The concepts for running a Lean Startup described by Eric Ries (twitter, blog) in his recently published book (The Lean Startup, Amazon) can also be applied to make a conference better by turning “ideas into products, measure how customers respond and learn whether to pivot or persevere [in your actions].”
Lean Startup principles can help you innovate an event’s marketing, experience design, program curation and many other activities in order to create a radically successful business.
Last week I delivered a workshop at frog‘s studio in Milan on how you can organize a better event by challenging it’s basic assumptions. I mentioned Eric Ries’ book and one of the designers –who’s currently working on concepts to improve a conference’s experience– asked me about how to apply the kind of lean practices that are usually used for software development to an event. This article expands the answer I gave her in that occasion.
A conference works very similarly to a startup. Even if it has been in the market for several years, every edition of the event is the result of iterations that try to move it towards something more attractive for attendees, sponsors, partners and speakers year after year. If you don’t build something your customers want (be it sponsors, attendees or other stakeholders) then you’re wasting your [surely scarce] resources… and might go out of business soon.
What is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) of an event? It can be many different things depending on which aspect of your event you’re considering. For example: an affiliates marketing campaign, the program, a mobile App or even a new website. The
The core of a Lean Startup is the BUILD-MEASURE-LEARN cycle. Ries writes that the “fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond and learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.” Actually the same is valid for a conference too!
“Because startups often accidentally build something nobody wants, it doesn’t matter much if they do it on time and on budget. The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build –the thing customers want and will pay for– as quickly as possible.”
Good metrics and reports are absolutely necessary for validated learning. Do you have the right kind of metrics? Ries reminds us that “metrics are people too” and that the reports we make to evaluate our progress should deal “with people and their actions, which are more useful than piles of data points.”
“Are we making sufficient progress to believe that our original strategic hypothesis is correct, or do we need to make a major change?”
Marketing, Communications and PR
This is one of the most suitable places to start with lean startup concepts as the marketing & sales campaigns for an event usually start well in advance, which gives you time to try and iterate through different MVPs. Consider social media channels like Facebook, Twitter or a newsletter. Are you basing your marketing actions on them just because everybody does it or because it really works?
Make shorter campaigns, act them fast and measure. What happened? Did someone react to them? If no one did, just scrap it and think of something else. But if a few dozen people did react, maybe there was something that worked. Find out what it was, improve it, try it again fast, measure… repeat.
Avoid Vanity Metrics (eg. number of Twitter followers, Facebook likes, etc) are a deadly sin for a conference. If you have 90,000 Twitter followers but your last campaign targeting them didn’t bring any sale (or other interesting result), then 90,000 is not a valid number to judge your actions by.
Be aware of value-destroying behaviors too (e.g. a conference that after years on the market still depends on massive payed advertising or funding to sell tickets but does not develop a value-creating product). While advertising is not evil per-se, in the long run you should be able to earn media presence or increase ticket sales through word-of-mouth.
If your marketing campaign is not working, don’t expect that it will just by magic. It might be time to pivot! “A pivot requires that we keep one foot rooted in what we’ve learned so far, while making a fundamental change in strategy in order to seek even greater validated learning.”
[UPDATE] Marketing Linchpin Seth Godin wrote an interesting article on his blog questioning the applicability of the “minimum viable product” to marketing (at least to certain cases). Well worth a read: When “minimal viable product” doesn’t work
Experience Design & Logistics
If your event takes place once a year, it might seem impossible to go through the build-measure-learn cycle. There are a few ways around it.
Organize smaller events throughout the year to try out new things. For example make free periodical meetups for your community. They could be short (a few hours) gatherings of past-attendees with a program component (a workshop by a sponsor, a lecture by an interesting past speaker) and a networking part (drinks, breakfast, etc). Not only would you increase customer loyalty, but also build buzz for the upcoming event. These events could be hosted at a sponsor’s office (they earn karma points) so the costs could be close to zero.
Another useful concept is that of Genchi Genbutsu which means to “go and see”. Conference organizers should “get out of the building” and see how their experiences are working. Are people engaging? I find it useful to film people at an event (e.g.: during registration, networking sessions, etc) to see how they’re interacting with the logistics we’ve created.
Some events fail because the program they put together (keynotes, workshops, etc) are not interesting to the potential attendees or sponsors. To prevent this you can go through the build-measure-learn cycle) by giving tidbits of your program to your community as soon as possible. Even more, share with them which speakers or companies you’re considering. Do they like it? Why spend time and money in trying to get that speaker that no one cares for. Ask for feedback well before the program is finalized and you might be able to put together one that’s more attractive (and sells better).
You probably will pitch to many sponsors. Again, the build-measure-learn cycle can help you raise your sponsor acquisition. Identify the MVPs that you’re pitching. Did something create interest in the sponsor? Did the budget meet their expectations? Don’t fossilize on just one sponsorship proposal. Make new proposals with new concepts, you don’t need to build anything (you’ll worry about that when they accept the proposal). At PICNIC we used to prepare several concepts for our sponsors, going through several iterations until we found the right one to sign a contract.
More on the Lean Startups philosophy