May 2, 2016

Raleigh SEO Meetup Conference

The Raleigh SEO Meetup Conference was a huge success. Being the first year for this event, I used the Lean Startup Methodology to test my ideas, measure results, and pivot when needed. This is the same process I use when working with clients, and I use Lean Principles in my own businesses all the time.

Ideas - Products - Data

Image credit, The Lean Startup

Idea for the Raleigh SEO Meetup Conference

The idea for the Raleigh SEO Meetup Conference came from two primary observations. First, I took over as the organizer of the Raleigh SEO Meetup back in December of 2015. Second, I had some inside information suggesting another conference that typically drew a crowd of marketers to Raleigh each May would not happen in 2016.

The biggest problem I ran into when taking over the Raleigh SEO Meetup was the loss of half the sponsors for the group. Already, the organization was running with a deficit due to the cost of their meeting space - and now it was going to loose half its funding. Instantly, I had to move the meetings to a new location at the expense of dropping attendance from 100 people per month down to just 20 attendees. This really hurt the group and it has taken me more than a year to recover. Today, we're still not back up to the 100 attendees we had in the past, but we regularly draw about 50 people to our meetings.

Having felt the pain of fleeing sponsors already, I saw the opening on the annual events calendar in Raleigh to be an opportunity to make the Raleigh SEO Meetup more sustainable. Rather than only offering "advertising" sponsorship, I decided to create my own "product". This is something I commonly work with clients to develop because it's important to anchor your business with products and services of your own, and suppliment that income with advertising, affiliate offers, and other monetization strategies.

The Raleigh SEO Meetup Conference as a Product

The previous organizer of the Raleigh SEO Meetup attempted to close the budget deficit with t-shirt sales. This strategy didn't work out well in the end. My hunch is that selling t-shirts works well for a short time, until most of the members have no need for another marketing meetup related shirt in their closet. For this reason, I wanted to create a product which would offer significant value for the members of this group in a sustainable way.

My first step was to conduct a survey and measure the interest in a conference, various proposed topics, and the price people would be willing to pay for tickets to the first year of this event. I was up against a couple of potential problems. First, all the Raleigh SEO Meetup monthly meetings are 100% free to members because the sponsors cover the costs for these events. Second, this was an unproven conference and nobody knew what to expect from this event. The results of this survey showed that all three of the proposed conference topics were very interesting to respondents. Additionally, the majority of people were willing to pay $50 for a ticket and a significant percentage would pay as much as $150.

At this point the product was identified. I would host a three track conference at the end of April or early in May with a ticket price between $50 - $150. However, there was still a lot to learn through the organizing process.

Feedback Throughout the Conference Organizing Process

I received some great advice from a mentor, and amazing marketer, Karl Sakas. Every time I look at what Karl is doing with his brand and his speaking engagements I learn something new, and implement it in my own work. But I digress.

Building The Team

The first thing Karl told me to do was recruit a team to work with me on organizing this event. To that end, I brought in:

  • Terri Voltz - Hospitality Director
  • Kelly Phillips - Hospitality Assistant
  • Patrick Stox - Program Director
  • Lee Kenedy - Program Director
  • Mike Pezzoni - Artistic Director
  • JR Oakes - Sponsorship Director

Since I was approaching this first year as a minimum viable product for the conference, I had high hopes - tempered with low expectations. All I was looking for was a venue where we could host speakers and attendees. This had to be paid for by ticket sales so the event made a profit, even a modest profit would suffice.

Lessons on Team Development and Execution

Terri quickly found a range of venue options with prices that were well outside our modest budget. After a month, we settled on just the right spot for the event. The lesson learned from this data is that we will need to plan on spending several months just looking for the right venue as we begin planning next year's conference.

Patrick began the process of lining up speakers and creating a program for the conference. However, he ran into some schedule constraints and had to give this task to Lee for completion. Unfortunately, I didn't have anyone working with Patrick in the beginning and the transition was a little unorganized. While we managed to put on a great event even with this hiccup, next year I will be sure to have a director and assistant with each role. This way the assistant can take over more easily if there are future schedule conflicts. In the end, Patrick and Lee did a spectacular job of organizing the speakers and the conference tracks.

Mike is another person that became overworked as we got closer to the event. He created the social media images, speaker announcements, posters, and programs for the conference. Giving him more time and an assistant would make this much easier next year.

Lastly, JR did an amazing job reaching out to sponsors and bringing in a few big names. We worked with Moz, AuthorityLabs, and ZipSprouts to put on this conference. Additionally, all the annual sponsors of the Raleigh SEO Meetup were given the Sustaining Sponsor package for this conference as a bonus. Beyond the paid sponsorships, we also brought in two other local groups as promotional partners for the event. The biggest lesson learned here is that we will need more time to line up sponsorship deals for next year.

Introduction to Social Media Marketing

You'll notice that I don't promote myself as a social media marketing guru. I know the basics and can setup ads to promote products and services on any platform, but I don't know all the tricks that come with multiple clients, industries, and years of experience. That said, I did test ads on Google, Facebook, and Twitter for this conference. Here's how those tests worked out, and what I did in response to the data I acquired.

First, I began running ads on Facebook. I started here because I'm most familiar with this platform and I wanted to use the targeting features offered by Facebook to get the most from my ad spend. Using a few custom audiences and several different ads, I spent about $75 and sold zero tickets. This was not a marketing strategy I was interested in expanding.

After I setup my ads on Facebook, I began running ads on Google and Twitter. To my surprise, the network I have the least experience with sold the most tickets. Since I was getting a negative ROI with Facebook and Google, I shut those ads off and diverted my entire budget over to Twitter. This is a great example of starting with quick wins and expanding later. Many of my clients attempt to figure out one particular ad platform rather than running some tests and moving forward with whatever produces results. In the future, I will invest in expanding my ads on other platforms - but Twitter got me results without having to spend more money on training or outsourcing.

Looking Ahead to Next Year

Currently, I have a few surveys out which will help me plan for next year. I'm collecting input from attendees, sponsors, and speakers which will influence my decisions. I could make the conference bigger by offering more tickets and reserving a larger venue, or I could stick with the venue I used this year and create a more exclusive event with a higher ticket price. This is just one of the questions I am asking the attendees to help me decide, and preliminary results show that 52% want the smaller and more exclusive event. Ultimately, what happens with this conference is going to be decided by me. However, it's very important for those decisions to be based on feedback and information from the other people involved. Using data to make decisions is part of any successful business venture.

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