Live_Events_body.jpgBy Erin O’Donnell.

Live events are one of the most effective ways to imprint your brand on the consciousness of your target customer. Entrepreneurs and event planners say it doesn’t take a big budget to throw a grand opening or a party to launch a new product line.

Done right, live events can boost brand awareness, generate new leads, and build your marketing database.

When Lisa Hennessy launched Your Pet Chef last year, she incorporated live events into her marketing strategy right from the start. Hennessy’s company specializes in custom-made natural dog food for home delivery in the Chicago area and shipping nationwide. She’s also the author of the Your Pet Chef Cookbook, so she reached out to dog day care centers and pet supply stores to ask if she could do live cooking demonstrations for their customers.

The other businesses were delighted to host her, Hennessy says. And the one-on-one engagement she gets from live events helps to promote her brand while also building solid customer relationships, she adds.

“I take time to talk to each person about the product,” Hennessy says. “I like the instant feedback of the live events because I get to know firsthand what they think and get their suggestions.”

Hennessy says she spends $75 to $100 per event. That pays for the ingredients used in the demonstration plus the items in the giveaway bags, typically dog treats and yogurt. So far, the venues have been free. Finding the right price point for her classes took some experimentation. Hennessy charged $35 for the first one and included a copy of her book, but no one came. So she dropped the price to $9.95 and sold books at the event.

In Hennessy’s case, she positions her events as pet health education, sharing the story of how she created her first all-natural recipes to help her dog when she was sick. Attendees learn how to make the food and get free samples in a branded tote bag.

Make it an experience

An event should give people something to do besides eat, drink, and listen to the business owner talk, says marketing consultant Mike Dominguez, owner of RMD Strategy in Austin, Texas. “The more people are able to interact with the product and with each other, the more memorable the experience will be,” he says.

Dominguez first realized the power of live events at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, which he first attended the year Twitter debuted. The company set up a huge screen for attendees to see updates in real time. Dominguez says it proved the concept on site and gave people something to do.

Now, Dominguez organizes events for businesses, political campaigns, and nonprofits. To increase interactivity, he uses listening stations with wireless headphones that play a brief message about a product or candidate. At another event, guests went on a treasure hunt, collecting “clues” with brand messaging to earn access to a VIP area. Photo booths can let guests share photos instantly on social media, or print a photo to take home. “That will keep the experience in their long-term memory,” Dominguez says.



Set goals for the event

Events are designed to build a sales pipeline, says Mike May, president of Spear One, an event management company in Dallas. But it can be difficult to compute an event’s return on investment if you aren’t selling something on the scene.

It may be better to track your return based on the objectives you set in advance. May says that could be the number of follow-up presentations booked, or how many people take a survey. Events are also a good way to capture email addresses for your marketing list, Dominguez says, especially if you use an online RSVP system that does this for you. Set a goal for how many you want to collect, and then have a plan for following up.

Each event should also have a call to action, from which you can cull measurable data, according to Michael Westafer, CEO of Roger West Creative & Code, a digital marketing agency in Tampa, Florida. Decide what you want your attendees’ next step to be: sign up for a consultation, subscribe to a service, or register for another event.

If you don’t have past events to benchmark your goals, use industry benchmarks from organizations such as Meeting Professionals International or the International Association of Exhibitions and Events.

Match your theme and venue to your audience

Make sure the event dynamics suit your demographics, Dominguez recommends. A store opening or consumer product launch is better suited to a party atmosphere than a financial services seminar. You might have live music for a young crowd, he says, but baby boomers may respond better to local artists.

Business-to-business events tend to take place during the day, May says, such as lunch at a nice restaurant. His company sometimes holds events in tandem with a professional sporting event, arena, or ballpark. But beware that you could be upstaged.

In that case, you’re not using the content or the speaker as much for the draw,” May says. “The risk is that people might come for the venue or the game instead.”

Partner with complementary businesses and nonprofits

A company can magnify the reach of an event by co-hosting with other brands or nonprofits that complement your business. Approach businesses close to your venue to donate food, beverages, or other items in exchange for promotion or a presence at the event. Offer an opportunity to support a cause at your event.

Hennessy makes a donation from each event to an animal rescue organization of the host’s choice. Dominguez organized one event that included a registration drive for bone marrow donors. For another, he chose a historic venue that was raising funds for preservation.

“If you have something that’s about giving back, people will feel it’s not only a sales event but that it’s building the community,” Dominguez says. “That can give your event a sense of purpose.”