Our series of Inbound Marketing Stories continues with John Whitaker, Head of Marketing from dmg events - a global events business that manages over 80 events in over 25 countries. John shares his experiences and learnings with his inbound marketing journey so far.
Here is the full interview if you prefer to read it, with valuable insights for any business leader trying to understand the business case for inbound marketing for events.
Ricardo Molina: Hi John, how are you?
John Whitaker: I'm very well thank you. So I'm Head of Marketing here at dmg events and we have a portfolio of events both large and small in the exhibition and conference sector predominantly serving the energy market. I'm very keen to talk to you about some of our developments centred around inbound marketing as a complimentary element to our normal traditional outbound marketing.
RM: Great. The first time we met it was at the PPA connect conference and I was excited to hear your story and that's why we're here today. Let's begin by adding some context – you decided to start a community for dmg events that follows the inbound marketing way. What was the driver of this community and doing things the new way?
JW: We have a number of events that serve the energy market – essentially oil & gas conferences and exhibitions. The data allows us to upsell and cross-sell, therefore introducing someone familiar to one brand to a similar product within our portfolio – principly this was the main driver. We also do a lot of event marketing and persuade people to ultimately register to our events. That’s our function! But we want to be less like junk in their inbox. We also like to provide content – they see a subject line around generic content on the energy industry rather than an event specific one and they’re more likely to open it and if the content marketing that is used is allowed to frame the event but in a generic way, I think - well I know - this way has a far better opportunity at being effective for us.
RM: Most organisations right now in the events industry are thinking about can we push more events through content marketing and inbound. What do you see as the business case for developing an online community or or leveraging an existing big community out there?
JW: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive – in fact we do both. We have a presence on a number of generic communities that serve the energy industry. The decision to try and create our own is that we have a huge amount of engagement with a number of different stakeholders in respect to the event, who are very knowledgeable about the industry.
It seems a shame to spend a huge amount of marketing to get them to turn up for 2, 3 or 4 days and then not really engage with them until the next event. If we can keep the conversation going and see the event as more of a 365 activity, then that helps us to have better traction, stops suppressions within out database and creates a better appetite for conversion if we draw them in through content marketing – and then we explain that that content can be experienced at the live event.
Your initial question around the business case for inbound marketing – initially it might seem a little more expensive but if you amountise that over a relatively short period of 2-3 years, you’ll see marketing costs drop tremendously because if you spend money on core people who are interested in your communications, meaning a) you don’t need to do as many communications and b) your data doesn’t start to deteriorate - two things that are very important to me and are symptomatic of the problem in the events industry. We’re so used to sending out lots of invitations and senior management are comfortable seeing more quantity than quality.
amountise that [inbound marketing] over a relatively short period of 2-3 years, you’ll see marketing costs drop tremendously
We’re trying to follow more of an Amazonian type approach – so if an individual is interested in a certain element of our content then we can serve content that relates to our event and more likely to have their interest peaked.
RM: You’ve touched on two important things there. The CEO / event leader, the cost and also monetising over a period of time. Two key elements: building an online community is not going to be cheap – it’s not something that someone in the team can do 50% of their time or you hire just one person to do this. You have to devote the resources and it’s going to take some time. In your context – what do you think of the timeframes and seeing results?
JW: It isn’t actually as costly as some people might think. We used an outbound email service provider and therefore were sending lots of messages to people. We’ve switched to an outbound/inbound structure – or a multi channel marketing approach - and the cost of shifting wasn’t that much more expensive.
The second part – the content marketing part and relevance could be costly. It depends how you approach it. One way is to use news agencies and provide content in a contractual way so you can carefully monitor the costs – you can turn the tap on and off or if you feel you can create a community like we’re trying to do, that is predicated on a half a dozen events - it becomes cost effective to provide the generic content for that industry and then thinking about recruiting internally and creating a community platform. There is an initial outlay with recruiting and also building a platform. They [marketing and community platforms] can be very expensive at the enterprise end – I previewed some that are six figures. Or you can say I don’t need all the bells and whistles that’s probably more suited for the B2C world and prefer something that’d be more functional for a B2B inbound marketing purpose and you can get down to more sensible five figure numbers – the low end. The real cost is recruiting people but if you can dissipate that across a benchmark of about half a dozen events then it becomes more cost effective.
RM: So continuing on that wavelength, on the aspect of community – what do you define as community? One aspect is using content marketing to drive engagement so people come to your website, read and engage and another aspect is becoming a member of a group behind a gate.
JW: Well community is people with a common sense and purpose in some respects. Our sense of purpose is to get people to come along to our event. We’ve taken a slightly more circuitous route but in taking that our conversions (and we can see this when we track back) - our conversions become a lot better and therefore the initial outlay you can recoup later on.
The question of community – you see it at any event. You stand on the balcony at any major event venue and you see people shaking hands and the networking that is prevalent at any successful event is hopefully something you can continue online for the rest of the year. It’s relatively simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Of course, if it’s a B2B online community as a business in its own right with a P&L then yes you probably need a lot more functionality with a revenue stream, like recruitment, to provide a sensible ROI. For us if the creation of a community is cash neutral (we don't have to make a great deal of money on it) and will hugely save on marketing costs – conversions become much more effective and therefore our data is working more cleverly.
The danger in the events industry is over-communicating and losing data, rather than adding data.
RM: The message I’m getting here is there’s less need to make it about ROI and how can we recoup the money as quickly as possible. So if we see it from the angle of saving on marketing spend and seeing better conversions. Most event leaders and directors want to see the return immediately – so really it's an aspect of changing the mindset right.
Moving onto the team – I’m always asked, how can I start the inbound process? What's the starting kit/team I'll need? So what’s your team made up of?
JW: We don’t have a huge team - only three of us are involved in that part of our business. Make no mistake – our core competency as a business is organising events and the profit and the pain of all our wages comes from it. When you try to evaluate the effectiveness of marketing channels there’s a lot more consideration now of data building, providing marketing to that data - which becomes MQL’s and SQL’s and no doubt you can track and loop back to your original data.
We’re on a journey here and haven't cracked it all – we’re trying hard to make sure that we understand the cost of building, marketing and converting that data. And we can bring all those down and become more efficient and not having to re-engage data or to keep acquiring new data – then that’s really the definition of community. Data that is engaged with your company and/or products.
RM: Yes you've really touched on a key aspect there - the old school mindset is all about buying, acquiring and researching data and that's a real problem. Another question always asked - is around the skillset needed within the team. Could you just expand on the skillset of the three people in your inbound marketing team?
JW: So we have a community and content manager – that person's responsibility is not the old traditional sense of being an editor of a magazine but more about trying to engage with our stakeholders – speakers, official bodies and technical committees who are in charge of the content of the event – so we use our content manager to engage with them outside of the norm (abstracts etc) and encourage our stakeholders to submit articles for blogs, discussional type articles and questions encouraging different views - and once that trail starts we stoke it with comments and get more people involved and build on community discussion.
The other side is the commercial side - a sales/marketing manager to compliment the content side. Selling the advertising on the community site – traditional digital leaderboards, MPU’s. Then we have a whole digital media pack not related to the event – in some ways compliments the event so if a person is attending an exhibition we’ll put digital additions to how they can market through the event. But the main focus is things outside the event – advertising on sites and we put figures and impressions behind it - we sell on results. We also sell other related products - webinars and options for third party emailing to our database. A whole host of digital initiatives which we are introducing and are available to our client base over and above the exhibition stand or conference paper.
RM: I really like that you say sales/commercial/marketing. This individual needs to know both sides of the coin. They need to understand the key pains and goals of an exhibitor and how they are going to translate that into key marketing tactics, whether templated or bespoke. Is that right?
JW: Yes absolutely right. So within the digital media pack – they’re relatively off the shelf items and fairly understandable to most people with a rate card price attached to them. In addition we sell price on application opportunities – what I call the consultative sell. Not about selling something that can be necessarily translated in one phone call. It requires more like a number of visits, a hand held approach and almost an educational approach rather than sales. Where we’ve done that we’ve actually been more successful in terms of their presence at the event itself – we have a number of case studies now, and not necessarily the bellwethers but actually usually the medium-sized operators and they work harder at getting the promotion they need at an exhibition and they tend to use those kind of services over and above the bellwethers. The bellwethers are there because it’s a branding exercise.
RM: Yes the bellwethers need to be there and seen. The others are trying to get more for their money and invested in seeing that ROI in the lead generation activities.
JW: Indeed and it’s so obvious when you visit the show. Some of our events we have up to 5-600 exhibitors and you can quickly look at the floor and see the 10-15 that are using our digital services to make sure they have a busy presence at the show – it’s that obvious.
RM: I see. And I’m guessing the third skillset is the project managing which I assume you’re fulfilling?
JW: A very good point – sometimes its relatively easy to get the digital products together and put them in a digital pack and easy to provide third party suppliers to give you that opportunity to have the digital breadth – but the execution of it interestingly as you raised, is sometimes ... well we’re almost operating as an internal digital agency and 3 people is not a great deal if suddenly you’ve got 15-20 clients want to avail themselves of 60% of your digital opportunities. So scheduling and being able to provide a proper service to those clients is key – I'd rather have fewer clients and provide a really good service that gives us excellent case studies rather than serving lots of clients and providing a relatively inferior service.
RM: That's really refreshing to hear. Thanks for sharing your views on the skillsets. So in terms of the timeframe - let’s say the owner of an events business asks you: How long would it take me from launch to get this going and start seeing results? What would you say?
JW: The quick wins are evaluating your current marketing channels – principally your email marketing and you just need to do a very simple exercise. Do we think we’re providing the best service to both ourselves and our customer by just doing lots of outbound marketing? I think if every marketer thought through that process and considered how they buy products themselves, through companies like Amazon for example – the light bulb moment is if I can provide you with relevant content then I’m more likely to get more conversions.
Therefore I should be thinking about inbound marketing tools as well as outbound. That can be done reasonably quickly – that timeframe is about 3-6 months by shifting from an outbound business to inbound. Why 3-6 months - well because it’s relatively simple to change supplier and get it up and going – but you have to make sure your marketing team can use the tools accordingly. It’s a bit like having a fancy car or computer but only doing a few of the things – make sure you avail yourself of using all the advantage of an inbound marketing / multi channel marketing suite.
RM: What would you say are the three key things people should consider before jumping on an inbound journey? What would your advise be?
JW: Some of it depends on the type of exhibition or conference you’re doing. The more in-depth it is, that's the absolute reason to go inbound. In the energy industry they are long-term relationships – they're not into buying a few small products, it’s all about networking and over a period of time - a long lead time to product and sometimes it can be 3-10 years, but the rewards are huge. If you’ve got that type of industry, a community is absolutely right for it. It’s about getting peoples faith in your brand providing important and relevant content. If you're a business with a small product at a small price – it's more of an impulse buy, then it's less of a market to consider to build a community. High price products, with long lead times to market, that predicates on networking and relationships then building an online community is the ideal route to go.
RM: A bit of a curveball then - is inbound more applicable for sponsorship growth and exhibition sales than it is for delegates?
JW: Oh no - I think it's all customer types related to event. I was referring to the type of industry that you might address with your event. As to the individuals – exhibitors, sponsors, delegates, visitors - inbound marketing works for all of them. Using the Amazonian analogy – books are relatively cheap. If I’ve bought a number of books and then recommended others I’m more likely to buy. A community is more likely to have success on a longer term type industry and buying process. For customer types – then the notion of a community and inbound marketing holds true.
RM: At what stage are you at? Have you gone live with your community?
JW: It is live – but we’re looking to embellish quite dramatically. At the moment, there are things we are currently doing behind the scenes that will improve it quite dramatically by the end of this calendar year.
We’re up and running in a number of ways – we’re doing inbound marketing and have been since May 2016 – one of the huge advantage is MQL’s and SQL’s. Our sales team now use Salesforce as their contact management system. We are importing point scores – they’re able to see quite obviously the hotter leads by virtue of their score. Opens, clicks fine but web behavior that involves looking at a programme then a reg page and possibly abandon a cart – they get assigned a score.
RM: Fantastic. And what would you say are the learnings you’ve had at the stage you’re at right now?
JW: You need to be very careful when you set your expectations. That’s more of an internal thing – these are not revolutions overnight but evolutions over a period of time. Very important you set realistic expectations. You mentioned before about senior management and the finance side of things - that they’re keen to see results quickly which is understandable – you have to be very careful they are deliverable and I encourage people to be a little cautious. If you put too much importance and excitement on what it can deliver then you’re probably up for failure.
these are not revolutions overnight but evolutions over a period of time.
RM: It’s so common. Totally, it’s about setting the right expectations. It’s about ensuring they're realistic and achievable. Any other learnings you’d like to share?
JW: The other thing is to make sure, in buying software or SaaS products there’s a great temptation to buy the shiny toy and we’re all attracted to the shiny toy. I would again advise with a little caution because it’s the people behind the product that are more important – as well as setting realistic internal expectations the watch word is really rigorously test the support and services before you buy.
As a real example – if you’re shifting towards inbound marketing for events there’s a whole host of things you can do. But you will not do them unless you get the proper training, proper advise and proper encouragement because people will tend to revert to type and what they feel most comfortable with. Try and tease out of people the ability to get outside of their comfort zone and jump into the cold water – then when they find it’s not that cold as it appeared then they will start to add skills to their job and then you’re providing education to your internal staff – looking to provide training on the job.
RM: Thanks for that point. The final question and maybe an unfair one – what’s the ROI and how are you going to measure it? I know you’ve outlined the conversions when you backtrack but what would you say is the ROI of this community over a period of time?
JW: There’s one obvious ROI – the sales side we have an array of digital products we sell. Although it’s in it’s infancy at the moment and we’ve made some sales it’s not quite at a level where I could say we have a full return on investment. The other element is the money we save in marketing terms by creating an engaged community as opposed to having to always convert someone from scratch. That to me is the bigger part of the sell and the ROI - although it’s essentially a cost reduction rather than a revenue to provide a return on investment.
Yes we can make some sales – that’s not going to excite the CEO .. yet! But what might is the reduction in marketing budgets as we’re talking to people not shouting at them.
RM: And what we’re seeing is an efficient use of budgets – and perhaps more money is then devoted to testing out other channels.
John, I really appreciate your time and this is a really interesting story. I personally look forward to seeing out things pan out. Exciting to see an organisation jumping on the inbound bandwagon and already in progress with the community. If someone wanted to check you guys out – where can they find out more?
JW: Yes if anyone is interested in some of the things we’re trying to address and would like some advise they can email me – I think rather than just give you a website I’d rather people consider this as something where I could provide some consultancy (at no cost of course) – I’m more than happy to share the experience. Email firstname.lastname@example.org - then I can talk someone through what we’ve done and reveal some of the products and companies we’re using.
RM: Thank you for being open to this and helping us in educating other professionals in taking the inbound marketing jump .. thank you very much for such an insightful session.