Event Marketing Lessons from Content Marketing World
The annual Content Marketing World conference isn’t just about content marketing – it is content marketing. The CMWorld team shares how it creates a memorable event that continues to attract a larger audience every year.
By Jonathan Crossfield
Content marketing isn’t just about getting great ideas in front of the right audience. Effective content marketing keeps the audience engaged to the end and is remembered (ideally, put into use) for a long time after.
Put that way, live events are the epitome of great content marketing.
“In-person events are one of the top ways marketers nurture their audiences,” says Stephanie Stahl, general manager of the Content Marketing Institute. “Nothing beats the impact of sharing ideas, having great conversations, and learning from the best in the industry at an event explicitly designed to help you make those connections.”
Cathy McPhillips, CMI’s vice president of marketing, believes it’s this communal aspect that creates a very different type of brand-audience relationship. “Bringing together our brand practitioner speakers with our brand practitioner attendees provides an amazing opportunity for aha moments and brainstorming to happen in a way that is hard to match any other way.”
Like all the best content marketing strategies, an events strategy can grow over time, massively increasing its value. When Cleveland first hung out the orange banners in 2011, Content Marketing World attracted 600 attendees and 35 speakers. In 2018, CMWorld attracted over 3,700 attendees and 251 speakers.
CMI’s event strategy has expanded to include smaller and more targeted events, such as the ContentTECH Summit and a touring master class series in various cities around the United States. But while the time and effort that go into organizing CMWorld and other events have grown each year, so have the rewards.
“It is a lot of work,” says McPhillips. “But it’s so worth it.”
Designing a kick-ass event agenda
“Our job is to build a program to educate and inspire attendees so they walk away feeling like, ‘wow, we can do this too,’” says speaker engagement manager Andrea Larick.
The success or failure of any live event or conference rests on the speaker program. This is what people pay their (or their company’s) money for. This is why people travel across country or the world to live on hotel breakfasts, coffee carts, and networking canapes for four days.
Larick believes the key to a kick-ass agenda is diversity. “You need diversity in session topics to give attendees a variety of sessions to choose from,” she says. “But you also need diversity in speaker backgrounds and experience levels.”
As Content Marketing World has grown and become more well known, the number and quality of speaker submissions have increased. Larick receives 350 to 400 submissions every year from content marketers and practitioners of all stripes, creating a difficult job for the selection committee to fill a limited number of spots on the agenda.
Larick looks for experts in the industry who can give presentations that aren’t only educational and informative but also entertaining and memorable. This isn’t a lecture tour. A little showmanship goes a long way. “Some speakers always provide guaranteed how-to takeaways for attendees that can be implemented right away,” she says. “The speakers who return year after year always provide something new and insightful that attendees will appreciate.”
Speakers can sometimes be an unknown quantity, and a submission form can only reveal so much. A prospective speaker might write extremely well, with an impressive portfolio of articles and books behind them, and still not be the most engaging speaker on stage.
“Even the best speakers can get jitters just before going live on stage,” says Larick. “Public speaking is rated as one of the biggest phobias for a reason.”
She has learned to be the calming voice behind the scenes, ensuring speakers are not confused or distracted by any of the details or concerns before and during the event. They should be focused on their presentation, not on when hotel checkout is or if their laptop is safe backstage.
The headline keynote
At the top of the bill is usually a big name to deliver the closing keynote. Some attendees will slip away on the final day to catch flights or get back to the office, so a strong headline keynote can be an incentive to stick around until the end. The announcement of a popular name can get attendees excited, PR pumping, and ticket sales flowing.
Over the years, Content Marketing World has featured celebrity headliners such as William Shatner, Mark Hamill, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tina Fey. But a good headliner isn’t just a big-name star: They should have a story to tell that will resonate with the audience. CMWorld’s 2015 keynote John Cleese is a perfect example this balance between celebrity and relevance. While most people know of Cleese for his comedy work, he also co-founded production company Video Arts to produce more creative, entertaining, and memorable business training videos, giving him a fascinating content marketing story to share.
Not all conferences can afford a celebrity keynote. A prominent industry figure, such as the CEO of a major business, can work. Ultimately, a headliner should be someone the audience will be excited to see, with something relevant to say.
The content machine
An event can also provide plenty of opportunities to capture and repurpose content, extending the event’s value long after the final chair is stacked.
“We view CMWorld as a treasure trove to draw from throughout the year,” says Kim Moutsos, CMI’s vice president of editorial. “We might not use every bit of video captured right away, but it all makes it into content pieces eventually.”
Working with Amanda Subler, CMI’s PR and video consultant, the editorial team carefully studies the CMWorld agenda weeks in advance to schedule on-camera interviews with speakers covering topics they know will be of interest to CMI’s wider audience.
“There are so many people, so many sessions, and the convention center is so big that, if we don’t have a plan, it can be a nightmare getting the camera crew ready and in the right place at the right time,” says Subler. “It also makes sure we’re gathering content that we have a clear plan to use – not just getting it for the sake of getting it.”
On top of this, the CMWorld team records every session to make available as on-demand video after the conference. This gives attendees, and anyone else who purchases a video pass, the opportunity to revisit favorite sessions or see speakers they might have missed.
The content team draws from this material for months after the event, writing blog articles based on selected sessions enhanced with video excerpts from the live talks.
“These videos give people who didn’t attend a glimpse of what it’s like to be in the room. And, hopefully, they’ll want to come to the show in the future,” says Moutsos.
Keeping an event running smoothly
Even the best agenda can fall flat if attendees have a hard time finding their sessions or have to choose between grabbing a sandwich and getting a seat. The logistics of moving large groups of people quickly and safely from session to session – including breaks for food and drink – shouldn’t be taken lightly. Just one late session can cripple an agenda.
“Our event team plans Content Marketing World down to the minute,” says McPhillips. “Everything is overcommunicated so things can stay on track.”
The full CMI team – not just the event team – is constantly on hand, dressed in unmissable orange shirts to be visible to attendees, speakers, and exhibitors, with a dedicated Slack channel keeping the team updated on issues in real time.
“We make sure that everyone on the team knows before the event what their roles and responsibilities are,” says McPhillips. “We’ll also meet with the convention center, our entertainment venue partners, and our food and beverage partners countless times to hopefully avoid any major issues. But contingency plans are always in place.”
Those contingency plans can be essential, as the unexpected will almost always happen. Such as when a fire alarm required over 4,000 attendees, exhibitors, and staff to be evacuated part way through the afternoon sessions at CMWorld 2018. “Our mobile app helped us greatly,” says McPhillips. “We were able to communicate that it was a false alarm and get everyone back in the building within 15 minutes. And we kept the program on schedule.”
Sponsors and exhibitors
A big part of most conferences is the exhibition floor, giving exhibitors and sponsors the chance to showcase their wares while helping to secure the financial viability of the event.
But while it may be tempting to take money from anyone eager to erect a stand in the main hall, Karen Schopp, CMI’s account director of media and events, says it’s essential to have a clear rationale about who to approach to ensure a good mix.
“We start with the needs of our community and attendees in mind,” she says. “Then we determine which vendors offer solutions specific to their interests and needs.” For Content Marketing World, this means targeting vendors and agencies offering martech or content-tech solutions and services.
“The biggest no-no is securing a sponsorship with a vendor that doesn’t understand our audience or whose solution is outside the needs of our attendees,” says Schopp. “Every year we get a few muscle stim vendors that want to sell their overpriced ab-toner gadgets on the floor. Too random and outside of our mission.” As I just had to Google “muscle stim” – apparently **cough** I can get rock-hard abs by attaching an electrical stimulation device to my stomach – I think Schopp may be right about that.
“The sponsor ends up unhappy with the results, while the attendees walk away confused, which is not the outcome or experience we want for either party.”
Ideally, booking exhibitors and sponsors should become easier with each new event as satisfied sponsors return. And that means ensuring a great experience that meets or exceeds expectations. “Our priority is setting up the right type of sponsorship that will yield the best return for the sponsor,” says Schopp. “If we can’t do that, we won’t sign them.”
She also has a word of advice for exhibitors eager to extract the most value from their investment. “Forget bad booth location on the floor. There are no bad locations,” she says. It’s about having an event strategy that gets and keeps the attention of the attendee. This includes a well thought out pre-, on-site, and post-event content and engagement strategy.
“If you’re going to participate in an event like CMWorld, you must do more than just show up and sit in your booth.”
A memorable content experience
An event is … well, an event! So, it should feel like an event. A little bit of spectacle and excitement goes a long way.
Joseph Kalinowski has been in charge of giving each Content Marketing World event a particular look and theme since the beginning. “We want our attendees to be completely immersed in CMWorld as soon as they walk into the convention center,” he says. “I liken the experience to when we were kids. Remember that feeling when you walked into the toy store and saw a whole wall full of toys? That’s the feeling I’m trying to recreate year-on-year for attendees.”
Kalinowski starts brainstorming random ideas with the team about six months in advance, capturing possible event themes in his notebook. The theme for CMWorld 2019 developed from a single word, when McPhillips mentioned, “I really like the word ‘amaze.’ What do you think?”
Kalinowski looks for two particular qualities when selecting a theme. “The first is to make sure I can establish a cohesive look across all media and platforms – from ads and social graphics to posters, signage, and stage design,” he says. “The second is making sure the theme idea will be interesting and fun for the community. If an idea doesn’t get me excited from the jump, how can I get our community excited about it?”
Building on past success
Now in its ninth year, CMWorld continues to evolve and learn from each of the previous events – particularly attendee feedback. “It’s not enough to just repeat the experience,” says Stahl, “but to refine, improve, overhaul; whatever it takes to make sure people not only show up, but also that they leave full of new ideas, having met new friends or mentors, and feeling inspired about their own careers.
“Having a strong sense of community – even among thousands of people – is the best sign of a great event.”