Transcript of How to Create a Successful Business Event
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John Jantsch: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch, and my guest today is Rich Brooks. He is the founder of flyte new media, and creator of The Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference. Something we’re going to talk about today.
John Jantsch: So, Rich, thanks for joining us.
Rich Brooks: Hey, it’s a great pleasure to be on your show, John.
John Jantsch: So, you’ve been doing this conference for a few years, and I guess the first question I have is, what’s with the name?
Rich Brooks: That’s a good question. So The Agents of Change came out of a previous conference I put on for a few years called Social Media FTW, with a few friends. But after three years, the band broke up. I was thinking about doing another conference, when I happened to run into Chris Brogan, who said, “Oh, I’d love to do something sometime.” So I’m like, “I know I have to do this conference.”
Rich Brooks: I couldn’t use the same name, and I wanted to bring in search and mobile marketing to the mix, because I feel like social is just one aspect of what we should be doing. I started going through the thesaurus, which is always a tough word for me to say, and I had this idea of, you know, an accelerant. Social media’s an accelerant. So I went on there, looked it up, but I’m like, “Accelerant World, Accelerant Expo, doesn’t roll off the tongue.”
Rich Brooks: That lead me to catalyst, which is a nice hard K sound. So I’m like, “Catalyst …” Still wasn’t working for me. I looked it up one more time, and I saw Agents of Change. If you saw my office right now, John, you’d know I’m a huge superhero nerd, and I could already envision the three Agents of Change for search, social and mobile marketing, and that is where the name came from.
John Jantsch: So, in preparation for this, because you do the conference and have your business in the city of Portland.
Rich Brooks: Yeah. Portland, Maine.
John Jantsch: Yeah, I was going to go there, because I did a little search, I said, “Fun facts about Portland, Maine.” You know how the little search snippet, you know, position zero that Google puts up there? It was five fun facts about Portland, Oregon. So even Google doesn’t know necessarily where Portland, Maine is. So I’m guessing that The Agents of Change Conference is kind of a big deal in Portland, Maine.
Rich Brooks: I like to think it is. I mean, we like to think ourselves as one of the coolest conferences in New England. It is more of a regional thing, although, we do get people from all around the country, and sometimes all around the world to visit. But I would say the majority of people who attend in person are from New England, and then we also have a virtual pass with a live stream. We actually get people literally from all over the world, including, you know, places like Australia. I’m like, “I guess they’re getting up in the middle of the night to watch.”
John Jantsch: So, we’re going to talk about conferences and putting them on, because you’ve got a little experience doing so. But, is that the only conference that you currently put on?
Rich Brooks: Yeah, I mean, we do other workshops, and I just recently started a new brand called Fast Forward Maine, where we’re putting on business workshops around the state. But the big tent pull event is definitely The Agents of Change Conference.
John Jantsch: So, let’s talk specifically about that one. Who should go to your conference?
Rich Brooks: Every human being. No, we really focus on digital marketing. So, especially in Maine, that tends to be people who have social media manager or marketer, or marketer in their title. But of course a lot of small businesses around here, so we get a lot of people who might be owners or entrepreneurs. We get a lot of agency owners who show up too, I think because they listen to my podcast for new ideas. So, in the last few years we’ve gotten a lot more agency owners and consultants.
John Jantsch: So, let’s flip then to events in general. You know, first off, I’m just going to admit, events are hard.
Rich Brooks: You said it. They are hard.
John Jantsch: So, is that something that a lot of businesses should be thinking about getting into?
Rich Brooks: I wouldn’t say a lot of businesses. But people ask me, “Why do you put on a conference? It seems like a lot of work.” I’m like, “It is. That’s the beauty of it.” I mean, how hard it is to put up another Facebook post or an Instagram photo? Anybody can do it, and everybody is doing it. But to put on an event, and I’m not saying that you need to make it as big or as small as our conference, we average between 350-400 people. But I’m saying that it immediately elevates everything that we’re doing in the state to another level.
Rich Brooks: So when people come to The Agents of Change Conference, suddenly Rich Brooks and flyte new media get a lot more visibility. Flyte new media is our digital agency. So because of that, then we get into a lot more conversations around the state, and even outside the state, about, “Oh, we should be talking to Flight about our website, or SEO, or social media.”
Rich Brooks: So if you’re struggling with maybe some of the digital marketing stuff and outreach, especially if you’re new, I strongly recommend taking a look at events, because a lot of your competition just don’t have the stomach to put it on.
John Jantsch: Yes. It sounds, as I heard you describe that, it’s a little bit of the advice where people say, “You should have a book, because it sort of elevates your status as an influencer.” In some ways that’s what you’re saying about the conference.
Rich Brooks: Absolutely. I’ve written a book, and I’ve gotten work directly out of it, so I know that works, and I’ve gotten work directly out of The Agents of Change Conference. Just as a side note, I had, for years, a friend of mine’s business, and I kept on saying, “You really need a new website. Your website was built in 1724, it’s time for an upgrade.” This person wouldn’t spend $5,000 on it. They ended up winning a ticket to the conference, of all things, came to the conference, ended up talking to my creative director, and ended up signing a deal for $21,000 work of design.
Rich Brooks: I’m like, “I couldn’t convince you after five years, and you come and you meet him for 15 minutes.” So again, it elevates you, it puts you at another level, and I think that’s great for business owners who are looking for a competitive edge.
John Jantsch: So, in web terms, 1724 was five years ago, right?
Rich Brooks: Exactly.
John Jantsch: So, what was the huge thing that you learned when you first started doing this?
Rich Brooks: So, what I tell anybody just starting off is, first of all, it’s totally okay to start small. You can start with 12 people in a room, if they’re the right 12 people. That’s one aspect. There’s no size too small, it’s about putting yourself in front of the right audience, or building the right audience.
Rich Brooks: But the other thing that I found over time as people started asking me questions, is there’s three main categories that any successful event should focus on, which I now call the three S’s. It’s speakers, sponsors, and seats, as in putting butts in them. I can speak to any one of them, but it’s about having the right people on stage, and that could just be you. It’s about bringing in some sponsors, especially when you get to a certain size, to help kind of bring down the cost, and then it’s also about making sure that you’ve got a way to make sure that you fill the seats. Because you could have the best speakers and a lot of sponsors, but your event’s going to fail if nobody shows up.
John Jantsch: So let’s talk about balancing those folks a little bit, because sometimes what a sponsor wants out of … you know, what’s a win for them, may not be a win for attendees. I mean, is that a constant struggle?
Rich Brooks: That is a struggle, and I’ve definitely made the mistake overpromising something for a sponsor, and then realizing that maybe I’ve not really treated my attendee they should have been treated. This is something I’ve learned the hard way. Of course, now with GRP, this becomes an even bigger issue. But, you know, one of the things that we say with our sponsors now is we can’t share emails anymore. That’s just not something we do, we’ll share the contact information.
Rich Brooks: But I have had some pushback in years past. With the sponsors, I think it’s just about getting up front with them and having intelligent conversations, “What do you want to get out of this event?” I’ve had people come to me and they’re like, “I just want to be associated with your brand,” other people are like, “I’m just looking for my own personal brand awareness.” Then I’ve got people who are like, “I need 15 leads out of this.”
Rich Brooks: Based on what they’re looking for, then I can help them and create something customized, so that even if I’m not giving them the name, address and blood type of every single attendee, I’m giving them the opportunity for them to succeed. Maybe that means that I’m doing something special from stage for them, or maybe it means that we’re creating some special videos that kind of pump them up, or talking about them on the podcast. But it’s about finding those wins for them, where you’re not selling your soul or the information of your attendees.
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John Jantsch: I mean, what’s been your ability to stand out? I mean, “Yay, another digital marketing conference,” right? I mean, have you found that the secret to success is maybe something bigger that … I mean, a bigger reason for doing it, maybe than, “Yay, another digital marketing conference.”
Rich Brooks: Well, I will say that when I first started, there weren’t a lot of digital marketing conferences, or there were certainly less. I’m definitely seeing that there’s some fatigue out there when it comes to digital marketing, because it seems like every week there’s five events in Portland, Maine, about digital marketing.
Rich Brooks: So, that is a challenge, it’s one that I kind of avoided to a certain degree by getting in early. But I would say that if you are looking to put on an event, my recommendation would be to niche down, and maybe to … you know, one of the challenges we have with Agents of Change is it’s not industry-specific. So if I were starting off, if I’m one of your listeners, I would be thinking about, “How can I go into just one industry and really succeed there? Whether it’s my own industry, or I just choose one of my client groups, and really focus more narrowly on that niche.”
Rich Brooks: Then you’re going to be able to attract, I think, more interested attendees who feel like the content’s been tailored for them, as well as people willing to pay more, because it’s like, “Oh my goodness, there’s a juggling conference in town, you don’t get that every day.” So, you know, they might be more willing to sign up.
John Jantsch: So, 350-400 is still a very manageable number. But as a conference grows, and as yours grew, is there anything that you’ve done to sort of intentionally keep that intimacy? I mean, you go to a lot of conferences, like I do as well, and, you know, those first year, you know, just 100 of us, you know, was really cool, and then it grew to 10,000 people, and it wasn’t the same thing anymore.
John Jantsch: Have you done anything to keep yours intentionally intimate?
Rich Brooks: Yeah, well, I think part of it is, living in Maine, you know, we have one area code. There’s only so many people around us, so that partially keeps it down anyways. But we have it in a space that we absolutely love at the University of Southern Maine, and although it can sit 500 people in the auditorium, you can really only comfortably have 400 people in the atrium during lunch or something like that. So that’s basically been our line in the sand.
Rich Brooks: The virtual pass allows us to grow a little bit bigger, but you still have that intimate feel at the event. I have no desire to be the next Inbound or Social Media Marketing World, two excellent conferences by the way, but just, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking at this event as a way of raising the profile of what we’re doing here at Flight, and what I’m doing, so this is the right size for us.
Rich Brooks: There’s definitely other conferences that are going to grow, and they may have a reason to grow, but that’s just never been the focus of what we’re doing. I think everybody, as they put on their own events, needs to decide, “Why am I doing this?” Like we talked about, events are a lot of work, and there’s at least three sleepless nights I have where, “Oh my God, my speakers aren’t going to show up, or I’m going to lose money, or nobody’s going to show up for my conference.” That’s stressful.
Rich Brooks: So it’s only that it makes sense at the end, from both an enjoyment standpoint, and a business standpoint, that I keep moving forward. For me, I’ve been told by a lot of people that this is a right-sized conference. Now that means different things to different people, but for us it’s that, you know, yes, we have a Green Room, but the speakers tend to hang out with all the regular people, and they end up talking. It’s just a very intimate, friendly group. That’s the conference I always wanted to go to, so I ended up creating it myself.
John Jantsch: So you talked about the sort of addition benefits to hosting this conference. Does that, in some ways, you know, the business that comes out of it, the sort of raising your profile. Does that in some way suggest that you don’t necessarily need to be a profitable conference?
Rich Brooks: Profitable is a very important part of it, but it depends on how you’re looking at profitability. I’ll be very candid, when we look at, or transparent perhaps, at the end of each year we’re like, “Were we profitable?” Depending on the way you run the numbers, we might have made $10,000 or lost $10,000. We always make money, the question is, do we make money after we charge ourselves at our regular rate, or discounted rate? Or do we just consider that to be marketing work, and we’re not going to charge for our time?
Rich Brooks: So that’s where it’s a little bit blurry. But we usually end up somewhere around break-even, after we’ve paid for our own time. Then, like I said, we almost always get one to two jobs a year out of that, and then there’s also just … some people when they come into our doors, and I’ll be like, “So how did you hear about us?” They’ll be like, “Oh, I went to The Agents of Change a couple years ago, or I’ve gone for the last three years.” So that’s how I know the long-term game is really paying off.
Rich Brooks: For some businesses, the event has to be profitable, because that is a profit center. But for us, if we can get our marketing to pay for ourselves, I’ll sleep well.
John Jantsch: But I think that’s a big consideration, as you’re looking at, you know, the big picture of it. So, you mentioned this that people come back, or go year after year. I mean, how do you, this is a two-part question, how do you get people to attend? Then, how do you get them to come back?
Rich Brooks: So, getting people to attend is actually the trickier part, because of course, if they don’t know you, you’re trying to convince them to part with $50, $100, $500, you know, depending on the price of your conference. So, you know, we’ve had some discussions about, “Well, is it about bringing in the biggest speakers?” Maybe it’s just where I am, but speakers don’t generate sales.
Rich Brooks: We’ve had a few people, because they’ve come from Maine, like John Lee Dumas and Chris Brogan. They’re from Maine, so they pull in a certain audience. But most of the other speakers that we bring in, no matter how awesome or cool or smart they are, they just don’t bring in ticket sales, per se. So, I’m always looking myself more about the content and the delivery, than it is specifically the name. Although, I like to try and mix it up a little bit.
Rich Brooks: So, it’s about finding what people are looking for, and then trying to build a community. So, these days, I think of Agents of Change as a 365 brand, that we’re around every single day of the year, we’re putting on the podcast that kind of helps raise awareness and keep awareness up and running. We’re sending out a weekly newsletter, above and beyond the conference itself.
Rich Brooks: In terms of getting people to come back, we’ll offer incentives both the day of the conference, as well as early bird discounts that first get sent out to what we call alumni as part of it. We’re trying to develop a Facebook Group, which I have to admit is kind of my achilles heel, I’m just not great about Facebook Groups. But that’s something that we’re trying to develop as well.
John Jantsch: That’s like running a conference year round.
Rich Brooks: Exactly.
John Jantsch: So, let’s talk about sponsorships. Even if it’s not for a physical event, you know, a webinar, or, you know, a piece of content. What, in your experience, makes a great sponsorship?
Rich Brooks: I think it’s a combination of somebody who has a product or service that is really in alignment with what you’re trying to accomplish. So, you know, without naming specific names, we’ve had a bank who has been a great sponsor for us for years, and not only do they give us money, which is certainly, obviously, a critical part of it, but they’re in the community and they’re looking to build their business portfolio. So that makes this a really good place for them to be.
Rich Brooks: From a local aspect, that’s really helpful. Like I said, they’ve been a great partner, and they’ve really been part of everything that we’re doing. Then, because we’re a digital marketing conference, we also have email service providers, and CRM companies that are interested in getting in front of our audience too, especially ones that target small businesses.
Rich Brooks: So, I like to bring in those kind of companies, A, because I want people to know about the tools and services they offer, but B, also because it’s good for them to get in front of this type of audience too. My goal is to educate people like me, who might not be spending all their time on digital marketing. So, it’s, I mean, I hate to say it’s about the money, but it is about the money. You know, otherwise I’d have to charge a lot more for ticket sales. But then it’s also about are their goals in alignment with ours?
Rich Brooks: I’ve definitely pushed off a few sponsors over the years, because I just didn’t get the right vibe from them. I felt like they were just there to scape as many names as possible, and they weren’t really going to participate. There have been people who did speaker-sponsor deals in years past, and they barely gave a presentation, and that was the end of that relationship right there.
Rich Brooks: If you are going to do speaker-sponsor deals, which are pretty common, you need to expect that the person’s going to come in and act as if they were a speaker anyways, that they’re going to deliver high quality content, and not some sort of veiled sales pitch.
John Jantsch: I love the idea that you have a, especially because you’ve identified as sort of a regional conference, that you have a regional bank. Because going back to your point about, you know, additional business, well, you know, I’m guessing that there are a lot of bank customers that would be good customers of your agency.
Rich Brooks: Absolutely, and vice versa. I mean, the bottom line is, this bank has been a great supporter of ours for years, and anything I can do to help them out, also just makes me feel good. They believed in me, and I believe in them, and I think they’re a great bank. So I’m trying to do everything I can to also getting people, especially from Southern Maine, where they don’t have as big a footprint, you know, to make sure that people from Southern Maine, business owners, are thinking about them when it comes time for lines of credit, or whatever it may be.
Rich Brooks: The other thing I’ll just say about sponsorships, in terms of if listeners are thinking about this, barters are also excellent sponsors. So, we do a lot of media share, but we also do, at the end of the event, we have a networking event, and we get free beer, free pizza, and free spirits from three local companies for a couple of tickets. So they come in, they give us all this free product, things that would cost us thousands of dollars, are costing me $150. You can get a lot of mileage out of those barters, and really start developing some long-term relationships with some local companies.
Rich Brooks: For me, local is a big part of who we are and what we do. So that, again, just kind of fits in with your question of what’s important in a sponsor.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think that starts to shape maybe a picture for somebody that this doesn’t have to be, you know, a giant conference. I mean, you can do that same sort of model in something that’s going to maybe have 50 people come this year, and still have that same sort of small community feel.
Rich Brooks: Yeah. We put on a version of Agents of Change that was specific to the wedding industry, I did it with a friend of mine, and we found local vendors that were really trying to target those wedding professionals, and we started to develop some really nice relationships with them as well.
Rich Brooks: I love putting on live events, it just feels good, and I love bringing people together, especially because, in my job, I’m behind a computer so much of the time. When you can really, in your local community, start develop these relationships, where you start introducing people, you become much more valuable as well. So again, people are always going to be thinking about you when they need to make that next business decision.
John Jantsch: So, we’re getting close to the end of our time. Let’s start with a real negative. Bring the thing down to a crashing halt here. So, if you’re going to tell somebody, “Here’s the one thing that will doom your conference. Don’t do this, or don’t forget this.” What would it be?
Rich Brooks: One thing that would doom the conference, I would say not enough planning, or trying to go too big, too soon. Because I definitely have talked to people who have asked me to come in at the last minute to help them with their conferences, and it’s three months out, and they’re putting on something on Vegas, and they don’t have a list yet. I’m like, “That’s just not how you’re going to do it.”
Rich Brooks: There are people probably who might have been able to salvage that, but I would say, you know, start small, like you were talking about. If you start with 50 or 100 people, or even 12 people, that’s not a bad starting place. Start to understand what people are looking for. Ultimately, you need to put on an event that are going to track those three audiences of speakers, sponsors and seats. So, you really need to be paying attention to what people want, and sometimes the best way to do that is to start small.
John Jantsch: So, dependent upon when you’re listening to this show, the next Agents of Change event is going to be in the fall of 2019. You want to tell people about that, and I think you even said you might have a special offer for listeners.
Rich Brooks: I do. If people are interested in the whole digital marketing thing, you can find more information out at theagentsofchange.com. We have a physical conference on Friday, September, 28th, we also have pre-conference workshops on the 19th, and a VIP ticket as well. Right now, depending on when you hear this, either tickets will be early bird, or at least heavily discounted.
Rich Brooks: But for Duct Tape listeners, if you enter in DUCTTAPE, all one word, when you go to buy your ticket, whatever the ticket is, whether it’s a physical ticket or the virtual pass, because we have a live feed, people can tune in, you’re going to save $25 off the ticket price. Right now, they’re already pretty low, so it’s a very good deal.
Rich Brooks: Oh, so just go to theagentsofchange.com, and you’ll find all the information there.
John Jantsch: Then we’ll have it, of course, in the show notes, like we always do.
John Jantsch: So, Rich, it was great catching up with you again. Sounds like a great event, and I appreciate you spending the time. Hopefully we’ll run into you out there on the road soon.
Rich Brooks: Sounds good, John. Thank you.