This Guide will enable you to:
Events — conferences, panels, live one-on-one interview sessions, and keynotes — are now a key component of many organizations’ marketing mix. They can serve a number of purposes: awareness, lead generation, community building, customer retention and even revenue (by way of sponsorships and attendee entrance fees).
What makes for successful event content
For many organizations, events are seen as a way to showcase authority and influence, highlight work and expertise, present original research or even act as a way to promote certain initiatives. Events are also used to bring together partners or vendors – for example, Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference, an annual event that demos new technologies, presents thought leadership via executives and acts as a meeting point for its customers.
Regardless of an event’s goals and structure, those that are useful, interesting and worth attending, typically have one thing in common: They’re strongly rooted in a brand’s editorial and publishing strategy. Advanced brand publishing operations extend efforts from written content to live content seamlessly, without loss in quality.
Why brands should connect events to editorial content
Whether hosted virtually, live, pre-taped or physically inside a hotel ballroom or convention center, effective events are a real-life demonstration of the stories the brand is already telling via other channels and mediums. Therefore, they should begin, just as editorial strategy planning did, with a clear understanding of the target audience and editorial purpose. They should also apply storytelling principles the way articles and posts do by ensuring sessions have the right format and are presented in an effective and interesting way. And brand publishers should also ensure they don’t extend the event’s longevity by turning the event content itself into other editorial content.
Successful events are typically underpinned by the following:
- Clearly defined target audiences, themes and topics. Any successful event boils down to the value and insight it provides to a specific audience.
- Well-structured sessions and formats. Events with engaging and interactive sessions prove far more effective than those that rely on stale, cookie-cutter platforms. Great content and speakers can often fall flat if they’re constrained by outdated formats and unimaginative packaging, so it’s best to stick to methods proven to appeal to the target audience.
- High-quality speakers and participants. Events often succeed at the points above and fail at the last hurdle by booking lackluster speakers or mishandling their expectations and freedoms. Working with speakers, to get the most from their participation, adds value for all parties.
This Guide will walk through the points above, and provide a practical framework that can be implemented, immediately, to begin planning successful event content.
Creating an effective event planning team
The first step in planning for event content is in structuring a team correctly. This is because a dedicated event team, whether made up of content professionals, writers, managers and professional event planners, is necessary to ensure that the event mirrors editorial strategy and is a good, tangible expression of brand publishing in which the company is already engaged.
Some companies, depending on how advanced they are, may already have an event team on hand, while others may ask staffers from the publishing arm to step in as de facto event organizers.
While the makeup of the team will vary, it is important to keep in mind a few things:
- Event programming teams must equally focus on logistics as well as content. Too many event teams are entirely responsible for the look and feel of attendee experience, including but not limited to technology platforms, the look of the stage, the food, ticketing and attendee numbers. These important facets of an event should be equally balanced with a focus on audience targeting, storytelling and key expertise on content.
- Event content teams must have a direct line into the existing brand publishing group. For any company, an event has to be a real-life, physical expression of the work they already do in their content. In order to ensure this happens, event content teams must be part of the publishing process, including pitch meetings and story planning. Another option is to also assign a “writer” or editor to each event being planned, ensuring that they’re approaching event planning with the same rigor they do when story and content planning
- Depending on the goal of the event, event teams should be data and metrics driven. KPIs must be tracked, including: (1) attendee demographics, to ensure the right audience is being reached and attending, (2) speaker demographics, to ensure diversity is showing up and (3) post-event feedback mechanisms, to examine how the event was received.
Once an event planning team has been established, it can move on to the linear process of identifying the correct audiences, finding themes and trends, planning sessions and booking speakers.
Identifying a target audience
The first step for orchestrating a successful event is to identify a target audience to cater to. Subsequent decisions about content, speakers, session types and more should all be informed by – and map back to – the needs of the target audience in question.
In many instances, an event’s target audience will, in turn, map directly to broader strategic or tactical goals of the company hosting it. For example, if a software company decides deepening its customer base in a specific sector is a strategic imperative, it might host an event geared towards the interests of companies within that sector, in an attempt to generate awareness and leads.
Identifying a target audience is a critical step.
When doing so, it’s important to consider the following questions:
- Does the audience map to goals and intended outcomes? If an audience can’t be linked – directly or indirectly – to a company’s broader strategic goals, it’s a good indication it should be reconsidered.
- Is the balance between depth and breadth correct? Depth and breadth can vary based on a host company’s goals, but the balance between the two is important to consider when pinpointing a target audience. If the audience is too broad, the ability to add tangible and specific value is diminished; if it’s too specific, an event runs the risk of appealing to a small group of people.
- How can this audience be defined? Often, combinations of demographic factors can be used to pinpoint a target audience, such as age, location, interests, profession and more. For business-to-business events, equivalents, such as job title and function, seniority and access to budget, might prove more useful.
- Is an event the best way to reach this audience? Events provide a powerful channel for reaching many audiences and communities, but not all of them. For various reasons, some audiences might be better served with different types of content. For professionals who are unlikely to find time for an event in the middle of the work day, on-demand video, audio or webinars might prove more effective, for example. It’s healthy for companies to constantly be asking themselves, “Why an event?” as they go through the planning process.
- Are there existing events catering to this audience? If a company does decide hosting an event is the way to go, it must, next, determine whether the industry it seeks to serve already has events that address similar concepts. If it’s an extremely saturated area, event holders might consider exploring tangentially related audiences, or different, yet relatable topics, instead, in order to differentiate and avoid getting lost in the noise.
Establishing a theme and topics
Once a target audience has been identified, the next step is to establish what value can be provided to that specific audience, in the form of a broad theme.
Arriving at an event theme is the most important part of the planning process. A well-selected theme that is interesting, valuable and timely can serve as the foundation for a successful event, while a misjudged, or poorly considered, topic will prevent a significant headwind for an event’s viability, even if it succeeds in attracting big-name speakers and pulling off strong technical execution.
- Sauces and condiments to jazz up any meal
- Salads and starters, keto style
- The basics of baking for vegans
- Vegetarian cooking for meat-eaters
Once the theme is established, a short explanation of around 200 words can be used to unpack it further.
It should explain:
- The theme
- Why it was chosen
- Why it’s interesting and relevant to the business and the audience
The idea is to have this explanation, and theme, be clear enough to disseminate throughout the organization and use in public-facing materials.
Once an event theme has been established, it can be further broken down into three to five key “topics” that an event will explore. These topics can, subsequently, be used to inform the types of content, sessions and speakers that are planned. So, if the theme was “the basics of baking,” the topics could include: the importance of precise measurement, the tools necessary or a deep dive into ovens.
Events that are industry-specific, or aimed at, for example, a certain group of professionals, can benefit highly from teams spending time upfront on the theme and the topics at hand. A very clear, often narrowly defined theme and subsequent topics, are great ways to stand out from the competition. They can also make the process of planning an event’s content easier, as specific themes and topics act as roadmaps and signposts towards, for example, the types of speakers who would be best and can also help determine the “flow” of an event.
Topics, then, could include:
- The current state of various metrics and measurement efforts
- Predictive analytics for media planning and buying
- Brand awareness and measuring influence
- Hiring the right people for effective measurement
Event sessions can take on a wide range of formats depending on the audience, theme, topics and more.
Generally, sessions should be:
- Short. For keynotes and interviews, that means 30 minutes, plus time for audience Q&A (if any). For audience Q&A, up to 10 minutes (if the session was under 25 minutes) or 15 (if the session was 45 minutes or so) is enough. For other formats, be even more brief. Attention spans are shorter than ever before, and presenter energy tends to wane after 20 minutes.
- Focused on the topic at hand. Here, again, is where the theme and specific topics are important. Each session or presenter should be speaking to a specific topic at hand, not generally about the industry. Organizations may wish to deviate from this for an opening session that is more lay of the land, but keeping session descriptions — and therefore, speaker instructions – focused and tight is paramount.
- Ended with a list of takeaways. Audiences like to learn. Each session plan should start from the end — that is, begin with the key takeaways the audience should gain from that specific speaker or set of speakers, then, work backwards from the end goal.
- Full of visuals. Visuals aren’t a crutch for poor speaking skills. Instead, they’re a complement to powerful speakers. Even if the session is general, a panel with a group of people discussing, or more of a discussion in a town hall format, visuals help. Think of B-roll, if there isn’t information to present: use product shots, scenery, or ad creative. Visuals break up the monotony and keep audiences engaged.
- Considerate of audience Q&A, or some level of participation. Whether live questions and answers from the audience are conducted at the end of sessions or not, creating moments for audience participation is key. This can be in the form of pre-collected thoughts and challenges, or those done live. More ideas are included in the next few sections.
Using formats that work
Keeping a mix of formats, for various sessions, is critical to keeping momentum during an event and preventing the audience from getting bored. Whether virtual or physical, events can start taking on a certain kind of sameness — audiences stare at similar backdrops, stages and slides. The key is to have a mix of formats that are created ahead of time, and mixing and matching them to speakers. Not all speakers will be up for all formats, nor will they always be a fit. But using topic and personality to find the right format to convey information will go a long way.
Here are some format examples used during successful events:
The one-on-one interview
As the name suggests, the one-on-one interview format consists of an interviewer and an interviewee. Loosely structured as a Q&A, the one-on-one works very well when there is a key topic that needs a deep dive, or as a scene-setter or event-closer to discuss the more macro issues at hand.
When to use it: This format is best used sparingly, particularly when there is a strong speaker, as well as a seasoned interviewer. It shouldn’t be used just as a volley of questions, but as a real conversation that flows.
The keynote is probably the most overused format during events or conferences. Broadly, it’s a longer session, usually between 30 minutes to an hour, where one speaker presents for the entire time, usually with the aid of some slides, videos, graphics or visuals.
When to use it: The keynote speaker is usually an expert, with a high level of proficiency in the chosen subject, who can hold the attention of an audience by themselves. The format should be used as a way to open and close an event.
The hybrid is a way to mix a keynote session with an interview. Speakers can open the session with a presentation that runs for a few minutes, then they can be joined by a moderator or interviewer for a series of questions. It works well when there is key information that doesn’t lend itself to an interview but could use an expert moderator to conduct an interview afterwards.
When to use it: This format works well, often for nervous or first-time speakers, who need some extra support to hold a room and would benefit from some questioning and direction, but who are expert enough to have a series of key facts, presented in order, to provide context.
This fun format pulls up keywords, phrases or ideas on the screen, and gives the speaker 30 seconds to one minute to riff on them. A moderator is on hand to read out the words, keep things moving and prod the speaker if they’re taking too long.
When to use it: This is a more lighthearted format – a great way to get, supposedly, “honest” answers to questions. Audiences typically find this format enjoyable since it goes by quickly, and answers are usually more candid and direct. This works well for themes or topics where there are complicated words or controversies. It’s important to ensure the speaker is comfortable with the types of words or phrases that will go up on the screen, and is also comfortable being relatively casual and conversational.
Panels are used, most often, for convening multiple speakers on one topic, along with a moderator who will ask questions, determine the flow of the conversation and ensure everyone’s viewpoints are heard. It’s often misused – multiple speakers should, theoretically, mean a diversity of viewpoints are represented, but often leads to an abyss of agreement and repetition. A panel format can be great for panelists, because it is easier than having to prepare for a keynote since the responsibility is shared with others, but can often feel lackluster to audiences.
When to use it: This format should be used sparingly and only when there is a known diversity of viewpoints and speakers who are already comfortable with each other. Panels should be capped at three speakers and one moderator, and only address a couple of key topics so there is enough time to go deep into each.
A town hall is a unique format that can be very effective when used correctly. Town halls involve bringing together groups of people, usually up to 20 to30, although more are certainly possible. A moderator stands in the middle of the group and goes through a series of questions or topics, inviting people to ask questions, contribute their opinions or speak. Interactivity can be encouraged by asking people to ‘raise their hand if they have this issue,’ for example. It can be difficult to ensure a flow of conversation remains, and generally, a few people may dominate the room, but it can create a convivial atmosphere.
When to use it: This format is useful when done during a larger conference or event, in order to help the group to get to know each other in a more structured way. Topics or questions should be decided, beforehand, by one or two moderators. Two moderators can help keep the conversation going. Moderators should also ensure they’re asking the right questions, calling on people in order to get them to speak and, in general, keep the audience engaged. It can be best if the moderator(s) are familiar with a few people in the room and a few questions are “seeded” in advance, just to kick things off and spark engagement from other attendees.
A slight variation on the town hall is a working group/ fishbowl, which is a smaller groups, generally between 10 to 15 people. Each group has a leader assigned to it and is given a problem to solve or a specific topic to discuss. Ideally, they are also given a worksheet to write solutions on, or are asked to make a presentation to the wider group at the end on their proposed solutions or key takeaways.
When to use it: This breakout-style session is great, when used as part of a larger agenda to have groups come together to discuss issues particularly important to them. It can also work well when more practical solutions are sought, as it demands some level of creativity and problem solving from the group.
A debate is when two speakers with opposing views are brought together, along with a host or moderator, to explain their stances, listen to the opposition and have a lively, structured argument. This can be done by the host asking the same or different questions to each speaker, with the aid of a timer, so each spokesperson gets an equal amount of time to answer.
When to use it: Great speakers, who can convincingly debate without turning the session into a real argument, are essential, as is a host who is knowledgeable. If there is a key controversy in the industry, or a certain new trend that has different points of view, a debate can be a good format to explore.
Good events involve more than speakers and sessions; audience interactivity is key. For all types of events, finding a way to connect with the audience directly makes events feel useful, practical and actionable. There are a few methods to “force” interactivity, or create a space for it so it feels natural.
Here are some methods to consider:
- Set out a list of “rules of engagement” at the beginning. Use these to emphasize that this is not a one-way event and include the ways people can participate. This way, events don’t have to depend on one audience member to start asking questions – and audiences know what is expected of them.
- Have engagement methods be diverse and varied. Not everyone likes to raise their hands and ask questions in front of large groups. Include those options, but also provide opportunities for planners, or more introverted attendees, to find quieter ways of asking questions, such as tools that let the audience text questions and have them go to moderators or go up on a screen.
- Include physical displays, like boards, where people can write challenges or queries and post them on with sticky notes, for example — event attendees like to see what other people are thinking and looking for.
- Polls are a great way to get pulse checks. These can be done using platforms like Slido, but also, in physical events, done literally with your feet, asking people to move from one area to another to show their preferences and get a visual for how they’re thinking.
Selecting effective speakers
Speakers are plentiful, but good speakers are few and far between. This guide isn’t about public speaking — there are plenty of resources, including professional coaches to help with that. This section will focus on how to moderate effectively in order to let the content shine, and how teams should ensure speakers chosen are effective in order to ensure that audiences learn.
There are a plethora of moderating tips online, as well as professional-level coaches. But business moderating is rarely done by professional moderators or speakers; instead, executives or other high-level employees at the organization tend to moderate professional events. This is usually the right way to go for professional events, as having a prepared moderator, who understands the industry, its key players and the subject at hand, is the most important part.
That being said, there are a few tips, specific to professionals moderating business events, that can be useful.
- Remember they work for the audience. While it’s good to have moderators who sound smart, their main job is to inform the audience. Moderators should remember that their key constituency are the people attending the event – and should always focus on their needs.
- Be prepared. Particularly, for business or professional events, having a grasp on the subject matter is paramount. Coming prepared with questions, data points and background information is key.
- Listen and engage. Rattling off questions by rote, without listening to the answers, leads to a boring and dull event, and may also be perceived as inconsiderate by the audience.
Incorporating diversity and inclusion
When selecting effective moderators and guest-speakers, organizations should start with diversity of gender, race, age and background, wherever possible, while still considering the goals of the event as a whole. In the course of a year, organizations can commit to having a certain percentage of demographic backgrounds. KPIs that get measured, receive attention. So, if diversity is important to the company, each event, conference and session will then be directly responsible for contributing to that overall goal.
Organizations should be direct and open with potential speakers or contributing organizations. Planning committees should ask openly for speakers in their organization or networks who represent the demographics the team are looking for. There are also organizations, like DICE, that provide certifications and guidance so events can deliver diverse sets of speakers and attendees.
Lastly, organizations must train moderators on ensuring people get to speak fairly and equally on multi-speaker panels. Diversity is no good if there’s no room to speak.
Salespeople are (for obvious reasons) easy to book for events, but they rarely make for engaging speakers unless there’s a reason for them to be on stage that’s tied specifically to the event theme or topics (or, of course, if the event is about sales or selling). Event organizers should typically look beyond salespeople when booking speakers.
Turning events into content
The key to a consistent brand publishing operation is ensuring no opportunity is passed up for creating content. Events of all types are great ways to find fodder for content and stories that can live on, and increase the longevity of the content itself.
Some content formats tailormade for events are:
A recap with an angle: Just placing a video of a (virtual or physical) event on a site and calling it a day doesn’t work. For one, it’s hardly interesting to watch someone talk with no aids as it is — it becomes even more difficult if companies trying to reel in an audience that already did not attend the event. Instead, a recap of the event with an angle — a specific topic that can be focused on — can be a better way to summarize what happened.
“One question with”: This is a great format to adopt for an event where there were multiple speakers or guests. Writers should ask each event guest one question, then turn their answers into a straightforward list. Writers should use a question that’s general enough for everyone to have an opinion on but is interesting enough to create some value.
Key takeaways: If there were very clear takeaways from the event, a successful post can summarize what those were, with a clear introduction and five to 10 takeaways, each with a short explanation. Another option is to ask speakers for their key takeaways and group them together .
Case study: If one speaker or presentation or panel was particularly impactful, writers can turn the session into a story. It can open with an anecdote, or problem, then go into solutions or answers to that specific challenge. This can be used as a framework for a narrative piece that goes deep into the session and uses quotes from the speaker.
Checklist and next steps
Programming an event is about more than getting some people together to speak. Good event content is editorially led – that is, it requires as much upfront planning and care as publishing content does.
For most organizations, events can be an effective way to disseminate original work and research and showcase their knowledge, very much in the same way their publishing efforts can help with this. But, just as a solid publishing strategy requires a clear editorial mission, story and content ideas and editing and “reporting,” good event content needs much of the same in order to be useful and interesting to the audience it’s targeting.
Events are difficult to do. It’s hard to control how speakers will speak and how audiences will react – and there is a plethora of competition out there. But crafting a clear theme, hosting sessions that seek to inform and engage and keeping an eye out for diversity of thought and background will go a long way in creating business events that actually work.
Event planners should ask themselves the following questions:
The event content team
Themes, topics and formats
Sessions and speakers
More Guides and resources: