Why Litmus Said “Yes” to Conferences

My thoughts on four years of running events

My Litmus colleagues giving demos at our Email Design Conference

We say “no” to nearly everything at Litmus. But a few years ago, we said “yes” to a conference and it’s forever changed the trajectory of our business.

Our first-ever event was a 30-person workshop at our Boston headquarters. We sold out in a matter of hours. People flew in from all over the country to spend a day with us. Speakers were eager to get involved. The workshop was a blast. At the end of that day, I turned to our marketing lead Justine Jordan and we nodded in agreement: we were onto something here.

Fast-forward four years and we’re hosting The Email Design Conference in Boston, San Francisco and London for more than 1,000 people annually. Our events support our marketing efforts, our company culture and — perhaps most importantly — the burgeoning email design community.

No sponsors, no vendor hall, no badge scanning, no sales pitches, no noise.

The key to our success so far has been doing conferences our way. No sponsors, no vendor hall, no badge scanning, no sales pitches, no noise. Too many conferences have given into the temptation of maximizing revenue. Our strategy is long-term — win the community, win the day.

We don’t accept sponsorships

I don’t like clutter. It’s the enemy of great design. Clutter is the reason we are so adamant about saying “no” to most things.

Imagine hanging a TV on the wall. If you don’t hide the wires, you’re inviting clutter into your living room. An otherwise open space becomes a distraction. We simply don’t tolerate that. “Hiding the wires” is a concept we apply to our software and our events at Litmus. 
From the beginning I felt strongly that there would be no sponsors at Litmus events. It’s a counterintuitive position given that our tool integrates nicely with hundreds of other email tools. But event sponsorship is mostly clutter.

I think about it this way: We wouldn’t load our product with affiliate ads and publish sponsored content on our blog — why should our events be any different? No one likes making their way through a vendor hall on their way to lunch. Some conferences even sell the attendee lists to vendors, which frankly feels unethical.

We cannot in good faith run a design conference with a poor user experience. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that a lack of sponsors means Litmus stands out. Our motives aren’t entirely altruistic, but we feel confident that Litmus’ understated role in the event makes for a better experience.

As the CEO of a venture-backed company, I’m well aware that we’re leaving money on the table. And you know what? That’s okay with me. If we aimed to squeeze every last drop of profit out of Litmus or the email community, our company and our customers would suffer. We are comfortable creating the best conference we can without milking it.

The community always comes first

The email design community is distinctly different from the email marketing community. There is overlap, but until TEDC, there was no conference validating the work these people do.

In email, the finished product doesn’t have a byline… Most of the superstars in the email world are anonymous.

This felt like an obvious opportunity to create a forum for sophisticated email folks to gather together. In email, the finished product doesn’t have a byline. The recipient recognizes the company, but doesn’t know about the engineer who wrote the code or the writer who crafted the message. Most of the superstars in the email world are anonymous.

We favor expertise over status. Rather than paying a lot for a big name to do the keynote, we look to the community to help us find experts to present at our events.

The response has been truly inspiring. Hundreds of data scientists, front-end developers, designers and marketers submit ideas each year because they are excited to get involved. It creates an environment that is inclusive and open-minded. We aren’t telling the community what to do, the community is sharing with like-minded people.

An elegant solution to vendor partnerships

We won’t accept sponsors, but vendors have been eager to get involved from the get-go. Our hands are not tied. Rather, we have the freedom to try something new.

We took a look at some of the friction involved in our conferences. On one hand you have people who want to come, but can’t afford the admission, hotel, flights, etc. On the other hand, vendors wanted to invest in this event. So we came up with a solution that could only have been achieved by saying “no” to sponsors in the first place.

Our patronage program allows vendors to “sponsor” a person that otherwise would not be able to attend. Attendees are extremely grateful to these companies — MailChimp, Constant Contact, MovableInk and Emma to name a few — and remember the goodwill more than they would an elevator pitch. We’re very clear with partners that this isn’t about leads and sales, it’s about empowering people to learn, connect and do great work. When we say this event is about the community, we really mean it.

Making the business case for a conference

Is it worth it? In short, yes. And here are a few reasons why.

Face Time. I wish we could measure the LTV of customers who have shaken hands with a Litmus employee and those who haven’t. My gut is that customers who meet us in person have a different understanding of just how much we care about the work we do. They’re more likely to reach out for help when they get stuck, read our blog and recommend us to a friend.

I wish we could measure the LTV of customers who have shaken hands with a Litmus employee and those who haven’t.

Branding. Roughly 80% of our conference attendees use or have used Litmus. This isn’t a user conference per se, but it’s not a lead-gen play either. Branding is a vague word, especially in the startup world, but we do believe that perception is important. One of the goals of the event is to create a positive association between the broader marketing and design communities and the Litmus brand. This happens when people tweet from the event, share their presentations online and blog about the experience afterwards. The halo effect, while difficult to quantify, is working for us here.

The Community. Email design is very different from email marketing. We genuinely want to create a place where those people can teach, learn and grow. It’s nearly impossible to measure the value of investing in community. Honestly, I don’t care. The process has been rewarding in so many ways besides revenue.

Team Camaraderie. Events are a great excuse to bring our team of 65+ together for a few days. We fly in everyone to the Boston conference each year. We all work hard, but we celebrate too. There’s something special about wearing a Litmus badge at The Email Design Conference. We all work on different parts of the business, but for a few days we all put our collective energy into one thing. It strengthens existing bonds and creates new ones. I think this will be even more important as the company grows.

This isn’t to say that we have it all figured out. Our conference is constantly evolving. Maybe one day we’ll have sponsors or have a famous person deliver the keynote. I don’t know. We’re flexible on the details, but we’ll always be committed to making a great experience for our attendees.