The Disneyland Effect: How To Plan A Successful Conference
For the last eight weeks, I’ve been traveling the world, hosting my Growth Chat dinners and speaking at conferences and other business events. It’s been a great experience all around, but one conference stood out in particular – the RD Summit in Brazil hosted by Resultados Digitais, where I was honored to be the keynote speaker. The event focused on inbound marketing and drew more than 3,200 people – an impressive number for a relatively young company.
Now that I’m home and have had a chance to reflect, here are a few of the things that made the event truly special:
The event’s infectious energy
As a speaker, I’ve never felt as taken care of as I did at the RD Summit. I don’t speak Portuguese, so I felt like I was wandering around lost a lot of the time, but I had a team of about 20 people who helped me with everything from getting coffee to showing up at the right place, at the right time.
Beyond my personal entourage, the way the Resultados Digitais team built energy into the event was incredibly impressive – especially at the end, where, following a final celebration video, the entire RD team clapped and cheered for us all for 10 minutes as we exited the final session. It really made everyone who attended feel excited and celebrated, and it was a great way to end on a high note.
The content covered
The event wasn’t all flash, either – the content covered really moved the conversation on inbound marketing forward (versus being more of the same old, same old stuff I’ve seen too often at other conferences). The team covered a wide range of topics that gave everybody what they wanted, and left everybody feeling as if they’d walk away with something useful and actionable.
The “wow” experience
I call what I experienced at the RD Summit the “Disneyland effect” because it really felt like the team had gone out of their way to attend to every possible detail. They had comedians to entertain attendees, and food trucks on hand that made it possible to get food in a way that was new and different, but ultimately convenient. Everything was incredibly well organized, but if I ever had a question, there was someone there to help me – just like there is at Disneyland.
All of these elements, tied together, created the greatest potential for success for all attendees, turning the event into a real catalyst for community development. The whole experience – on top of the great content covered – really got people talking, and I’m sure it’s going to contribute to RD’s long-term positioning as a market leader.
In fact, I was so impressed with my experience at the RD Summit that I wanted to get the inside scoop on how the company approached planning, executing and following up for the event – which is why I got on the phone with Guilherme Lopes, Resultados Digitais’ Customer Success director to get the answers other events can use to replicate their outstanding success.
Guilherme Lopes, Resultados Digitais
Sujan Patel: What was your reason for throwing the conference, and what kind of value did you get out of it?
Guilherme Lopes: There were really three reasons. First of all, to bring our customers out and meet them in person. Because we work with them online, we don’t have many face-to-face opportunities. But we also wanted to bring out our prospects. When they get there, they see all that great content about inbound marketing, all that energy and all those happy customers. It’s no surprise we have a huge amount of sales right after the conference.
But we also want to develop solid respect in the market. When you’re a startup, you don’t always get respect if people can’t see what’s happening behind the scenes. If you went to the conference, you couldn’t say that we’re a tiny startup anymore. You’d see that our vision is much bigger than that, and that we’re going to be huge. When people see our vision and how hard we’re trying to achieve it, that gives us a lot of credibility.
Patel: What did you do beforehand to prepare for the conference?
Lopes: From watching and going to conferences, we tried to replicate the best elements out of all the ones we’ve seen. It really starts with our company philosophy of investing in customer success. We’ve involved our employees in seeing our customers as part of one big family, and we involved all of them in building and running this conference, so they felt they owned it from the start.
We were also insanely focused on creating a great agenda with a great set of speakers – not necessarily famous speakers that would say something inspirational, but not teach anything, but teachers who could share the kind of good content our attendees were expecting. We also made sure we were targeting the right attendees. We gave our sales reps special offers to give to prospects, leads and customers, but we didn’t push hard to attract students or people who work in marketing, because they wouldn’t feel the content was created for them.
Once we had our agenda set, we created a massive spreadsheet detailing what each of our 230 employees would do. Every employee had their own agenda of things to do, and they knew what to do and when to do it. We gave them really specific instructions, and we trained them on how to treat people. We told them, ‘If you see somebody lost, go help them. If somebody needs coffee, get it for them.’ That made them feel personally responsible for the success of the event.
Patel: What did you do to follow up after the conference?
Lopes: For our employees, we treated the event like a big team-building exercise. We gave them t-shirts, we got together to take pictures together, and then we through a big exclusive party for them after the event. When you saw people clapping at the end, they were being thankful to each other. I was even crying because of it.
In terms of sales, we don’t close many deals at the event, so all of our team members need to give us an ROI report of the deals that were started there. Our customer success reps have to tell us how many customers attended, how many they could upsell or upgrade, and how many are still in negotiations. Even our marketing team members have to report back on things like how we can incorporate elements from the event into our landing pages, or how we can use partnerships with our speakers to promote our brand and the event in the future.
I’m deeply appreciative to Guilherme for sharing his insight, and to expand on it, I asked a few others in my network about what they’ve done to make their own conferences successful.
Lincoln Murphy, Gainsight
Lincoln Murphy: What we do at Gainsight with our Pulse conference is about education and networking. It’s also a powerful statement by the company putting it on to employees, investors, customers, prospects, competitors, potential employees, and the world that we’re here, we’re the leader, and we’re going to win.
Stefanie Grieser, Unbounce
Sujan Patel: How do you measure success?
Stefanie Grieser: We measure overall event / conference success by a Net Promoter Score (NPS) based survey. Because our conference is a brand play, the basis of a Net Promoter Score basically answers how people people would recommend our conference to a friend or college. We basically want to see as many people as possible in the “promoters” category. Why? Because these are the people who will keep buying and refer others, fueling the growth of our conference.
We started / founded our conference 2 years ago and each year we’ve doubled attendance each year. This year’s conference we’re aiming to have 800-1,000 people in attendance and that is only possible based on people’s experience the previous year. You need to make your conference experience the best yet so people can’t wait to come back the following year and will also tell all their friends about it. Kinda like this
— Carrie (@_carrieo) September 17, 2015
Halfway home from #CTAConf and I miss it already. Best career-related decision I’ve made this year, I’ll be there in 2016!
— Cassie (@heycassierose) September 16, 2015
Patel: What are the 1-2 most important things you should do to ensure a successful conference?
Grieser: Focus on making the conference unique and the experience exceptional in anyway you can. We choose unique beautiful theatre-style venues versus stuffy corporate hotels or conference centres. We hand-pick world class speakers and experts in their field who are both educational and entertaining (so people would learn, but not fall asleep). And then we glue it together with remarkable, memorable details (for example). Also, think about the pain-points you’ve had while attending a conference and hone in on making the overall experience better for your attendees. We wrote conference notes for all our attendees (had live-notetakers in the crowd) and gave people tokens so they could choose awesome swag they wanted (versus get another t-shirt they were just going to throw away). We gave attendees speaker / session videos one week after the event (that’s unheard of). We basically optimized the entire conference experience making it better than a lot of conferences out there.
Have many touch points for people to get to know one another and strike up conversation. A big reason people go to conferences is for the sense of community, to make personal connections and build relationships. We incorporated extracurricular “off-site” activities like zip-lining, yoga and beer tours and a ton of networking events before, during and after that really helped build and nurture business relations and friendships for our attendees, speakers and even our own team.
Business conferences can be boring affairs, where you don’t really walk away with new knowledge and few meaningful, lasting connections are made. But, if you create a conference with creativity, enthusiasm and focus on the attendee experience, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The bottom line that you can learn from Guilherme and the others featured here. Go big or go home. Don’t settle for mediocre when it comes to business conferences: fail or crush it.
I had a tremendous experience at the RD Summit, but now I want to hear from you. What’s the best business event you’ve ever attended? What made it so special, and what takeaways would you share with other conference producers?
This post was originally published on my weekly column on Forbes
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