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We all want to create events that have a positive impact both on our audience and on the bottom line. However, creating the conditions for profitability require knowing when to invest and when to save, when to play it safe and when to take risks. In this article we look at 3 stages of event growth and their impact on decision making.
One of the great thrills of working in the meetings world is the range of different events that happen. Some events have become an institution and they happen from year to year getting bigger and stronger. At the other extreme, there are the thousands of brand new events that appear every year in a swirl of enthusiasm but very little profitability. Somewhere in the middle are a huge number of events that have gained an audience, are highly demanding to organize but never seem to breakthrough into significant revenue.
Events small and large, new and well established, run into the following questions:
- When should I invest in technology?
- How do I expand my return on investment?
- What should I be doing to market my event?
- What kind of systems and processes do I need?
- When do I take risks with my budget?
The answers to these questions differ greatly depending on the history of your event and where you are at in your growth cycle. In this article we explore three phases of event growth and how they impact your marketing, technology and revenue.
1) Creation Stage
If you are hosting an event for the first time you are stepping into the unknown. You don’t know who your audience is, what they like, what to offer, how much to charge for your tickets or how many people will come. The likelihood is that you have little or no budget to start with. What you do have is a great idea for an event and a vision for what it could look like. This stage of event growth is highly creative and exploratory.
Many people lose their shirt on their first event due to unrealistic expectations. The fact is, you don’t know what you are doing yet and most of what you do will be based on guesswork. You are unlikely to make much money on your first event. In fact, if you break even you will be doing well.
Treat your first event (or even first two or three events) as an experiment. Make it your goal to use your first events as a way to discover who your audience is, what they want and how to fulfil that need.
Keep your costs low and don’t invest invest heavily in systems, software or branding at this point. Use off the shelf software and work as much as possible on pay-as-you-go model (rather than paying for services in advance). Don’t splurge on top acts or speakers if there are more cost-effective alternatives.
Do your research
Do a lot of research into your potential audience and their interests. Social media is great for doing this. Interview people and find out what they are willing to pay for a ticket. Find out who your competition are and what other events are happening at the same time. Also find out who your allies are and make bold requests for help. Don’t pretend you’ve got it all figured out.
Get on social media early and start building a following. Social media is one of your most cost effective ways of marketing your event and finding out what people want. Create social media experiments to test your content ideas. Post snippets of content from the performers you are considering and see if they grab people’s attention.
In the creation phase you should also start measuring. You don’t know at this point what is going to be effective, but you need a system in place to find out. Make sure that you are running website analytics and that you are tracking your marketing. This data will allow you to move beyond guesswork to informed decision making.
The creation phase, where you are exploring ideas and discovering your market should be playful. This is the childhood phase of your event and no-one is expecting you to have it all worked out. Create a team to play, keep your costs low and ask lots of questions.
2) Concentration Stage
You have hosted your event at least once and probably a few times. You know what works, you have found your audience and now you are ready to build on your reputation and start making some money. Break-even is no longer the game.
In the concentration phase you need to create the structure and processes that will bring efficiency to everything you are doing. You can’t expand until you have systems in place that automate and support your customer care, sales, marketing and event management.
In the concentration phase you can make informed choices about your technology as you now have a really good picture of what you need. You are in a position to purchase marketing systems, a Customer Relationship Management system, E-mail marketing and other software. You can afford to swing out and invest in software that suites you and even invest in customized solutions. The goal now is to create a solid, efficient foundation that automates as much of your event marketing and management as possible.
Build your network
The concentration phase allows you to start building your network of supporters. These may include advertisers, sponsors or exhibitors. These organizations love numbers and they want to know what value you bring to the table. If you have been tracking and measuring everything then you will be able to demonstrate not only the size of your audience, but the rate of growth.
In the concentration phase it is a good idea to start filling the gaps between events. Now you have an audience you can feed them content and conversation year-round. Social media and your website are great vehicles for year-round engagement.
Don't get stuck
The pitfall of the concentration phase is that you can get stuck here. Once you hit upon a successful formula and have a loyal following of satisfied attendees you may be reluctant to change it or take risks. However, getting stuck in concentration may make it difficult to move to the expansion stage.
3) Expansion Stage
You have worked hard to build up an audience and a brand and you have put the systems in place that mean you can be effective and efficient. You are making money on each event and have a proven business model. The event has gained a life of its own.
As we noted in the previous section, once you have a formula for success it’s tempting not to change it. However the danger is that you - and more importantly your audience - will get bored. We’ve all been to events that are cookie-cutter repeats of last year. Yawn. If you play it safe and stay the same then you limit your capacity for expansion.
Take risks, be creative
To move from the concentration phase into expansion, you need to reintroduce some of the energy, enthusiasm and pioneering spirit of the creation phase. Plus, now you have a financial buffer and solid systems in place you can can afford to take some risks.
Amplify your ROI
An event in the expansion phase is able to successfully amplify the ROI of their three most precious resources: their content, their audience and their partnerships.
Most events fail to maximize their content. Your content is a highly valuable resource and it is yours to repackage and resell however you like. You might consider live streaming your event to reach a wider audience and then selling that recorded content year round. You can sell all kinds of content, e-books, worksheets and webinars. You may see an opportunity to create new, smaller events or workshops either at different times of the year or in different places.
Your audience is one of your most prized assets. Money simply can’t buy what you have built up over the years: a dedicated following of people who love your events. In the expansion phase your audience engagement is year-round. Keep on feeding them valuable content and they will keep on sharing it, promoting you and buying your add-on products. Creativity and experimentation are critical. You content must be fresh, stimulating and valuable.
If you have been growing a database of sponsors, advertisers and exhibitors you can work with them to create new partnerships. Avoid the pitfall of doing what you did last year just because you can, and work with your partners to create new programs.
The expansion phase is a delicate balance between staying true to the foundation you have built and bringing fresh ideas to the table. The key to staying on track is to keep your eyes and ears focused on your audience. Use social media to find out what they want and how they respond to your new initiatives.
Each stage of event growth brings unique opportunities and challenges. The creation phase is characterized by entrepreneurial excitement but financial uncertainty. The concentration phase is a time of building strong foundations and healthy cash flow, but can also be hard work and create a tendency towards playing it safe. The expansion phase requires breaking out of the mould and is a time when you can afford to take risks because of the solid foundation built during concentration.
There is nothing inherently ‘good’ or ‘better’ about each stage. The important thing is to know where you are and make decisions that are aligned with your current stage. Doing so will allow you to enjoy each stage and build steadily and powerfully for the future.