How to launch a successful live event

This article was first published in InPublishing Magazine

Many publishers are venturing into live events – whether paid conferences or large scale paid or free exhibitions – as an additional source of revenue, providing their audience with live content and networking, and sponsors with the chance for face to face conversations with senior decision-makers.  EMAP estimates that a third of revenues from its B2B brands, which include Nursing Times and Retail Week, derive from live events.  Econsultancy has used its large community of digital marketers to develop a profitable series of conferences and large scale events.  And Future, despite its recent travails, made a big success of launching Photography Live at the NEC last year.

But planning a launch event can be daunting: how can you ensure that you attract the right audience, deliver a good experience and satisfy commercial sponsors?

In 2010 I co-founded the Specialist Media Show, an exhibition and conference which I evolved for four years, then sold to a trade association, working with them to develop into new events.  Previously, at Emap, I acquired and relaunched Go Fishing and Your Horse Live, aligning them with specialist magazine communities.  I’ve also observed the successes of a number of publishers making the move into live events.  Here are some of the lessons I learnt the hard way about what makes a successful live event.

1. Defined target audience

Be laser-focussed on who it is you want to attract to the event: don’t make the targeting too broad.  Smaller events attracting hard-to-reach people can often be more commercially successful than more broadbrush live propositions. If you have sponsors in mind, consider who is likely to be in the market for their products and ready to make a decision.

As a publisher you should already know the audience, so take the time to talk to them about their main concerns and problems, and how a live event might be able to help them find solutions.  But part of the value of an event is that it draws in people who might not already read your publications – print or digital – so consider in which direction you’d like to expand your reach.

2. Clear, unique proposition

Once you understand the problems your audience face, you can explore how an event could deliver solutions.  In a business market, might attendees be inspired by leaders in the market sharing their successes, or would they gain more from a “warts and all” case study from a peer?  Do they want to know more about emerging technology and new techniques, or meet with a range of suppliers and services?  Are they keen to make new connections with like-minded peers, or provide training and development for junior staff?

In a specialist consumer market, they might want to see their “heroes” and learn new tips and techniques from experts.  They’ll be interested in new products to test out – and of course they’d love to go home with a bargain. Plus they appreciate being immersed in their own world for a day – and surrounded by people as enthusiastic and interested as they are.

Check out competing events assiduously – there’s no point duplicating what’s already out there as most calendars are already crowded.  Work out what your “unfair advantage” might be over your competitors: maybe access to unusual speakers, proprietary research, exclusive news and product launches.  Editorial teams often have good relationships with the movers and shakers in the industry and can secure the big names – whether that’s a top CEO or an Olympic medal-winner.

3. Early sponsor support

Partnering with a small group of sponsors well in advance provides financial security and can also unlock new research, key speakers and valuable marketing databases.  This will also clarify the target audience and “blue-chip” sponsors can elevate the perception of an event.  Listen to their advice, but make sure you stay in overall control of the content.

Brand Events established a partnership with Ordnance Survey well before launching the Outdoor Show, and Future set up joint marketing with Canon and Nikon for the Photography Show.  Sponsors are great allies on marketing, but an organiser has to ensure that their content is genuinely useful to the audience, not a thinly veiled sales pitch.

Even for a publisher, media partners are invaluable, and if you are entering a new market, essential.  Good media partners can boost your reach and are happy to republish quality content.  And organisations/institutions add credibility, and can promote to their membership.  Plus you can often head off a competing event from them, or at the very least ensure it is at a different time of year.

4. Symbiotic venue

Select your venue at least a year in advance: this is a crucial decision.  Location and ease of travel will dramatically affect numbers, and the style of a venue helps brand your event: slick and modern or traditional and relaxed.  A business audience that attends multiple events can get jaded with the “usual suspects” so a fresh, unusual venue can add interest.  I used a venue-finding service – Trinity Event Solutions – and can highly recommend them.

Consumer events have fewer venue options, but for a launch it’s worth considering more of a boutique venue: they will be keen to work with you and you may be able to negotiate a flexible, risk-sharing agreement that the larger venues would not entertain.  Just think ahead on their capacity if the event grows quickly, and where you might have to move.

Good technology back-up is vital, and you are ideally seeking a venue team who will work with you to develop the event and ensure that the day runs smoothly.  It’s always easier to work within the layout of space than to build a bespoke environment – so again, start early, and let the venue’s arrangement help shape your programme.

5. Sharp, relevant content

To persuade busy people to take a day out of their life and travel to attend your event you need great speakers, relevant demonstrations, the most wanted prod cuts and services and a bit of theatre.  Good content across print and digital is essential to build up your authority in your subject. Publishers have a strong advantage, and need to use in-house channels intensively. But it still pays handsomely to create a specific content hub for a new event, and actively promote interviews, research, profiles, previews and hot discussions around the themes of the event.

If your event is launching into a new market, where you may not have an established print brand, it’s practically essential to launch a dedicated online content hub to build credibility and explain your proposition.

Interview speakers and experts in advance, and create profiles, video clips and sneak previews of their content.  Trail your main features, and encourage the audience to post their top questions and what they are looking to get out of the event. Provide sponsors and exhibitors with a chance to share more about the new products and services they will be showcasing.  All this content provides plenty of material for social media posts and fuels content-driven email marketing which is far more effective than a deadline and discount-driven hard sell.

Big Data Republic is a great example of building an online specialist community around rich content before launching a live event.  Especially in consumer markets, consider running a competition or awards scheme that requires people to submit content or photos and register – they feel a stronger connection with the event and are more likely to attend.

6. Bespoke, VIP service

Live events are personal, and the organiser must make sponsors, speakers, delegates and visitors all feel like VIPs to some extent.  Invest the time with sponsors to plan their activity, steer them away from overt selling, and identify activities that will showcase their skills, knowledge or product innovation to the right audience.  This requires a bespoke approach with each sponsor.

For business events, coach speakers on the profile of the audience, what they are looking for, and uncover the themes they should be covering at the event.  For consumer events, meticulously plan how talks, demos and Q&A sessions will run, and consider seating and AV so that audiences maximize value from the talk.

Think through the attendee experience from first communication to arrival and right through the day.  For a business audience, how can you make it easy for them to learn from the content available and make valuable connections with others at the event?

For a consumer event, consider transport, parking, queuing, catering, information and signage.  A welcome/ information desk and plenty of staff in bright T-shirts dotted around the event can help visitors make the most of their time and feel valued.  Think about the flow of people through the event, and design the floor plan and signage to make sure all the features – and exhibitors – get the traffic they deserve.

7. Obsessive planning

Start planning earlier than you could possibly imagine.  Think through every minute of the event day and work out the risks: technology issues, overcrowding, schedule clashes, overruns, poor visibility or sound, catering and more.

Start marketing at least six months before the event.  Build up your database from internal sources, partner with key sponsors, and use your online content, plus any competitions or award-schemes, to keep topping up.  Segment your list and keep testing and learning about which formats and content trigger bookings. There’s a degree of science about how bookings accumulate in the run-up to an event: use this to predict your final numbers and decide when to boost marketing activity.

Keep thinking about how to create fresh content and promote it to the audience. A regular drip of interesting articles, images, videos, speaker announcements will keep you in mind.  The Dublin based Web Summit is adept at spreading its marketing over several months, and gradually building excitement and urgency.

Communicate regularly with sponsors and partners and keep briefing the on-site team with every detail.  Then when the inevitable crisis occurs on the day you will have a back-up plan.

And don’t forget feedback and follow-up.  Run a post-event survey (have this ready in advance) and follow-up with a picture gallery, video highlights, social media snippets and a series of articles.  The marketing campaign for the next year starts immediately!

This may all sound daunting, but a live event is invaluable in deepening relationships with key players in your market, establishing your brand as an authority and spotting new trends and emerging technologies.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has launched, acquired, grown and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and live events. Carolyn was a co-founder of the Specialist Media Show, and curated the conference programme from 2010 to 2013, when it was sold to SIIA. She regularly speaks and writes about digital publishing strategy, and advises individual publishers on the most effective way to grow their digital revenues.