How to throw events people actually want to attend (and make an impact for your company)
Events are a tricky business. They can be huge time sucks, cost a ton of money (both to attend and to put them on), and are notoriously hard to measure the ROI on, at least immediately.
But they can also be an amazing way to connect with the people you want to reach the most.
Having run all types of events for the past decade — from professional development conferences at Teach For America to customer advisory boards at VMware to influencer events for Lovelyloot––I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are my top tips for throwing an event that people will actually want to attend, that will also make an impact for you and your company.
- Recognize that events are about the connections, not the content.
Think about the events you’ve attended — what do you remember? It’s probably not how fabulous the free food & drinks were, how cool the free pair of sunglasses you got was, or exactly what was in that particular swag bag of beauty products. Even if you liked a specific speaker, it’s impossible to remember all the content from a day jam-packed with sessions.
Most likely, you remember the new connections you made or the relationships you developed. I met one of my best friends at a pitch event in San Francisco, an advisor at a networking event in Palo Alto, and several fellow beauty founders at an industry event in New York.
Every year, when we surveyed customers after attending one of the customer advisory board meetings at VMworld in Las Vegas or on campus in Palo Alto, the feedback was consistent. The most valuable part for them was the connections — with their peers at other companies to learn how they were doing things, with their VMware product/sales team, and with their colleagues, since so many people don’t work in the same location.
2. Stop thinking from your own point of view.
Once you recognize what your attendees value and flip your thinking to design things from their perspective, things start to really click.
You have to keep in mind that people are busy — why should they take the time to attend YOUR event, especially if they have to travel or buy a ticket? Even if it’s a free event or required by their work, why should they take time out of their day/night and the hundred other things they need to do to come to your event instead, and not flake at the last minute?
It starts with the invite and initial outreach and continues all the way through post-event follow up. You have to make the value proposition about what’s in it for them (not you and your company). Think about how you can message why your event is an exclusive/can’t-miss opportunity so people want to respond, actually show up, and then rave about how amazing your event was to other people or share it on social media.
Earlier this year, I tagged along on a trip to Detroit where my husband was coaching at a youth hockey tournament. I wanted to make this trip impactful for Lovelyloot, too, so decided to host an influencer meet-up. I reached out to Sfumato, a soon-to-be-launching fragrance / cocktail bar I’d read about online in the Beauty Independent and offered to organize the entire event if they’d host it and provide cocktails. I reached out to all the top fashion / lifestyle / beauty bloggers in Detroit, inviting them to a sneak-peek of the cocktail bar before it was open to the public and a chance to connect with other women in the same space.
This event was designed from the influencers’ point of view, but the impact was positive for everyone. Many of the women who attended were Instagram friends, but had never met in real-life, so they were incredibly thankful for the opportunity to connect in person and form deeper relationships. Sfumato got a ton of amazing free exposure and social media coverage for their new business. I ended up with a great group of new friends / contacts, and even appeared on NBC Detroit as part of a segment featuring Femology, a female co-working space owned by one of the women at the event.
3. Taking the time to make things personal pays off.
Want people to respond to your emails? Email them individually. Depending on how large your invite list is, you can also start with a mass email invite or post, and then send individual personal confirmation or follow up emails. When you’re working with influencers or creators, you should also take the time to look them up on social media and engage with them in advance.
This definitely takes time, but I guarantee your response rate will be way higher — and you’ve already started building a relationship with them. By taking the time to learn about and communicate with people before they arrive, you also know what they look like (so you’ll recognize them, and they’ll hopefully recognize you too) and can jump right into a conversation about what they’ve been up to lately.
If anyone has any special needs, find out what those are in advance and help accommodate them. If you take the time to remember who is vegetarian/vegan so they get the right meal, or notice when someone’s name is misspelled and correct it immediately, they notice. I remember when I ran a conference for Teach For America in New Orleans and a new mother wasn’t sure if she’d be able to attend. I helped make sure that she got a travel exception submitted and approved so that her own mother could travel and stay with her, watch the baby in the hotel room during sessions, and breastfeed during breaks. You can bet that contributed to her having an amazing experience at our event and feeling like people cared about her.
4. If you want people to share on social media, design experiences that are sharable.
People love to share things on their social media when they’re cool or fun, when they look good, or when they’re with someone interesting––not when they’re in front of a background full of corporate logos or hashtags.
The most recent event I organized was for Lovelyloot, where we partnered with Ipsy and BeautyxBikes on a “sweat working” event in San Francisco to connect beauty and fitness influencers with Bay Area indie beauty brands. Not only could influencers share photos and video during a spin class with neon lighting and high-energy music, we also had a photo booth that turned photos into a GIF that was immediately texted/emailed to them, plus a “selfie station” on a spin bike in front of a colorful background. (Check out this IGTV video if you’d like to see more.)
5. It’s up to you to keep the connections alive and move relationships forward.
People often ask what the ROI will be for an event. It’s a question I ask myself before I agree to attend, speak at, or organize any event: How do you know it will be worth the time and money you invest?
Short answer is, you probably won’t — at least not immediately. The best advice I have is to keep track of what you put in and decide later if it was worth it in the long run. Sometimes this is tangible and measurable and sometimes it’s not…and sometimes there are factors out of your control that impact the outcome.
For example, Teach For America development conferences were designed to help fundraising teams do better at their jobs and increase the length of time they’d stay with the company. We could probably measure the former in terms of $ raised or time spent, but that may or may not be directly attributable to what they learned at one particular conference. And there are many other factors that contribute to how long someone stays with a company.
Corporate events and customer advisory boards like I worked on for VMware are often used to increase customer loyalty, and over time, sales. We could measure the former through feedback surveys and NPS scores, but often the individuals attending aren’t the only decision makers when it comes to enterprise sales, and overall company budgets are impacted by many factors.
I see influencer events, like the one we partnered on with Ipsy or have done on our own for Lovelyloot, as networking events. They help you establish a relationship in person, which is always stronger than any online connection, but it’s up to you to continue to build that relationship over time. Influencers are bombarded with invites to attend events, sent tons of free products, and often paid to create and share posts or videos on social media. The best creators know what will resonate with their community and choose to work with brands they personally use and love. It takes time to discover if something is a good fit and whether a partnership, in whatever form, can work.
So, just like you would in any personal relationship, follow up! Especially with social media (Instagram stories expire after 24 hours) immediate engagement is critical. Tell people how much you enjoyed meeting them and keep in touch. And don’t ghost them afterwards! Be real and have a personality, even if you’re a brand — people want to engage with other people. Show up where they are; whether that’s on LinkedIn, email, or Instagram. Like and engage with their content, just like you would if you were trying to develop a personal relationship with them…because you are.
What has your experience been with events? What’s the best event you’ve ever attended or been part of, and why?