What does it take to run a conference in 2017?

The digital marketing conference scene has changed a lot in the last decade. In 2007 most search marketers were looking at SES and it was the first year we saw an SMX. In 2017 everything is different. As you can see on our events list, there is a lot more to choose.

Having more events is a good thing. It gives the audience choice. They are able to better choose who they want to see and when and where they want to go. At the same time, an event is a great marketing tool for any business. It shows thought leadership, it shows your brand and it gets you a lot of goodwill.

But what does it take to run a conference? It’s not easy!

We asked Craig Rayner, Director of Search Elite and Jo Turnbull, Moderator at Search Elite and Organiser of Search London. They gave us input on this article. Together we found out what it takes to run a successful conference in 2017.

The audience

No conference without an audience. That’s what makes or breaks the success. If you have nobody there, it will only hurt your brand. But where do you get the audience?

Finding an audience can seem to be one of the most logical aspects when running a conference. As an organiser, you know what the event will look like. You understand all the benefits for the attendees and why it will be such a great spend of their time and money. Why wouldn’t they come? It’s a perfect fit, everyone walks away happy and it’s a win-win situation.

“If only it were that easy!” says Craig Rayner. “The attendees need to buy into your vision, take time out of work and invest. The audience is out there by the droves but the digital landscape is noisy. You have to cut through the noise and hand hold the potential audience to make them feel warm about the commitment they are about to make. It’s a relationship, which needs trust that their investment is more than worthwhile.”

There are many conferences. Too many copy and paste, offering little to no new knowledge. Recently some larger established events have ceased. It came as no surprise; they charged a fortune and benefited only the organisers. Why would sponsors and attendees invest in something diluted, repeated and a waste of time?

Craig continues: “However annoying that is to those of us who care about the sponsors and attendees alike and want to offer something relevant/important to our digital futures. Alas, some attendees have become tired and jaded of the same old stuff. Why would you invest time and money in something that left you feeling ripped off with nothing new learned? These people need to be re-engaged and brought back to the thriving and beneficial event scene. “

Jo Turnbull acknowledges how difficult finding an audience is:

“Finding an audience who want to come to your event can be difficult. There are many events taking place in London. But, people always want to learn. Especially in our industry, where there are so many updates going on (especially with Google). People want to keep up with the news and how to put in place these updates in their business. It is thus very important that there are actionable tips. Takeaways people can put in place straight away. People are tired of theory and presenters talking about things that should be implemented but not going into detail on the “how to”.”

It’s about understanding your audience

Like with almost all things in marketing, it’s about understanding your audience. Knowing who you are targeting. What you need to do is get to know your audience before you even start organising anything.

Why do people go to conferences? In a nutshell: to learn more. To be better at what they do. To hear from the best in the business about how they do things. And to meet like-minded people and make new connections. If you are to spend a workday at a conference you or your employer want to benefit from the experience!

To find your audience, you need to speak their language. Empathise with their pain points and show why they need to be at your event.

Craig says: “Our events are highly focused and the programmes are to-the-point and fluff free. But the environment is warm, happy and fun. No frills and no fills, just great speakers on hand all day and a few beers and networking at the end. We know where the audience work so we simply make sure they are fully aware why they should take a day out and meet some fellow fantastic people. Keep it simple.”

Things to remember on your audience:

  • Know where they come from
  • Understand which topics are interesting for them
  • Understand what brings them to a conference
  • Give them what they want

The speakers

Like with the audience, without speakers, there is no conference. And more important: if you have the wrong speakers, your audience won’t like the conference. They won’t even buy a ticket. Speakers are the ‘artists’ that will sell tickets. If you’ve always wanted to see Rand Fishkin or Dave Naylor speak, for example, you will find an event that hosts them.

Plus, speakers determine the topics of the conference. They are the experts. They bring to the table what the audience wants and needs to learn. So for many reasons, you have to think about who you are inviting to speak.

And that’s where it starts. Thinking about who to invite. You want a mix of speakers. You don’t want the same line up as another conference a few weeks earlier. You also don’t want all ‘new’ speakers. And at the same time, you want the right names to show up (and sell your tickets).

It starts with making a list of topics. After that, you add names to the topic. Who are the experts on a topic? Which speaker can explain this in the right way? And which speaker will be able to ‘attract’ the biggest crowd?

Craig Rayner has his own way of finding speakers: “Finding speakers is a constantly evolving part of conference organising. You keep in with all the best minds and people and ask those leaders for referrals. My line to a speaker is often ‘so if you were an attendee who would you want to see on stage?’. It works. Again, keep it simple.”

Jo explains that it gets easier, the longer your conference exists: “The Search Industry has many great speakers and those willing to share what they have learnt. When I first started running Search London, we were new to the market so it was harder to find speakers. As we have grown, speakers who have attended ask to come and speak at the next event. Search is a small industry and it is also a place where people are keen to share information and news. When running a new conference, those who I have been in touch with before or who I have met at other events, I can ask to get involved.”

There is one important thing to remember when looking for speakers. Some speakers might not sell you the tickets now, they will sell them next year. Meaning that great speakers are important before the conference. Because they do a great job, the audience will be happy and buzzing. They will then come back and tell others to go as well.

Things to remember on your speakers:

  • Don’t ask the same speakers all the time
  • Know who sells tickets
  • Know who will give your audience the right feeling

The venue

Where to host the event? This, of course, is a matter of taste, preference, and of course, budget. We can’t all afford to rent out the O2 Arena. Which brings me to another point: it has to fit the audience. And at the same time not be too big.

Having a big venue might sound interesting, if it doesn’t fill up, it will backfire. Don’t try and get a room for a 1,000 people, when all you are targeting is a few hundred. The room will feel empty. Better take a smaller venue than a bigger one.

OM Week Barcelona

Craig Rayner acknowledges this: “For our conferences, under 100 attendees is the optimum quantity. This brings together a good split from both sides of the industry where everyone feels comfortable and has a good chance to meet many fellow attendees and all the speakers/leaders. Therefore we find a venue to accommodate usually in an area associated with digital talents like Old Street / Shoreditch / Farringdon in London or in Manchester or Leeds.

Finding a venue is dependant on how many attendees you want to be under one roof at the same time. We are a million miles away from those events in soulless, massive exhibition halls, full of students because it’s a free event, with row upon row of exhibition stands for pointless card swapping. Our ethos is simple. If you are running a workshop, how many people does the host wish to teach? Maybe 6, maybe 12 but usually not much more. Thereafter we find the right space to fit the event. “

For Jo, they need a simpler venue, since the event is a lot smaller: “With my experience of running the meetup group, Search London, there are many places in London that can cater for under 80 people. Many of the venues available for this number are pubs and are free in the evening for hire. You need the time to have researched venues. Visiting some so you know the layout and then ensuring they are available on the date of your event.”

If you hire a venue of a Monday/Tuesday, the prices are very competitive. When you want to have a day time event or an evening event later on in the week, the venues become very expensive. It can be difficult to find a venue at a competitive price to cater for a larger number of attendees.

Things to remember on your venue:

  • Make it fit the style of your conference
  • Find a place people can get to easy
  • Don’t go too big
  • Look at the ‘feel’ of the venue: will people feel happy there?

Organising a conference is hard!

To conclude. There’s something you should realise: running a conference is hard work. It’s not easy selling tickets. It’s not easy finding the right audience, speakers or venue. And during the days before and the actual event, you will be full of stress. Because you don’t want anything to go wrong.

What is most challenging?

According to Craig, it is the audience and sponsors: “The most challenging things when organising a conference are getting the buy-in from attendees and sponsors/partners. Making sure they fully understand why this event is perfect for them and how they will benefit from being part of it. “

Jo focuses on speakers and venue: “It is always hard to get the venue, commitment from the speakers and interest aligned at the beginning when you have first decided to run an event.

Confidence is key as well as ensuring the event brings value from when you first announce it. Therefore it is important you are in touch with the speakers and the venue at the same time and you can then plan the day accordingly. If you have the venue but all your speakers are busy then that does not work. The same is true if you have the venue but no one is available to present. In this industry, there are many different events taking place throughout the year, so it is important to check the calendar and make sure you are not running your conference the same time as some of the bigger events. I have changed the date of some of my past events due to conflicting conference schedules in London.”

Is it worth it?

If it’s that hard work, is it worth organising a conference? You bet. Not only for the above-mentioned marketing reasons. But also for networking. For learning yourself, as well as your staff. And for the experience. It might be stressful, but bringing a conference to a good end is priceless. And then we haven’t even discussed the money and sponsors ;-).

Let us know, would you like to organise a conference?

Get your tickets to the SearchElite conference right here and see how it is done!

About State of Digital Guest Contributor

This post was written by an author who is not a regular contributor to State of Digital. See all the other regular State of Digital authors here. Opinions expressed in the article are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of State of Digital.