Memorable events don’t just happen. Organizing and holding an event takes planning. Whether it’s a conference, seminar or a customer appreciation day, and whether you have three weeks to plan or an entire year, your event’s success is in the details. We’ve collected 42 small business event planning tips from the experts, including some of the organizers of the annual Small Business Influencer Awards.
Small Business Event Planning: What to Do First
1. Decide upon your target audience before anything else. The first step — before you do anything else — should be to clearly define who your target audience is. From this all the other decisions will fall into place in terms of format, content, prices, location etc. This structured approach will also help you to stay focused on achieving specific goals and not allowing the scope to become too broad or watered down.
2. Make a list of details — everything including lighting and public transportation, to content and refreshments. When you decide to have an event, everything matters. From program content and lighting to transportation and parking — everything counts. And your audience will attribute everything to you and…your brand. Making a list will ensure you don’t overlook things.
3. Have a clear business purpose for holding the event. Before you can begin planning a successful event, be clear on why you are doing it in the first place, because every decision after that should support your main goal. Is it lead generation? Is it to create awareness of your company or a particular product? Is is to develop customer loyalty? Or do you simply want to make money (which is okay too)? And make sure the team is aware of the purpose, so that you don’t have “scope creep.”
4. Watch out for other industry events when scheduling. Check the calendar. Make sure you don’t schedule your event on or too close to holidays or popular vacation times. It’s just as important to check for other events that your target attendees might be going to.
5. Be flexible with changes in size, location and other details. As you get into the event planning process, you may find that your event changes in size, location, and many other ways than you originally envisioned. This is natural and perfectly fine as long as you don’t lose sight of the reason you’re doing all this work in the first place. Some flexibility is necessary.
6. Know your limitations. We all know the goal is to throw a great live event. To that end, we also have to be aware of what we can or cannot realistically do — be it budget … or time-wise. If you decide to throw a live event in a week’s time, plan for a more intimate affair. If it’s a big event, prepare several months ahead. If the budget is small, you may have to counterbalance with creativity and a lot of do-it-yourself work.
7. Create SMART goals. Always start with strategy. Just like building any business, great events start with a strong, thoughtful and measurable strategy. Live events are an amazing way to share your brand, connect with your target market, get feedback on your product (and more!), but you need to know what you are trying to achieve. Stick with SMART goals and outline what you are aiming for. Then make sure that you proceed in line with reaching these goals.
Budget: How to Pay For Your Event
8. Develop a “financing plan” for your event, and estimate the numbers. Know how you are going to pay for the event. Most events are funded by sponsorships, ticket sales, internal marketing budgets — or a combination of all three. When you create your budget for the event, you’ll need to estimate how much money you can realistically raise from each area. Before you book your venue or sign any contracts, it’s a good idea to start signing sponsors first, or selling advance tickets to make sure there is enough interest in your idea to fund it.
9. Create an expense budget - and save money through “in-kind” sponsor donations. Events tend to cost more than the average small business owner thinks — primarily in regards to the venue and food and beverage. Remember to price out all the permits and licenses you will need as well. (This is where an event planner can help you avoid headaches.) Make a comprehensive list of all the expenses and then highlight areas where you think sponsors can play a role to offer something “in kind.” The more you work with other brands and partners to host your events, the more you can save.
10. Consider crowdfunding as a new option to raise money for an event. If this is your first time running events, use crowdfunding platforms to ease the risk. By publishing your events on these platforms attendees will need to pledge for tickets for the event to take place. If the minimum number of attendees required is not met the event does not take place.
Marketing: Getting People to Attend
11. You’ll need a DETAILED marketing plan. Create a marketing plan for the event. The more organized you are, the more professional your event will be.
12. Be tireless in your efforts or your event will fail. If you don’t want to be at your event alone … then market, market, market, market … and market some more.
13. Define good reason(s) for people to show up. What’s the draw for attendees? You need to define WHAT you’re doing at the event that will bring those target attendees in the door. For a consumer product it might be a party with entertainment and product demos and freebies. For a business crowd it might be educational content or an exciting, well-known expert speaker. Whatever it is, don’t lose the connection with why you want this particular audience clamoring to get in.
14. Lay out in writing why your target market should attend – don’t assume the benefits are obvious. When promoting an event be sure to tell your target market what they will learn, who they will meet and why they should be there. Don’t assume your friends will tell their friends. If you are using speakers, give them advertising copy so that they can promote the event to their audiences.
15. Learn how to talk to the media. Journalists are very busy and always on deadline … they don’t have time to hear a sales pitch. Let them know that the information exists and — for future stories — that you are an expert in that field. Include that information when you reach out.
16. Use Twitter hashtags. Twitter is terrific for promoting events and for creating a sense of online community around an event. Set up a unique hashtag early on. Search Twitter first to make sure it’s not already in use. Put the hashtag right on the event website, and if you use the Tweet button for sharing on the site, work the hashtag right into the premade verbiage. When people tweet, it promotes the event automatically on Twitter.
17. Use online social pre-events to promote the main event. To build interest in your event, trying holding a Google Hangout or a Twitter chat a few weeks before the main event. Invite a few of your speakers to participate in the online social event. Give a preview of what’s to come at the main event, by doing some discussion of what speakers will cover, or highlight the activities. It generates anticipation.
18. Buy advertising on social media networks. Buying advertising on social networks is often overlooked by small events. Social advertising platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter above all) offer in depth targeting options that can significantly help to reach our target audience in our geographical location. The good news is that no large budgets are required and ticket sales can be easily measured.
19. Use YouTube to promote your event. YouTube is the second search engine worldwide after Google. Uploading videos from our previous events or interviews with our speakers/performers is a great way to convince prospective attendees to click on buy. Video provides significant visual cues thus impacting heavily on our decision making process. With events we always feel the risk of not knowing what will happen, video eases that tension.
20. Create an awesome low-budget promotional video. A little creativity with some poster board, a royalty-free music clip, and a good smartphone video camera will create a fun video to help publicize what’s to come. Here’s a good video example, that did just that on a shoestring budget, to promote a small business event.
21. Get local bloggers involved. Be smart with bloggers. Involving local bloggers to participate at the event is usually a great strategy to gain audience before, during and after the event. Bloggers usually count on a wide reach and do not usually follow traditional media rules.
22. Leverage event registration platforms like Meetup. Use existing platforms. If this is your first attempt at running an event and you lack the skills to promote it, have a look at Meetup.com. Other than offering a suite to manage events online, Meetup is a great referrer for relevant audience in your area. It also features registration and RSVP management capabilities that are particularly handy if you are inexperienced.
23. Use online registration. The easier way to scare people away is by having analog registration (faxes, bank draft or at the door only). Offer online registration to secure as many attendees as soon as possible, that will help to forecast numbers and release budget soon.
24. Get listed on sites catering to your group. Once you know who you want to attend, the next step is to put yourself in front of them. There are websites that specialize in listing events nationally (e.g. Meetup, Lanyrd) and locally so start there and research which are the most appropriate to get listed on.
25. Offer local partners incentives to promote you. Press releases sent to the relevant media outlets will help generate news buzz and you could look at getting media (online and offline) involved as partners. They get exposure at your event in return for publicizing it. If they don’t want to get involved at that level, approach them with the idea of running a competition for their readers to win tickets.
26. Make it easy on your speakers to publicize to their followers. If you have any experts/speakers attending, encourage them to publicize their attendance to their social media followers/email subscribers.
27. Give early bird incentives. Early bird tickets at a cheaper rate are a great way to get early sign ups by giving people an incentive to act now rather than wait and forget.
Team: Who Is Going to Help?
28. Delegate responsibilities. No matter the size of your business, always try to delegate responsibilities. Having one person in charge of every detail typically doesn’t work out well. Whenever possible, let people take control of the areas they most enjoy. For example, let the foodie in your company handle the catering details. The more someone enjoys their responsibilities, the more likely they will carry them out with success.
29. Follow up – and follow up again. Check in early and often. Though no one wants to be micromanaged, make sure that employees and vendors are on track with their event duties. As long as people know you expect updates from time to time, they are less likely to become frustrated when you call or email for one.
30. Sponsors are royalty – make sure they feel like it. If you have sponsors — treat them like kings. They fund your event and enable you to do it (if that’s your business model). Be very clear before the event what they will get as sponsors.
31. Always underestimate turnout, for sponsors. If you think you can get 100 attendees, base your sponsorship pitch on a lower estimate — especially if this is your first event. It’s better to give sponsors a pleasant surprise than a disappointing one.
32. Ask people what they think, and be ready for feedback good or bad. Ask for critiques. If you’ve done half a decent job, you’ll get lots of kudos. Say thanks, but then ask for the CRITIQUE and be ready for it.
33. Have a skilled social media team cover your event. Don’t forget a social media team. While not imperative for every event or industry, more and more events are focusing on harnessing the viral power of their audience. If your audience is tweeting, Facebooking and taking pictures on Instagram — you should be doing the same and you will need a trained team to execute.
34. Look for vendors who serve your niche and are willing to get involved. The best vendors you can work with are those who are familiar with small business culture. Look for vendors who work with small businesses frequently or who would get involved on a bigger level than their role.
Event Day: Pulling It Off
35. Set expectations carefully – then deliver. Ensure that the audience has a GREAT (not good) experience; and that you give them what they expected from attending.
36. Attitude is contagious. Your guests in large part will play off your attitude and dynamics during the event. Lead by example and have a good time.
37. Let crowd reaction be your barometer. Read the audience during the event. Ask people how they are doing. If things are going great, and if they are not, you’ll know.
38. Always ask yourself: How is this relevant to attendees? Make sure you are offering content that is relevant to over 80% of the audience. The audience must walk away with tangible tactics to improve their business and career … and they must feel the speaker’s energy. Speaking about your business and what you do — without offering the audience what THEY need — is a waste of time and money for all.
39. As the master of ceremonies or a speaker – practice. You know your business, but do not assume that you know how to put on a presentation. Practice giving your presentation, answering questions and handling difficult and confrontational members of the audience. The more prepared you are the better.
40. Look your best. Look the part… be comfortable but fashion forward. Even if you are an accountant or lawyer, choose your most distinctive suit or tie. People remember how comfortable you are in your own skin.
Contingency Plan: What to Do When Things Go Wrong
41. Imagine the event, step by step, and make a 2-column list: what could go wrong in one column, and your contingency plan in the second. Be prepared for the unexpected. Maybe the sound system fails. Maybe your keynote presenter bails. Can you cope and move on?
42. Be ready to lend a hand to fill any gaps. Although planning ahead is a great formula for success, it is never enough. Something unexpected always comes up. Thus, it pays to put in a little extra elbow grease for extenuating circumstances. This applies to catering arrangements, printing requirements, guest accommodations, weather forecasts, entertainment and more.
A big thanks to the experts contributing to the above small business event planning tips:
— Matt Telfer, Marketing Manager for Heart Internet and blogger at Marketing Nerd Tips 1, 24, 25, 26, 27
— Beth Silver, Managing Director, Doubet Consulting Tips 2, 11, 14, 15, 38, 39, 40
— Laura Leites, Event Planner and Owner, L2 Event Production Tips 3, 4, 5, 8, 13, 31
— Joy Go, Internet Marketing and Affiliate Program Manager, Day 2 Day Printing Tips 6, 28, 29, 36, 42
— Liz King, CEO, Chief Event Specialist, Liz King Events Tips 7, 9, 33, 34
— Julius Solaris, event industry speaker and editor of Event Manager Blog Tips 10, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23
— Ramon Ray, Technology Evangelist and Editor of Small Biz Technology Tips 12, 30, 32, 35, 37, 41
— Anita Campbell, Founder and CEO of Small Business Trends Tips 16, 17, 20