Keir Whitaker

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Event Marketing 101

As the world slowly opens up, it’s not unrealistic to think we might get back to attending events and conferences once again. I’m certainly keen to see how things have changed — if at all. I recently talked with a client who is planning on doing just this. They are doubling down on events in 2022 and asked if I had any advice.

Events were a huge part of the strategy during my time working on the Partnerships team at Shopify. We spoke at, exhibited at, and hosted our own events during my seven years on the team. Needless to say, we learned a lot.

Here in no particular order, are my top 8 tips for IRL event marketing:

1. Barter

In the early days of attending events for Shopify, my goal was to make a tiny budget go a very long way. To this end, never shy away from seeing what extra you could get thrown into the package. Unless you’re dealing with colossal expo style events, most organisers are always willing to sell “off-menu”, and given that the majority of offerings cost them nothing, it’s a win-win for both parties.

Collateral in the bag, a free workshop during a break, buying and branding the lanyards — the list goes on. Over time event organisers saw the “lunch and learn” sessions we offered as a genuine part of their programming — it took time, but we got there.

2. Always be Early

If you’re exhibiting, it’s not always a given that the stands are earmarked in advance, especially at smaller grassroots events. So give yourself a competitive advantage by showing up early and speaking to the organisers — you might just get the plum spot next to the auditorium entrance.

Being early will also allow you ample time to find the boxes you had shipped, which were 100% signed for but are nowhere to be found!

3. Stand Up

I always made a point of speaking to every exhibitor. I wanted to check out their swag, hear their pitch, learn about them. It always shocked me that at least 75% of those working the stands would stay sat down talking to my stomach with one eye on their laptops.

If you have no interest in me (as boring as I may be), why should I have any interest in you or your product? Be friendly, be inquisitive, show interest — it will pay dividends.

4. Don’t Waste Your Time

When working a stand, it’s important to pace yourself. You certainly don’t want to deliver the same speech 200 times. So to conserve your energy and give yourself some variety, forget about the pitch. Instead, start asking questions.

“Tell me about what you do”, “What brings you here today?”, “Which sessions are you most interested in?” are all great starters. Then, as the conversation flows, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how your product or service can help the person in front of you and when you do share a little more, or the question is reciprocated, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of where to push the conversation to your benefit.

5. Have the Best Swag

The days of bad swag are hopefully well and truly behind us. Even pre-COVID, the trend was towards more sustainable giveaways — after all, who needs another branded stress ball. Swag isn’t cheap, and there’s nothing more disheartening than seeing your collateral left on the seat or, even worse, discarded in a bin!

In 2014, our goal was to attract more designers to the Shopify platform. There was a perception that Shopify was a rigid platform and that themes were restrictive in terms of how they looked and worked. To dispel this myth, we decided that that year’s campaign would lead with the slogan “Design is at the heart of everything we do”. Whilst our content would focus on beautiful ecommerce design, we needed a hook that would attract folks who would typically shy away from ecommerce to our stand.

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In collaboration with Mike Kus, we came up with what I still believe is the best conference t-shirt I’ve ever seen. Hand drawn and hand-printed on t-shirts made with recycled drinks bottles, our tees were an instant success. There was nothing more satisfying than seeing someone turn up on day two wearing your wares. We followed up the success of this campaign with another custom design focused on the slogan “With you all the way”.

It wasn’t just tees — over the years, we produced a series of hard copy books called Grow and cheat sheets for Liquid — the Shopify theme templating language. Oh, and let’s not forget the letterpresses Liquid coasters!

6. Don’t Ask for Anything

Measuring the success of event marketing is highly problematic. I had countless conversations justifying the spend and reporting back on the number of emails I “captured”. At least, in my opinion, event marketing is all about awareness building. If you can plant a seed, cement an existing relationship, or educate people who have no interest in your product or service today but might in the future, it’s a win.

However, it’s not easy to convince your paymasters of this approach. In the end, we realised that the actual cost was not being present and that measuring a digital result in an analogue world is often more trouble than it’s worth. To this end, we stopped trying to get email addresses on the stand — sure, if someone wanted a follow-up, we’d happily sign them up, but ultimately it was 100% not the focus. That said, when 100 people signed up for our “free lunch and learn” session, we had a healthy list of interested people to engage with.

7. Do You Have a Card?

Admittedly “old skool” but the business card is an essential part of your event arsenal. Cover the basics — name, email, company logo etc. For extra impact, include a photo, and you’ll be much easier to remember. Do the swap and marvel at the quality (or lack thereof) in true Patrick Bateman style. Oh, and follow up personally within two days!

8. Use Your Partners (Politely)

Let’s talk about what I call “friendly leverage”. Selling technology is challenging. There’s always a learning curve, and it could potentially take hours, weeks, even months to truly get to grips with it.

Whilst we did undertake a lot of technical education (thankfully, themes back in 2014 were a little more straightforward than they are today), we put a lot of focus on sharing the stories of Shopify Partners who had taken the leap and gone all-in on a nascent ecommerce platform.

Over the seven years I worked at Shopify, I collaborated with 100+ partners. They shared their journey through stage talks, articles, interviews, and webinars (still an awful term). I always encouraged them to share the good and the bad. Shopify wasn’t, isn’t perfect and hearing an actual perspective always feels more genuine. Never forget your happy customers will always be your best advocates.

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