Should I go to this conference? An analytical framework

It’s Friday night, another crazy week is almost over. And then the following email lands in your inbox:

Hi Charlene,

If you’re interested in sponsoring the ABC conference, I need your commitment by Tuesday. As a reminder, we’re going to have 1000 attendees, and the other sponsors include Your Direct Competitor 1, Your Direct Competitor 2, and Your Direct Competitor 3.

What should you do?

In this post, we’ll present a framework for deciding whether to participate in a conference. Our working assumption is that in general, you’re pro conferences (like us), but only those that help you achieve your goals within your budget. Our framework helps you assess whether a given conference fits this criteria.

First off: Don’t make last minute decisions.

Theoretically, your answer to this email will simply be ‘no,’ because this conference wasn’t included in the list of conferences you built six months ago. So in this post we’re going to discuss:

  1. How to build a long-term conference list (for the next 6-12 months)
  2. How to decide whether to participate in a specific conference.

Now, here’s how to do it:

1) Build a long-term conference list for the next 6-12 months.

Such a list will likely include 10-30 relevant conferences taking place in the next 6-12 months. You should invest in building such a list mainly because conferences are a marketing channel that takes substantial time and money to activate. They’re not an email campaign that can be planned, created, sent, and analyzed in a day. Conference organizers typically require you to commit a few months in advance, and internally your team will need to plan and execute way in advance, as well.

At this stage, you’d want to apply minimal filtering, and also include “maybe” conferences. If during your research you come across an interesting conference in NYC, but right now your sales focus is the West Coast, you may still want to include it, as things may change. Same for conferences that seem too expensive or small, or that target a slightly different audience than yours. You’re a startup, and in a year from now, all these factors might change.

Your 2019 conference list would be the basis for the 2020 one, so expanding your potential universe is worthwhile. That said, the one filter that’s important to apply in this stage is an overall fit with your target persona. You would want to add conferences that feature both your target industry (e.g. European financial institutions) and your target role / function (e.g. senior marketing executives).

Here are a few data sources for building your list:

  • Find out which conferences your competitors are attending. Perhaps they have a dedicated “Events” page on their site, or blog posts / social posts mentioning conferences they’re attending.
  • Industry blogs and publications. Sign up for mailing lists of relevant blogs and conferences, to be notified about upcoming conferences.
  • Survey or ask existing or potential customers. Simply ask them which conferences they attended last year, and whether they recommend them.
  • Consult your sales team, especially those on the team who are conference lovers.
  • Consult other (preferably Israeli :)) startups. One of our favorite sources. If you’re friends with other startups that sell to a similar audience (but aren’t your competitors), they can be an excellent source of intel on conferences. One of the startups we had worked with was debating between two conferences that seemed very similar on paper with regards to cost, number of attendees, etc. After consulting with another startup, we discovered that in one of the conferences booth traffic is significantly higher, and that sealed the deal for us. This kind of information would have been hard to uncover without actually attending the conference.

Create a spreadsheet with the following details for each conference: Name of conference, website, dates, location, attendee composition (industry, function).

2) How to decide whether to participate in a specific conference

So you now have a list, and you want to dive in and pick specific conferences to participate in. We created a conference consideration template to help guide your decision making process.

Here are pointers for the various parts of the template:

  • Define your goals. Usually, these are our potential goals when participating in or sponsoring a conference (in descending order of importance):
  1. Creating new Sales Opportunities (new pipeline for the sales team)
  2. Accelerating and increasing conversion for existing sales opportunities (helping the sales team close more, and faster)
  3. Meeting existing customers, increasing renewal and upsell
  4. Other goals like improving brand awareness, “we just have to be there,” feeling the market, talking to partners.

Focus is important, and we don’t recommend picking more than one or two goals.
Naturally, the goals are going to influence the attendee mix you’ll be looking for. For example, if the primary goal is meeting existing customers, you’d want to make sure the attendee list includes a lot of customers.

  • Understand your budget, and build a conference funnel model to help you forecast results. You may already have a budget framework for conferences in general, or for this conference in particular (a top down budget). If not, you can build a bottom up model that tries to forecast how many Sales Opportunities, and new customers, you can generate from participating in the conference, and calculates how much you can afford to pay for each lead and for the conference in general. This post has a detailed explanation, and here’s a sample funnel spreadsheet. Then, build a budget forecast to estimate how much money you’ll spend on the conference, and make sure it aligns with your budget constraints and funnel. Here’s a very detailed example.
  • Talk to your sales team. They’re usually the ones who’ll travel to the conference, staff the booth, talk to leads, and later on will need to close them in order to hit your goals. Make sure the dates work for everyone, that you have enough folks who can commit to going (if you have a booth, 2-3 people is the minimum), and that your sales people aren’t the kind that hates conferences (yes, they exist). To put it bluntly, if your sales team isn’t psyched about the conference, you’re going to fail.
  • Ask the conference organizers a ton of questions. You need to know the nitty gritty in order to understand if this conference aligns with your budget and goals. Here are the main questions you should ask:

Do we get the list of attendees, when, and in which format? This is critical. To hit your goals, you need to communicate with the conference attendees – meaning you need a list of who’s attending. Some conferences provide this list to sponsors, with varying amounts of information and at different timing (before / after the conference).

If you don’t get a list from the organizers, you’ll need to create it yourselves – by collecting information from booth visitors (typically a fraction of all attendees), or scrapping the conference’s app, if one exists (also usually a small subset of attendees, most being sponsors).

If you get the list of attendees before the conference, you can email them and try to set up meetings during the conference. After the conference, you’ll be able to add them to your marketing database and continue to follow up with them.
The ability to communicate with all conference attendees will dramatically impact your results, so it’s very important to find out if and when you’ll be getting the list, and which information it’ll include.

How many people will attend? What % of them will be sponsors? A larger conference isn’t necessarily better, for example if your target audience is very niche (e.g. CEOs of Chinese airlines). On the other hand, you’ll likely need to have a minimal number of attendees to make your funnel model work.

Can we get last year’s list? If not, can we see a snippet of last year’s or this year’s list? If not, what’s the attendee profile like – industry / company size / geo location / seniority / function, and any other variable that’s important to your target persona.

What are the sponsorship options? From the basic option of just buying a ticket and attending, through various booth sizes, to creative options like gift drops at attendee hotel rooms, raffles, and branding opportunities. Don’t forget to ask which options get you the list of conference attendees…

What’s the cost? Seemingly simple question, but your goal is to build a budget forecast that’s as detailed and accurate as possible (like our example). If you have a booth at a big conference, you’ll likely need to pay ridiculous amounts of money for things that sound trivial, like an internet connection at the booth, a trash can (yes), and a carpet (yep). These fees add up, so you should figure them out in advance.

Recap of tools in this post

The bottom line

The right conference, executed the right way, can be an extremely successful marketing endeavor. On the flip side, it’s very easy to waste a ton of time and money on conferences leading to zero results.

The tools in this post should set you on the right path to making sound decisions on which conferences are a good fit for you, and how to plan a conference for strong results and high ROI.

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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