The ultimate guide to running your own customer conference

Running your own customer conference should be a key part of any business’s marketing strategy.

How many other marketing channels offer this…

  • Differentiation from your competitors
  • Increased engagement with your customers
  • Content marketing opportunities
  • Social sharing
  • Thought leadership

Running your own conference can seem like a daunting prospect, and one that only large businesses have the resources to do.

From my own experiences, this just isn’t true.

Even the smallest of companies, with limited marketing resources can (and should) seriously consider having an event, with informative talks for their customers.

In this post I will show you how to plan and execute a successful customer conference:

  1. Setting your goals
  2. Choosing topics and speakers
  3. Planning your day’s schedule
  4. Picking the venue
  5. Registration and communication mechanisms
  6. Promoting the conference
  7. Attendee communication
  8. Attendee collateral
  9. Internal planning
  10. The big day
  11. Post-event marketing and feedback

Let’s get started…

Create your strategy with clear aims and goals

The first step is to clearly define why you are running a conference. What do you want to get out of it, and how you will analyse success/failure?

 Note: This is not a day long sales pitch. No matter what your goals are, provide your attendees with content that helps them.  

For example, if your business sells a product/service within a competitive, but largely emotion free industry, your conference is a great way to start moving away from being a commodity, towards being a brand with a loyal following.

If you already have a strong brand following, a conference will cement that and maintain loyalty.

Here is an example for a business looking to run their first conference:

Aim/strategy (What you want to achieve)

Engage with our customers in a wat that differentiates us from our competitors, providing content that helps our customers be successful. 

Goals/objectives (How you will achieve your aim):

  • Provide added value content  – Delivered through informative talks and measured by attendee rating in post-event survey.
  • Increase customer satisfaction and retention – Delivered through informative talks and measured by post-event survey, NPS and churn analysis.
  • Differentiate ourselves from other faceless competitors – Measured with NPS and social media brand sentiment.
  • Help our customers become more successful using our products – Measured with add-ons sales, upgrades and renewals.
  • Getting feedback from four customers – Measured by the level of feedback.

Organising a one day conference is a lot of work, so it is important you get internal buy in from all your stakeholders. The best way to do that is to keep everyone informed on progress and make them feel involved.

With that in mind, share the day’s aim and goals amongst everyone who is helping to support the day. This way they are clear what you are are trying to achieve.

Choosing your topics and speakers

Remember, this is not sales talk. What advice can you authoritatively give customers to help make them become more successful? If you approach your conference with that mindset, they will have a great day.

Real-world, useful and practical advice about how they can do something better is always popular.

For example:

“A step by step guide to converting more website visitors in to customers”

Instead of…

“How to use our Super Converting Widget!”

Inbound marketing software provider Moz have got this down perfectly. Their annual ‘MozCon’ makes no mention of their products, it is 100% focused on helping their attendees be better.

mozcon 215

One of the topics at Moz’s MozCon 2015

Choose your speakers wisely. Public speaking is not a skill everyone has, so don’t force anyone to speak who does not have the confidence to get up and talk in front of strangers. It will be a disaster. There are plenty of non-speaking support roles for people to help with.

If you don’t have enough staff members who can give a talk, approach your suppliers/partners with the idea of being a guest speaker, or even running a joint conference.

Planning your day’s schedule

There are no hard rules for your day’s running times, but I would recommend planning short, punchy talks to keep people’s attention. This also gives you time to cover a wider range of topics.

Make sure you build in refreshment breaks. This gives attendees a chance to mix and stretch their legs. Don’t forget lunch to keep the afternoon energy levels up!

Here is an example of how you could structure your day:

Time Schedule Speaker  Notes
10am Registration  –  –
10.30am Keynote CEO Welcome
11am Using data to market your products Speaker 1 Data driven talk about the market
11.20am Supporting your customers Speaker 2 Effective ways of supporting customers
11.40am Cross-selling & up-selling Speaker 3 Getting customers to stay longer and buy more
12pm Lunch  –  –
12.30pm Branding Speaker 4 How to become a brand your customers care about
1pm Usability/ UX Speaker 5 Emphasis on designing websites
1.30pm PPC Speaker 6 Google AdWords on a small budget
1.50pm Content marketing Speaker 7 How to create content people want to share
2.20pm Break  –  –
2.40pm SEO Speaker 8 Emphasis on SEO and small businesses
3pm Q&A with attendees Compare
3.20pm Closing remarks CEO Thanks and sneak peek of future products

Picking the venue

One of the biggest decision you will make is where to hold your event. Cost is an obvious consideration, but so is accessibility.

Unless you are lucky enough to have space to hold your conference at your offices you’ll need to rent somewhere for the day. This doesn’t have to be in the same city as you are based.

Is the venue easy to get to for the majority of your customers? You are asking people to spend a day away from their office, and they aren’t going to want to spend a lot of time commuting back and forth.

Even national online brands find they have larger than average clusters of customers in particular cities/regions. Research your customer base and choose a city that the majority of your customers live/work near. I.e. Play the odds.

The simplest way to research your venue is via a search on Google “conference venue hire in [city]”.

Alternatively, there are services such as Hire Space and wefindvenues that act as an event search engine/directory.

Registration and communication mechanisms

The key questions to answer at this stage are:

  • How will people apply to attend? – Are you inviting specific people or do people need to apply? If so, how do they do that?
  • How will you choose who will attend? – Is their any selection criteria or will it be a random selection?

Applying for tickets

If you are opening up applications to all of your customers (and I would recommend that you do to create critical mass for your marketing), you need a mechanism to capture their interest.

The simplest method is to ask them t0 reply to an email invitation, or to put a form on your website that sends you an email with their details.

Although quick and easy to set up, using email creates a lot of manual work (e.g. manually importing details into a spreadsheet/database, mail merging, managing dropouts…etc.), especially if you are planning on having 100+ attendees.

I would recommend you use services such as EventbriteGet Invited and nvite. You can integrate them in to your website very easily.

Mozcon tickets

Moz’s sign up form on their website for ‘MozCon

The latter two both let you sell tickets to your event from your website, with attendee management and stats built-in. You can set your price to zero if you don’t want to charge (if you don’t charge, both services are free to use – bonus!).

If you use WordPress, the Tickera plugin will let you sell tickets online, for  a one off purchase fee, and no monthly/transaction charges.

Choosing who will attend

This is a great opportunity to engage with your all customers (and prospects) through a really positive message.

Publically limiting access to a small percentage of your customers (e.g. only inviting your top sellers, or your ‘VIP’ group) completely undermines this.

However, your big spending customers are your most important, and your top 20% probably contribute 80% of your revenue. They are the people you want to attend and build relationships with.

There are two schools of thought on how to approach this:

  • Keep your selection completely random
  • Publically advertise your selection as random, but be selective behind the scenes

I will leave it with you to decide which approach you want to take.

Announcing the conference

Use every communication channel available to announce your conference. It is a big deal!

123Conf

Part of 123-reg’s ‘123Conf‘ landing page

  • Landing page on your website (promoting the day and accepting applications to attend)
  • Email your customer base
  • Press release to your industry’s media outlets
  • Social media announcements
  • Story on your blog
  • Alert in your customer’s control panel

Here is an example email you can send to your customers:

Subject: Join us at our first ever customer conference

Hi [Name],

We are holding our first ever conference, on [date] at [venue] in [city] and it is exclusively for our customers.

The day will be packed full of great talks covering topics such as successfully supporting your customers, building a brand, SEO and PPC on a limited budget and much more.

We’d love for you to join us!

Register to attend
We only have 130 seats available so places are limited. Click on the button below to find out more and register your interest.

[Button] Find out more [/button]

People will naturally have questions, and you can address common ones before they are asked on your landing page with an FAQ section e.g.

How much does this cost? Nothing, it is 100% free.

Can I bring someone with me? This is only open to our customers. With limited seats we want to make sure as many of our customers have an opportunity to attend.

Do I need to bring any snacks or drinks? Lunch and refreshments will be provided throughout the day.

What is the process for choosing who will attend? We are currently inviting all customers to confirm their interest. This will close on [date]. W/c [date] we will pick 130 people at random and contact them to let them know they have been chosen to attend.

and so on…

Attendee communication

There will be two pots.

  1. Customers attending
  2. Customers not attending

Customers not attending

A mistake I made the first time I organised a conference was not informing those who had been unsuccessful. I had said we would contact successful customers by a certain date on the landing page. Therefore, I assumed I just had to inform the successful customers and the rest would work out they hadn’t been chosen.

Wrong.

I received numerous emails and comments on social media asking when they would be told, or whether they had been selected.

The second time I organised a conference, I also emailed the non-attendees to inform them they had not been chosen.

Customers attending

Regular, clear communication is key here. Even though they applied to attend, and you have given them all the information they need to know where to be and when, don’t assume anything on their part.

Stay in touch with regular emails that get progressively more frequent as  the day gets closer. This will guarantee a much higher turnout.

  • 6 – 8 weeks: Confirmation of attendance – Overview of day (incl. times and directions)
  • 4 weeks: Nearly there – General reminder and any questions?
  • 3 weeks: Reminder of details and chance to drop out (gives you time to find replacements)
  • 2 weeks: Share the day’s schedule and talks
  • 1 week: Reminder of directions and any questions?
  • 1 day: Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow and directions

Despite this aggressive communications schedule, every time I have organised an event I have had a handful of attendees get in touch with a few days to go asking if they been chosen or where it is being held. Not everyone reads all their emails.

With this in mind, consider calling your attendee list with a week to go to make sure they have all the details and they are still coming.

Tip: Create a back-up list

Let customers who have been unsuccessful know they can be added to a back-up list to step in if anyone drops out. It is normal to find that people drop out closer to the day. Hopefully more inform you than don’t, and when they do, you can fall back on your back-up list.

Attendee collateral

This is not the place to try and save money. The quality of the collateral you give them says a lot about your business. Make sure it is good.

  • Branded welcome note/card
  • Branded pen
  • Branded notepad
  • Branded bag
  • Branded USB memory stick
  • Feedback form for the day

Additionally, treat the day as a proper conference, and produce a booklet to hand out at the start.

HeartCon booklet

The contents page from Heart Internet’s HeartCon booklet

Include the structure of the day, bios of the speakers, info about the products related to the talks,  general useful resources e.g. marketing materials, PDF downloads, books, a couple of pages with lines for note writing etc.

Internal planning and coordination

With so much to do, start your planning nice and early because time will fly. Before you know it, it will be the day of the event, and you’ll wonder where it all went.

Planning far ahead reduces what is going to be a stressful experience any way. It means you have time to adapt to unforeseen humps, and get new plans in place.

People dropping out, suppliers not delivering on time, subjects not being suitable for a talk any more…

Create a Gantt chart with all the tasks you need to complete in the build up to the big day along the X axis, and dates on the Y axis.

Week Week Week
Customers
Email to prompt sign up Name x
Confirm they have been chosen Name x
Itinerary for the day Name x
Reminder Name x
Website
Design/ logo style finalised Name x
Landing page Name x
Talks
First draft ready Name x
Final draft ready Name x
Slides designed Name x
Rehersal 1 Name x
Rehersal 2 Name x
Rehersal 3 Name x
Handouts
Booklet Name x
Notepad Name x
Pen Name x
Badge Name x
Sticker Name x
Lanyards Name x

Practice running through each talk at least once. This will draw attention to anything that needs changing from a content or timing perspective.

Briefing your staff/helpers

One of the biggest mistakes I made when organising an event, was not keeping everyone in the loop for areas they weren’t contributing to.

I took the approach that as long as I knew it was in hand, that would be enough. The speakers and volunteers knew enough to do their job.

But that meant only I had the complete picture, which caused some confusion about progress and responsibilities.

In some cases it also led to de-motivation, because they didn’t feel they were part of the whole experience.

Hold a kick off meeting to explain the objectives, the outline of the day and who will have responsibility for what. From there start with monthly meetings, with the meetings and catch-ups becoming more frequent as the day gets closer.

The big day

Registration

Set-up a welcome desk, using your branding so it is clear who you are. From here take their registration and then walk them to where the conference is being held.

Unless the room is directly next to your table, don’t just point them in the general direction of where to go. People will get lost.

Running the day

Once the talks start, the day should pretty much manage itself. Assuming there are no technical glitches, you can sit back and enjoy the day.

Make it social

Get your attendees talking about their day on Twitter or Facebook. You can do this by linking their use of a hashtag to a competition, or Q&A session at the end (or both). This also helps to get fellow attendees interacting with each other on social media.

Post-event

Marketing

The day itself is only the start.

Record the talks and take plenty of pictures during the day to share after the event, encouraging people to share.

HeartCon videos

Videos of the talks for people to watch and share

HeartCon download

The booklet from the day for anyone to download and share

Other ideas to maximise the impact of your day include:

  • Your website: Create a landing page with a summary of the day, and pictures and videos available to watch, download and share. Also make the slides available to download.
  • YouTube: Upload all the talks from the day for people to discover and share.
  • Slideshare: Put the slides on slideshare for people to discover and share.
  • Instagram and/or Flickr: Upload pictures of the talks, people enjoying the day and any social event you have after the conference finishes.
  • Twitter/Facebook: Thank everyone for coming and drive traffic to your videos and pictures from the day.
  • Email/newsletter to all customers: Thank those who came, give a summary of the day and drive traffic to your videos and pictures from the day.

Get post-event feedback from attendees and staff

Send a survey the day after the event to everyone who attended, thanking them for coming along and asking them to rate various aspects of the conference.

This way it is fresh in their memory and they are still engaged enough to make the effort to reply.

For example:

  • Which was their favourite talk?
  • How did they rate the venue?
  • Would they attend again?
  • How did they rate the refreshments?

You can use this information to gauge success, and make changes to your next event.

In summary

For an events like this to succeed the whole company needs to have bought into the idea, and view it as everyone’s responsibility to make it a success.

With hand out to design and buy, talks to write, slides to design, venues to book… planning a conference for your customers requires a lot of work, and you can’t do it all yourself.

Maintain oversight to keep it all consistent and on time, but delegate areas of responsibility to other team members to help spread the load.

Good luck if you are planning your own conference, and I hope it all goes well!

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