Going to conferences often means time and resources smaller operations like startups and SMEs may not have. Yet it’s imperative for a business of any size to build brand awareness, make connections and form partnerships. Events can be an easy way to meet people at scale but are they worth the investment?

Customer acquisition vs industry networking

Training conferences aside, there are 2 main types of events: customer acquisition and industry events. You’ll get very different things out of both and going in with realistic expectations is key.

Customer acquisition events are usually trade shows or networking drinks where you’ll find your target audience. Industry events are conferences where networking and branding amongst your peers take precedence over winning customers. It doesn’t mean you won’t meet any prospective clients, but these events are better forums for scoping out the competition, keeping abreast of industry trends and finding potential business partners.

The first step is to assess which category an event falls into. Look at the agenda, the speakers, the sponsors and the featured attendees. It’ll give you a snapshot of what the event is about and what kind of opportunity it presents.

Attending vs sponsoring

Sponsoring industry events can be a great branding move but for companies with limited resources, we think sponsoring events that will positively (and measurably) impact your bottom line makes more sense. If you can get a booth for a reasonable price (don’t forget to negotiate - most event organisers are happy to offer bargains for small businesses and first time sponsors!), it can be a great way to get in front of your customers and sign them up on the spot.

Setting objectives

Define how you’ll measure the success of the event. Objectives can be numerical (e.g. “sign up 35 customers” and “get 50 business cards”) as well as qualitative (e.g. “introduce self to organisers”, “assess quality of talks” and “speak to so and so from company X”).

Some CRMs and marketing automation tools allow you to take things a step further by ascribing a numerical value to leads you meet at events. Use this to track how many customers / business opportunities you acquired and how much revenue they’re driving over time.

Connecting with people

Try to establish a personal connection with fellow attendees by understanding why they’re here. You’ll find it easier to position your product (or service) in a way that’s relevant to them.

Take down some quick notes after every conversation - you may think you’ll remember someone but when you’re talking to 50+ people in a day, folks will slip through the cracks. The last thing you want is to spend a day or three collecting business cards and then forget who you need to be following up with and why.

When sponsoring, make sure your signage clearly communicates who you are and what you do from a distance. The snappier and more attention grabbing you make it, the better. We also find it useful to have clever swag on hand. A great conversation starter, creative swag is a cost-effective way of attracting people to your booth without investing in a large custom experience. Think of who your audience is and what they’re likely to appreciate. If you can bring humour into it, you’ve got a winning combination.

We gave out credit card shaped hand sanitisers to attendees who walked past our booth at Money 20/20 last month (it’s the biggest global conference for the financial services industry) and they were very well received.

Food for social media

For the bloggers and social media managers out there, events are great content fodder. You’ve already invested this much time preparing for and attending the conference, don’t stop now! Drumming up anticipation ahead of the event, sharing pictures of the team on site and writing blog posts on key takeaways are great ways to engage with your target audience and maximise events even after they’re done.

Networking bubble

If you attend enough industry events you will start to recognise names and faces. You’ll know the agenda inside out and the topics may start to get repetitive. It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble, and even easier to convince yourself that events are still resulting in contacts and business when in fact you’re not getting any new leads. Be aware of how much an event contributes to your bottom line and always have goals in mind before attending.

Have we missed anything? Let us know your thoughts on whether events are worth it for SMEs & startups!

Image Attribution: Conference - Benjamin Horn - CCBY2.0 - Flickr.com