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How to Host a Customer Event

Events for customers are a throwback to the days when a handshake was more meaningful than a text alert. An event done right can be just as valuable today, but done wrong can be an expensive cocktail party.
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In a world saturated with innumerable modes of instant but occasionally impersonal online communication, events, today something of a throwback, can be a unique way to connect with customers. If they're done right, events are a classic way for businesses to engage their customers, whether consumer or corporate. The personal interaction with a targeted demographic can build brand loyalty or generate new interest, adding to a customer base and building business.

"There's something different about meeting face-to-face and having a conversation that's not delayed or happening through Facebook messages or limited to 140 characters," says Karen Hartline, event manager for Mashable, an online social-media news outlet based in New York City with offices in San Francisco.

But events can end as expensive cocktail parties if they're not done right. "What people do wrong is they don't have a clear objective," says Tres McCullough, co-founder of Fathom, an experiential marketing firm based in New York City that has done events for clients like LG and Gatorade. "A lot of companies have a great idea, everything is water-tight and clear, and they race to execution mode. The event engages the client base, goes off without a hitch. Then it's gone."

Experts say the key to hosting a successful event is pinpointing the reason behind it—identifying a measurable goal that everything is geared toward accomplishing.

"You have to have a sound idea that goes back to the business element," McCullough says. "I hate to use this phrase, but you have to surprise and delight. You need to give the end consumer something they weren't expecting, as long as it's on-brand. The product and event need to intersect in a meaningful way. "Anyone can throw a great party, but this isn't about throwing a great party. It's about hitting business objectives."

Every event should be catered to a specific brand and business objective, but there are some cardinal rules to making an event a success instead of a money pit.

Hosting a Customer Event: Decide Your Objective

As you determine your goal, ask yourself precisely why you're hosting the event, says Audrey Shedivy, founder of Henry Grey PR, a public relations firm and marketing boutique based in Chicago. She has coordinated events ranging from small gatherings to a Rodeo Drive store launch. "Are you hosting the event to thank your existing customers and attract new ones? Are you launching a new product and want to create buzz among influencers?" Shedivy says. "Whatever your goal for the event, identify that upfront. It will help guide your decisions in planning the event."

Mashable uses events to connect with its user base that it otherwise knows only online, Hartline says. But, she says, "We don't just have events for events. We want to make sure they all walk away with something beneficial for each event. We tie it back into Mashable's vision as a whole." For instance, the company in January hosted an award show in Las Vegas. Existing users voted for award winners and attendees were people familiar with the product; the objective was rewarding participation in the online community. And in the summer, Mashable hosts meet-ups in cities across the country geared at building relationships with potential and existing users to learn what's happening in different sectors of their online community.

When pinning down an objective, remember, McCullough says, everything goes back to the product the event aims to benefit. "Customization is key," he says. "Everything starts with the brand, product, service. It all starts there. Take that experience to the target customer right away. If it's not about that, you're set up to fail."

Dig Deeper: How to Build Better Business Relationships

Hosting a Customer Event: Gather Data and Build a Brand

Fathom approaches event planning like a science: The firm researches the client's business objective so it has quantifiable data to empirically measure the success of an event, McCullough says. A one-time event won't always achieve a goal; sometimes an objective requires a long-term system of events. Your idea has to be creative, McCullough says, "and engage the target consumer in a meaningful way so they have the experience you're constructing. Be ready to have significant amounts of attention, sometimes money, to put toward events."

One of the company's best long-term events was the LG National Texting Championship. It started when LG approached the company with a "killer" smartphone with a slide-out keyboard—revolutionary at the time—with a target audience in mind that was a little off from the marketing perspective. "We suggested they revamp the target to young people with texting," McCullough says. "Texting was still new then, younger people are willing to spend more on phones. Suddenly there was a business reason to shift focus."

Fathom turned texting into a sport. The company organized speed texting events in New York and Los Angeles, leveraging media interest in texting stories to get coverage. "It appealed to the consumer, the carrier, the media," McCullough says. "There were only a few hundred people at each of these events, but it worked so well we scaled it up," McCullough said. "This summer we had half a million people play and it has been exported to 13 regions around the globe."

Dig Deeper: How to Plan a Product Launch Event

Hosting a Customer Event: Generate Interest and a Guest List

With an objective in mind and hard numbers to qualify success, decide how to create buzz—push your event into the public consciousness to generate interest, McCullough says. "The media landscape is incredibly diverse," he says. "There are different pathways and avenues available to everyone. I don't think the experiential platform is always the best answer. I'd never say do an event over traditional marketing. The best plans are those that utilize several types of media. … It's all about linking back to the customer base."

To get people interested, you need to give them a reason to show up. "This is where you can really get creative," Shedivy says. "The draw for your event could be its location, such as a new hot-spot in town that people are eager to check out, or it could be the entertainment you've hired if you have access to a recognized artist. New product launches and pop-up openings are a draw in and of themselves, as people are excited to be the first to see something cool."

Mashable promotes events differently based on its objective, Hartline says. When the company did its meet-up tour in the summer, organizers wanted to meet as many people as possible, so they used social networking sites their client base frequents—Facebook, Twitter, and Mashable—to cast a wide net. "There's an online component ahead of time," Hartline says. "We put hash tags around events, we search on Twitter to see who's talking about the event online. … All of our events sell out, whether it's a free event with registration capacity (or) ticketed."

For private events, like the media technology conference the company is hosting this spring, Mashable organizers are inviting some guests and accepting online applications from outsiders who may be interested. "We're bringing together a small, more intimate group of people," Hartline says. "It's smaller, with high-quality people." A successful event, even if it's meant to be exclusive, requires a good turnout, Shedivy says. "Build your guest list keeping in mind the big picture goal for your event," she says. "Request that invitees RSVP. It makes your event feel more special and it will help you keep a handle on how many people to expect. Unless you know your guests very well and are certain they will all show up, assume that about 40 percent of those who RSVP won't show up."

Basic logistics, Shedivy adds, matter. "Set an appropriate date and time," she says. "The ideal date and time for your event should be influenced by who's on your guest list. Guests who are primarily stay-at-home parents, for example, would likely find it convenient to attend a mid-morning or lunchtime event. For evening events held during the week, Thursdays tend to be the most popular day. People are mentally ready for the weekend and are more likely to alter their routine to attend an event toward the end of the work week."

As you think beyond text alerts and tweets to connect with customers, remember to have a goal, some dedication, and some cash to host an event your customers will remember.

Dig Deeper: 10 Ways to Support Your Best Customers

Last updated: Jan 27, 2011




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