Way back in the early days of Adobe Sign / EchoSign, my co-founder was a digital marketing genius — but was opposed to events.  They don’t work, he’d say.  They take too long to deliver ROI, he’d say.  They’re a distraction, he’d say.

And then, a few months later, he came to me and said we had to get a booth at Dreamforce.

So which was it, I said?  You gotta be at the biggest and best one in each industry, he said.  The exception that makes the rule, in his mind.  And he wasn’t wrong.  It worked out great for us.

Well, as the years have gone by, and I’ve talked to 100+ CMOs and more that have sponsored or partnered with SaaStr, I think I’ve basically learned there are 3 strategies for industry events from the bigger ones like SaaStr Annual, Dreamforce, Shoptalk, Reinvent, WebSummit, down to specialist events in an industry and niche events with a small number of participants:

  • Skip ’em.  This might be a missed opportunity, if your customers and prospects are there.  But sometimes, it’s just not your DNA. That’s OK.  Also, events don’t just cost real dollars to be at and exhibit at, they have a ton of soft costs, and take a ton of team time.  If you don’t believe in them as a marketing strategy, best to pass on them, for the most part at least.  Too distracting and resource-consuming.
  • Do just the Top Events.  This was my co-founder’s point above.  Even if most events don’t perform for you, the top 1-2 events in each industry do attract the best.  You almost have to be there.  The top partners are all there.  Your customers will all be there in person, at least some of them.  And the best events all attract buyers.  Buyers that want to discover and talk to new vendors.
  • Do Every Event in your Industry.  I’ve watched a lot of folks that want to build their brand early really win here.  In the early days of Algolia, even at less than $1m in ARR, they were at every developer event that might have a few good customers at it.  You’ll see this again and again, where certain sponsors are … everywhere.  They aren’t crazy, or wasting money.  This strategy is less about developing partnerships and closing the most new business (because the Big Events are often where you do the most of that), but more about awareness, brand, and presence.  It can help to be everywhere to do that.  Think of buying billboards everywhere, vs. just a Super Bowl ad.  One downside is you can’t spend very much at any individual event, since you have to be at so many.  So it can make it hard to stand out at the Top Events (prior point) with this strategy.

The best approach will vary based on your marketing lead, your passion, and your ability to monetize events one way or another.  Different companies run different playbooks here, based on their experiences, strengths, and beliefs.

But basically, the best approach is to calmly start the year and decide how much of your marketing budget will go to events.  And then decide if you want to lean in on the biggest ones, and probably focus 50%-80% of your budget there.  In which case, go as big as you can.  Or go super broad, and hit as many events as you can for that budget.  In which case, you really have to make it up in volume.  You need to try to be everywhere.

Different DNA focuses on different strategies.  In many ways, focusing a team’s energy on a key event a quarter is less exhausting than doing an event-a-week, which is sort of what you need to do to implement the “every event in our industry” strategy.  You need to hire a team that hits the road every week, hitting one event after another.

But both strategies can work.  If you know the playbook, and are intentional about which one you are running.  And the goals.

A related post here:

How to Think About The Huge Expenses of Events and Tradeshows

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