Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Trouble with Conferences... Confessions of an EdTech Salesman

As an introvert I was nodding and smiling at observations on almost every page of Susan Caine book "Quiet, the Power of Introverts." A section that I found myself laughing out loud at was her experience when she attended a Tony Robbins seminar. It was so funny!

What is not so funny is when this introvert has had to pretend to be an exhibitionist at events like this. The Conference season is on us with BETT just finished and LT2014 currently taking place, and lots of events coming up in the US.

Check the conference hashtag and you will see exhibitors sending out pre and post conference promotional material in the hope that they will get the most out of the huge sum that they will have spent on the event.

As I am *STILL* iterating my way to product-market fit I am fortunate that I do not have any "corporate line" to tow, so thought I would take this opportunity to detail the problems I have with exhibiting at conferences. I have a feeling that my experiences may not be uncommon, and a few sales people may find themselves nodding and smiling as they read this... If this is the case, I hope the post helps in some way.

If not, could I suggest that you re-skill and go learn about "Inbound Marketing" techniques, do you know that there is even a "Community Manager Appreciation Day" which was this week... ever heard of "Salesperson Appreciation Day?" 

The Boss and his Blessed KPIs

Sales people at SME's have you ever notice how your MD or Sales Director gets especially stressed and grumpy in the run up to the conference season?

Delegates, ever seen sales people at their exhibition stand with a look of desperation on their face? A look that can only be transformed into a sunny disposition when you make eye contact with them and/or head in their direction?

I wonder if delegates have ever stopped to think how much it costs to exhibit at these events? Our intrepid sales people will be all too aware of the costs of exhibiting... as it's quite possible that  their employer will remind them regularly;

"Do you know how much this conference you wanted to go to is costing me?" 

For the benefit of educators and delegates consider this;

Service                                  Approx Cost
Exhibition space                     £4,000-30,000
Stand                                     £2,000-10,000
Printing Promo Material         £1,000
Freebies (Pens, food etc)      £5,000
Celebs/Guest Speaker          £500-2,000
Staff wages                            £500-1,000
Travel                                    £200-500

Total                                     £13,200-49,500

For Tweets Sake!
And the delegates thought the cost for them attending was expensive! You can perhaps get a sense of why the staff at the stand adopt a "professionally persistent" style that exhibitors are renowned for; or appreciate why the conference Twitter stream is flooded with messages that are effectively saying

"Look at us, don't forget we're here... come see us at stand XYZ" 

In some cases these types of messages equate to 20-30% of Tweets on the events hashtag.

It is not just the cost of the conference that we need to consider, we also need to factor in the fact the company will be looking to make a return on investment from the event. A company may be looking at a x4-5 return on investment from any marketing activity and conferences - £52,800-198,000 Ouch! That's a lot of sales required! That'll be why you get all those post conference follow up calls, especially helpful for those with short term memory loss;

"Remember you went to the conference? Remember we spoke? Remember our widget? Remember I said I'd follow up with you in a couple of weeks time? Well here I am!" Lol 

But what happens if, for whatever reason, things are not going so well and the stand isn't getting much traffic? 

The sales person has a choice;

1) Face an irate boss, or

2) Irritate the delegates

One has the power to fire the sales person; the other the power to shoot your brand down - talk about being stuck between your customers and your boss!

Happy Meal Syndrome - Can I get the Freebie to go?

So what do we do? How do we compensate for this conflict to find a balance between our customers and employer?
  • Do we put a great case study to categorically demonstrate value to educators? Sometimes. 
  • Invite existing customers & educators to our stand to rave about the service? Not often. 
  • Find some other compelling way to demonstrate our value proposition? 
Why bother with that when you can entice delegate to visit your stand with some freebies?

Food, prize draws, pens, stress balls and lots of other goodies. What a winning strategy! It's a real win-win situation when you have delegates come to your stand and say 

"Save the spiel, I'm only here for you to stamp my passport for the prize draw"

Exhibitors a Necessary Evil... Or Unrequited Love
Outwith an analogy of a David Attenborugh documentry when a lion stalks its prey while licking its lips, perhaps the best way to describe exhibitor-delegate relations is unrequited love.

The exhibitor with his "come to my stall" eyes; the delegate with her "I'm here to see my colleague... Not you" rebuff.

But what happens if someone has mercy and visits your stand? Your all smooth and chatty... Until you have a queue forming - then its wham, bang "I'll call you... here take my business card" Talk about knowing how to make a delegate feel special!

Well those are my reasons for getting as sweaty as a teenager on his first date at the thought of manning a stand at a conference... And that's before we even get onto my introverted temperament! However... 

I have had one "dream date" of a conference experience.

Fairy Tale Ending... The Inbound Effect 
When I was just starting to explore inbound marketing, I attended a conference after writing on of my early reports and there was a queue at the stand all day long. What changed? Did I have some kind of new product - EdTech snake oil that promised radical Ed Reform? Nope.

People were eager to see me to say hello as a result of Tweeting one another, or had questions about the report.

Conferences - Tech Stories Style
So what are my take aways from conferences? The next time I feel the need to be an exhibitionist, my plan is to;

Get attention - Produce content that is relevant to the audience prior to the conference

Prize Draw - The only prizes on offer will be my attempts to win "the most uninspiring stand" award. We'll have a table, sign and whatever we need for a demo

Freebies - Will be in the form of a case study with a compelling "Reason to buy" 

Guest Speakers - The biggest celeb I can think of... an educator who is also a customer 

If that isn't sufficient to draw in enough of a crowd so that we are not fussing about KPIs/ROI etc then I will have learned one of 2 lessons...

1) We have not yet found product-market fit, and/or 

2) We are not ready to roll out and need to go back to the drawing board to work on our NPS.

Will either of these factors be a reason to ridicule any sales people who I might be fortunate enough who want to work with me about their ability? Or to threaten to fire them for poor performance?  

The way I view it, I reckon I'd owe them an apology for bringing them on board when we were not quite ready... But then again I'm an ex-salesman who knows that there is no such thing as "Salesperson Appreciation Day." 

Devils Advocate?
My intuition tells me that this may be a bit of a risque post, as it may "Ruffle some feathers." If this is the case, it was not the intention, and please allow me point out that;

1) All I have done is to detail my experiences - I would be surprised if it was not typical of a lot of SME suppliers.

2) If any conference organisers are upset is it because this has hit a nerve? Inbound Marketing is disrupting the industry - Baby Got Leads

3) If suppliers are upset is it because your product has not achieved "product-market fit" and you need gimmicks to sell your product? A ridiculous and/or insulting comment? I am consulting with some critical friends at the moment and they have indicated that they would only recommend 20-30% of the EdTech that they buy to their colleagues.

I've worked on projects like this myself and, for the sake of customers and staff, hope not to repeat this mistake.Too many sales teams get a hard time for not being able to sell, when the issue is with the product, or organisational culture, not their ability.

And if you remain upset after reading this post? Apologies you feel this way, it was not my intention to be controversial... I have merely been highlighting my experiences within startups and SME's.

As it is conference season, last year I downloaded a lot of data from Twitter with the intention of analysing it, but have not done so yet. What I have done is put a list of people who have contributed to various EdChats and Edu Conferences, please find this list here - EdChat and Conference Participants.

I hope this helps you to hook up with some new people and adds to your PLN.

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