We’ve all done it: showed up to a business event that was much-hyped and long-anticipated, only to find that it defied our expectations in all the wrong ways. Conferences are often organised by membership and trade associations, but individual businesses also often spend significant amounts of time and money on hosting their own events for their colleagues, customers and prospects – only for them to fail to deliver a meaningful return on investment.
At TopLine, we asked 500 UK employees what they think of business events and conferences in their industries, and the results weren’t entirely surprising. When asked what they most dislike about them, 46% said they were outdated, irrelevant and boring, 45% said they were overcrowded, and 34% said the speakers were too sales-y. Over a quarter also said the facilities usually weren’t good enough.
It’s not that events are useless: our research also revealed that they’re the most commonly cited method of learning about new products and services, and nine out of ten employees said they’d be more inclined to recommend a product or service to their boss after seeing it demonstrated at an event. Events remain a very popular marketing tactic.
But, modern events clearly aren’t doing it for a significant proportion of the employees who have to attend them. So how can we make them better?
- Outline your objective
Before you host an event, ask yourself one simple question: do I actually, well, need to? Because while they can be an important part of your marketing strategy, they’re not always strictly necessary. The objective of the event should shape its purpose, and “I want some PR” is not a good objective.
If you have more than one objective, that’s fine, but make sure you can do justice to each goal. Try to do too much, and you’ll water down your efforts.
- Nail your theme
The theme should flow naturally out of the objective and will ultimately be determined by what’s going to resonate with your target audience the most. It could be something highly specific, if you’re trying to reach a niche audience, or it could be something broader if you’re targeting the general industry.
Whatever it is, make sure it’s thought-provoking and conversation-stimulating. Our research indicated that 20% of staff scored the average event in their industry as 5 or lower out of 10 –in terms of being useful and informative.
It will also vary based on whether you’re striving for brand awareness and networking opportunities rather than straight-up customer or product events. In this case, try for a theme that’s likely to be timely, topical, and interesting to people in your industry: a marketing tech conference, for example, might benefit from a focus on how AI and automation are changing the industry.
- Choose engaging speakers
We’ve already touched on the tendency to see speakers as overly sales-focused, so make sure you put lots of effort into choosing your headliners. Research them, assess their planned talks for usefulness, and make sure they’re relevant.
Again, your objective should shape your choice of speaker. Naturally, you should hire expert speakers where expertise is required, but if your event is more general, and inspirational or motivational speaker might be a better fit.
And if you’re low on budget and you have great speakers within your business, make use of them – there’s no point paying through the nose for a salesy speaker who shills their products in a very on the nose way.
- Pick a great location
Our research showed that location is considered the most important factor to employees when choosing events to attend. Proximity also matters: there’s no point in having an event that’s convenient for a small number of people, and inconvenient for most.
The ideal is an event in a relatively central location with lots of transport links for people travelling from further away. And the facilities matter too: if the Wi-Fi, food options, bathrooms, and networking options are naff, the content won’t really land. They need to have a good time overall, not just at the event itself.
- Get the word out
Our research indicates that 76% of UK employees learn about events through email marketing, 51% learn about them through colleague and friend referrals, and 46% learn about them through social media. So, when promoting your event, you should certainly focus on these channels.
But don’t just use these three channels: promote as many as can have a meaningful effect. If you can target event-related keywords specific to your industry, then an SEO strategy can work wonders. If a webinar or an event video will let people who can’t attend – but are still interested – participate, then you’ve increased your audience size without having to feed anybody. If you can turn an interesting talk into a podcast, you can expand this reach even further.
Poor quality events are in danger of becoming the norm. But they don’t have to be, and businesses that put the time, effort, and thought into making them relevant and interesting will be rewarded for doing so.