Ok, so you are a startup founder and you are trying to find a good reason to go to this next big conference. Or you even found that reason, but are hesitating due to articles you have found about the “scammy” nature of some of those events. Or you just can’t afford to go without a clear understanding of how you can “recoup” your trip with a real business opportunity. In any case, I’m not here to advise on whether you should or shouldn’t do it. I’m here to tell how events can bring real clients to your startup.
We have used these tactics extensively for YouTeam and have managed to consistently get 1-3 clients from every major conference we attended. With an average LTV of around $10K and attendance costs of $1-3K you can do the math and figure out whether this has been a successful channel for us. 🙂
Playing the startup card
Before starting any preparation there is one condition you need to satisfy: you have to work for/on a startup. You will be using the startup positioning to your benefit across all your messaging and communication. We call it “playing the startup card”. If you don’t have a “startup card” to play, come up with one. Ideally, it should be a product or a service that has an offering similar to that of your core business.
The thing about (relevant) events is that the concentration of your target audience will be higher than anywhere else in the offline world. So another important condition is that you have to know what your target audience is and therefore which events will better suit you. For example, YouTeam is a marketplace for hiring software engineering contractors for medium or long-term projects and our target audience is founders and “tech decision-makers” in funded startups and tech-based SMEs. Logically we focused our efforts on technology conferences and events that attract this type of crowd, such as:
3 main things to know about events:
Large conferences have to be treated almost as a separate marketing channel. That’s why we have set three key rules that would define our actions throughout such events:
Events are an outbound marketing channel, NOT an inbound one. Therefore they should be approached accordingly. Your supply (i.e. your product or software development outsourcing services) in most cases will not be synchronized with the demand (i.e. the needs of your target audience), which means, as with any outbound channel, longer sales cycles, higher CAC and time to conversion. There are always lots of clients around you but most of them don’t need your solution at this very specific moment in time, which is especially true for events and conferences. This leads us to the second rule, which is…
Events are an outbound marketing channel, NOT an inboound one and therefore should be approached accordingly.Click to tweet
Events are about establishing a relationship, NOT about pushing for an immediate sale. Due to reasons described above closing the deal usually, happens when there is a synchronization between your offering and the burning need your client experiences. The chances for this to happen at a specific event are quite slim, which is why it makes sense to focus on setting up a relationship and nurturing it until the need in what you do arises. Usually, you need to go over a large number of connections for them to convert to clients in future. And that’s, basically, what the third rule is about.
Events are a platform for evangelizing, NOT a place for “chance” networking and attending keynotes (that you can usually view online anyway). Consider yourself a preacher. Your job is to spread the message of the new religion (your startup) around the world. There are few better places to do it than conferences. Attending keynotes and wandering around after parties should be on your agenda only after all other “preaching” work is done.
Structure of Lead Outreach
So, how is the process actually arranged? The answer is: with the help of direct email and user interviews. I can see many companies and individuals being proactive when preparing to the next big event they will be attending. They are actively trying to connect with the relevant audience and schedule some meetings. And that’s exactly what you should be doing.
This is how it usually looks like:
Obviously, multiplied by 500 or 1000 times.
The message would usually say something along the lines of: “Hey, we are …, we’re so amazing, let’s meet at this event and talk shop, because we know you need what we do, like, right now.” No wonder this gets lost in all the other information noise that surrounds us. And this is exactly where the process should and can be improved.
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Now is the time to play that “startup card”. Instead of inviting your prospect to a downright sales meeting use the most powerful tool you have – your product – and ask them to meet for a feedback session to provide their opinion on what you have been building. This is very simple, but it works! The root of this is that people are willing to share their expertise, especially if they worked long and hard to earn it. Sharing, as you know, is even more rewarding than receiving, especially when it comes to expert knowledge. With this in mind, your updated sales cycle should look roughly like this:
Let’s break it down:
1. Build your target audience profile.
I won’t spend too much time on this, as I am hoping you have figured what it is by now. If not, there are plenty of resources available on the internet on how to do it. Here’s a screenshot of one of our older templates.
2. Mine the prospects
Another straightforward part of the process. Your job is to find out who will be at the conference. If there is a networking app for the event definitely use that. If not, scour through social media and event platforms for attendees. Also, try to find out which companies will be attending and aim your outreach at people inside them that may be relevant to your cause.
Once located use email capturing tools like Find That Lead or Email Hunter. We also use Linkedin extensively, so you can check out Linkedin Sales Navigator for the purpose of reaching out via Linkedin as well. As for the workforce sometimes we do this internally, but mostly use local freelancers as well as platforms like Fiverr and Freelancer.com.
3. Send them a message, asking for feedback
A typical template that we would send out to someone would look like this:
“Hi [PERSON NAME]! Looking forward to [EVENT NAME] this week? Sorry to appear out of nowhere, I’ve noticed you among the attendees of the event on [WHERE DID YOU FIND THIS PERSON] and thought I would reach out. Your experience seems relevant to what we do at YouTeam, a startup that I co-founded.
We are developing a marketplace to find and engage with pre-vetted tech companies and engineers that work for them – think of it as Booking.com for outsourcing. I have a feeling your industry experience could help us solve a great deal of hiring and outsourcing issues for tech companies. We are currently conducting user interviews for the platform (www.youte.am) and I’d love to get you involved in one of them. Would you be interested in a 10-minute session at [EVENT NAME]?
Please let me know and thanks in advance!
4. Promise value in return
This is an interesting one. Usually, you provide some kind of free gift to an interviewee as a thank you for participation. This can be an Amazon or iTunes gift card, but why don’t use it to further incentivise the prospect to work with you? Every startup aims to create some value for its clients, so it should be easy to identify what you could give out to your future client for free to make her come back.
We at YouTeam share vouchers for “free development hours” – a specific amount of time that we will cover for any engineer from our platform to work on a client’s project.
We usually add this information to our message template in the very end, so that a lead has some extra incentive to try out what we do.
Persevere! Don’t just do one or two follow-ups. We do ten plus. Try different channels: if you engaged with the prospect over Linkedin, try their email – or other social media. Don’t turn yourself into a celebrity stalker though – cut the outreach if they request to do so. We automate our sales outreach using Hubspot CRM and Hubspot Sales.
6. Let them speak and collect their feedback
So, the meeting has been arranged and you are at an event. Organise for it – and make sure you get useful feedback as well as a new contact that you can nurture to become your customer. If you want to dive deeper in the process of conducting user interviews we have written a detailed guide on what and how you can test at conferences.
7. Make them feel they contributed
This can be achieved in many different ways. Try SPIN sales methodology or simply collect and actually implement the feedback you received (that usually the best way is 🙂 ). Note that usually feedback will be quite similar and it is very useful in itself while conducting such user interviews is common practice in product development. So make the most of your conversation but also make sure that your counterpart knows their expertise is valued and reckoned with.
8. Nurture them
The event is over! Now it’s time to let your prospects go and use marketing automation or personal touch in order to remind yourself from time to time. We use standard instruments like automated email outreach, remarketing banners and direct email in order to stay in touch and supply information about the development of our product. After the meeting, information like this becomes more relevant because of that contribution your new contact made. This coupled with a promise of free value will keep their interest going and they are likely to come back to you in the future when the need arises.
9. Enter “sales mode”, when the timing is right
When prospects express their clear need and become your leads – that’s the time to sell. Now you have all the ingredients in place: you have trust you’ve built through a meeting in the real world, a sense of contribution your lead brought in with their feedback and a financial incentive by way of a discount or free service you have provided as a thank you for conducting the interview. Now there is no chance they will turn you down if they can get what they need from you!
That said, this is still an outbound marketing channel. This means you have to do large volumes to get to an impactful result. Here’s how our numbers stack up:
We have contacted around 5000+ people within 6-7 months through direct email, of which only 5% agreed to have a feedback session. But that was fine since most of our outreach was automated. After conducting around 250 feedback sessions not only we have gained useful feedback on how users perceive our product but also acquired 10+ paying clients. In our case, this resulted in over $90K of revenue, let alone all the brand value development, exposure and fun we had.
I realise this won’t work at scale for everyone due to varying unit economics, scarce internal resources and many other factors. However, I believe, that having a direct face-to-face access to your target audience is a must for any startup and you should be investing a lot of your time and effort in this anyway. It is also possible to greatly improve conversion at all stages of the above pipeline – we have only scratched the surface of this approach. However, what’s most important is our freedom to focus on longer-term marketing initiatives that don’t necessarily provide immediate results (like content marketing), while still developing our contact and client base – and growing as a business.
Direct face-to-face access to your target audience is a must for any startup and you should be investing a lot of your time and effort in this.Click to tweet
So this is it! I hope this guide has been useful and insightful. Go out and test it and let us know how much you have managed to improve our results by. We’d love to hear back from you with feedback, ideas or criticism on email@example.com
UPD: After discussing this with other people I received a number of questions some of which should also be mentioned in this article. Many people asked whether a stand or a booth is necessary to our approach. We tend to play the startup card here too: and get cheaper access to bigger exposure at large conferences. Having a stand can definitely help you get slightly warmer prospects. You can also do the user interview session right on the spot, which is also useful. However, we found that if we can get access to attendees before the event and pre-arrange meetings, there is no huge need for a stand.
This leads to the question of team composition. The magic number as we found is 3. While person No.1 is solely focused on conducting the customer interviews, person No.2 does either the proactive outreach at an event or organisational work on communicating with those you prearranged to meet. Person number three will switch between helping No.1 and No.2 depending on the workload – there will always be a bottleneck on one or another side and assistance will be crucial in a dynamic environment of a large-scale event.