Offline Events–Traction Channel #17

“Sponsoring or running offline events – from small meet-ups to large conferences – can be a primary way to get traction.  If you are creative and willing to try something different, throwing a successful event can be a big win. One of the reasons offline events are effective is that so few startups are doing them,” suggests Weinberg and Mares in their Traction book. Rob Walling of HitTail started MicroConf as a smaller conference for self-funded startups that attracts hundreds of founders and sells out in days. Rob said: “I think the overarching thing for marketing is [startups] need to try more things, and fail faster and more quickly… Trying all of this stuff and seeing what works is paramount. The tried and true approaches like Facebook and AdWords are so crowded now. People need to think about doing things that don’t scale. Early on when you’re trying to get those first 1,000 customers, you have to do things that don’t scale. You have to take more risks. You can still build a business without being creative. If you don’t have creativity, you need money. You need one or the other.” Don’t make the mistake that many entrepreneurs and marketers commit by leaving offline initiatives out of your go-to-market strategy. Not only is it more relevant than ever, but it can be the perfect complement to your online strategy. Example of Offline Events

  • Twilio, a tool that makes it easy to add phone calls and text messaging to applications, attracted its customers by sponsoring hackathons(various tech realms collaborate intensively on software projects), conferences , and meetups large and small.
  • Larger companies like Oracle and Box throw huge events (Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference has over 100,000 attendees!) to maintain their position as market leaders.
Value of Offline Events
  • Engaging directly with potential customers about their problems and needs is a high value in phase I. Offline events give you that opportunity.
  • Connect with target customers in person who don’t respond well to online advertising or have a natural place to congregate online.  Attracting these customers to one location or going to a place where they meet in person can be the most effective way to reach them.
  • Effective for startups with long sales cycles, as is often the case with enterprise software.  Enservio reached decision-makers and shortened their sales cycle by using this channel.
  • Use offline events to build relationships with power users, as both Yelp and Evite have done successfully.
Conferences  Conferences are the biggest and most popular type of offline event.  Each year hundreds of startup-related conferences and thousands of business conferences are held worldwide. Startups in phase II can take advantage of larger tech conferences like TechCrunch Disrupt, Launch Conference, and SXSW to build on existing traction channels. Example of Conference Impact  (quoted in Traction by Weinberg and Mares)
  • Twitter launched nine months before SXSW in 2007 and was seeing decent amounts of traction, on the order of several thousand users.  Because many of the early users were headed to SXSW (Tech & Music conference held annually in Austin, Texas in March), Twitter saw the conference as an opportunity to accelerate their adoption. As Evan Williams, Twitter’s co-founder said: (quoted in Traction by Weinberg and Mares)
“We did two things to take advantage of the emerging critical mass:
  1. We created a Twitter visualizer and negotiated with the festival to put flat panel screens in the hallways… We paid $11K for this and set up the TVs ourselves. (This was about the only money Twitter’s *ever* spent on marketing.)
  2. We created an event-specific feature where you could text ‘joinsxsw’ to 40404. Then you would show up on the screens. If you weren’t already a Twitter user, you’d automatically be following a half-dozen or so “ambassadors,” who were Twitter users also at SXSW.
We advertised this on the screens in the hallways.” Thanks to this conference-specific marketing, Twitter jumped from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000 + by the end of the conference. Twitter also won the SXSW Web Award, leading to press coverage and even more awareness of their service.”
Start Your Own Conference If there isn’t a conference that directly brings together your target customers, consider starting your own. Example: Eric Ries, author of Lean Startup,  wanted to broaden the audience for the lean startup principles he was promoting on his blog. However, he was afraid his message would get lost at a large conference like SXSW. Instead, he organized his own conference and invited founders of successful companies to talk about how lean principles worked in their startups.
  • First, Eric Reis tested demand for his conference by asking his readers if they would be interested.
  • After a resounding yes, he sold conference tickets through his site and other popular startup blogs.
  • Startup Lessons Learned began as a one-day conference in San Francisco with just a few speakers and panels focused on Lean Startup concepts. The short event was attractive to individuals who didn’t want to spend a lot on travel or take time off work. In addition, Eric avoided the extra cost and coordination headaches that come with arranging a multi-day event: flying in speakers, hotel stays, and so on. In short, he made the commitment to attend as simple as possible.
  • The result was a strong turnout and a great conference experience. The Startup Lessons Learned conference was about promoting Lean Startup ideas.
  • While Eric didn’t want people to have to travel to attend, he still wanted people from out of the area to find out what was happening at the conference. To this end, Eric live-streamed the conference to meetup groups across the country . The people that attended those meet-ups (or watched on individual live-streams) were instrumental in promoting his ideas to a larger audience and making his book a bestseller.
Meetups and Smaller-Scale Events Instead of a conference, you may choose to connect with a target group of customers at a meet-up. For example, if you’re a small SEO software company, you might hold a meet-up where you discuss the latest and greatest SEO tactics. Great meet-ups can create lasting community connections. The meet-up groups that watched the live stream of the first Lean Startup conference continues to meet years after: over twenty cities still have regular “Lean Startup Circle” meet-ups.   The groups connect over the ideas in Eric’s book; they’ve also helped keep Eric’s book on the bestseller list. You can start your own meet-up, join an existing one, or even sponsor an event where your prospective customers will be. is the most popular site for doing so. Party! Believe it or not, throwing a party can be an effective way to get some traction.  Throwing parties, either alongside conferences or across many cities, is another successful strategy to attract and reward prospective customers. Similarly, meet-ups can be a scalable tactic to build local communities in cities around the world.  How to Throw the World’s Best Startup Party by Attending article has great ideas for planning, promoting and hosting a great startup party Example:   Evite did this when they helped stage one of the largest parties in the Bay Area for Internet celebrity, Mahir Cagri. The party was one of the premier social events of the year.  Evite was responsible for organizing and sending out all invitations. This event exposed Evite to their target customer in a memorable manner. Who doesn’t want a party invite? Attendees were then likely to use Evite when throwing their own parties. Offline Event Tactics Starting Out Day-long mini-conference could be a great way for a smaller startup to get traction. It can also be an easy and cheap way to test if there’s any interest among your audience for a larger event.
  • Select a topic relevant to your product and invite the founders of three local companies to come give short talks on the subject.
  • Feature these founders on a panel about a particular topic.
  • Take the unconference approach and have attendees suggest topics for roundtable discussion, and then allow them to vote on which discussions will take place.
  • A local university lecture hall is a good place to hold an event like this. Often, universities are willing to open their facilities if it’s for an educational purpose and if some of their faculty or students can attend. This type of mini-conference can be done for less than $500.
Scaling Up If your first event is a success, consider scaling up to larger events. The logistics of planning a larger event will take a lot more effort because you need more of everything (speakers, food, space, etc.). Sponsors may be interested in helping you cover the cost of the event. With all the traction channels, the key is to have a sense of what channel is needed at a particular time to move your startup forward. Resources ]]>