Content Marketing And Conferences: Why You've Been Doing It All Wrong

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (November 26, 2014)

We're right in the thick of conference and event season. From about September to November and again from January to May every industry, trade group, association, and niche interest will be celebrating themselves. But whether its a mega-conference, industry trade show, product launch, or cocktail party there is one thing that most organizers are doing wrong, or not at all—telling their story with content.

The research shows us that content continues to be king in marketing (more than 90% of marketers are creating content for their customers and prospects) and that video is, for lack of a better phrase, the crown prince of content's kingdom (76% of B2B and 74% of B2C marketers plan to use video as a marketing tactic in 2015). Why? Because video is effective (e.g. video on landing pages increases conversion by 86%).

Of course content can take other forms (e.g. live-tweeting from the conference, innovative infographics, live entertainment, etc.) but for my money, and yours, nothing has a higher RoI than compelling video-based content. How can we substantiate this? We pointed out earlier that just landing page video creates higher attendee conversion ratios, and, of course, content helps with discovery through SEO. But beyond this, content, and video especially, offers a substantial post-event subscription and in-event sponsorship opportunity.  At AlleyWire, our in-house content agency, AW/CS, has worked several conferences and observed the results first-hand.

So given all these benefits, why is it that most organized gatherings still rely on the antiquated twin pillars of event photos and static keynote video to tell their story? Perhaps it's a fear of the unknown. But as the desire for "virtual conferences," live streams, and post-event on-demand video rises, those failing to take action will fall behind.

Recognize that conferences are a commodity business, and photos and keynote videography are a minimum buy-in. That is, these are the basic things you need to do to sit down at the table and play the game. So what goes beyond the basics? It's simple: think of your conference as a newsroom, and imagine that you're telling the story of your conference to the viewers at home.

While conference content is an investment, not creating any is literally leaving money on the table.

Just as in the 24-hour news business, a successful conference/event content campaign is all about consistency and creativity. Doing just a single piece of video or solely throwing up last year's speakers on your home page will eviscerate excitement, not create it. Would you watch a broadcast focused ceaselessly on one event if it didn't offer a variety of angles, opinions, and visuals? Certainly not.

Knowing this, the way you approach and plan the content for your conference needs to be done with the same editorial eye that a news director and their staff bring to daily meetings. Part of this "newsroom thinking" entails developing a distinctive editorial voice. In the same way that Fox News or CNN have an angle to their content, so should your conference. Is it sophisticated, professorial, snarky, edgy, etc.?  If you don't establish "tone" through your content, it has to be discerned by the audience or sponsors and you've missed a critical opportunity to control your brand and message.

Now this may all sound like a monumental task, so having a content partner to help plan and execute your editorial calendar is key—freeing you up for the business of actually managing the conference. Remember, there's a big difference between engaging the Marriot's AV guy to set up a camera and bringing in a professional content team to tell a story.

So now, let's take a look at how you can go about establishing your conference newsroom.

It All Starts With a Tease 

In the news business we "tease" content to get folks to tune in later. When the anchor says "Coming up, a major politician found in female clothing. More at 11," that's a tease. It primes the audience to come back and find out what possible scandal has just unfolded. Now, unlike the news, which is likely to be beaten to the punch by the Twitter-verse, you have complete ownership over the timing and method of your content, giving you a lot of flexibility to engage your key audience.

And yet, one of the more frustrating things I find is that very few conferences make use of this "tease psychology" by creating pre-event content. Certainly, they promote their keynote speaker and tout lists of past attendees, but without meaningful, shareable content there's very little advance buzz. If you've ever thrown a conference, you know that without this buzz, it leads to last-minute pushes for sponsors and scrambling to fill paid attendee quotas.

This pre-event content is about telling a story that isn't just about the conference, but really gives potential attendees and sponsors a chance to know the faces and voices of the participants—something that's a bit sideways and encourages them to learn more. And it's not just sponsors and attendees who will watch. Members of the media and influencers will be viewing too, looking for a compelling reason to cover or discuss your event. Give them that reason, and let your video serve as some advance PR.

Internet Week New York (IWNY) did a brilliant job of this. Their conference's brand is all about bringing together the latest and greatest innovators under one roof. Most of these folks are tech startups, and so IWNY went out and videoed these entrepreneurs in their native milieu. Calling it "Tech Digs" they premiered a series of interesting, on-brand pieces that essentially presented like editorial news, i.e. they told a story without making it feel like you were being sold to or marketed at. As example, we went behind-the-scenes at Tumblr to find what made its workspace and founder so unique—IWNY, therefore, provided simultaneous entertainment and information. In the end, they created content people actually wanted to watch, got a ton of eyeballs on that content, and then converted those eyeballs to paying attendees and sponsors. And putting a cherry-on-top to their approach, it was not only creative but consistent, as they rolled out nearly a dozen "Tech Digs" pieces.

There's one other type of pre-conference content that's worth mentioning, and that's content that will be used intra-event. Months in advance of the actual event date, you need to work with conference leads, keynote speakers, sponsors, and other relevant players to create additional content for the open, close, and in-between moments. This isn't just posters and a welcome video. There's tons of downtime to fill: breakfasts, lunches, coffee breaks, etc. Aside from networking, your conference's main value proposition is usually education (to attendees) and brand recognition (to sponsors). By creating a series of videos from a key panelist or a sponsored mini-documentary on the history of your industry you can offer deeper value propositions to your key constituents and present those aforementioned "sponsored" opportunities to increase your revenue.

It Crescendos with the Lead Story 

Your conference is like the lead story at 11 o'clock. That tease promising something big and exciting now needs to deliver. Once again we often see a lot of folks miss an opportunity to meaningfully tell their story to current and future audiences. It would be as if that politician in women's clothing mentioned in the tease turned out to be Hillary Clinton—a real let down to the promised salaciousness.

So whether a single-day or multi-day event, you need a team of content generators on-scene gathering every scrap of video, every photo op, every moment on stage. At a minimum, you now have the raw footage to turn into something meaningful at a later date or to use as a post-mortem review of your own event through the camera's objective lens.

But for those with an advanced content mentality, there's a higher calling. Here we'll often see organizers creating dozens of pieces of custom content gleaned from conference activity. Sizzle reels being all the rage, it's become popular to work with your content partner to grab 4-8 hours of raw footage from around the conference each day.  The partner then edits it down to 2-3 minutes or less of fast-paced, engaging infotainment that provides a quick glance into the current year's "fun and knowledge" for the benefit of next year's potential attendees and sponsors. This includes testimonials, attendee reactions, cut-ins from stage presenters, etc. all set to music.

For multi-day conferences, these sizzle reels are sometimes put together overnight. And during breakfast, you watch a recap of the previous day's goings-on.

Here's a recent example  AW/CS compiled for GetGeeked, a tech conference bringing gadget-lovers together with the companies that make them.

Now we talked before about a static camera on a speaker being a real waste of time and money. Still, you do want to capture any relevant speaker's comments. But do it with some panache—excellent audio, a variety of camera angles, including cutaway shots of the audience, and stage lighting. Watching a guy or gal on stage for 40 minutes at the same angle, no matter how entertaining the speaker, creates a sense of monotony.

Look to stand-up comedy specials, Apple product launches, or even the Academy Awards as examples of how to do it right with a big enough budget. Coming back to budgetary Earth a bit, one might also look at some recent TED talks as an excellent example of how to take a one-person-show and turn it into a truly visual experience, marrying great content with great visual storytelling.

Another critical piece of advice: create a "special" piece of content that can become your centerpiece for future marketing. As an example, AW/CS once did a mini-documentary on a military veteran who returned from Iraq and couldn't find a job. Part of the documentary was following her around a career fair, where, ultimately, she was able to land employment. Now imagine, if we were working for that conference, and were able to tell the story of this fascinating young lady on their behalf—have future attendees and sponsors experience the conference through her eyes and see the real-world benefits of what the career fair had to offer. It's differentiated, hopefully compelling, and ultimately, bottom-line moving.

It Concludes with a Kicker & Follow Up 

When your conference concludes, your next step is to clearly promote and distribute the content to your meaningful channels. And while many of your sponsors, keynoters, and others may get some type of memento or take away from the conference, they're often left only with the ability to tell and not show their experience to their colleagues and customers.

By delivering a piece of content just for them you can, in turn, help make their audience your audience and expand your brand reach. And, as mentioned, if planned far enough in advance, custom content reels can be created for speakers, sponsors, and booth buyers to give them a unique deliverable of their personal experience at your event. Often times AW/CS will put a host on the reel to make it feel more like tailored native content rather than a marketing piece.

Now, you must continue to leverage all the excellent content created during the event. So, it behooves you to not sit pat until next quarter or next year. Instead, anchor that content as the base of your marketing pyramid and continue to develop additional and related content throughout the year. Bring in compelling experts from your industry, create a piece of video-ized thought leadership, etc. This helps keep your audience engaged in the gaps between your closing gala and the sign-in table 365 days later. It also positions your conference as the lynchpin of a larger and more meaningful conversation that is dynamic, not static, and helps ensure further credibility of your event.

Similarly, you'll find benefit with media members who may only seem interested in you around the time of your conference. With the right kind of year-round content, you became a go-to "expert," expanding your exposure.

In short, consistent and creative content helps keep you top of mind. But it can also deliver long-tail revenue. With all this content at hand you can monetize in myriad ways: through something as simple as posting on YouTube and letting TrueView ads run, or by getting a bit more complex and creating a subscription-based paywall for on-demand video of your speakers' words of wisdom. While conference content is an investment, not creating any is literally leaving money on the table.

So Let's Review

The key to throwing a successful conference or event has changed from just bringing the right people together in the same room. The democratization of publishing platforms and the desire for live-streams, post-event on-demand content, and virtual conferences means that organizers need to start thinking like news directors. They need to bring an editorial eye to their conference content plan, which must balance three key elements:

1) Consistency of content with creativity of the same

2) Entertainment with information

3) Planning with purpose

This can be achieved by working with the right content partner to develop pre- and intra-event content to draw in a wider and action-oriented audience. Then engaging that same partner to develop a seabed of actionable and leverageable content during the conference. And concluding with follow-up deliverables and a year-round continuation of that content. At each step in this content cycle, there is also the opportunity to monetize that content through additional sponsorship or paid-for publishing platforms.

Following these steps will make your conference increasingly relevant, more profitable, and in starker relief to all the other players vying for sponsor and attendee dollars.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair

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N.B. Regarding certain quotations used on this site: I recognize the modern controversy following some of the quoted figures. I further recognize the potentially harmful beliefs these figures held in their time. In quoting them, it is not my intention to glorify or demonize. Rather, I cite their discrete thoughts, which represent a moment of interesting thinking, as separate from their total biography.

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