and blogger networks out there. I’ll leave it to you to find the most responsible vendors you know to find them.

We all know digital tools can enhance events. We also know some of the technology with the greatest “wow” factor is not accessible to the smallest of shows.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to, here and there, take advantage of the ever-changing digital age.

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How Far Have You Extended Your Event Brand?

amazon-imageNow that it looks like Amazon will start opening its own brick-and-mortar convenience stores next year, does anybody remember how it got its start?

As the first online book store in 1994. And for many years, that’s all it was. Even then, it took well over a decade before it became the kind of technology disruptor that would destroy most of the book store chains once in existence.

Today, of course, it offers much more. It was one of the first companies to make cloud computing accessible to large numbers of small companies and now has its own branded apparel labels, snack foods, consumer electronics, television shows and movies.

But, as is clear with the news about the Amazon-branded convenience stores, it is taking another step with this next phase, moving beyond online retailing back – in a way – to an earlier era of retailing that involves personalized, face-to-face customer service with live employees in its own stores.

By the way, in case you missed it, a year ago Amazon opened a … wait for it … brick-and-mortar book store near the University of Washington in Seattle.

So, it has come full circle, from offering an alternative to the traditional book store, to practically destroying that entire business model, to a new version of the old-fashioned book store down the street.

It’s not that Amazon has any deep passion for books either. It’s because Jeff Bezos is always looking for the next opportunity to extend the Amazon brand; this time, it just happens to be back to the past.

Let’s say you started out with a single tradeshow in 1994 and, even though you might not have known what you were talking about, you called it a brand. Twenty-two years later, how far have you extended that event brand?

There are ways to do it, starting today.

Jeff Bezos is no smarter than you and, if he can do it, so can you. Besides, if you don’t extend your event brand, and fast, somebody else will read this and do it for you – and make it their brand.

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com.