Engaging Your Audience Through Offline Events

How much does your company do to boost your brand offline?

We live in such a digital world that it’s easy to forget that there are still valuable channels to promote your business in the offline arena.

In fact, relatively few businesses are using strategies like offline events, so it may be something that is worth your while…

Why try offline events?

Have you noticed how difficult it is to get traction online these days? It’s still a valuable place to be because that’s where you’ll find most people in today’s connected world, but it’s not the only place to be.

Offline events are a proven method of brand-building and audience engagement, which are often forgotten when marketing campaigns are planned. Some of the biggest brands use offline events, even when you might think that they’re so big, they wouldn’t need to.

Salesforce, Oracle and Box put on huge annual conferences, despite the fact that those brands obviously have built great traction online. Why? Putting on these events helps to cement their positions as market leaders and gives them the opportunity to cultivate identity and relationships first-hand.

There can also be a certain amount of prestige associated with hosting or taking part in events. Conferences are often seen as displays of the success of the brands involved and are increasingly including line-ups of celebrated speakers and famous entertainers.

It doesn’t have to be big…

Just in case you were thinking that offline events would be too big or too expensive an undertaking for your company, know that they don’t have to be huge. You don’t need the budget available to book Beyonce or even to host your own event.

Smaller tradeshows or conferences can be ideal places for companies to meet and engage with new people. You can make new partnerships and boost your brand visibility just by picking out the right places to be. That may even be through guest speaking at someone else’s event or being an event sponsor.

Twilio is a good example of this in action. The voice and messaging company attracted customers by sponsoring hackathons, conferences and meetups. These all helped to put the company directly in touch with its target audience.

Build relationships

Offline events can offer brands an unparalleled opportunity to engage directly with customers and have positive personal interactions that help to build loyalty. Brands can learn directly about their customers problems and preferences, which is an excellent opportunity to get some raw data and foster relationships.

While brands delivering messages through traditional channels increasingly struggle to penetrate customers’ anonymity and filters against oversaturation, events can establish a genuine emotional connection with customers. – Marco Rivolta

One of the biggest benefits of events is the ability to connect with people face-to-face, engaging in ways that are not possible online. This might include people who are part of your target customer groups, but it may also include other valuable connections. For example, what if you could meet an influential blogger, editor or a potential new partner? You have the opportunity to bypass the barriers that naturally exist when communicating online.

Another important point here is that an event doesn’t have to feel like a sales pitch to potential prospects. People tend to like the idea of attending something that is of genuine interest to them and will often be more open and willing to engage.

Strengthen your community

Events help people to develop a connection with your organisation and with other event attendees. You become their common ground when they build relationships with each other, which can strengthen your own community around your brand.

A flow-on effect can be more active engagement online and continue conversations long after the event. If people got something valuable from attending, they’ll also be more likely to share their experience with others, potentially bringing you new followers.

Generate (or close) leads

The right event presents you with the opportunity to interact with groups of prospects who already have an interest in your subject matter. They are attending the event because they have found something that sounds like it will cater to their interest, which is where picking the right type of event for your target audience is important.

You may have the opportunity to generate new leads, especially among those who don’t respond so well to online advertising. For others, seeing you at an event may be the second or third “touchpoint” they’ve had with your brand. Most people need more than one interaction before they’ll close, so meeting someone in-person may well be the clincher needed to close a sale.

Provide value

Offline events are a great opportunity to deliver value to people. Most will attend events to network and be educated, so if you can provide education that is of value to them, you will help to grow your brand awareness.

This is an opportunity to set your company apart and deliver something unique for your audience to take away. Do a good job of this and you help to grow your position as a thought leader and credible brand.

How to use offline events

How can you harness the power of offline events? We’re going to look at five options that we’ve organised from easiest to pull off to the more complex. These are:

  1. Attend a conference
  2. Speak at an event or conference
  3. Organise a smaller-scale event:
    • Organise meetup or seminar
    • Host breakfast, lunch or dinner
    • Throw a party
  4. Host your own mini conference
  5. Host your own conference on a larger scale

Let’s take a look at how you can use these different options to engage audiences and build your brand:

Attend a conference

Conferences tend to be the biggest and most popular type of offline event. There are many that are either niche-specific or cover a broad range of niches under an overall umbrella (such as technology or marketing).

As an attendee, of course you relish the chance to meet people and learn new things, but there may also be the opportunity to set up your own booth. For many businesses, this is a less expensive way of getting exposure to a large audience.

SXSW is held annually in Austin, Texas and attracts thousands of technology, film and music enthusiasts. When Twitter launched nine months prior to SXSW 2007, they were admittedly at a “whimper” although grew to several thousand users within a few months. Knowing that many from their target user base would be attending the conference, they made the decision to harness the opportunity to accelerate their growth.

Twitter co-founder, Evan Williams said:

We did two things to take advantage of the emerging critical mass:

We created a Twitter visualizer and negotiated with the festival to put flat panel screens in the hallways… We paid $11K for this and set up the TVs ourselves. (This was about the only money Twitter’s *ever* spent on marketing.)

We created an event-specific feature where you could text ‘join sxsw’ to 40404. Then you would show up on the screens. And, if you weren’t already a Twitter user, you’d automatically be following a half-dozen or so “ambassadors,” who were Twitter users also at SXSW. We advertised this on the screens in the hallways.”

Thanks to this conference-specific marketing, Twitter jumped from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000+ by the end of the conference. Twitter also won the SXSW Web Award, leading to press coverage and even more awareness of the service.

You might not have the budget for a booth at some of the larger events, but explore smaller events close to home to see if they might be a good opportunity to boost your growth. Small audiences who are highly engaged in the topic can still provide you with good traction.

Speak at an event or conference

Professional events offer a great way to meet new people, share your ideas, and build brand awareness. They’re even more effective if you speak at them. A lot of people look at speaking as something that may be out of their reach – after all, don’t all conferences and events want people who are already well-known?

This is not altogether true. Firstly, even big conferences will include speakers who are relatively unknown, particularly if they have something valuable and educational to say, secondly, you don’t need to start with those big conferences.

For many businesses, building up their prowess and reputation as speakers begins more locally. This might mean finding local events related to your industry and volunteering to speak. Look for organisations, such as The Institute of Directors, which regularly hosts speakers for its members, or smaller conferences that are happening nearby.

Being a speaker is something that you can more easily scale than being an event host. You can speak at one event today and another in a different location tomorrow, but you can’t organise events and meetups in every city. If you do want to try to get into some of the bigger conferences, having that smaller scale experience under your belt will help. Speaking is a perfect opportunity to establish yourself as an expert, meet people personally and build trust with your audience. Check out Neil Patel’s tips for getting those speaking engagements here.

Organise a smaller-scale event

Before you think about arranging a meetup or small event within any niche, you need to build an audience that you can market it to. This might take you a while to do – you need to understand your buyer personas and consistently build trust with an audience over time. You’ll find that it’s worth the wait to have a sizeable audience though, as otherwise you are effectively trying to sell people cold on coming to your event.

We prefer to use the following types of small events:

  • Meetups – These are about building networks and a genuine desire to foster discussion on the meetup topics. They’re not about doing a hard sell, but offering value and showcasing your expertise. Organise them through your own channels or look to sites such as Meetup.com to start, join or sponsor an event (this would have to be the most popular site to do so).

Small meetup groups can be more effective than you may expect, especially in the early stages. Seth Godin used meetups when launching his book Linchpin. He and his followers organised Linchpin meetups in cities all around the world through his blog. In total, more than 10,000 people attended these events, where they connected over ideas that Seth wrote about and built continued relationships with each other.

  • Nick Pinkston, founder of automated manufacturing startup Plethora Labs, began the Hardware Startup Meetup group when he saw a need for a community around the budding hardware startup movement. In the Bay Area there were hundreds of events and meetups focused on software startups, but not a single one focused on the unique needs and challenges of hardware startups.

Nick organized his first meetup at TechShop SF. The first meeting drew 60 people and the only expense was $70 for pizza. An event like this makes for a great test case because you don’t need a lot of resources to pull it off. In Nick’s case, there was a lot of interest from attendees – the group now has more than 2,600 members.

  • Host breakfasts, lunches or dinners – These are typically smaller, very targeted events aimed at between 8 and 50 attendees. They tend to be a more intimate setting, ideal for networking and meeting with customers or prospects. These often include some kind of thought leadership presentations. Organisations like The Institute of Directors regularly host these types of gatherings, but you will also see them hosted as a value-add for top clients of companies.
  • Throw a party – Who doesn’t like a good party? In the right setting, it can be an excellent way to boost the exposure of your brand. For new products and services, a launch party is often seen as an essential part of the marketing calendar for businesses. It’s about making an impression as well as meeting new and existing clients.
  • Outside of launch parties, other brands use them to boost engagement among their communities and bring them together offline. Yelp is infamous for the parties it throws for its “Yelp Elite,” which can range from one-night events to entire weekends. The events help to promote goodwill among its top users and expose them to new options available locally.

Host your own mini conference

A mini conference tends to last just for a day, but aims to pack value into that time. MicroConf is an excellent example. While it has now grown to be a hugely popular annual event, it started out when Rob Walling of HitTail wanted a small conference for self-funded startups. The idea was that hosting a mini conference can be a relatively simple way for smaller companies to get traction and test whether there is any appetite for a bigger event among your audience.

How do you even begin to organise an event like this? As an example, you could select a topic relevant to your product and invite the founders of three local companies to come and give short talks on the subject. You could also feature these founders on a panel about a particular topic. You might even take the “unconference” approach and have attendees suggest topics for roundtable discussion, and then allow them to vote on which discussions will take place. The goal is to provide value – your attendees should all come away with something they can use.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to run an event like this. This type of mini-conference can be done for less than £500 if you look carefully at your local resources.

To borrow an idea from Rob Walling, he deliberately kept MicroConf small in order to better facilitate speakers and attendees getting to know each other. This included having speakers sit with attendees at lunch and facilitate round table discussions. How valuable is it to attendees if they’re given personal access to speakers?
Host your own conference on a larger scale

Larger scale conferences that are of high-quality tend to get a reputation of their own that goes beyond the hosting brand. Attendees plan for Dreamforce or SXSW months in advance because of the value they get from them.

These conferences aren’t about pushing your brand or business, they’re about delivering a top-quality experience that keeps people talking about it afterward and has them booking to attend again. They’re especially good to consider if there isn’t already a conference that directly brings together your target customers.

Consider the example of Enservio, a company that sells expensive software to insurance companies. They were struggling to reach top executives in the insurance industry through other means – sales, business development and SEO weren’t working.

To try to generate traction, Enservio decided to go big to organise the Claims Innovation Summit. They held it at the Ritz Carlton over multiple days in a beautiful Arizona setting. They avoiding any kind of sales pitch and instead, pulled in prominent figures from major consulting firms, respected individuals in the insurance industry and founders of hot startups as speakers. They then used this group of speakers to attract the industry executives that were their prospective customers. Not only could the executives learn from the speakers, but they could network and vacation at the same time.

The event successfully attracted top decision-makers and established Enservio as an industry leader overnight. Their conference is now an annual event in their industry calendar.

Other examples aren’t as lavish, but still grew to impressive scales. Eric Ries’ Startup Lessons Learned began as a one-day conference with a few speakers on topics related to Lean Startup principles. He had determined interest for the conference simply by asking his blog readers.

To allow others to participate and grow his audience, he live-streamed the conference to meetups or individuals who became instrumental in promoting his ideas further. After this, his book became a bestseller and the conference is now an entire week.

These bigger events are a much larger commitment of time and resources, but almost all of them were started on a smaller scale by an individual brand before growing to the major draw cards they are today.

Next steps

Successful offline events are about building relationships and creating a positive impression with your audience.

A key to that success is to go in with an event strategy. Don’t spend so much time designing T-shirts or swag that you neglect your event process or supporting apps.

Follow your strategy from the time you commit to attending the event all the way through to follow-up and closing deals. We developed an event checklist to help you plan. This includes everything from setting realistic goals upfront, to ensuring your booth stands out, to promotion checklists, and tracking your ROI.

Get your copy of our event checklist here.

Stuart Brameld

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