Ed Butler is the latest addition to VIA’s network of partners. His experience in content production and event creation has taken him from London, to Amsterdam and he is now based in Singapore. He works with clients to develop proof of concept and growth plans for content propositions in both digital to live environments. More of his content can be found on his LinkedIn profile.
Over my career I have launched a whole host of new B2B conferences, exhibitions, seminars and workshops with well-established media brands as well as event business start-ups across the globe.
Its fair to say that successfully launching a new B2B industry conference or exhibition is a big challenge. It’s a lot like launching a new business: there is a high chance of failure if you don’t cover all bases and put the necessary work in. That said, the formula for success I believe is a pretty simple one.
This hit list distils what I feel are the ten most important points to achieving a successful launch. It does not cover everything – that could take up a whole book. But, if you can cover off these 10 points below, you are almost guaranteed to meet with success.
1. Know What Your Market Needs, What They Spend On
Let’s assume you have carefully chosen your event theme and title (itself no easy task). The next stage is the research. Your launch event is going to require a substantial investment of time and money to get it off the ground.
As an events professional, you need to justify that expenditure by having absolute certainty your event meets a need in the market. This is going to require ongoing research: reading, phone research and liaising continually with an advisory panel. (NB: reading should be seen as gap filler, the best ideas come through phone calls and meetings with your target market. Be sure to devote time to all three).
If the event idea is your own, you are obviously determined to make a success of it. A word of warning though: don’t allow your ego to take control.
If at any stage you find yourself plugging on with an event in spite of a lukewarm reception from your target market, then you’re fighting a losing battle. Many of us have been there and its not easy to concede defeat, but much better to put the event to rest at an early stage or go back to the drawing and board and start the ideation process again.
2. Create a Narrative in your Content
This is important but often sadly overlooked in content development. Event delegates (or let’s just say people in general) like to be told stories. An event that has a beginning, middle and an end gives a feeling of wholeness and satisfaction to the delegate. There is more likelihood they will come away with a feeling they have learnt something important and useful. So what should a beginning, middle and end look like?
- Your opening session and keynote talks should spell out the industry in a nutshell, giving clarification and some degree of inspiration. Its not enough just to get a big name for your keynote speaker. If their presentation topic is going to be tangential or advocating a certain product/methodology then it’s not a talk that belongs in the opening session. This needs to be kicked into the main body of the event.
- The main bulk of the content is where you have the opportunity to branch out into more niche areas of the topic (developing separate tracks will support this).
- The closing session should be a session that ideally draws together the different ideas and perspectives discussed but that also looks to the future, and ideally gives a message of hope.
- A second reason narrative in content is good is a little more psychological, and that is that stories are a key device in mnemonics. Just as memory experts will create a story in order to help them remember the sequence of a deck of cards, your event narrative will enable delegates to store away much more information from your event. The more useful your event proves to be for your delegates, the more likely they are to recommend your event for the future.
3. Choose the Right Keynote Speaker
The ideal keynote speaker should fall into one of two categories: the industry ‘framer’ or the ‘doer’.
The framers are those who shape the industry by setting the targets, benchmarks and parameters. These will typically be your regulators and government commissioners. Their topic may be a little dry and fusty, but their presentation gives essential information to the audience. From experience, I find these talks are more appreciated in developing markets where there may be more opacity in the system, or where new regulation is imminent and people are looking for clarification.
The other kind of speaker is the ‘doer’. These are the people who have been in the industry for years, made a great name for themselves but can also offer valuable and actionable information which is going to help the delegates move in their own roles.
A second point to make here is, be wary of the futurists. Over the span of my career in events I’ve seen more and more futurists employed as keynote speakers. These are typically the people who come on the stage and spell out how great and radically different the industry could look in 20 years time. They are great at getting the audience pepped up for the conference ahead – with their exciting visions – but they also tend to be a little short on the road map details, ie precisely how we get from the now to that point in the future. It’s easy for the relative newcomer to the industry, ie you, to be beguiled and feel you’re offering a valuable addition to the event. But, bare in mind your experts in the audience have probably heard all of this before. What they are looking for is actionable content – solutions to the problems they have in hand.
A final point to make here is to be sure to get your keynote speaker presentation in early. Any content producer will know what a challenge it is to get the slides in on time – that’s never going to change. Your keynote presentation is different though. This is the presentation that is going to set the tone and the narrative for your event (see my point on creating a narrative). Be sure then to get it in at least a draft outline at the earliest possible date to help you build a relevant content narrative around this. If you’re paying your speaker – then this should be made part of the contract.
4. Carefully Manage Content Versus Sponsorship Money
‘Content is King’ was a slogan drummed into my head on my first day working in events. As a conference producer, I was more than happy to hear it. But it remains true still to this day: content should be content-led. There are a few key lessons to bare in mind here:
- Work with your sponsors on their content. Their goal is to drive engagement, to open up opportunities for business and to show their thought leadership. Steer them away from Bus Dev and Sales speakers, encourage them to consider a different person from their business who can provide content without the pitch. A great presentation will lead to more interest, and more self-identifying leads onsite.
- For higher-level sponsors, you can consider developing whole tracks based around a niche topic area on a fee-paying basis – so long as the track contains a balance of viewpoints and has broad market appeal.
- These days I see more and more events steering towards the content model of having all panel sessions apart from the opening and closing keynote slots. This is a good model. It gives scope to have far more speakers on board and the opportunity to have more integrated conversations. But don’t allow panelists to show slides. You will get a lot of pressure to concede on this point from your sales team and from the speakers themselves. Don’t. Before you know it, all panelists will want to present slides, and your so called panel sessions will turn into 5 mini presentations squeezed into the space of 45-60 minutes.
- Roundtable sessions are a great opportunity to promote conversation and networking amongst your audience. They also help provide content for niche parts of the audience. Don’t lose sight of its content value also. For certain event topics – ie the more specific event topics where delegates are more likely to have an interest in all areas of the industry – there is added value in appointing a group chairperson and scribe to take notes and then report back to the larger group at the end of the session.
5. Brand Success vs High Profit in Year 1
Many companies do make great profit margins in year one. But consider this – the latest entrants into the market spend more with a longer term view to creating brand and experience that in later years will monetize at a much larger scale. You can choose to focus on profit and still deliver a great event, but if you’re willing to stick with breaking-even, you have the opportunity to invest in experience, venue, marketing and technology that makes the event truly unmissable – and which has more industry-wide impact. This is particularly relevant if you have a build-to-sell goal and also if you’re in a competitive field of play.
6. Understand Your Audience
Within your buy side and sell side audience are multiple sub-sectors, each of which follow different media outlets, read different articles and get ‘turned on’ by different topics. Your marketing approach should address this diversity and use diverse cues to get these people on board.
But, how do you ensure you attract each of these sub-tiers to your show? The answer is building communities. As a general rule of thumb, those in the top tier are the hardest to get on board and will require the most time to attract. Those at the bottom of the pyramid should in theory freely choose to attend your event. Build a marketing strategy that reflects this. A useful tip to ensure your show is on track is the use of targets (see my next point).
7. Build Targets into Your Business Plan – for Everything!
If you are the creator of the launch event, then this is your baby. This is your chance to shine. But chances are this is also something you are going to need to fight for. You are asking for a chunk of annual budget from each of the business departments to spend on your idea. If you can show you are hitting the targets on all fronts, then you can be prepared to confidently stand your ground.
Targets need to be laid down for everything: speaker recruitment, spex growth, delegate attendance and visitor numbers. If your event is going off track on any of these areas, then you need to set aside a meeting to address this point specifically. And remember, excuses are not reasons for inaction, they are opportunities for action.
Say your headline sponsor is still undecided. That’s what you’re being told. What they are really saying is that they don’t yet see sufficient value to block out the time and budget to devote to your show. So what will make the difference? Who do they want to see, what competitor events are also vying for their time and money? If you have nailed the value proposition, then in theory this should be less of an issue during the development process.
8. Create an Effective Floorplan
Floorplans offer a lot of scope for creativity. Admittedly in year 1 your floorplan is likely to be pretty small. But the principles of an effective floor plan apply no matter what size of event you have.
- First, and most obviously, give prime location to your key sponsors. Place them near to the entrance, near to on-floor workshop or networking zones or near to the lunch area
- Second, offer tier pricing across your floor: the better the location, the more you can charge. As a rule 3-4 price tiers is advisable. This will help to capture all market stakeholders. Lower price tiers should be those further removed from central meeting zones and surrounding the perimeter.
- Introduce alternative people attractions on the floor and leverage these with your customers. An example here could be introducing a mobile coffee/ice cream (or beer, for after the show) cart which can be positioned at strategic points on the floor. Your lower tier exhibitors are more likely to see the value of this and can be leveraged to pay a little more to have this parked by their stand.
- Coordinate event floor highlights to occur at managed intervals. Your exhibitors may well want to use prize draws, industry announcements, product demonstrations and other techniques to attract visitors to their stands. Try to coordinate these to ensure a smooth flow of traffic to your floor.
- Pack them in! Save money on floor space and give an added feeling of buzz to your floor by cramming in rather than spacing out your exhibitors.
- Work with your sponsors to help them do business. Your sales team is primarily there to service the needs of the exhibitors. Careful when you start to get onto the rebooking stage because at that stage you start working for your business and not theirs. This should be reserved for Day 2 – unless the opportunity gifts itself earlier on.
- 9. Deliver a Consistent Message Across the Board
This is a point which applies equally to launch events and to shows with tenure. How often do you overhear sales team members promising x number of delegates/attendees whilst your marketing or content staff are promising an altogether different number?
This needs to be addressed early on in the event process with a standardized pitch sheet which includes all the target numbers. This should to be revised on a regular basis so everyone continues to sing from same hymn sheet. Your potential clients do talk with each other, and any inconsistencies in your messaging will soon leak out and begin to poison your brand image.
Prime focus must also be given to the copy writing for your event. Ensure you offer the following points – advisably in the following order – and you shouldn’t go too far wrong:
- Spell out why the event has been developed. What market need does it meet?
- Define the value proposition. How will your event meet that need? In answering this you should also spell out what makes your event unique
- Who can your audience expect to meet and hear from?
- What will be the key takeaways from your event?
The language you use in your copy is something I have written about elsewhere and too big a topic to go into here. Suffice to say though, that it makes all the difference. Too often I have read copy that has been cut and paste without much thought from one source to another with the result that the text is confused and does not flow. Bad copy reflects a bad brand.
Your copy across all mediums – brochure copy, speaker recruitment emails, social media campaigns, blogs and articles – needs to be targeted to suit the medium and honed from the outset to deliver a strong and consistent message. Think of an election campaign: devise your slogan(s) and shout it together out from the rooftops.
A final point to make here is to refrain from the dreaded superlatives in your messaging: ‘biggest’, ‘most’ etc. They are overused – often inaccurately – and don’t necessarily excite your audience in the way you think they might. In a word, its lazy marketing. Any event – even a launch – can find some sort of superlative to describe their event, but it misses the point of what value your show offers. The biggest events – even the ones with the most buy-side attendees – are not always the best. It may be just a point of legacy that everyone attends x show every year. Focus instead on your unique value proposition and hammer this home to your market.
10. Get Excited About Your Event
This point is implicit in every other suggestion in this guide, but is worth emphasizing. The enthusiasm of your team is going to speak volumes.
For the duration of the event development, each one of your team members is a member of that industry. You are working to enhance and further the boundaries of your chosen sector, so get excited about that. Feel proud of what you can offer. This will translate into an event buzz when it comes to your messaging and your community building. Whenever you get a new speaker or sponsor on board, post it up through blogs and social media. Remind your audience why this is going to make the event even better.
Don’t forget also that as the content producers of this show, you have more knowledge at your finger tips than do many of your customers. Use your community resource to conduct polling, share articles and offer ideas of your own. It shows passion and dedication to your event cause.
Ed is focused on helping event and media businesses enhance their content and digital marketing strategies and product output. If you’d like to talk about how to improve the chances of your first launch event, or to talk through how to improve the launch processes of your existing team, get in touch.