The best events are always memorable.
Unfortunately, the worst ones are too.
This applies to all types of events, not only to consumer events such as festivals; It is also true for business events and conferences.
Whether you are organizing a conference or participating as a sponsor, you have the opportunity to be memorable. And, the best way to do this is through event branding. You can build on a current campaign, create a theme, or provide guests with an interactive activity, but it all comes down to creating an experience.
That experience lies in the details. Some of these details are based on precise event planning and event management. The other details (the fun ones) come down to creativity. (This happens to be my favorite part of any marketing strategy!)
Remember, events, by definition, are meant to be something out of the ordinary. If your sponsor booth looks like it was picked off of a conference assembly line, it’s time to shake out the cobwebs and find a fresh perspective for your event marketing strategy.
In this chapter, we will look at how to increase event engagement with the use of branding, themes, and experiences.
The topics that will be covered include the following:
- The importance of branding your event
- Corporate event inspiration
- Event ideas for sponsors
- From conference to corporate party
- Theme ideas
- Top business conferences
All of these sections are designed to spark your creativity and, despite the endless hours of work, get you excited about your event.
That excitement is essential.
Take it from Cathy McPhillips, Vice-President of Marketing for the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). The organization hosts Content Marketing World (CMWorld), one of my favorite events, which hosts 4,000 marketers from over 50 countries. To say she knows a thing or two about event management is an understatement!
In Cathy’s words, “It has to start with our team. If our team isn’t passionate and interested in our event, then we can’t expect anyone else to be.”
Let’s take a look at why branding is important to your event’s success.
Brands, by nature, exist to be memorable. Think of some of the biggest brands you know. Whatever comes to mind – Coke, Apple, Nike, McDonald’s – they all have a certain feel or emotion to them. That feeling is designed to be a positive one. Marketers want you to associate that positive emotion with their brand.
The same thing applies to events. Whether marketing, accounting, or human resources, every industry has plenty of conferences. Event experiences and branding set you apart. What makes people want to attend your conference? How can you ensure they’ll keep coming back year after year?
Your event’s experience may tie into your company branding as a whole. I can think of no better example of this than CMWorld, the conference managed by Cathy and a team of 29 at CMI.
The company’s logo just so happens to be orange. So the team took orange and ran with it. And, I mean, they REALLY ran with it. The result was, without a doubt, memorable and creates an experience!
Don’t believe me? The food, all of it is. Orange. Yes. Orange food at every break. Orange Jell-O, orange donuts, orange Pop Tarts, everything. See? Memorable!!
And here’s the proof from my Content Marketing World experience in 2017. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Those really are orange deviled eggs!
Many of the speakers and attendees also get into the spirit wearing orange. Here you can see speaker Ann Handley (one of my favorite marketing influencers) and attendees rocking out the bright hue:
Image source: Content Marketing World
And, of course, I have to include the bright orange carpet in the middle of the sponsor hall, courtesy of yours truly (well, my coworkers!) at G2 Crowd.
Image Source: NewsCred
The orange element makes the event and CMI memorable. It also creates hype: I heard all about the orange accents from both my coworkers and fellow attendees on my flight to Cleveland, Ohio, for the event.
You know your corporate event has reached the big time when Forbes writes an article on what to wear to the conference. (Not to mention, the 2017 conference entertainment included a concert with Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys!)
Salesforce’s branding is all about being a trailblazer:
Image source: Salesforce
Salesforce brings that adventurous spirit to its online and offline marketing tactics (I am determined to get one of those sweatshirts!) as well as its events.
From the moment I arrived at the event in 2017, there was no doubt as to the theme:
Salesforce brings the adventurous theme into every element of the conference. Between the numerous trees in the exhibition hall and a rock climbing wall, it feels far from the normal business event!
Even if you don’t have the budget for a rock wall, you can still find unique elements that bring the fun into event marketing. If an employee is allowed to go to one conference a year, you want yours to be the one they pick!
Even if you don’t have the budget (or space!) for your own climbing wall, or the catering budget to make your food orange, there are still things you can do to make your conference memorable without blowing the bank.
I attended MarketingProfs’ annual conference, the B2B Marketing Forum, in 2017 and I loved it.
But what’s not to love? The website describes the event as, “More than just a quirky (not-so-little) conference. It’s the place where leaders, innovators, and people who make things happen to gather to learn about the latest in B2B marketing and share the secrets to success. (Plus belly laughs, creative networking, shenanigans, and marketers-off-the-clock antics.)”
Notice that first word there, “quirky”? This is what I love about the conference. Yes, it’s a business conference. Yes, it’s corporate. Yes, people are there to learn how to make money for their businesses, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring! MarketingProfs proves, without a doubt, that “business doesn’t equal boring.” By doing so, it enables marketers to do the same thing in their strategy.
How does MarketingProfs bring about its quirky side? Well, for starters, there’s the conference opening. In 2017, the conference opened with Ann Handley, one of the most well-known and respected leaders in writing and content marketing, tap dancing. And it was so fun! Every person in that room was grinning from ear-to-ear.
In 2016, the conference opened with a choir, and in 2015, Ann opened the conference by playing the accordion.
Image Source: Marketing Insider Group
And guess what? Not only do those experiences increase repeat attendance, they also get people talking. Stories about your event increase word-of-mouth awareness through social media and face-to-face interactions.
Aside from the unique kick-offs, the conference includes a karaoke night, opening night drinks where you can be comfy and cozy in your pajamas, and 60s themed networking drinks in the sponsor hall. Plus, when I attended, the event finished with a balloon drop. (Duh. Because what corporate conference doesn’t finish with balloons falling from the ceiling?)
MarketingProfs even managed to step out of the box and into the stall - the bathroom stall, with marketing themed signs on the mirrors and doors.
While looking at these “quirky” examples, it’s important to note that the balloons and bathroom signs never took away from the conference content. Rather, they supported it.
The same thing applies to Content Marketing World - the speakers at both events provide corporate attendees with actionable insights.
However, as we look at these fun elements, don’t forget your event needs to have the business insights to back up the ticket price. Managers approve conferences that will help their employees meet business goals.
Even if you aren’t hosting the event, you can still add an experiential element.
Creating an experience is vital for sponsors. According to Harvard Business Review, customers who have great experiences spend 140 percent more than those who have poor experiences. It literally pays to give your customers a positive interaction.
A positive interaction ties into being memorable. Look for ways to break the status quo, and offer something that will get attendees talking.
For example, have you ever thought of having a marching band as part of your event sponsorship?
On-demand marketer Katie Martell has!
Another of my favorite marketers, Katie knows how to get people talking in the best possible way. She’s been named one of the most interesting people in B2B marketing, a “marketing expert to follow” by CIO Magazine, and a top marketing writer on LinkedIn 3X.
Here, Katie gives us the backstory on how marketing conference attendees found themselves surrounded by a marching band. She also shares her advice on how to maximize event sponsorship dollars by encouraging attendees to take action:
“One of the proudest moments of my career was the launch of a startup I co-founded, which happened to be in the very crowded marketing technology space of 7,000 vendors. Being a new entrant to the market, we needed to create both brand awareness and likability. There was just one problem: We were short on cash. Not only were we a startup, but we were marketing to marketers. (A very discerning audience - they've seen it all.)
So, I did what any former-band-geek-turned-CMO would do. I hired a small local marching band to parade around the first morning of the conference, before the keynote kickoff. My co-founder was proudly leading the charge, carrying a poster saying "make some noise!" with a CTA (call-to-action) to come to the booth. I decked the musicians out in company branded t-shirts and even had a custom drumhead printed for the bass drum. Watch the video: I promise it will be the first marching band you see on an escalator.
The whole shebang cost me less than $1,000 and created an enormous amount of social buzz and traffic to our booth. It also remains a memorable moment that people still bring up even now, years after I've left the organization. (I'm pretty sure it's also now written into the contract for sponsors of this event..."thou shalt not bring a marching band!")
P.S.: No hard feelings from the event organizers, I'm actually speaking at their event later this year! But, I did make sure to do this at a conference where I was well familiar with the vibe of the event and the attendees; I knew the organizers well enough to beg forgiveness if they'd been upset. I wouldn't recommend doing this at just any conference, especially not one where you may incur fines.
My other advice is to tie stunts like this into a larger campaign. A stunt alone does not a successful conference make. We held a number of concurrent initiatives, including a speaking session with a customer and a ridiculously successful bag-insert campaign.
What, you ask, is a bag-insert campaign?
Many sponsorship packages for conferences come with an option to put something in the attendee bags that are given out at registration. Unfortunately, many brands squander this opportunity by putting product collateral in. Trust me, those are the first things to be dumped in the trash. For this event, we printed 4 by 6 cards with a pin attached saying "I'm customer-centric!" – part of our brand messaging.
The promise was: If you wear this pin, you could win cash! It also promoted our session time and location. My co-founder and I walked around the conference with $5 bills, handing them out to anyone we saw wearing the pins. (We also scanned their badges to make sure we could add them to our database.) This itself created buzz, as other attendees wondered how on earth to get a free $5.
The result? My company went home with a ton of net-new names, brand awareness, and some cheap advertising worn directly on the shirts of most attendees."
As Katie mentioned, it’s important to note that the marching band was at the B2B Marketing Forum, which fosters experiences like this.
If you are sponsoring an event, the host company will give you rules and guidelines. Some conferences don’t allow promotional activities of any kind beyond that of the 6 foot by 6 foot square in your contract. This is something worth checking out before you sign any contracts and decide where to spend your precious budget dollars.
Even within your designated booth area, there are plenty of ways to stick out from the crowd. For example, anyone feel like tossing some spaghetti?
TrackMaven, a company that allows marketers to track performance across channels, maximized its sponsor booth giving CMW guests the ability to do just that. It invited marketers to throw spaghetti and literally “see what sticks,” giving a live (and edible!) analogy of what it means to practice marketing without measuring the results.
It’s no big surprise that throwing spaghetti was something attendees shared on social media (just like Katie’s marching band!) increasing TrackMaven’s exposure beyond the convention center’s walls.
Take a moment and consider what comes to mind when you hear the phrase “corporate conference.” Now, change one word. Instead of "conference," what do you visualize when you hear "corporate party?"
Depending on your industry, those two phrases can have dramatically different connotations!
Many conferences include evening parties to conclude a day of learning; they are a valuable opportunity for both the event organizer and sponsors to interact with delegates.
Plus, they give attendees an experience that ensures they want to return year after year because they're fun!
As we look at these examples, you’ll notice some that are as far from “boring business” as you can imagine. And, believe me when I say the networking connections you make while rocking out your 80’s gear will be built on a strong foundation, creating a relationship that lasts longer than the usual conference acquaintances.
Corporate parties also provide the opportunity to do a bit of local sightseeing, so your guests can see more than the convention center or hotel ballroom.
I know I appreciated getting to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Content Marketing World! I promise I was not the only one who couldn’t resist this photo opportunity, which conveniently includes the CMW logo.
Sharing a drink around relics from famous musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix, is one way to make your event memorable.
Even without tourist landmarks, you can give guests a good time. Yes, there is a reason I mentioned the fabulous fashion of the 80’s! It is a an opening night party theme known and loved by CMW attendees.
Here, you can see a few guests getting into the spirit of things from the 2017 party.
Image source: Content Marketing World
Sourcing event sponsors for these parties is a great way to make them work with your budget and gives sponsors added exposure. In fact, Dreamforce sponsors get so much out of hosting corporate parties that in 2017 there were over 100 Dreamforce corporate parties!
Depending on the conference size, not all events host themed parties offsite.
For example, you can see the decor from B2B Marketing Forum’s ProfStock, the dedicated event for networking and interacting with sponsors following the day’s sessions. (Don’t worry, Maggie, I’m right there with you on the photo op!)
With an understanding of why branding and experiences are essential at events, it’s time to think about how you will implement them in your own event planning checklist.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
CMW and MarketingProfs both show how you to make use of decades. Pick an era and go with it! Consider using a recent decade attendees lived through. This will give your guests a conversation starter for small talk: “I loved this song in high school!”
Focus on the decor and elements that create the environment of your chosen era. Whether it’s the music or food (consider inventing a signature drink), you can execute the theme with minimal added costs.
Not all delegates will be dedicated enough to pack wigs in their suitcase, but you can still create the environment with those small details and immerse guests in your theme. Doing so will bring down barriers and increase your social media shares.
And, if your guests don’t dress up on their own, you can give them the subtle opportunity to participate. Here are some of the goodies handed out at the B2B Marketing Forum’s Profstock.
I was thrilled to be a part of executing the Global Marketer’s Conference, hosted by the World Federation of Advertisers and the Australian Association of National Advertisers. The conference moves to a new country every year.
During my involvement, the event was in Sydney, Australia. My company’s CEO at the time, Sunita Gloster, chose to include an Aussie element. The event program and materials were red and yellow, matching the color of Surf Lifesaving Australia’s volunteer lifeguards who patrol the beach wearing red and yellow.
For another theme that’s all about the beach, keep reading see how Social Media Marketing World maximizes its San Diego location!
3. Your current branding
Take what’s already working and build on it. Dreamforce is a great example of this. The trailblazer theme is already used in all branding, and it ties in perfectly to the attendee experience.
Not all companies have such unique campaigns around their brands. But, if you do, why make things harder than they have to be? Look for ways to build on current successes.
4. Company history and values
Look at your company’s history, culture, and values. Find key words, phrases, or even objects that bring images to your mind.
Take those words and have a team brainstorming session building on those ideas.
At G2 Crowd, one of our company values is “live at the peak.” I hear “peak,” and I immediately think of a mountain. With that image, I have a potential event theme.
Perhaps it is about the customer journey and how businesses can connect with consumers as they travel to the mountain’s peak of making a purchase. Or, I could play off of rock climbing, encouraging attendees to attend to keep climbing higher in their pursuit of marketing success.
5. Pop culture and trends
While CMW will always have an element of orange, each year the event has an additional theme to keep things fresh. This year’s theme for 2018 is “Game On!”
The event promotions, such as social media shares, have a video game feel.
“Game On!” is a theme that provides sponsors with the ability to participate in the concept while including that experiential element.
I can’t wait to see what games event attendees will be playing throughout the sponsor hall this year!
We’ve looked at some engaing examples of conference branding, themes, and experiences.
In addition to Content Marketing World, MarketingProfs’ B2B Forum, and Salesforce, there are plenty of other business conferences that show they know how to step outside of the box.
Here are a three of my top picks:
1. Bitz and Pretzels - The Founders Festival
Bitz and Pretzels is a conference for founders, investors, startup enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs in Munich, Germany. And, best of all, it corresponds with Oktoberfest. How can you not love an event named “Bitz and Pretzels” designed around Oktoberfest?
While it’s good to have a name that reflects your conference’s content, I can tell you that I looked at hundreds of conferences to find these examples, and no name stood out as much as this one.
The three-day event has 5,000 attendees. Reading the event description, you’ll get a taste (no pun intended) of what is in store for delegates: “On the last day, all attendees and speakers come together in one tent with one goal: liquid networking.”
The theme is unified right down to the wifi password, “WeLovePretzels,” and the mini beer tent pictured below.
Image source: Bits and Pretzels
Attendance is by application, and the event is endorsed by Sir Richard Branson himself as: “Professional, fun, and a fascinating array of speakers.” And, of course, he got right into the spirit of it when he spoke in 2016.
Image source: Digital Spoiler
2. Social Media Marketing World
When you think of San Diego, what do you think of? The beach, of course!
With its annual conference occurring there in March, plenty of Social Media Marketing World (SMMW) attendees are happy for an escape from the winter doldrums. (I know my coworkers who attended from our Chicago office were!)
Image source: Social Media Marketing World
Take it from Jami at Adventure Awaits as she recaps her conference experience: “As a Vancouverite, I’ve enjoyed a winter full of rain, with lots of snow up on the hills. This means my body was dying for some vitamin D, and San Diego didn’t disappoint.”
On its event website, the event organizers even use those California credentials in their event promotion as a reason to attend SMMW.
The beach theme transferred seamlessly from the decor to the spirit of everyone in attendance.
Having its conference associated with the beach (a place people want to be), kept attendees smiling as they channeled their surfer spirit.
This also ensured no one took themselves too seriously. (I’ll say it again: B2B events don’t have to be boring!)
Take it from Jami: “There were many times throughout the keynote presentations and the networking events where I wasn’t sure if I was at a conference or at a concert. Live music, on stage musicals, saxophone solos, random mic takeovers, a whole choir… the energy was high from curtain up to curtain down making this concert… uh, I mean conference, amazing!”
By breaking out of the corporate mold, Jami gave SMMW one of the best event testimonials I have ever seen: “If I expected it to be a 7/10, it was a 200/10. Take every single positive word you can use and throw it at this conference.”
Okay, I’m sold. Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need a quick writing break to look up flight prices to San Diego for March 2019!
This conference is designed for marketers, a target market that strives for creativity and the ability to stand out in a crowded space.
A conference expo hall is a little bit like a mini trade show where event sponsors can show off their products and services.
Knowing how every conference expo hall looks like a cookie cutter replica of the last, Inbound decided to do something different. Its sponsor hall is entitled “Club Inbound” with an emphasis on “club.”
The lighting sets the mood and lets attendees know this experience holds something special.
Not only does Inbound use lighting to create ambiance, it also has a DJ booth in the middle of the expo hall with music designed to make you move.
There’s nothing like a good beat to keep attendee energy high!
Event branding and creating an experience is where your creativity can shine. This is a great opportunity to work with your team and collaborate. Brainstorm and build on each other’s ideas. (I mean real brainstorming – say every idea with absolutely no judgment!) When you come up with something together, you’ll all be able to share pride in the results.
Marketing by nature includes a mix of both analytical and creative thinking. This is where you can have some fun!
When you are excited about your event, your attendees will be too.
Looking for more event marketing tips and resources? Check out the other chapters in this event marketing series:
- What is Event Marketing: Understanding the Basics
- More Than a Party: The Benefits of Event Marketing
- The Top 10 Types of Events Utilized in Event Marketing
- How to Plan an Event
- How to Promote an Event
Or read my other articles on event planning and execution, designed to give you minimal headaches and maximum success!
- Nine Event Networking Tips for Real People From a Real (Awkward) Girl
- The Ultimate List of 60+ Event Resources for Marketers and Event Planners
- How to Create Event Name Badges (Minus the Headaches!)
- How to Write a Post-Event Survey
- Event Venue Selection: Checklist and Worksheet
- The Ultimate Event Planning Checklist
- 12 Event Management Tips from a Content Marketing World Expert