Seven things I learned about organizing tech events

Earlier this year, I wanted to learn more about why certain technology meetups and gatherings in Philadelphia tended to draw hundreds of attendees, while very similar events failed to launch. Therefore, I sent out survey invitations to subsets of my contacts in the region and via the Philly Startup Leaders listserv.

The resulting sample’s nowhere near large enough to provide statistically sound data, though the conversion rate was pretty solid for a one-time ask. In fact, the diversity of the responses signals to me that this data’s good enough for a “gut check” about how I’m planning to work with our 2820 Press clients on events in the coming months.

Startups and small businesses dominate the event scene.

Although 2820 Press has clients that straddle both the Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 worlds, “Philadelphia tech scene” (at least the self-reported version of such) mostly consists of small-to-medium size companies. A handful of curious large businesses employ brand ambassadors as roving scouts, including a few of my direct clients. Some of these clients have told me that they use technology events to indentify new development talent; others look for potential business and investment opportunities. However, my data set suggests there’s about a 10:1 bias in favor of companies with fewer than 100 employees. The ratio actually shrinks to 7:1 when you move the cutoff to 10 employees.

Even tech “scenesters” make room for only a few events each month.

More than half of my sample said they attend technology events “a few times each month.” The next largest segment attends “rarely” or “a few times each year.” A very small number of respondents said they attend technology events “every week” or “a few times each week.” The strongest advocates for quality technology events in the city only spend a few hours each month attending those events. For new programming to successfully enter the market, it’s got to include content so compelling that attendees are willing to bump personal commitments. There’s not a lot of bandwidth.

Incumbents enjoy a strong share of event attention.

I gave respondents a list of 25 event series, and asked whether they had heard of those events, or actually attended any. Programming from Philly Startup Leaders and Technically Philly clearly dominated the list of events that respondents attended, or at least were aware of. StartupGrind, TechInMotion, and Philly New Technology Meetup tied for third. The rest of the pack was a distant peloton.

Respondents expressed the most brand recognition for GirlDevelopIt events, but admitted that they rarely attended their events in-person.

Consulting, marketing, and leadership are overrepresented in Philly’s tech scene, and underrepresented in its programming.

When I’ve analyzed technology events in places like Silicon Valley, Austin, or even New York City, the population of core technologists represented at events shoots way up. Philly’s scene, or at least the tip of the iceberg that we can measure so far, contains more than its expected share of consultants, marketers, and solo professionals who have assigned themselves C-level job titles. That doesn’t mean that these CXOs aren’t also coders. However, it indicates that:

  • Programmers and other highly technical professionals may be getting their social and professional development needs met elsewhere.
  • Philly has a large number of entrepreneurs who are wedging themselves into the technology space without necessarily coming from “tech” backgrounds.

This dovetails with anecdotal evidence I’ve heard about “idea guys” stumbling into coworking spaces, looking for technical co-founders.

People want events to bring attention to their projects and organizations.

Respondents told me overwhelmingly that they attend events for three key reasons:

  • “I want to sell my product or service.”
  • “I want more people to learn about my company.”
  • “I want to hear from people who have overcome similar hurdles to those I’m facing.”

Even though I don’t think one-off events are the best tool to build a long-term sales pipeline, I agree with respondents that there’s a benefit from being seen in the marketplace. If you can align your list of events with those attended by tastemakers, influencers, and investors, it can feel like you’re “everywhere.” That could be why we’ve seen a handful of incumbent event series propel themselves into orbit. If your event guest list doesn’t include angel investors, entrepreneurs with successful exits, or key journalists, you’re unlikely to attract more than a few dozen attendees.

Successful event = networking + presentation + socializing.

Despite all the conversation I’ve heard about the relative introversion of technology workers, my respondents were unanimous: events they attend must include all three of these activities:

  • Networking opportunities,
  • A formal presentation, panel discussion, or interview, and
  • Unstructured social time after the “content.”

That formula mirrors the usual rundown of the events my respondents told me they attend. It’s no surprise that events including just one or two of these elements fail to register on their radar. (That’s also evident in their attendance rates.)

Don’t even try to hold a technology event in Philadelphia without free food and booze.

Whales provide food for pilot fish, right? Respondents clearly feel the same way about food and drink at technology events. Basically, don’t even try to hold one if you don’t have a great spread. I learned two things from respondents on this subject:

  • It’s almost expected for large companies (think utilities, law firms, accounting firms) to “sponsor” snacks and open bars for quality technology events.
  • If an event has an A-list speaker, respondents might still come.

This logic extends to the price of participation, as well. In most of the markets where I have built event platforms, I’ve found that making an event free ends up filling your room with tire-kickers and unqualified leads. Charging just $5 for an event tends to focus your audience. However, a kind of scarcity mindset has set in among the broader “scene.” If you want attendees in large numbers, your event should be free, sponsored by a marquee brand, and include copious amounts of high-quality food and drink.

As a side note: I’m always concerned, based on personal bias and experiences, about whether offering alcohol at “work” events enables risky behavior or excludes some potentially excellent participants from industry conversations. My respondents did not feel the same way. Free food and alcoholic beverages are now considered “table stakes” for event hosts, even though this mindset presents some major challenges to diversity and inclusion.

What this means for you if you’re trying to make events part of your content strategy in Philadelphia.

I’m still a fan of using events as part of a comprehensive content marketing strategy for most kinds of businesses. However, I’m concerned that many Philadelphia technology companies lean too hard on attendance at the same events to drive new business. Likewise, the barriers to entry for developing new event series have grown pretty high.

For instance, I keep ending up in meetings where potential clients pitch me on developing new classes for folks to learn coding skills. On the face, a decent idea, especially if you can reach out to underserved populations. However, the technology community in Philadelphia has mostly indicated that they’ve solved this problem either through access to traditional learning (engineering degree programs at Penn and Drexel) or via online learning (Lynda or Stack Overflow). Heavy hitters like General Assembly and Skillshare failed to gain traction here.

Second, it seems like we’ve set the bar for event attendance as high as the “most famous person” in the room. Outside of Philly Tech Week, panels featuring mostly local entrepreneurs tend to fizzle, but not because of their content quality. It’s because there’s a perception that most folks “in the scene” are accessible to others in the scene, so unless you have a high profile guest or an active investor on the marquee, most potential attendees will discount your event’s value.

Finally—and here’s the good news—there’s an opportunity to cultivate smaller, routine meetups for highly targeted audience. They aren’t the best for new audience development, but they can meet some of our community’s needs related to fostering mentorship and building networks of connected professionals. If you want to be considered a thought leader in a very tight niche, there’s still room in Philly to pull together some tightly curated live experiences that can help you extend your personal brand.

For me, these findings validated some of my own feelings about how events were evolving in our neighborhood. I’ve been pouring more of my own energy into building podcasts on building businesses and running companies, under a thesis that the same amount of effort into evergreen content can do more for our business than trying to launch a live event.

The only sure-fire event strategy: hire an A-list keynote speaker.

However, if a client asked me today for a sure-fire strategy to get their brand in front of the area’s top technologists and money wasn’t an object, it’s an easy fix. Book a true A-list speaker/author/entrepreneur. My respondents were pretty clear in their side remarks about how Philly’s not usually on the book tour circuit for “successful” entrepreneur authors, nor do we get to see many Silicon Valley/Silicon Alley types take the time to interact with Philly audiences in public forums.

The Arts & Business Council has led the charge here, bringing Arianna Huffington, Peter Thiel, and Sheryl Sandberg to town over the past few years. However, most “A-list” speakers still end up at college/university events, rarely publicized off-campus unless a speaker actually opens up an invite via one of their social media streams. Philadelphia’s entrepreneurs may feel the need for external validation, or at least want to get a “grip-and-grin” photo from someone they’ve actually seen on CNBC, but the success of big-ticket speaker events in town suggests a clear path for event planners who want to put their (or a client’s) brand in front of a large audience of local innovators.

Joe Taylor Jr. has produced stories about media, technology, entertainment, and personal finance for over 25 years. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, and ABC News. After launching one of public radio's first successful digital platforms, Joe helped dozens of client companies launch or migrate their online content libraries. Today, Joe serves as a user experience consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 businesses. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *