Ever wondered how to plan an event? Or maybe you’ve had to but were clueless.
It’s no simple task: you have to come up with a theme and content, think of the logistics and promote it!
Luckily for you I’m a master event planner and I’ve organized world-class events since 2011 (that have always sold out).
I started organizing conferences when I was a student and created the school’s ecommerce student association which I’ll use as an example throughout this post. I’m also the organizer of MTL+ECOMMERCE, the world’s biggest monthly ecommerce meetup (+3000 members). Each conference features two guest speakers that discuss ecommerce related topics such as payment gateways, content curation, online marketing, UX/UI, SEO, etc. Speakers to date: Hubspot, Shopify, Frank & Oak, LightSpeed Retail, Google, Beyond The Rack, Ice.com, as well as Vin Clancy, Alexandre Vanier or Raphael Paulin-Daigle whom I’ve interviewed on my blog.
The starting story of this post: When I started my Master’s degree in Ecommerce at HEC in September 2014, I soon realized there were no Ecommerce student association at HEC. It struck me since the school had 2 Ecommerce programs (MSc. & DESS): I had to do something about that! When I created the new Comité Commerce Électronique – CCE, my team & I had to find a way to increase its visibility in Montreal Ecommerce ecosystem.
After a brainstorming session, it became apparent we had to organize a first-class event. It was a long and hard process but we managed to organize an awesome event thanks to the event growth hack techniques and tools I describe in this monster post of + 4500 words.
Let’s get to it:
1. How to Come up with a Great Event Theme & Concept
It goes without saying that you must find a great topic if you want to plan an event. This angle should allow you to easily promote to your target audience. No memorable event exists without charismatic speakers who rock the stage. Attendees mostly buy tickets to listen to the exclusive speakers you secured talk about their accomplishments & sexy companies. In this in-depth post coming out next week, I’ll provide a technique to guess people’s’ email addresses
The first part of planning a successful event is defining its purpose: your event theme.
Choose Your Theme
You must indeed come up with an interesting topic that also allows you to target your audience easily. In my case, with Ecommerce, I was by essence targeting business & tech enthusiasts. Applying that to student curriculums at HEC Montréal meant targeting students in Marketing & I.T. majors. To create more buzz around it and also for my own interest, I added an entrepreneurship twist to it by naming it “Start a company & grow in Ecommerce”. I had my target audience.
What I describe above is an ideal case, often times you’ll have to adapt your theme to your speakers expertise. For MTL+ECOMMERCE that takes place every month, we don’t always have a theme but we sure try as it is easier to promote & more professional!
Once the theme for the event decided, it’s time to think about its content. Since the format of the event I take as an example included a conference, I had to find amazing speakers from cool & sexy companies. I can’t underline enough how important this part is! The majority of your attendees will buy tickets and (really) come for some specific speaker they want to hear & the topics they’re experts in.
Secure Your Speakers
For CCE’s conference, here were our speakers and how we found & approached them. Charles Brun, was quite easy to approach for me since we co-organize MTL+ECOMMERCE on a monthly basis. The next two speakers, Yannick Bédard then VP – Digital Strategy at SID LEE (a well-known Montreal agency) and Mathieu O’Connor who is a unique entrepreneur, were approached by other members of the team thanks to their network (also key to organizing a great event). I had met our fourth speaker Ethan Song, CEO of the rising startup Frank & Oak for lunch during the previous fall but didn’t grab his contact info. But luckily, I have my own special techniques to find anyone’s email address!
Once you have your dream speakers’ email addresses, you will then have to contact them and make sure to convince them to come talk at your event. Some convincing points I’ve used to attract awesome speakers at no cost:
- Tell them what other great speakers you’ve had before them
- Tell them a speaking spot “just opened up”
- Tell them how many people come every time
- Tell them about your great sponsors
- They will get visibility in all your promotion campaigns
- Pointing out the fact that your crowd would make perfect customers for their product/service
- They will get a backlink from your website
- They will get to give back to the community
You will also have to make sure the people you want to have as speakers are available on the date you plan to have your event. Once they confirm, you’ll have to define a topic for their presentations that goes with you event theme & concept which is going to be a lot of back-and-forth.
Also, unless you have seen your “candidates speakers” speak before, I suggest you pre-screen them via Skype and ask them for their presentation in advance. In an ideal world, you want to have speakers of different styles and backgrounds as this will make your conference more dynamic and fun to attend. Also, make sure they come in advance on the day of the event and you have all details arranged prior to the event.
If you followed those guidelines, you should now have a better idea of how to come up with an event theme & concept as well as how to approach speakers, event if you don’t know them yet! This ideation part done and your event theme & concept defined, you should then think about the logistics of your soon-to-be success event to promote it the right away.
Here is a central part of how to plan an event and where you’ll see if you are in a make or break situation.
First off, the format (conference, networking or both) of your event will determine much of the rest and you should begin with that. Based on that you’ll be able to choose the venue best fitted to your event to fit your hopefully many attendees.
Then, a well-thought budget will help you relax and determine what your error or success margin is. It will also help you decide what venue, food or alcohol you can afford.
Attendees often expect more that great speakers & venue. Food & booze is a must-have if you have a networking component in your event as it will foster it. Here everything is a question of proportion: too little or too much of food or alcohol and your event will lose in quality.
Setting what I call an “event vibe” is also something to take into consideration. Having a music playlist and eventually, some decoration for your venue will dramatically enhance the perceived quality of your event.
An essential part of the logistical success of an event is volunteers (including a photographer). They’ll have you back during the event are by far your most valuable resource when throwing an event.
Format & Venue
First off, you should choose the format of your event in order to find the perfect venue. In the case of CCE’s event, and since it was going to be our big winter event, we decided to have an hybrid conference & networking format. Being a student event, we decided to do it at HEC: the conference part would happen in the school’s 300-seats amphitheater and the networking part in the spacious cafeteria. For MTL+ECOMMERCE which we organize on a monthly basis, we usually have companies host our events which allows us to have a new venue (at a low cost) nearly each time!
Food & Booze
If you plan to have a networking part in your event, you should also think about providing food & booze for your attendees. It really encourages people to stay longer, especially if your event takes place in the evening: they can have a bite, relax & socialize better with a drink.
Be careful though, you don’t want to stuff your attendees with a four-courses meal which will make them sleepy and kill the mood. I often recommend offering bite-food like bread & cheese, veggies or petits fours. You could either make or buy those yourself or hire a caterer for the occasion.
For drinks, you don’t want to get your attendees drunk and thus should aim for slightly “tipsy”. Have people have too much to drink and you will decrease the quality of the networking part: you don’t want to turn your professional event into a frat party…
I recommend sticking to wine & beer besides non-alcoholic beverages like sodas (don’t forget people doing #SoberFebruary or who don’t drink!). Be aware that you might have to ask for an alcohol permit if you plan on serving booze. In order to set the perfect atmosphere, don’t forget details like napkin/utensils/plates/tablecloth color and texture (ps: aim for plastic for utensils/plates rather than cardboard).
Talking about your event vibe, I always make sure to have a good sound system with an adequate playlist (like this one). It helps people wait until the event begins in the beginning and really sets a mood for the final networking part.
Surround Yourself with Volunteers
You won’t be able to plan events by yourself. These don’t happen without a reliable and knowledgeable team of volunteers to have your back. Make sure every one of them has a defined role and empower them to take initiative when needed. You can imagine that you’ll most certainly be stressed, rushed and swamped with last-minute tasks during the event.
One the most important part of how to plan an event and its logistics is your event budget. No secrets there, build an Excel sheet that you separated in revenue & costs and test different scenarios. Make the math with food, alcohol, venue rental price arrangements and the rest.
This will allow you to determine your tickets price point accordingly and anticipate how much money you can make or afford to lose (price was 10$ for this event with the financial help of our sponsors). Here is an exemple the excel sheet I used for CCE HEC’s conference. Duplicate & use it as you please!
You should now have a better idea of what’s important to consider when it comes to event logistics. Each event is unique and has its own challenges, make sure you make the most of it!
You’re here to learn how to plan an event. As far as I’m concerned, planning an event involved bringing people to it!
Your concept & logistics defined, you know how many people you need to fill your room & cover your costs.
First, you need an online place where you can sell your tickets and a way to collect the money you are going to make. Eventbrite or Meetup provide excellent and easy to use platforms but you can also have your own ecommerce website if you want to save money in the long run (and quite some time in the short term!).
— Contact MTL (@GreaterMTL) 31 mars 2015
Since we’re talking about social events here, social media often play a significant role in promoting them.
Your should have a social media promotion strategy that includes all your advertising channels. If you’re organized enough, all you posts until & after the event can even be planned in advance! This is where you can ask your partners to help you out.
Facebook is my go-to platform when promoting an event thanks to the tools it offers like business pages, events pages, groups and ads! On Facebook you can easily aim in direction of your target audience.
Twitter is also a place of choice when promoting an event in the sense that it reduces the distance you might feel between you and influencers.
If the event you’re planning is of professional nature, then LinkedIn will also be a good platform when spreading the word. Professionals go there to find information on what their network does or where they go!
Often forgotten about, emails are also a channel of choice when promoting an event. In the related blog post coming out at the end of March, I’ll tech you how you can leverage email to promote events thanks to a growth hack of mine that uses Facebook and a mail merge tool!
If you read my previous blogposts, you should now have your concept defined & the logistics around it covered. Add a good design and those recipes to the sauce and you’re ready to start promoting it with the following ideas on how to growth hack an event! Now, let’s get to it.
Before we jump into this and since it is often misunderstood or misused, here is a definition of growth hacking by Sean Ellis who coined the term in 2010:
“A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.”
Network & Partners
First off, if you’re completely new to the network you’re aiming to reach. Start there! Partnering up with the right people is key to planning a successful event. Before starting to promote, I recommend building your social capital by helping to promote related gigs. The people you help out when they need it most will be happy to support you when you’ll need to promote your event.
I also recommend having some official partners, whether they’re paying sponsors looking for visibility through your event, or community sponsors who support you and who you support. It costs nothing and it’s a win-win situation. Both will help you promote your event on their properties and it’ll serve you in the end.
Event platforms & lists
If you don’t want to waste time with a physical ticket stand or face the uncertainty of selling all your tickets at the entrance of your event, you’ll need a platform to sell you tickets online. Also, you should create a Paypal/Stripe/Bank account to gather your payments with the following platforms.
If you have your own website, you could directly sell tickets on it (like I set up for MTL+ECOMMERCE) either with an Ecommerce plugin like WooCommerce for WordPress or integrate it with an event ticket platform. If you want the easy solution here it goes:
- Eventbrite offers you a transactional landing page for your event and also allows you to sell tickets from your website;
- Meetup allows you to create a community around a specific topic. Both integrate with Paypal and have internal traffic which means some people will discover your event through those websites or their newsletters!
In our case, we had a Facebook page and a Twitter account to promote the event on social media which we’ll dive into right now.
Your social media promotion strategy should be both integrated between your channels as well as planned. As recommended in my toolbox, I use Hootsuite to plan social media posts. With a well thought-out calendar, we were able to plan almost every social media post we needed until the event started. As obvious as it may sound, you’ll want to craft great compelling and attractive copy for your promotion.
Also, make sure to use an image with each post as well as the right #hashtags to reach more people (especially on twitter). This allowed our event to land in the top Canadian tweets with a total of around 116’000 impressions. As a good practice, I’d recommend doing a post about each speaker, the venue where you’ll be hosting the event, you sponsors as well as news and press articles around them. You should also distil content and info about your event.
Facebook has become a very complete tool in terms of event promotion with business pages, events pages (with a tickets link) and groups.
Your Facebook page is where you want to link to your event and have your planned posts published. It should be branded with the design and concept you created around your event. If you have some extra money to promote your event, you should look into doing some advertising on Facebook. From my experience, the Facebook ads type that works the best for event promotion are boosted posts linking to your payment and ticket page (I usually have an average CPC around 0,20-0,30 CAD$). If you’re going this road, you should also make sure your landing page is well-built and converts.
You will also want to create a Facebook event page (using your Facebook page account) which will feature the aforementioned design with a good description that explains the concept of the event as well as its schedule. You will also be able to put the link to your payment & ticketing platform. Once created, you will have to invite your close friends (ask them to click “going”) in order to have a “living” event: who would attend an empty event planned by an unknown people?
You can then invite more people from your network (those who might be interested since you’ll have an invitation limit) and ask your team & friends to do the same. Your event page will also be a privileged way to reach your “prospects” (those who put “going” or “interested”) as they will receive a Facebook notification each time you post in the event.
–> Here is what my event page looked like for the event I’m taking as an example.
Now you have your event set up and notifications every 5 seconds about new people “interested”, it’s time to post your event link in relevant Facebook groups. You’ll find them asking yourself “what Facebook groups would you expect your target audience to be part of?” In my case they were entrepreneurship, IT, marketing and Ecommerce groups. For this part it’s important to underline that not all Facebook groups are born equal:
- Public groups will be joinable in just a click and have no post restrictions.
- Private groups will require an approval (don’t see why you wouldn’t get one!). Some private groups will also have a post approval setting in which only group administrators will be able to approve your posts.
In either case you want to have a different copy and message for every group as your target audience might be in several ones. You also obviously don’t want to look too spammy. A good way to do this is to present your event as passion of yours and an opportunity for your audience. As for event pages, group members will receive a Facebook notification when your post is either directly posted or approved by and administrator. Bonus: you can now plan posts in Facebook groups with Hootsuite!
I’m not done yet! There are some additional Facebook channels you could use. We talked about partners before and they’ll be very helpful when it comes to promotion on Facebook. When asking them to market your event, make sure to provide them with your event page link, a copy template and some design material in order to control the way they promote your event. You can also reach out to other relevant Facebook pages you hadn’t thought of by Facebook message and often they’ll help you promote it.
That’s how our event was promoted by pretty much every HEC student association as well as several startups & Ecommerce organizations in Montreal, helping a lot with credibility for this new organization.
— Contact MTL (@GreaterMTL) 31 mars 2015
If you use Hootsuite like mentioned before, you can post the same content than on your Facebook page. A good practise on twitter is to repost the same content several times. As people (and bots) search per #hashtags or have built twitter lists around them, using the right one will have a significant impact on your likes and retweets.
A great advantage to using twitter in your promotion is the ability it gives you to tag people, partners or companies in your posts and make them engage with it. Don’t hesitate to ask people you know to retweet as it will allow you to reach their network and beyond.
Since we are talking about professional events here, LinkedIn is a place of choice for your promotion. You will indeed reach people who are in a “pro context” and looking for some news about their connections and industry. While your personal account is a great place to start, you might want to create a LinkedIn page for your entity and even a group (which is a lot like a Facebook group). You could also do a LinkedIn post for which your connections will receive a notification.
Your personal account is also a good asset to use in your promotion. You can follow the same rules than those used for Facebook pages or events!
It is often proven that email is still the channel with the best overall ROI, why not use it?
If you already have a newsletter you should really use it to promote your event. If not, it’s not too late to create one using MailChimp (also recommended in my toolbox). You can use it for your promotion if you have untapped email lists (here is how to build an email list) or you could build your own list with people buying tickets through Paypal (you can export their emails and add them to your mailing list since you will now have a “business relationship”).
If you don’t have your own newsletter, ask to be featured in your partner’s ones! Like social media posts, be sure to provide them with the right content. Some events directories (like Startup digest or Montreal 5à7 in Montréal) allow you to have your event features in their newsletters or websites.
Now here follows an email event growth hack idea I’ve had that might not be legal in your country. It is an idea I’ve had for a long time but Canada anti-spam law has prevented me from doing it since 2014.
Did you know you can export your Facebook events “going” & “maybe” guest list?
By clicking this “Export Guest List” button, you’ll get a .CSV file of your guests names & status. Depending on where you’ve done your promotion you could guess your Facebook attendees email address. For instance if you targeted specific universities, companies or organizations group, you could guess their email address structure with the tools I mentioned earlier and send them a personalized invitation. I know you’ll tell me you will get a lot of wrong emails since people don’t always put their real names etc…
I think it is well worth the try. You could for instance try with email@example.com or even firstname.lastname@example.org for few people to guess the address structure of the organization you target with Rapportive.
In order to do this, you’ll have to play a bit in Excel to:
- Transform your .CSV file in a “classic” excel one by column using the “text to column” feature with “coma” as a parameter
- Then do it again for the “name” column with “space” as a parameter. This should give you a first name & last name in two separate columns
- Depending on the email structure you’ve found, you can now create a third “@domain.com” column and drag it down.
- In a 4th column and depending on the beginning of the email structure you’ve found you can now concatenate you first three columns to create potential email addresses. It’ll look something like that =CONCATENATE(B1,B2,B3)
- You can now clean your list for weird characters using you good judgment and knowledge of the people on your list.
You could even generate several potential emails for Facebook guests you don’t know using this logic.
The next step is to do a mail merge. You’ll have to choose which address you want to send those emails from. It should be from a real email address and better, from someone known by your target audience: an influencer. You could have different “from” emails for each potential university, organization or company you target. Something very powerful about mail merge is that you can personalize each email you send with columns of your excel document. Talk about ROI!
Without going into too much detail into how to send the email, you could use Outlook + Word + Excel or Gmail + Google Spreadsheet + YetAnotherMailMerge (chrome extension).
Like in every email campaign, your subject & sender name will be really important for your open rate. You should also write great copy for the body of your email as well as a well-thought Call-to-action to your payment & ticket platform.
You’re now all set to think of, organize & promote your dream event, now just do it!
D-day and After
In addition to your last-minute event planning & logistics, you want to make sure your event really gets the buzz it deserves on social media. I always have a volunteer dedicated to handling social media during the day of the event. You can even have an interactive #hashtag wall that displays every tweet or Instagram picture with that #.
The WallRus is my go-to solution when it comes to in-event social media wall. Like discussed earlier, make sure to continuously encourage people to post on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn with your event #hashtag in your opening speech and in-between speakers. This way, people outside the event will also be able to follow it and say to themselves “Damn, should have gone! Next time…”.
In addition to that, remember the photographer I recommended to have earlier? The great pictures that will be taken during the event should also eventually be posted on your social media pages & event page. People like to been seen as “socially active” and thrive for social recognition, so give them some!
Create a specific Facebook album photo for your event and tag those you know in your pictures: it will land on their personal profiles and you’ll get a ton of “prospects” likes. What’s more, it could be a great way to re-engage with your attendees through your newly created newsletter!
In this guide, I give you some tips about how to plan an event and event growth hacks I came up with while organizing events and most of which I use on a regular basis. Those have seldom failed me so far with events I organized for AIESEC, HEC’s Entrepreneurial comitee, Comité Commerce Électronique used as an example here or even MTL+ECOMMERCE.
Sure there were some mistakes, obstacles, improvements all along the way but I firmly believe anyone is able to organize a great event if he or she follow the process I describe in this blog post. Who knows, you might even come up with event growth hacking techniques your own soon! Go fill your empty room, it’s time to shine!
Keep posted about the in-depth blog posts I will release throughout the month by subscribing to my email list!