Now that the world is returning to in-person, many companies are re-examining their event strategies to ensure they’re getting the most out of the industry conferences, local networking mixers and peer group get-togethers that they sponsor.
Each type of event requires a different approach. And of course, where you are in your go-to-market journey plays a big role in deciding where to spend. One tactic we don’t recommend is skipping events altogether: Conferences are key to identifying new industry trends, partnership opportunities and product or service concepts but to strengthening customer relationships and broadening your base.
After you set a budget, you need a plan that spells out business goals, available resources and success metrics. We spoke with B2B professionals with event experience to learn how they’re positioning their companies moving into the new year. Here are their top pieces of advice.
Eric Pinto, senior director of channel and product strategy at cybersecurity provider SOCSoter, says his business development team invests heavily in events, to the tune of about 15 per year. Still, SOCSoter is not a big technology vendor, so resources are limited, and Pinto must be strategic about where he engages with his community of managed service provider customers.
“When it comes to figuring out which kind of events to sponsor, we try to keep a healthy mix,” says Pinto. “We do 10 or 11 of the smaller regional events, and three to four of the bigger ones. We also try to make it to association and peer group events, which are almost a separate category. They’re communities where we’re already invested and can deepen our customer relationships.”
There are dozens of permutations, but these are five elements of a complete portfolio.
Workshop/Lunch & Learn Onsite: You invite customers and prospects to your offices or, if that’s not feasible, a low-cost local meeting room for demos and networking.
Benefits: Your company controls the content and setting and can immerse attendees in your product and culture. You may be able to have a major business partner, like a distributor or key supplier, cosponsor to reduce costs.
Challenges: You need to generate the list of customers and prospects to invite and are on the hook to do all planning, marketing and programming.
Local Networking Meetup: Could be a daylong event at a local hotel or meeting venue or a lunch or dinner for a small group. Costs range from a few hundred dollars for a meal to a few thousand to rent a meeting space with catering.
Benefits: Your company controls the content you present. A more intimate setting allows for networking. You still have the option to bring in cosponsors.
Challenges: You need to generate the list of invitees and are on the hook to do more extensive planning and programming. No-shows are more expensive when catering.
Networking events may also be done in partnership with a peer organization; a good example is the security-focused BSides conferences.
Roadshow: Executives and sales leads go on the road to connect with customers and prospects where they are. Could include site visits for clients or mini networking events in various cities. Costs depend on the number of locations. A small team hosts 30 to 100 current and potential customers. Programming generally starts around 11 a.m. and finishes with a networking reception. Execs take VIP attendees to dinner, then move on to the next city.
Benefits: As with a local meetup, you control the content and venue.
Challenges: Logistics can be extremely complex, especially if locations are not drivable.
Independent trade shows: These range from smaller, regional events, including industry association and peer group confabs with a few dozen exhibitors and a few hundred attendees, to nationwide conferences with thousands of people on site.
Benefits: Relatively turnkey with a range of sponsorship options and costs. You can underwrite a meal for a few thousand or spend $5,000 and up on a 10x10 or larger space and spend about two to four times that amount on your booth or backdrop, electricity, carpeting and labor, plus travel and staffing.
Challenges: You’re fighting for attention with dozens or hundreds of competitors, depending on the show.
Branded trade shows: The most complex option. As we discuss in our deep dive on producing your own event, you can sell booths and speaking slots to generate revenue to offset costs. But you need to start planning a year or more in advance. And even if you employ an outside planner, there are plenty of details that require your team’s attention.
Benefits: You control everything, from location to other exhibitors to speakers to what to serve for breakfast. If well planned and marketed, you could end up making some money on the deal.
Challenges: Selling booths, programming keynotes and education, lining up speakers, selecting venues and ordering food and A/V take time and specialized expertise.
Choosing which events to participate in really depends on the company’s stage of evolution, says Luis Giraldo, CXO of asset management technology supplier ScalePad.
Emerging vendors need to gain visibility into the competitive landscape and begin to build brand recognition among peers, suppliers and customers. For that, volume is key, so attend as many events as you can afford to. But be selective.
“Look at what other vendors are doing in the same competitive space, and decide if your voice is going to be drowned out,” says Giraldo. “There’s no point dropping lots of money at an event where you’ll be so overshadowed that no one will pay attention to you.”
For more established companies looking to turbocharge new customer acquisition, smaller events with the opportunity to engage one-on-one with attendees are often better sources of qualified leads.
Businesses that are on the cusp of a new funding round or other growth spurt and whose market presence needs a fast boost may want to make a big splash at a large event. That might mean being a top-tier sponsor of a “name” show in their industry. This is a major investment but could be worthwhile. Title sponsors often get the business card info of all registrants (leads) as well as ubiquitous logo placement (branding) and marquee speaking spots (thought leadership), so it’s a triple play.
Again, you don’t have to go it alone. We talk below about co-sponsoring after-hours events, but you can do the same thing with conference booths at the expo hall. Have an alliance partnership with another vendor that recommends you to prospective buyers? Throw in together on the cost of a booth, or co-buy a panel spot where you both get to show off your expertise. Many hands make light work — and really help offset costs.
This is just a sample of big events that smaller companies can take part in, at a range of pricing levels. While most were virtual in 2020, some are live or hybrid this year, and most hope to be back fully live in 2022.
Accounting: AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE
Who attends: Accounting and audit professionals, corporate CFOs and controllers, financial planning providers and more.
Who exhibits: Chase, PwC, Wolters Kluwer
Who attends: Contractors, dealers, producers, service providers and other construction professionals.
Who exhibits: Caterpillar, Komatsu, Volvo Construction Equipment
Healthcare: HIMSS 22
Who attends: Professionals throughout the global healthcare ecosystem, including CIOs and senior executives, providers, IT professionals, government officials, innovators, consultants and suppliers.
Who exhibits: Aetnahealth, Elsevier, Tegria
Hospitality: National Restaurant Association Show
Who attends: Food service professionals, restaurant owners and suppliers.
Who exhibits: Bunn-O-Matic, Good Catch, ServSafe
IT & telecom channel: Channel Partners Conference & Expo
Who attends: 5,000 agents, MSPs, VARs, integrators and consultants as well as their distributors and master agents.
Who exhibits: Ingram Micro, Nextiva, T-Mobile
Who attends: FP&A professionals.
Who exhibits: Acterys, Planful, QueBIT
Manufacturing: International Manufacturing Technology Show
Who attends: Companies that design, build, sell and service the continuously evolving technology that lies at the heart of manufacturing.
Who exhibits: Absolute Machine Tools, Dynatect, Zeiss
Marketing: Content Marketing World
Who attends: Marketing professionals from all-size companies.
Who exhibits: Banzai, SiteCore, Wrike
Retail: NRF Big Show
Who attends: NRF is a who’s who in the retail universe.
Who exhibits: DieBold, Samsung, Oracle
Security technology: Black Hat
Who attends: Security practitioners, executives, vendors and government agencies.
Who exhibits: Armis, Palo Alto, Tenable
Think of your event lineup as a portfolio, and aim to select complimentary opportunities that build on success.
Jasmina Mueller, VP of global channel partnerships at emergency comms software provider Everbridge, says that when her company is trying to increase its overall market position, it invests in large, national events. They deliver brand awareness and MQLs. Then, it solidifies relationships at smaller conferences and peer group events.
“Choosing which to attend and where to spend your money really depends on how you go out and prospect,” says Mueller. “How much are booths at the big shows, and do you expect to get leads or close deals there? Or maybe your culture and go-to-market is more about networking with customers. Do you sponsor attendees’ team events? How much do customers or prospects have to be selling to make certain investments worthwhile? You have to take a hard look at your pipeline and sales strategies, then meet customers where they are willing to have those conversations.”
Note that you’ll often see the same cast of engaged characters at a variety of events within an industry. Analysts, executives and supplier reps who see in-person connections as core to their businesses will travel to multiple conferences throughout the season. Connecting with these road warriors is a prime opportunity to create, develop and cement relationships that have an opportunity to yield lucrative leads.
Who doesn’t want to buy from or recommend someone they see multiple times per year, as long as it’s someone they like? Bonus “hey, I like [insert name]” points for engaging them on social; influencers on the speaker circuit value their LinkedIn and Twitter followers and amplifiers.
On the customer side, continual engagement is a key factor in nailing down accounts, so meeting prospects at big conferences and then showing up at the smaller meetups they also attend is a good way to cultivate lucrative leads.
The attendee perspective: Where are they going?
“We like both the big, national events and the smaller regional events. The small shows give us an opportunity for intimacy in the conversations we have with peers, sharing best practices and views about vendors and trends. You also get a chance to have more personal conversations with vendors you might be considering. The bigger shows have more content, more breakout sessions, more opportunities for education. You can pick your own track and really dive deep into what it is you want to learn about.” – Paco Lebron, CEO and founder, ProdigyTeks
Major expense buckets for event participation are the cost of the sponsorship, T&E for your employees, entertainment for prospects and customers, promotional items and the less tangible opportunity costs of having employees prep and attend the conference. If you’ll have a booth, expect to spend about double the cost of the base fee to cover equipment, like a monitor or TV for demos, as well as a backdrop, electricity, carpeting and labor. If you plan to offer food and/or beverages, that will add up fast.
For smaller events, SOCSoter budgets about $7,000 before travel and expenses. For larger shows, the company sets a cap of $15,000. Pinto forgoes sponsorships at national events because he’s facing an investment of tens of thousands of dollars, and he doesn’t think he can make a big impact with his smaller budget.
He still attends those shows, but he has to get creative to make a splash.
“Where is your money going to do the most amount of good — is it getting in front of a roundtable of 10 attendees that are a captive audience, or is it hosting a private party or handing out gift cards?” Pinto asks. “As a smaller vendor, we really struggle with how to best capitalize on event strategy and structure. We’re always looking for new opportunities to engage.”
Giraldo cautions to think of event sponsorships not just in terms of closing new deals. ScalePad uses conferences to connect with fellow vendors with similar go-to-market efforts that might yield collaboration opportunities, for instance — and those conversations are free. Similarly, company executives that land a spot on a panel or buy a session onstage can display thought leadership and nurture a reputation for quality education. That goes a long way with his customer base.
We’ll discuss speaking in more depth below.
Investment levels should also take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the representatives you’re sending to the event.
“In an emerging startup or small to medium-size business, maybe the owner is also the sales leader and winds up doing everything,” says Giraldo. “If you have a sales personality, you can pull people off of the floor into a meeting. If you’re a founder that’s more technical and not salesy, you may sit there just waiting for people to ask you a question.”
Getting attendees to stop on the expo floor and watch a demo is an iffy proposition — as is the Wi-Fi, in many cases. A meeting room where the team can have one-on-one conversations about the product and its benefits may be a better investment than a booth.
Lastly, Mueller advises to start small. As a midsize company, Everbridge has to put its spend where it gets the most bang for its buck. The organization just recently began investing in an event strategy, and Mueller wanted to test the waters to get a feel of where it could get the most value.
“We’ve invested in small booths, meeting spaces and sponsoring after-hours events like awards galas,” she says. “We also spend money to make sure we have a panel spot or a breakout session so we can educate potential customers on the opportunities that our solution offers them and why they’re valuable additions to their portfolios.”
All those efforts were affordable. Now the company has a good feel for how to best leverage events to drive leads and can invest more, with more confidence.
Finally, frame your portfolio investments with success metrics, both for the event itself and for your attendance.
For the event, ask organizers for the ratio of check-ins to registrations — especially for events that are largely free to attendees. If the marketing materials state that there are 1,000 people registered but when you get to the site, only 300 have checked in, that shows the organizers aren’t doing a good job of marketing and engagement. Get attendee demographics as well, including title, industry and ideally budget data.
Also ask about the event’s Net Promoter Score and the community that surrounds it. As an example, a popular security conference, Black Hat, is associated with Dark Reading, one of the industry’s top security publications, so your company could benefit from engaging with that community and potentially get some media coverage.
How well-known are the keynote speakers, and does the organizer do a good job with social promos?
For your own ROI, track the number of leads and deal closes and calculate the acquisition cost per customer. Look at metrics that track your goals.
Was your aim to build brand awareness? Did your website traffic increase, or did you get some earned media coverage?
Did you want to grow your sales pipeline? Look to your CRM for the value of MQLs, SQLs and closed deals in the months after the event.
Before signing on for an event, figure out what success looks like and how you’ll know if you achieved it, whether by new partners signed on, 100 new social media followers or [insert your goal here].
There’s plenty of work needed both before and after an event. First step? Deciding if an event is worth investing in. You likely know which industry events get the most buzz. But make sure buzz is backed up by strong attendance by the people you want to connect with. Do some homework comparing costs and attendee numbers versus demographics.
Don’t sink a ton of money into an event at the first opportunity. Send a senior executive or sales lead to scout the conference and get the lay of the land. Does it seem like a culture fit? Do exhibitors have access to attendees, and which booths get the most traffic? Do a cost-benefit analysis on a few different options.
Once you’ve decided on an event, that’s when the real work starts. Mueller’s team creates a spreadsheet months in advance. The first tab lists key attendees they want to connect with. The second holds executive meetings that have been scheduled. The next few are for meetings that executives don’t have to be a part of and a sales rep or account manager can handle on their own.
Before the event, they proactively reach out to resellers that are on the fence to ask them to come by the meeting room and hear about Everbridge’s upcoming initiatives, what the company has done to date and opportunities to work together.
“Preparation is key, and you have to make it easy for attendees,” she says. “Lots of events have their own apps with scheduling capabilities, for example, but we make sure to send the meeting invite there and through Outlook so we meet customers where they are.”
Connecting with customers before the event is something Pinto is adamant about as well. SOCSoter is in a fever to hire another marketing consultant because if the company can do outreach ahead of time, it pushes leads down the funnel.
Of course you need to engage with attendees at the conference, but hoping you’ll randomly run into the right people at a three-day event is not a strategy. And the smaller your team, the more emphasis you need to put on pre-game preparation.
After the event, don’t dally on followup. Have materials ready to blast out while you’re still fresh in attendees’ minds. Ensure all new prospects are entered into your CRM, and have a plan to track whether conversations turn into dollars.
A distinct element of event prep for larger conferences and expos is a plan to work the show floor.
Many vendors or exhibitors think that if they set up a cool booth with some decent swag, customers will flock to them. Our experts say that couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to have a well-thought-out strategy for the expo hall, or it’s just a waste of money.
Pinto, for example, has a rule that his team can’t sit while manning the booth. Expo floors are typically open for only two or three hours at a time, so work it hard while you can.
“You’ve spent money to be there, and you really have to engage,” he says. “Use a pre-set strategy for which team member goes where. You have to be friendly and approachable. Start a conversation and then throw it to a senior salesperson to qualify the lead. Throughout the event, suggest coming to the booth. And make sure to offer that swag in person, don’t just set it on a table and hope it does the trick.”
Swag, or giveaways, is a big point of angst among smaller exhibitors with budget constraints. You could offer branded pens and keychains, but does that really move the needle? Is it better to shell out $500 for 500 forgettable $1 items or spend on 100 $5 items that have real appeal?
“Get creative,“ says Giraldo. “More vendors these days are offering things for kids at home, like spinners. Others have cool gimmicks like doing caricatures at the booth. I saw one that custom-painted attendees' names on water bottles. It depends on the budget, but you can’t just fade into the background with another pair of socks.”
1. Scanning badges before handing over the goods is 101. If you’re offering higher-value giveaways, up the engagement stakes by asking for a newsletter signup or answers to a quick survey.
2. Order early. Supply chain disruptions are affecting promotional items.
3. If you’re in a destination city, keep transport in mind. How much space will the item take up in luggage, and can it pass through a TSA checkpoint?
4. Think beyond physical items. We saw one company book a shuttle bus to take attendees to and from the airport. During the ride, a sales person made a low-pressure presentation to a captive audience. Other ideas are charitable donations, percent-off coupons for your product or service or raffle entries to win a high-value item that you’ll ship after the show.
5. Don’t get too out there. Phone chargers, clever tee shirts and hard-cover journals are classics for a reason.
The attendee perspective: How do they work the expo hall?
It depends on your purpose in being there. Both sides need a value proposition. Not many attendees come with a strategy to the expo hall. Say you have an opportunity to integrate a new product into your offering. You want to look at competitive advantages. Come with five questions you ask each vendor in order to do your due diligence and compare offerings. Some of their best salespeople are out there, so if they don’t have the answers to your questions, move on. – Juan Fernandez, vice-chair of industry association CompTIA’s Channel Development Advisory Council and longtime managed service provider
Industry events, particularly larger conferences, have plenty of keynotes and panels that vendors can participate in. Some are paid opportunities, some are available free of charge for thought leaders.
Either way, our experts say to pursue them with a vengeance.
“There’s just no match for speaking spots, especially in the security space,” says Pinto. “I try hard to get out there with thought leadership. I want to add to what customers are learning at the event by providing security content. Even if I have to pay, I’m looking at the prospectus to find the best opportunity to get in front of the entire conference.”
But, he admits that a paid spot might be upwards of 50% of his overall budget, so he tries hard to speak for free by offering non-promotional thought leadership as opposed to paying for a sponsored spot that’s essentially a sales pitch. Not only can that money be better spent elsewhere, but sponsored talks tend to be lost in the slew of pitches attendees are inundated with.
Many events have a “call for speakers” period. That’s an opportunity to propose a session that’s vendor-agnostic, provides real insights and aligns with the event’s theme. If you’re selected, the speaking slot is not only free, it’s more likely to be marketed and see healthy attendance.
Once, Giraldo was aching to go to an event in Sweden. The cost of the trip was prohibitive, so he applied for and landed a speaking spot. Not only did that mean he could attend the event for free, but the company putting on the event even paid him a travel stipend.
Now, this isn’t the norm on either the U.S. show circuit or abroad. Stipends really depend on how much money the conference organizers have and how valuable your content contribution is. Again, you want to make sure you have an industry presence worth paying for.
So how did Giraldo do it?
“My speaking strategy is to think about what I want to learn about that others might, too,” says Giraldo. “Lots of vendors just speak about their product, when instead they should be speaking about the challenges customers are facing. If you stick to offering compelling thought leadership, you might get asked to the keynote stage with no charge. The exposure that comes with speaking spots can be very beneficial, but if you don’t have much budget and they’re asking you to pay to be onstage, move on.”
It’s important to remember that you have to build an industry presence that’s legit and recognizable to be considered for these free thought leadership spots. In most cases, as a vendor, that means a proven track record of not pitching audiences on your solution or product, and instead offering industry insights and market analysis that attendees can’t find elsewhere.
Work with your marketing team to create webinars, podcasts and contributed bylines in industry publications, and make sure you publicize them on LinkedIn and other forums. When an event producer Googles your name, some industry engagement must show up so that they know not only that they can trust you to not sound like a used car salesman, but that you’re a respected voice in your field who isn’t afraid to publicly state an opinion.
Bonus points for a YouTube video of you actually speaking on a stage, even a small one.
One other point to take into consideration: Not all speaking spots are worth paying for. Before shelling out money for a keynote presence, ask the event coordinators what percentage of their audience actually buys access to content. Most conferences come with a couple of different types of passes. The expensive one gets you access to anything, including conference keynotes and breakout sessions. But many attendees buy passes to the expo hall only, so they miss the content. You need to know how many attendees buy which kind of pass. If you’re paying for a speaking spot, you want more than 1/10 of the total conference attendees there, or else why bother?
Marketing teams can and should work to raise the profiles of their smartest and most charismatic executives and SMEs. How?
Help them develop an original and insightful idea.
Get a video of your proposed speaker posted online.
Select a speaker who has a social following.
Work your connections.
If you notice few vendor-employed speakers are selected, seek an alternate route.
Some caveats: You likely won’t get a list of the attendees who sat in on your session; that data goes to the company that sponsored the overall keynote or track block. And there is a lot of demand for relatively few free speaking ops.
The attendee perspective: What they want to see
Some advice to vendors: bring a talk track for both your customers and their customers. Once you’ve educated them on a topic, trend or opportunity, you have to educate them on how to have conversations with their customers and sell your products. – Juan Fernandez, vice-chair of industry association CompTIA’s Channel Development Advisory Council and longtime managed service provider
Vendors with deep pockets often throw massive parties for attendees to generate a slew of leads. For smaller companies, that just isn’t feasible. While your team might be invited to those big bashes, you aren’t going to get a lead list or be able to have real conversations with attendees on the dance floor or shouting at the bar.
Instead, Pinto bands with other smaller, complementary vendors to rent out a local bar and invite attendees to show up and eat and drink for free. A security software vendor might team up with a backup services provider and a managed security services provider. Small-business customer attendees could attend and hear about three important components of security.
“If you get four vendors for $3,000 each, you can all throw in and have a hugely valuable after-hours event,” he says. “It’s something I can do anywhere, at any event, and generate my own list of attendees. It isn’t as fancy as some of these big parties, but it’s perfect for my purposes.”
One of the biggest benefits to a smaller event, whether it be a couple of rounds of Top Golf, renting out a sports bar or buying a select group of prospects and customers a nice dinner, is that you have the chance to really engage and have in-depth conversations about their business challenges and where you can plug in. Networking is a huge reason many people attend industry events, and it’s hard to form relationships at the big blowouts.
Attendees might also be grateful for a lower-key gathering after a couple of long days of attending sessions and networking with their peers in what’s affectionately called “the hallway track,” where people can naturally have conversations about the conference content, vendor offerings and business opportunities. It’s valuable, but it can be exhausting, and at the end of the day, the idea of a giant party often sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.
Pro tip: If you’re a partner of a major vendor or distributor and you have access to marketing development funds, see if you can use them to pay for an after-hours event.
At the end of the day, you’re sponsoring events so you can connect with potential and current customers. To that end, you have to know what they find the most valuable so you can exceed their expectations and really make an impression.
Fernandez says that one thing vendors don’t always understand is that events aren’t about them. Attendees go just as much to connect with peers as they do to talk to vendors — probably more so. Vendors should strive to be a part of those conversations.
“At meals, sit down at a table with attendees, don’t stick to eating in your meeting room or hobnobbing with other vendors,” says Fernandez. “That’s an ecosystem that exposes you to the challenges your customers are facing. You want to understand the industry and your customers’ experience.”
Peer-to-peer networking and sharing of best practices is also where ProdigyTeks’ Lebron places his focus. He seeks out like-minded peers who are either at his level in terms of resources and goals or are examples of who he aspires to be.
“It helps tremendously to find someone looking to achieve the same thing you are and have a conversation,” he says. “Peers can offer accountability for actually executing on the strategies you get excited about at the event.”
Industry communities are great for these kinds of serendipitous conversations, and Lebron’s company will often host their own peer group mini-events. Vendors trying to wrap their minds around what their customers are facing and where they can plug in should strongly consider investing in focused events to foster those discussions.
There are more ways to be involved in industry events than you can shake a stick at, at various price points. You can have a booth in the expo hall. You can sponsor an after-hours get together. You can rent a meeting room for private conversations. You can work to get free speaking spots to showcase your thought leadership.
Whatever path, or paths, you choose, make sure there’s a cohesive strategy that fits with your go-to-market, that you put in the work before and after the event to connect with leads and that you’re meeting prospects and customers where they are to have the most meaningful conversations.
Don’t get overwhelmed by your options, and don’t get sucked into spending more time with your own team or other vendors than you do your customers. Keep your end goal and your budget in mind, and the rest should flow from there.