This week I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen unsure of how exactly to process the message that I had just received: It was an invitation to a real, live, in-person conference.

In some places, IRL meetups have been back for a while, and others are still working to get there, but for me it was like a reminder of a time long, long ago when we’d hop on airplanes, spending many days and dollars for the opportunity to interact with other humans in person. Since that time is back, it also means that we’re going to need to make business decisions about conferences and events. Do we send our people? Should we sponsor one? If so, what’s the right way to get the best return on investment?

We’ve always been a big advocate for live events as a branding opportunity — when backed by a strong digital strategy — so I figured today would be a great time to dust off the old playbook and share some of the best ways to get the most out of a conference:

SO YOU’RE ATTENDING A CONFERENCE

  • Go in with an objective. Why are you spending the time and budget? Is it to learn something?  To meet someone? Or, like the famous scene in The Big Short, to get a feel for the pulse of an industry? Once you’ve set your objective, then you can optimize your entire event plan for that outcome.
  • Are you going to the right conferences/events? We tend to return back to the same crowds with the same talks and wonder why we’re not getting different results. Challenge yourself by returning back to your objective – is this the absolute best way to achieve it?
  • Pay attention to the periphery. The main stage is great, but you can probably find that talk on YouTube somewhere. Much of the good stuff happens in the breakouts, at the satellite events, and in impromptu meetups that are often organized on Twitter or elsewhere.
  • Have a digital strategy. You know how the first few hours of any event is typically spent getting a feel for the room? Do that ahead of time on social. Follow the speakers and organizers, interact with people using the hashtag, and join any Groups/Discords/in-app chats that they’ve created. You’ll roll in with context, people to meet, with a sense of what to expect.
  • Then, share your experience. A photo of a speaker’s slide is the standard tactic, but how could you set yourself apart? I love a good Linkedin recap of the event that tags the organizers, speakers, and other interesting people you met along the way. If you’re a more creatively-inclined person, you may consider an Instagram Reel, or a carousel of things that you’re taking away from the event.

WHAT ABOUT SPONSORSHIP?

Event sponsorship is one of the most underrated brand investments. The problem is that most sponsors take the standard approach: Buy the logo placement, maybe throw up a booth, and hope for the best. Instead, here are 3 ways to 10X your investment:

  1. Go all-in. If it’s in your budget, ditch the entry-level options and go for the Gold package. I know that this may sound obvious, but in reality, only the top 2 or 3 brands at any event will get noticed. Think back to your own experience as a conference attendee – do you remember any of the Bronze-level program logos? Or, do you remember the brand that threw the awesome after-party?
  2. Blanket social. Don’t have the cash to make a Gold-level commitment? Look around at the conference – while everyone may be there physically, their heads are in their phones and laptops. With some time & creativity you can blanket the following areas:
    • The hashtag
    • Conversations in event channels
    • Comments/replies to speaker and event content
    • Social ads.
    • Note: It’s possible to do this with no sponsorship at all, but you won’t make any friends with the organizers. 
  3. One of my favourite examples came up at Unbounce’s CTAConf – while I was furiously typing out notes, I saw a tweet from a brand that was sharing a live Google Doc where they had hired two of their staff to be taking much better notes than I ever could. By adding my email address to their list, I’d get a cleaned-up summary of the notes, and I’d be free to sit back and enjoy the presentations.

We love a good virtual event, and believe that the future of events is exciting, in-part, because of our ability to add virtual as an experience, but there will always be value in the synchronicity and focus that exists  when smart people gather IRL.

Happy conference-ing, and we hope to see you at one very soon.