How a community means a conference can add value all year

Conference organisers traditionally obsess about venues, catering, AV and deadlines, and there is no doubt that a little bit of control-freakery makes for a slick and crisis-free day.  But are they missing the bigger picture?  When the stands have been cleared away and the last lingering delegates have left the bar, what is the real value that the organiser has delivered to customers? And why do publishers have an unfair advantage when running events?

The value of a conference emerges long after the event

Delegates for B2B conferences are usually looking for new ideas and lucrative new business relationships, rather than comfy seats and a hot lunch. They can’t begin to measure the value of an event while scribbling down notes in a darkened auditorium, or striking up a chance conversation in the coffee queue.  It’s only much later when the contacts are followed up or the speakers’ insights are shared with their colleagues that the real benefits begin to emerge.

Long after I launched the Specialist Media Show I uncovered some of this value almost by chance.  A niche publisher had met the financier who orchestrated a buyout of their business.  An independent outdoors publisher was inspired to test out Kindle after listening to Ben Greenish, MD of the Spectator.  And a loyal sponsor explained that they had won several new clients with us over the years.  Once the event was established, several new attendees disclosed that rather than respond to our excellently crafted emails, they had decided to attend based on the personal recommendation of former delegates.

How you can nurture delegates to maximise the benefit of your event

So, assuming your event is designed to become a long term calendar fixture, rather than a short-term cash generator, how can you capture these stories of exceptional value, and also nurture your delegates after the big day so they have the opportunity to maximise the benefit?  I believe the answer is in creating an all year round community built around the audience at the event, the speakers and contributors, and the sponsors.

Now this doesn’t simply mean an event-labelled Linked in group left to languish 11 months of the year before a few sponsors post links to white papers and the organiser notifies the early bird expiry. We’ve all seen these bad examples attached to other events.

Start with the audience and their problems

True communities are built around common areas of interest, and exist because participants believe there is a real benefit to sharing ideas and listening to each other’s experiences.  So the starting point is a clear understanding of the problem or situation that causes people to gather.  For the Specialist Media Show, this was the challenge for established specialist print publishers of translating their valued content and relationships onto digital platforms without decimating their profits.

Build valuable content that offers solutions

The next step is creating a repository of valuable content that explores the challenge and offers some solutions, with as wide a range of authors as possible, ideally drawn from the audiences peer group and poster children.  This content will attract an audience, so long as it is well marketed by email and social media and debate encouraged.

Human editors needed to prompt online discussion

Online discussion doesn’t happen spontaneously; it needs a human editorial intervention to draw in new information and relevant contributors. A community editor can keep the flow of ideas going year-round with small scale “events”, such as expert live Q&As or short webinar style interviews.  Plus the identity of the community can be reinforced by a presence at third party in-person events throughout the year.

A strong community helps your next event

The rewards of this investment will become clear once the next major live event approaches.  With an insight into the hot topics for the audience, programming discussions and inviting speakers becomes simpler – you may even find that community members volunteer to speak.  Booking to attend the event feels more like arranging to meet like-minded friends than being pressure-sold a one-off occasion at a knock-down price. And those sponsors that maintain a valuable content-driven presence all year round are more likely to convert new customers at the live event than those that simply shout a sales message loudly.

A great example of this type of thinking is Big Data Republic, an online community created and nurtured by Luke Bilton and Saul Sherry of UBM that not only created a platform for a live event, but also generated a sponsorship revenue stream in its own right.

Post-event, the community is the place to share content, nurture discussions and make new introductions between attendees, providing the chance to document the long term value that the event has created for participants, building powerful social proof of the return on time and investment.  Once again, a human editorial touch is crucial to keep the discussion on track and prevent supplier hijacks.

Why publishers have an unfair advantage with live events

So stop thinking of your event portfolio as a series of one-off incidents, and instead consider your business as being built around enabling brands that help a community solve common problems over the long term.  This is that unfair advantage for publishers launching events, as they are well versed in creating long term content and attracting a loyal audience.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan has launched, grown, acquired and sold media businesses across print, digital and events.  She has programmed several highly regarded conferences on digital publishing and advises publishers on their digital strategy.

If you’d like a chat about how you can reinvent your publishing or media business for the digital age, please get in touch.

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