Does Event Marketing Still Work?

Business owners often assume that in-person events—like trade shows, conferences, expos, and networking events—are fast becoming irrelevant in today’s virtual world. And to be honest, sometimes it can feel like events are just opportunities for employees to slack off and relax at your company’s expense. When you take into account the price of attending or exhibiting plus travel costs and lost time from work, are industry events really worth it?

The answer: It depends.

It’s true that many companies attend events year after year without seeing any tangible ROI. And it’s possible that for companies who don’t really put much thought into these events, they may be a waste of time. But if you plan correctly and execute cleanly, then the answer is a resounding YES. 


Meeting Offline

Live digital events are becoming more and more common, and they can work. For example, Dunkin Donuts put out a Facebook Live video on Valentine’s Day that showed viewers how some of their products are made, and then ended with a huge donut-themed wedding cake. It garnered 43,000 live viewers, and many more after the live broadcast ended.

The same is true in the B2B world. Zendesk and Okta both pivoted quickly in 2020 to create fantastic virtual events for their industries (customer service and software, respectively).

But all the digital interaction in the world can’t replace face-to-face contact. In-person events are unique in their ability to humanize your brand, converting an impersonal company into real people with authentic personalities. Events also pose valuable opportunities to…

  • Bump into new prospective clients.
  • Bump into new prospective partners.
  • Meet and strengthen your relationships with the people with whom you already do business.
  • Meet peers who have struggled with — and found solutions to — the same issues as you. 
  • Expose yourself and your employees to new ideas, new products, and new production methods.
  • Boost your employees’ morale.
  • Gift your employees with top-of-the-line “professional development”—keynotes, breakout sessions, panel discussions, and other immersive learning experiences.

Depending on the format of the event, it can even act as a chance for buyers to try out your products, discuss pain points with knowledgeable company representatives, and develop increased loyalty to your brand.


Doing Event Marketing Right

So yes, all serious businesses should allocate some time (and money) toward event marketing done right. 

But how exactly do you do an event “right”? Here are a few basic steps you can take in order to gain the most from any event.

  1. Choose the right event. An event that casts a wider net might be useful if you are trying to build brand awareness, but a more targeted event will often generate more leads. To get the most bang for your buck, you’ll need to focus your resources correctly. Often, I see companies who get excited by the large national or international shows. While there is a lot of “buzz” around these shows, often the thunder gets stolen by the largest brands who can afford to pull out all the stops with mind-blowing displays, giveaways galore, and private parties for their clients and prospects. For small-to-midsized companies, often it’s a better bet to aim for local or regional events, where you can stand out. For example, a nursing home operator would gain much more from an ECAP conference than from a more generic, international healthcare-related conference.


  1. Consider your goals. Many businesses attend events because “we always go,” or “because our competitors are going,” or even because “I’m sure we can make something happen.” You can do better than that. Sit down and assess: Is your main goal to get press coverage? To establish a relationship with industry influencers? To meet with prospective customers or clients? To solidify your relationship with existing clients or suppliers? 

For example, you can tell that organic meat company Applegate is looking to build brand awareness by this creative booth design. It highlights the company’s natural roots and creates a farm-to-table feel.

Gelato Fiasco achieved a similar result by equipping their booth with a throw rug, a furnace, and an old pair of skis, while dressing their team members in flannel shirts and vests.

  1. Build your strategy. A strategy starts with a goal, and includes metrics that you can use to determine whether attending the event was a success. Examples:
  • We are going to get ten qualified leads.
  • We are going to come back with three meetings scheduled.
  • We are going to get $500,000 in orders written.
  • Our employees will each go to three educational sessions.

These metrics should be aligned with your goals. For example, if your main goal is lead generation, you can project how many qualified leads you aim to secure. If your main goal is connecting with vendors, your strategy might include a number of meetings you have scheduled with them. If your emphasis is on employee education, require them to deliver a “report” on at least X takeaways or new ideas they gained. While brand awareness is more difficult to quantify, you can still measure the number of attendees who came to your booth or the swag you distributed.

For example, when mattress company Sleep Number attended CES 2018, they went all-out to get buyers to try their newest products. They allowed expo-goers to try their mattresses right in the middle of a busy event where they’d been on their feet all day. This made it easy to track product impressions, since they could easily count how many passersby decided to take a rest!

  1. Add some creativity. How can you create a memorable experience for your target buyers or potential partners? How can you truly make your current customers feel like a million bucks? 

Levi’s found one answer to this question at the 2016 Superbowl. As is true at many conventions or other events, transportation between the hotel and the event location can be difficult. Levi’s capitalized on this need by offering free pedicab rides to attendees.

Don’t have the budget to do something big like Levi’s? No problem. Think outside of the box, and you can easily come up with a budget-friendly idea that will meet your goals. For example, Perky Jerky had a similar goal of exposing trade show attendees to its products. Rather than confining their company to a booth, they had one team member circulate the floor covered in samples of their products.

  1. Plan and execute. Now that you have your goals and strategies in mind, you’ll need to start planning the nitty-gritty details about how to meet your objectives. Who should you send? For how many days? What should each person’s role be? (Do you need someone to man the booth? Attend meetings? Post about the event on social media? Upload leads into your CRM?) Designate a point person to be responsible for logistics and budget. Create a shared master spreadsheet to ensure that details don’t slip through the cracks – and that nobody goes over budget.


  1. Follow up. Shortly after the event, hold a “debriefing meeting” to discuss what worked…and what didn’t. And of course, it’s essential that you follow up quickly with any contacts that you made at the event. Neglecting follow-up is an extremely common error — but without it, all of your efforts are nearly worthless. You worked so hard to get leads; now is where you turn them into customers. 


So, does event marketing still work? Yes, if you do it right. Stay focused on your goals, think creatively, and develop a workable plan of action that you can stick to before, during, and after the event.

This is part 4 in a series that addresses various aspects of marketing that might seem old-fashioned, irrelevant, or ineffective. But when used correctly, they work very well — maybe better than more trendy marketing media. This post examines whether marketing events are becoming obsolete. Part 1 asked the same question about print marketing, Part 2 about direct mail, and Part 3 about outdoor advertising. See all the articles in the series here.