How can you get more new business value from the marketing conferences you and your agency team attend this year?
A while back, I read an article ranking the top ten conferences for digital marketing. It got me thinking about all of the conferences I’ve attended throughout the years. What made some of them stand out? Which ones were truly worth the time and expense? How many of them helped me establish game-changing connections in the industry?
Every agency revisits this annually: which conferences are we going to, who are we sending to each of them, which ones are most meaningful for us to attend, and how can we get more value from the costs of attending each show?
A great deal of value can be generated from attending marketing conferences simply in terms of education and inspiration as you gain exposure to new ideas. What I want to focus on here is the new business value of conferences and events. For agency leaders and those responsible for new business-generating activities, how can you extract the greatest value from the events you attend?
Here's how to tackle it strategically:
Step one: Identify the conferences and events you should attend
You can generate value for your agency by attending events that attract your prospective clients and networking with them. (Bonus points if you are able to establish thought leadership cred by planning ahead to give a presentation). Target events that offer opportunities to connect with the right people in the right roles, versus just the brands you'd like to work with.
Separately, explore events where you can learn to run your agency better and more profitably. True, you may find yourself surrounded by peers and competitors instead of prospects, but the potential value to your organization is still substantial. I have curated a list of some events you should have on your radar at the end of this post.
Step two: Manage sales expectations
This one is for your "eager beavers" on the new business development team. Yes, industry conferences are a great opportunity for your team to gain connections. You will be with people who "speak your language" (marketing), and who (mostly) will understand what you sell. However, it’s important to manage expectations. You probably won’t close any sales at the event. This may seem obvious, but I’ve witnessed many inexperienced and over-zealous salespeople who have tried the “conference close” and failed.
Most marketing executives go to conferences to learn, reconnect with colleagues, and maybe even have some fun. Few are looking to buy a product or service. With that in mind, it’s best to approach conferences as opportunities to create meaningful connections, not land deals. Conferences are more about lead generation than short-term sales goals.
Step three: Do your homework
When attending a conference, it's important to do your homework and have a plan. Read the conference agenda and select the sessions you'd like to attend based on your goals. Think about where your prospects are likely to be. If you are concerned about breakout sessions or workshops filling up, pre-register to secure your spot.
Most conferences will supply a list of attendees, even if it is only a partial list. Make a priority target list by using your qualification criteria as a filter (to the extent possible). After you have identified your priority targets, do some research on them and their companies. Take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the prospects you'd like to engage on social media. Often, a quick search will reveal articles, posts, or videos created by or about your prospects.
Determine the best way to approach your target list. Use your talking points to see if you can connect with them via email or social. Can you create an opportunity to meet in person at the conference? Pin down a time on the calendar if you can.
Is anyone already in your pipeline attending? Reach out via email and see if it would be possible to connect at the conference and get a time on the calendar.
TIP: Visit Hubspot’s blog to grab their conference checklists. Organized around common attendee goals, you can find checklists designed for brainstormers, job seekers, learners, content creators, salespeople, networkers, and competitive “spies.”
Step four: Participate strategically
Be an active participant at the event, not just an observer. In sessions, ask questions. Don’t be shy about questioning the speakers on points you’re especially interested in or would like clarification on. You’re paying the speakers a compliment by asking questions; it shows interest in what they have shared. Most speakers dread disengaged audiences. There’s nothing worse for a speaker than asking for questions and getting a silent room in response. This is also an opportunity to draw attention to yourself and generate further conversations with attendees and speakers after the session.
If the speakers are potential prospects or could be valuable connections, make a point of introducing yourself after the session. Hopefully, your participation will have sparked interest or at least opened the door for additional conversation. If you reserve some of your questions during the Q&A portion of the session, it will provide a good reason to re-engage with the speaker either after the session or with a follow-up email or phone call.
Step five: Network
At happy hours and other conference networking opportunities, get out of your comfort zone. Walk around and mingle. If you aren't an extrovert, mentally prepare yourself with some conversation starters to break the ice. Make notes of who you meet, what they do, and what you spoke about. You'll want to reference these in future communications.
The point of your conversations is not to pitch your agency. Remember, that's not what most people are there for. Your goal is to let people know what you do, and find out what they do. At this stage, its more about selling yourself as someone who people want to know, to create a future pathway. Your team should be ready to make connections, listen, and ask strategic questions, rather than "selling at" the people they meet.
Have your business cards and an adjustable, client-oriented introduction ready to go. Depending on who you are speaking with, your introduction should be framed in terms of why companies work with you and common problems you solve. Try saying things like, “we help companies who are experiencing (pain points)”… or "clients work with us because they are struggling with (pain points).”
If your agency has a point of differentiation, which it should, and you have demonstrable expertise in an industry or various industries, you should be able to fill in the blanks fairly easily. While all companies have unique challenges, there are usually common issues of pain shared by companies within the same industry.
Step six: Follow up
Remember those notes I mentioned that you should keep as you meet people? After the conference, reference those notes to generate personalized follow-ups with your new connections. If relevant, include links to information that may help solve their pain points or other resources they may find valuable.
In some cases, an email or message via social media might be appropriate. In others, you might want to send a handwritten note. If your handwriting is borderline illegible like mine — who even writes anymore; everything is typed — enlist the help of someone who "writes pretty." Because handwritten notes are increasingly rare, they gets attention and are worth sending from time to time. Most importantly, do your follow-up immediately after the conference while your new contacts still remember speaking with you.
Here are the steps and tips to create more new business value for your agency from marketing events:
- Identify the conferences and events you should attend
- Manage sales expectations
- Do your homework and have a plan
- Participate strategically and ask smart questions
- Create connections through conversations instead of an ill-timed sales pitch
- Follow up
If you make time to put a plan together before attending, you’ll find your next conference to be much more valuable from a new business standpoint, as well as more connective for those hard-to-reach prospects.
Now, which events should your agency attend this year?
Conferences and events for agency growth:
This list is not comprehensive, but it’s a good place for agency leaders to start:
The SoDA Academy (June 8-9, 2020, in New York)
This is on every must-attend list I’ve seen for agencies. SoDA's Agency Leadership track is geared towards leaders of shops with less than 50 FTEs. Other tracks include Account Management, Production & Project Management, Operations, and Sales & Marketing. Here’s how organizers describe it:
“The SoDA Academy is a two-day, invitation-only learning conference exclusively for practice leaders from the best digital agencies, production companies, design studios, integrated agencies and consultancies around the world. Based on a model of radical peer-collaboration, transparency and shared learning, The SoDA Academy is designed to dig deeply into the issues, challenges and opportunities you face as a leader, manager and practitioner.”
Mirren Live New York (June 2-3, 2020, in New York)
This event sold out early last year, and you can expect it will do the same in 2020. This year’s theme is “The Future of the Agency Business: Business Model + New Business Innovation,” and you probably need to be there. They expect to host attendees from over 400 agencies as they soak in over 30 sessions featuring more than 60 speakers during two “jam-packed” days. Registration opens in early February, so set a reminder if you need to.
TIP: Mirren’s CEO Summit is also worth a look. Limited to just 100 attendees, it’s “Future-Proofing Your Agency” themed event sold out in 2019. 2020 information is not available as of this writing.
Digital Agency Expo (September 17-19, 2020, in New York)
This event is billed as “The Premier Gathering of Digital Agency Owners,” and boasts “a carefully curated single track of agency genius,” created by agencies, for agencies. They describe it as:
“No theories…no “gurus”…just agencies teaching agencies what’s new, what’s hot, and what’s actually working NOW to grow and scale their agency or consultancy.”
4A’s Management Practitioners Forum (March 30-31, 2020, in Chicago)
The 4A’s describe this event as follows:
“4A’s Management Practitioners Forum (MPF) features mission-critical topics, speakers who share practical solutions, and a forum environment that encourages open discussion. MPF participants are entrepreneurs, agency operations management and principals…a smart, vested and action-oriented group of thinkers and doers who will provide guidance, share proven solutions and suggestions on topics that challenge agency leaders in their day–to–day operations.”
View their featured presenters and learn more here.
TIP: The 4A's also recently announced new workshops on Presentation Skills & Business Storytelling (February 28, 2020, in NYC), Account Management Boot Camp (February 27, 2020, in NYC), Launch for Leaders programs in Los Angeles and Chicago, an Executive Leadership program in NYC, and Strategy workshops in NYC. View the webpage version of the email announcement here.
Build a Better Agency Summit (May 18-20, 2020, in Chicago)
This is the inaugural Build a Better Agency Summit, organized by the Agency Management Institute (AMI). Drew McLellan and AMI have been helping agency owners grow their businesses since 1995. It is designed for leaders of small to mid-sized agencies (with anywhere from a handful of employees to a couple hundred of them). The 200 agency leaders who attend this event will explore how to build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and profitable.
TIP: AMI is also offering a Money Matters workshop on December 3-4, 2020, in Orlando, for agency owners and their financial team members.
Other events to consider:
Not a conference, but Tim William’s Ignition Seminar should definitely be on your radar. The next one is called “Take the Leap to a Dramatically More Effective Revenue Model,” and takes place April 24, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is designed to transform and dramatically improve your agency’s pricing and compensation approaches. This timely seminar is for agency professionals who are involved with pricing or who deal with the question, “How much will this cost?”
Ad Age’s Small Agency Conference & Awards last happened July 30-31, 2019, in New Orleans. There do not appear to be plans for a 2020 event as of this writing, but you can sign up for Ad Age's event notifications here.
Hubspot’s Inbound will take place August 18-21, 2020, in Boston. The agenda for 2020 is not yet published, but the 2019 agenda included 44 sessions in the sales track. Featuring over 250 speakers, parties, and interactive sessions, Inbound consistently features interesting speakers and useful workshops to further your agency business.
Content Marketing World takes place October 13-16, 2020, in Cleveland. It has an Agency Strategies track that might be of interest.
If your agency does search marketing, take a look at the Agency Operations & Management Training track of SMX EAST, which takes place November 11-12, 2020, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in NYC.
Learn how The Duval Partnership helped a digital agency develop new business:
You may also want to read:
- Building Agency New Business With Thought Leadership
- A Holistic Approach to Growing Agency New Business
This post was updated for accuracy and relevance on February 13, 2020.
Image credit: Ⓒ Adobe Stock/Fell good studio