Over at iMedia (where I’ve been cross posting for a couple weeks now), a thoughtful commenter pressed me on my advice about holding a thought leadership event even when you’re early in your product or company evolution:

I think your fireside chat [with a thought leader] example is too idealistic. Where does this thought leader come from? Where do you find 100 people who are remotely enough interested in a product they know nothing about to attend such an event? Invitations to these events are just like your previously mentioned press releases… they get lost in hundreds of the exact same jargon filled messages.

Good question. Answer:

Don’t hold an event about your product, hold an event about your movement. You’re on a mission from God.

This commenter is totally right. Invitations to events about products get lost in the shuffle. People get pitched about products all the time, why would they spend their free time going to an event where they get more of the same?

Define your movement in terms bigger than your product and your company. Define something that leads to your customer getting promoted.

Quick story. Back in mid-2009, the online ad tech industry’s conversation was shifting toward real-time bidding and a myriad of other buzzwords that get written about a zillion times more than they did back in 2009 (we’re talking pre-Kawaja chart here). Back then, there were actually no events that talked about real-time bidding (I swear there weren’t; John Ebbert can probably back me up on this one). I was at Dapper then, over a year before the acquisition and just as we had our business model figured out. Our real-time bidding product was, at best, in its infancy. We were ‘nobody.’

Yet there was a movement out there. We sold dynamic ads. You know, ads that actually show you content that changes based upon your interests. Some of them didn’t look like ads at all, and we thought “sh*t, this is what we should be crusading about. Destroy the ad unit. Ads suck.”

So I launched a podcast called “Advertising Sucks.” The name raised some eyebrows, but the guests got people listening. A couple thousand people who didn’t know who Dapper was were subscribing to Advertising Sucks. But saying something sucks isn’t a movement. It might have struck a nerve, but you can’t build on a nerve alone. Your movement has to be part of the solution, not just call out the problem.

Mercifully, the name changed to “Fixing Advertising,” because that’s how we saw our product. By showing real content instead punch-the-monkey, we fixed much of the reason why “Advertising Sucks.” But the idea of Fixing Advertising was always way bigger than the product we had, and in fact our product might never truly live up to the promise (as it’s now part of The Borg). Doesn’t matter. The moment we created our movement, we could fill a room with the right people. We put people on stage we didn’t even work with yet. We began working with many of them. People were taking our calls not because we had the best dynamic ad product, but because they liked to be seen as someone who is ‘fixing’ advertising.

Our approach worked well because it was a new market that hadn’t developed its B2B marketing side. Thus there was no public conversation yet. I agree with my commenter that this idea wouldn’t work in the current noisy ad tech market, because we’re inundated with these kinds of events. It’s a mature market, with a clear set of market leaders. BUT-

“If you’re not in the top 3, resegment.” (Brad Feld)

Brad Feld’s great advice is especially relevant when defining your movement. If you’re in a mature market where there are a well-defined set of leaders (say, CRM software in the late 90s?), your movement should be a re-segmentation of the market. In fact, “Fixing Advertising” was actually a re-segmentation of the mature ad tech market, distinct from portals and ad networks and favoring transparent, accountable technology platforms. An immature market emerged to challenge a mature market. Salesforce.com emerged to challenge and resegment a mature CRM software market, and their movement was clear, catchy, and exciting.

That’s the strategy of how to drive signups to an event, even if you’re nobody. In later posts, I’ll get more into the tactics, but if you get this idea right (and you do it before your competitors do), you’ll never have a problem getting that thought leader up on stage, and getting those buyers in the room.

Summary:

  1. Your event should never be about your company or your product. It should be about your movement (your logo should be tiny).
  2. If you define the right movement (it should be about ‘the future of [X]‘), you’ll have no trouble getting buyers to want to be a part of it, as well as speak on stage on its behalf (in fact, this should be far easier than selling to them)
  3. If your market is too mature for ‘yet another event series,’ define a new market. Resegment. Launch your movement & event series to prove why this new segment is the future of that old, mature market.