When it comes to content marketing, much is written about narrative-based content (i.e., the written word). Often overlooked is the role of in-person content — content shared through events — to engage with customers and prospects. And for marketers trying to connect with top executives, getting them to attend an event like a salon, forum, conference, or client roundtable can be particularly daunting.
Developing the right event content is critical to ensuring that your event aligns with your hard-to-please audience — executives who won’t leave the office unless they are convinced they’ll get significant value in return for their time. In our experience with C-level executives, we have found that the themes I shared in my earlier article, Creating Content that Connects with the C-Suite, help marketers think about event content, too. Building on those themes, here are a few best practices that can make the difference between “Yes, I’ll attend” and “I’ll send someone on my team instead,” along with some examples of the success businesses can realize through these processes.
1. Agenda co-creation is key
One of the most effective tools for creating a compelling executive event is to create the agenda with the participants. Invest the time and resources up front to test, shape, and vet the topic agenda, content focus, and speakers and experts with a group of your valued clients. Take heed of their advice as you confirm the program elements. This will help you surface the most compelling issues, start with a shared sense of ownership and value, and ensure that you are digging into the right topics and challenges to get your desired audience in the door. You’ll also collect useful insights that will help craft and shape the speakers’ presentations for maximum value.
2. From the mouths of peers
Executives value advice and insights from those they consider their true peers, and they appreciate the opportunity to listen to those stories directly from the source. Build your speaker roster with peer leaders who can share their case studies and lessons learned. This is an excellent opportunity to engage your own executive clients as presenters. Also consider external experts that your clients have identified as compelling. But keep in mind: This is not the time to parade your product managers across the stage; their messages likely won’t resonate with the audience and could detract from the strategic nature of the conversation.
3. Strategic issues and new ideas
Executives seek intriguing, surprising, or useful ideas in areas that tie in to their greatest business challenges, as well as to solutions that push beyond common wisdom. An in-person event is a great forum in which to share innovative thinking and provocative trends with clients and prospects. And an added benefit is that discussing these new ideas within a group of their peers gives executives a unique experience they will value beyond others — and in turn they will value your role as convener of the strategic conversation.
4. No sales… only stories
Executives are particularly sensitive when it comes to sales pitches. Many shy away from events — especially those held by vendors and partners — because they fear it will be a forum for a hard sell of features and benefits. In such a case, they will happily delegate attendance to junior staff. If you want your executive clients to accept your invitation and look forward to your event, craft the meeting themes, the presenters, and the presentation content with care. Coach your presenters to share outcomes and impact and offer insights about the process to get there. And make sure to allow plenty of time for discussion and networking so that the story exchange can continue outside of the event content presented.
Note that this does not necessarily preclude having some of your own senior executives take to the stage. Your executives are, after all, peers to your executive clients, and thus they play an important role in the success of the event. As long as your company leaders can convincingly wear the hat of thought leader and share relevant stories of their own that focus on the themes at hand, they will complement the clients and experts who are presenting and contribute to the strategic discussion.
5. Keep it focused
In creating events for clients and prospects, it can be tempting to fill the agenda with all manner of topics and subjects in the guise of showcasing your company’s full range of capabilities. Executives have a laser focus on the two or three things they need to do to create value now, and a program that hones the topics for discussion to those few that really matter will resonate more strongly. Similarly, executives are unlikely to take multiple days out of the office, and thus will appreciate an agenda that consolidates what they need to hear into a concise and carefully managed program design.
Case study 1: Getting to content leadership
In her role at IBM, Karla Bousquet, Director, Client Executive Marketing, leads high-level, in-person programs for IBM’s top executive customers globally. Karla has applied a number of the critical success factors listed above in her expansion of the program.
Here’s one example. In 2006, IBM was looking for ways to enhance its event program to engage its top 200 CIO customers in new and more strategic conversations. The goal was to move far beyond the product pitch-based events often created by IT vendors and shape a content-rich program focused on economic and business issues that were challenging CIOs.
Starting with the premise of co-creation, Karla and her team embarked on a series of interviews with their executive customers, from which they uncovered some surprising and critical findings. This led the company to build a strategic agenda, leveraging CIO customer and expert stories and examples of success. The initial program convened 200 CIOs and, in concert with IBM’s executives, the program tackled critical business issues such as globalization and emerging economies, as well as important technology issues. Now in its seventh year, the series is highly valued by leading CIOs who travel from around the globe to attend, and has firmly positioned IBM as a strategic thought partner.
Karla’s insights into the key to success are straightforward:
“Once we started engaging our executive customers in the development of the agendas and in presenting their stories on stage, we saw a dramatic increase in the quality of the attendees, the conversations and, most importantly, the relationships we developed between events. We worked closely with our own executives to move beyond sales presentations to share innovative thinking of their own. This year, based on our ongoing conversations with our strategic customers, we have expanded the dialogue to include the CMO in partnership with CIOs, tackling the next arena for business impact for our executive client base.”
For content marketers looking to engage executives through events, co-creation, peer leadership and pushing the envelope on business challenges that matter are core to success. IBM has received overwhelming feedback that this approach works. As one satisfied executive noted, “I value the fact that IBM seeks out my opinion, and includes my perspectives in the strategies they are building. They have shifted from a vendor to a partner — a positive shift for IBM and for my company. ”
For more information on the recent CIO/CMO event, visit the IBM site.
Case study 2: Bringing executives on board
The digital performance agency iProspect has been riding a wave of growth, expanding its services and the level of its client relationships as it goes. When Amy Quigley, VP of Marketing, joined iProspect 18 months ago, she saw an important opportunity to engage and involve the more senior executives who were part of these growing client relationships.
iProspect had held a client summit for several years, and it was well attended by a large number of client practitioners, but few executives were joining. Amy could see that the content was geared toward those on their clients’ teams who executed the digital marketing strategies but did not focus on the more strategic, broad-reaching business challenges and market-leading innovations of interest to senior marketing executives. She took the step to create an executive track for the summit this year, bringing in client speakers and industry-leading experts to address the interests and needs of the senior group. The result was one of the most well-attended client summits ever by executive client contacts, and participants gave high marks on the relevance and benefit of their attendance. As one happy attendee noted after the event, “The content of the conference was ‘spot on’ and very helpful for our business.”
Amy credits several factors for gaining traction with executive-level events:
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having peers to speak and present on their own valuable experiences. Our executive clients tell us that they look to us for market leadership and innovation, and want to see examples where they can learn about important ideas, and not be sold to in the process. I also find that focusing on a few critical themes helps draw and keep executives’ attention.”
The bottom line
Sharing content with executives through in-person events can bring great value — if you do it right. Bring your clients along with you to co-create and lead the agenda, and share with your own executives the opportunity for exchange of insights and new ideas. In doing this, you’ll advance the conversation in new and sometimes surprising ways.
Get more great insight into the latest content marketing tools, technologies and processes from Chief Content Officer magazine. And for more information on in-person content marketing events, check out the CMI Events page.
Cover image via MDGovpics.