Over the past decade, there have been many great conferences and memorable events than can be written about in the search marketing industry. We have had the rise and fall of some of the most popular large conferences and series, and continue to see how content publishers, trade organizations, and media groups bring us great educational and networking experiences.
I have had the opportunity to attend and be part of many events ranging from small local meetups to the largest national multi-day conference, and the energy in the search marketing industry is as strong now at all levels as it ever has been.
What has been awesome to witness and be part of over the past few years is the emergence of the one-day conference that affords more regional appeal and budget friendliness while maintaining the same educational and community value. Search Engine Journal hosts its own high-quality, one-day conference at the SEJ Summit. There are several important aspects to pulling off a great one-day event: strong organizer leadership, an appealing program, sponsorship support, and an enthusiastic attendee base.
In the interest of full disclosure and to give some back story, I serve on the global board of directors for SEMPO and in the role of VP for the Cities program. My path to this role is tied directly to the humbling success of the Kansas City Search Marketing Conference I helped found in 2015 that was (and continues to be) part of the SEMPO Cities program. I’m happy to see the trend of one-day conferences and events continue locally and nationally and both the attendance of the events as well as sentiment in the industry (from leaders and those that are candidates to attend these events) is strong.
The Foundation: Strong Organizer Leadership
The first step in organizing a great one-day conference is in having a strong organizing committee. It is incredibly hard to pull off an event without having people from multiple companies, professional organizations, and various talents. You’re essentially assembling a team that will dictate how successful the event can be. Passion and commitment are critical through a collection of defined roles. You need the quarterback who is the leader and organizer holding it all together. This person is the tie-breaking vote on big decisions and is the quick decision maker on things that don’t need the input of the entire organizing committee.
When forming the leadership team, it is essential to fill some roles or know that people in the group have the capacity to cover several important roles including sponsorship, venue and event planning, programming, and promotion for attendance. These all sound like obvious aspects, but a lapse or weakness in a single area can significantly impact success.
The Venue & Logistics
Important decisions must be made early on in the process regarding the logistics of the event, including the time frame to hold it, the format of the day, the goal attendance number, necessary food and beverage options, and what type of venue to secure. Some of these decisions play into the format of the day and program, such as the type of structure for speaking sessions, keynote(s), networking time, and sponsor funding.
However, it is important to nail down time and place before getting deep into other aspects of planning. Even if you need sponsor dollars to cover venue and setup expenses, getting a tentative plan is necessary to sell the concept to stakeholders. Additionally, this is the stage where the event brand is coming together, and you can secure the domain name needed and plan for how to get a website up to promote the event and later host the registration process.
The format for the event sets the tone and expectation for sponsors and attendees, and is the next critical planning step. Some of the format might have been woven into the venue selection and planning phase, but this is where things get granular. How many speakers will you need, the length of time for each speaker, the structure of sessions, the use of keynotes versus panels, and much more are critical to outline.
Once the format is outlined and the speaker needs are defined, it is time to craft the speaker guidelines and call for speakers. Some events allow sponsors to have speaking slots and others have strict rules to keep the pitch process totally neutral, excluding leadership committee members and sponsors to preserve neutrality in the content for the event.
Regardless of the approach, it needs to be well-defined and documented prior to the call for pitches. The pitch process should be easy to understand and the leadership team or a defined selection committee must be prepared to evaluate pitches as they come in and after the deadline. Note that many come in at the last minute and occasionally, the deadline needs to be extended to allow for additional promotion time to ensure the best possible lineup.
It is easiest to seek sponsorship support with a date, venue, and speaker lineup. When you have had years of success, it is much easier to package up the past attendance numbers and sponsor exposure stats to sell sponsorship much like any marketing campaign with impressions, engagement, and other KPI estimates. However, the first year can be a challenge without a proven history.
In the first or early years, the best bet is to sell the idea and the potential, and while cash sponsorships might not be as appealing to potential sponsors, in-kind sponsorships are often just as valuable. Getting a venue sponsor, food and beverage sponsors (breakfast, lunch, happy hour), giveaway sponsors, and other creative ideas can help offset costs without taking on debt that must be recouped by attendance registrations. With that pressure removed, you can cut deals for sponsors to get them on board early as well as have more freedom to discount attendee registration to ensure that you fill all the seats.
By this point, you now have a great product to sell. You have a venue, a strong speaking lineup, sponsorship support, and the ability to get a lot of publicity for the event through all the stakeholders involved. Utilizing social media, email, word of mouth, and other outreach, each stakeholder group can reach their own audiences to help promote the event alongside you. Providing them with a standard brand and message blurb to use in their outreach is important to drive potential attendees to the registration website. Whether this is a site hosted by the leadership group, an affiliate organization, or on a third-party service, this is where all the important information about the event is housed and where you want to drive traffic to.
There are many tried and true tactics for discounting registration, like tiered pricing where the cost goes up as you get closer to the event. If partnering with or hosting as part of a member organization, you can utilize member and non-member rates to help cover costs and encourage membership signup as well. If you have a lot of expenses covered by sponsors, then you can be more generous in giving out promotion codes through partners and sponsors to increase the number of registrations.
It is important to continue to promote the event and push for registrations throughout the period leading up to the event. For a one-day event, it will draw local attendees who have it on their work calendars but wait until late in the process to register. Finding the balance between incentivizing to get early registrations while waiting out the procrastinators is important to make sure you have an idea of how many attendees to expect leading up to the event day.
It is probably a given at this point that with everything else falling into place, you can’t leave anything to chance or unorganized on event day.
- Programs, badges, and swag items organized and ready to hand out
- Registration table staff in place, make sure they know the full process, and that check-in goes smoothly
- Photographer ready and their plan in place
- Food and beverage plan organized and covered
- Speakers and moderators know where to be and when
- A/V in place and contingency plans lined up (microphones go out, screens go blank, etc.)
- Mentions and shout-outs to sponsors
- Post-event posting of presentations and thank you gifts to sponsors
The format, scope, and unique aspects of your one-day conference will impact the steps you take that lead to your successful event. Having a solid plan, strong leadership team, and working through the important phases will set you up for creating a great conference and an event that you can build on and grow in future years.
My personal experience started with a half-day event and I’m proud to say from experience that the one-day conference model works and is a rewarding community-building endeavor.