Planning a B2B event? Set up expectations and define a clear purpose

B2B events can help channel partners build relationships, but only if they define a clear purpose, market to customers they know, carefully plan the agenda and inspire action.

Tech events are happening 24/7 globally, and without the right game plan, they can quickly fall short of everyone's expectations.

IT research firm IDC predicts spending on business-to-business (B2B) IT event marketing will overtake advertising this year. That may sound insane to some, and yet for those close to the sales cycle, it's a reality that's easy to explain because the successful businesses bank on building great relationships. It's what drives our industry forward -- especially in the IT and telecom markets -- and establishing and nurturing these relationships at a B2B event can quickly set one competitor apart from another.

Planning events is hard. So, before you go host one, ten, a hundred or maybe even a thousand or more people and organizations locally, nationally or internationally, here are a handful of tips from a team that hosts hundreds of events locally, regionally and globally each year.

Four tips to avoid disaster

As a general rule of thumb, a B2B event worth doing must be part of your strategic marketing plan, and not a last minute idea. Consider it one touch point among the many, including social media, email and web content, that you make with your prospects and customers to influence their decisions.

As a general rule of thumb, a B2B event worth doing must be part of your strategic marketing plan, and not a last minute idea.
Jennifer AnayaVP of marketing, Ingram Micro

Ideally, before the event takes place, you'll have been using these channels to communicate and connect with potential event attendees, informing and educating them on topics you intend to explore in greater detail at your event. This messaging should peak and pay off at your event. In other words, it's a holistic process, and the event should be toward the end, not the beginning, of your nurture process.

That said, when developing and ultimately hosting an event, there are four things you must do to ensure your event doesn't fall short of expectations and end up in the red.

Make it purposeful

Your event needs a clear purpose built around why your prospective attendees need to break away from their busy schedules to be there. For example, if you're marketing to channel partners, their reason for attending could be to meet new people who can broaden their solution portfolios, to learn about new trends to consider for business expansion or to find out what they can get from your company that they won't find anywhere else.

However, if you're marketing to business customers, their objective could be to establish a better rapport with non-IT buyers who are influencing decisions on the solutions you're offering. Your B2B event can improve communication with targeted buyers by giving them ways to make their decisions easier, or by informing them of the pitfalls to avoid with IT decisions, for example.

Perhaps they walk away from your event with a workbook on a solution that addresses a business need they have, as well as better strategies for approaching the decision-making process they have to undertake. Or they take away specific information that helps traditional IT customers work through their internal sales process.

Market to people you know

I am often asked, "We held this event, and only half of the people I expected to show up actually showed. What did we do wrong?" Usually, my first question is, "Did you target customers you know or buy a list of prospects who don't know you?" The inevitable response is, "Well, I don't know. I think it was a mix of both." And therein lies the problem.

Event attendees are people who typically know and trust the organization that is hosting the event. That gives them a certain comfort level and confidence that their time is going to be spent wisely. Unless they are guests of another attendee, people who don't know your company are not likely to come, so don't spin your wheels trying to get them to your event. Along these same lines, blindly marketing your event to a purchased list from the local chamber of commerce is a recipe for event disaster, as well as money wasted.

Plan your agenda first, then decide on décor

Good agendas make great events. When programming your B2B event, don't create an agenda that is self-interested. "We're doing wonderful things that you should be really excited about" is a message that will fail to engage prospective attendees. Know your audience and what is important to them and build your agenda around that.

Once a solid agenda is set, you can get creative with the other aspects of the event, such as the décor, audio-visual, signage and invites.

In practice, there isn't one right way to build a strong agenda. In general, you'll need answers to the following three questions to get there:

  • What do you want attendees to know?
  • How do you want them to learn or take away that knowledge?
  • What do you want them to act on?

Taking these things into consideration, create appropriate content and activities, and plan a schedule that enables attendees to have plenty of quality time with the right people on your team.

One note of caution: Be sure to build in plenty of breaks and downtime, especially if you're doing a multiple-day event. If your schedule is too jam-packed, attendees will get exhausted, and many will tune out or skip parts of your programming.

More tips for hosting successful B2B events

  • Set expectations early by telling attendees what they should learn, take away and act on after the event. Doing this at the beginning -- that is, during the welcoming remarks -- is always a good idea.
  • One person should own event management, with others reporting to that individual. Committee-style management isn't usually as effective, and often results in delayed decisions and runaway budgets.
  • Your salespeople should be involved early in agenda creation. That way, they will feel more comfortable in recruiting attendees. The sales team needs to decide on who gets invited and be responsible for confirming attendance. It's also a good idea for them to provide updates as the B2B event approaches, to make recommendations on how to get the most out of the event and to arrange introductions to people of interest. Without some heavy lifting from sales, you won't get the right people to attend the event.
  • Consider pre- and post-event marketing, such as surveys before and touch-base meetings afterward, to find out what attendees got out of the event. At the very least, this will help you host an even better event next time. At best, it gets a dialogue started about next steps.
  • Make it interesting and make it fun. The best kind of outcome is not only to have great business conversations that are mutually beneficial, but to get to know each other outside of the business world. Doing business is so much better when you can pick up the phone and have a friendly conversation.

Similarly, build in some extracurricular activities. Often, the most substantive engagement and Q&A comes during a lunch, meet and greet, or car ride to an off-site excursion. In my experience, that's when people let down their guard and the real business questions are asked. Accordingly, it's best to set up information sessions early in your program so attendees have the information they need to have those business conversations during these informal opportunities.

Inspire action

Through education and ideas discussed at the event, you're setting up a desired outcome. Usually, it's driving additional sales through follow-up conversations, since business is rarely conducted during a B2B event. However, if attendees are expecting -- or better yet, looking forward to -- a follow-up call or visit to discuss an action item, or if they know they need to follow up with you, you're inspiring action that goes beyond the hours or days of the event itself.

It may help to think of your event as a play with three acts. In the first act, you set up expectations with pre-event marketing, highlighting the reasons why people should get focused on the upcoming event. The second act is the event itself, when those reasons -- a business problem and how to solve it with a new solution, for example -- are fully explained. The third act is all about the outcome. After the event, everything the attendees learned in the first and second acts ultimately drives them to your goal or reason for having the event in the first place. 

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