It's true: Everyone loves a party. But a club-worthy playlist and signature cocktails are not the real reason companies, from Fortune 500 to early-stage startups, throw events. They do it with one main goal: to maximize face time with current clients, future clients and potential investors, advertisers or sponsors. When executed well, events are ideal opportunities to tell a company's story—the who, what, where, why, and how of a brand's mission, projects, and plans.
If you're producing an event, it's essential that attendees leave with more than a swag bag. They need to take the company's story with them when they go home.
“A good time is great, but what is the actionable return?" is the question that event producer Kevin Lei says planners should always ask themselves. “You want attendees to think, 'How can I be an agent of change for this brand's mission? What can I do next?'"
To find out how to master the art of being a brand storyteller, we asked event planning experts what the keys to their success are.
1. Ask the Right Questions
You never want an attendee or a sponsor to leave an event and think, "What was the point of that?"
“Before you share your vision with a client, ask them, 'What do you want us to convey? What is your messaging?'" advises Dona Stewart, VP of event management for the National Urban League, who has more than 15 years experience in event production. “And then program the event around that entire message—always returning to what they said as you come up with ideas."
Stewart is currently producing the annual conference for the National Urban League, a civil rights organization. Corporate sponsorship is a key component of the group's approach, so she must figure out how best to incorporate sponsors' messaging into the event. This year's theme is powering the digital revolution.
“Everything has to focus around the tech space and the people who are in it," says Stewart. “If the theme was health, we might do a panel on mental health, but we could also bring in a big bus where attendees could get their blood pressure taken. “
2. Build Connections with the Brand's Mission
When event producer Kevin Lei planned an event for the Black Angel Tech Fund, an investment fund that describes itself as “the antidote to the so-called 2 percent problem in Silicon Valley," he wanted to find a way to show how the lack of diversity in tech impacts everyone's lives.
“On large screens around the event space, we showed all of the apps created by people of color and ones that were not—but all were apps that are used in everyday lives. It was a powerful connector for attendees," Lei explains. “Present the brand in a way that makes it relatable and actionable in the life of the attendee. Why? Because people need to see themselves in the brand's mission."
3. Be Innovative—But Not Trendy
You always want to create a strong message, but you need to make sure its tone syncs with the brand. “The look, feel, and overall experience of any event must match the core of the client," says Lei. If your event touches on serious real-world issues, for example, skip the photo booths and sparkly decor.
Innovation will mean something different to each event, industry, and audience. The best way to determine your audiences' expectations is to keep an open feedback loop during and post event. Technology has enabled access to feedback, suggestions, and concerns in real-time which is good news for making your event innovative in the ways that matter most to your attendees.
4. Don't Over-Extend Your Budget
The key to throwing a great event isn't just knowing why you are putting it on—it is having a budget that allows you to properly execute it. And if you don't have the budget you need, adjust your ideas without losing focus.
“Say you fight and fight for a bigger budget, but don't get one," says Stewart from the National Urban League. "Now you can't afford five panelists, so bring in two for a more intimate discussion. But those two have to be really remarkable, well known and absolutely on message for what the client wants to convey with the event."
5. Attend Other Events—And Take Notes
Bringing in the best speakers and panelists requires a lot of legwork.
“Sometimes I find people through word of mouth, but mostly it's research and networking," says Stewart. “I read business magazines in the field in which I need experts. And I will also attend conferences like SXSW to see who is cutting edge and engaging."
Do the hard work necessary to find quality speakers by getting out there and seeing firsthand how well they perform at other events. Make mental—or written—notes of everyone who wows you. Even if you can't use them in your current project, maybe you can tap them for a future event.