In 2014, I flew to Dreamforce, the big event that Salesforce.com hosts in San Francisco. Even though I wasn’t able to book a hotel and had to settle for a hostel just outside of the downtown district, I was still in the middle of it all.
Dreamforce is a huge event. Tens of thousands of Salesforce.com customers and vendors are all over the city, with city buses wrapped in Dreamforce logos. On the street corners, SugarCRM had deployed their guerrilla marketing team, to pass out red t-shirts to anyone who walked by. Every single thing that could be branded for the week was. Moscone West was the portal to the underground world of Dreamforce, and it lived up to its hype.
Moreover, Green Day rocked the stadium with a free show. There were big data vendors who rented the penthouses of hotels near Moscone and offered massages if you listened to their sales pitch. The first night, I tried to buy my own drink, but was absolutely unable: Everything was taken care of.
At an event like Dreamforce, it seems like I should have felt like I received the value I needed for my business. Well, it was a hard lesson and an expensive lesson.
I went to Dreamforce saying “of course I can make this a huge win!” Of course I’ll find a way to bring back business. The experience alone is worth the cost… right? Wrong. Not only did our company have to shell out nearly $8,000 for flights, hotels, passes and food for the two of us that went, but there was also the opportunity cost of being away from my desk.
When I flew home, we did the math. How many opportunities did we generate that had the possibility of converting in the next 90 days? Once the vanity of the event wore off and the memories of top shelf cocktails inside the U.S. Mint started to fade, the reality was that we brought back far less than we had spent. This painful reality took me months to accept. I kept fighting the numbers. I kept saying “but what if this closes… and then that one? Then it’s really worth it!”
I was wrong and I continued to pour emotional energy into an event that didn’t turn into business for me. Whose fault was it? Mine or Dreamforce’s? In the end, I can honestly say that I didn’t maximize the event like I should have. Since Dreamforce, I’ve gone to many more events and even paid huge sums to be a sponsor. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Objectively define what the success criteria must be for you to attend an event
Before I go to events, I calculate all of the costs. I look at the flights, hotels, meals, bar tab, Lyft fees, etc. Take that total cost, add to it the work that you’ll lose by being gone (or the urgency of making up a week of work when you’re back, on top of all the follow-up). Get a real number. Then objectively look at it. Is that number worth whatever value you’ll get out of the event?
Sometimes the value is in education. More often, the value is at the bar, at night, when you’re meeting and crafting deals. How many deals do you need to close to bring in enough profit to off-set the cost of the event? What is the average deal size? How many units will you need to sell? What’s the average gestation time from meeting a prospect to closing them? How long will it take to get a 1-to-1 ROI on the event?
Just asking these questions disqualifies a majority of events for me. I love ongoing education, but I can’t justify a $10,000 event with travel and opportunity costs for something I could just pay $1,000 for once the DVD’s are released.
2. Remove emotion from your post-event evaluation
If you choose to go to an event, go all-in. Don’t hesitate; you’ve already sunk the majority of the cost on travel and tickets. But after the event, be honest with yourself. Was the event worth it? What are the real numbers? How many deals did you predict you’d do and how many did you structure? What’s the likelihood of actually closing more business from those deals? Was it a good use of time, or was it just fun?
3. Everything is worth a try once
I can tell, for a majority of events, if attending will be worth my time and the cost. Once I whittle that list down to a few events to attend, I accept that I need some risk tolerance. There’s a chance an event will be a total dud and that the salesperson who is getting you to buy a ticket is actually overselling you. Perhaps your ideal prospects will not be in attendance (it’s happened to me). Maybe the audience has a nuance to them that makes them a bad fit. You won’t know until you attend, so my advice is to try events with gusto if and only if they meet your basic criteria for good ROI.
4. Be atypical and you’ll get more eyeballs than just paying for sponsorship
One of my favorite tricks for being more noticeable and memorable at events is to do something atypical. I’ve spent $15,000 to sponsor an event, which got me a booth outside the main room, but that wasn’t enough. If I would have just had a few banners like everyone else, I’d be lost in a sea of homogeneity. Instead, we had our designers mockup oversized caricatures of our faces. We handed out disappearing ink pens. We constantly prank and have fun with other vendors, who then send prospects our way when we’re a good fit.
For one event I attended, I heard the event host and a notable guy in the space had to share a room because one was late to book his lodging. A $40 caricature on Fiverr of the two of them having a bubble bath has played so big that it continues to pop-up at events they speak at. My small $40 investment has had more impact than if I would have spent $5,000 to be a sponsor.
I’ve also had paintings commissioned for event hosts. I’ve sent flowers with notes, bath bombs and supportive messages. Touchnote is a great app to send postcards to people you meet, with photos from your phone. There are all sorts of ways to be different at these events, and that’s what works.
5. Follow-Up is 90 Percent of the Game
The single most important way to maximize a trade show or other event is to follow up on all the relationships that you create. Have a strategy for writing down the person’s contact info, then protect a day after the event to follow-up (or have someone on your team). When I’m at a big event with a lot of new friends, I pull a sales team member in to do the follow-up in real time. I’ll snap photos of name badges or business cards, then text them to my sales assistant with a Voice Memo on the next steps. They’ll, in turn, add that person to our CRM, add my notes, then schedule a meeting.
I’m confident that if you do these five things before and after an event, you’ll maximize the value and ROI.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Tinxi