I do a lot of speaking events these days. I’m actually writing this article from an empty little airport in Brainerd, Minnesota. I just presented a session on Direct Mail at AIGA Design Camp. The event draws hundreds of designers every year to the charming and rustic Grand View Lodge and Resort. I’m on my way home, and I finally have some time on my hands as I wait for my flight.
No more nerves
It’s almost hard to remember back when I used to get nervous – crazy nervous – before an event. I would fret about it for weeks, breaking into cold sweats and wishing desperately to be on the other side of it and on my way home. That was 10 years ago. These days I barely have a butterfly in my stomach before I hit the stage.
I don’t know if it’s all of my Fold Factory video work over the past few years, or if it’s the frequency in which I speak to crowds, large and small, or if it’s just the confidence that comes with really knowing your content, but it’s gotten a lot easier – and a lot more fun, thankfully. It also helps that the printing industry is quite welcoming in general. I also find comfort in knowing that often the audience includes people who watch my videos and appreciate my work. They show up excited and ready to learn.
Eureka! Printers are finally getting it
I have seen a lot of changes over the years. Although there are still some printers out there who see themselves as “just the printer,” more and more I’m seeing printers who are getting deeply involved in creating a top-notch learning experience for their customers. It has taken a while, but printers are finally realizing that they can stay top of mind and build relationships if they bring valuable learning experiences to their customers and if they can be seen as a team member, and a provider of solutions (for print and other forms of media), rather than as a place to print stuff. The other driver seems to be the inability to get face time with customers these days. Events become the draw, and the opportunity to show off their skills and remind customers of their capabilities and willingness to help.
Printers are starting to pull out all the stops for their events, creating a “designerly” experience for their customers with engaging and creative event invitations and following through with a cool venue, fun goodie bags, large-format event signage, often hors d’oevres or a meal and drinks, and an enlightening presentation filled with valuable information that addresses the challenges their customers face. Printers have finally realized that their customers really do not want to sit on a folding chair in a windowless room of a print facility to watch a PowerPoint presentation. They are learning to create an experience that their customers will want to attend, and that investment is really paying off for them.
One great example of this movement was billed as the printForum, hosted by Rider Dickerson in Chicago in September, during PRINT 13. They put together a day of speakers and I was this year’s luncheon keynote. In addition to the lunch, there was a vendor reception with lots of great materials to take with you, and great content. They had a few hundred in attendance. Within the past few weeks in Atlanta, Prographics and Standard Press each hosted fabulous educational events that brought in crowds of 150-plus.
Choose the right topic, and not only do these events draw a crowd they draw a big crowd – a quality crowd that is not just there for a free lunch and the tchotchke. As a matter of fact, these people come early, they take lots of notes and even photograph the slides with their smartphones. They stay late to ask questions, too. It’s pretty amazing.
I do a lot of events for Sappi Fine Paper. I speak on my own or with the amazing Daniel Dejan, Sappi’s North American ETC Print/Creative Manager. I’m on my second big project with Sappi after providing the content for Standard #4: Scoring and Folding a few years back.
We recently collaborated on a new Sappi direct-mail publication called ACT NOW! and Daniel and I have been touring to share information about how to create mail that performs. We were in New York City at the Art Directors Club in early October and we actually had a waiting list, because registration was at capacity. Almost 200 were there that night. If you would like to see us present live, or get a free copy of the publication, contact your Sappi rep to learn more.
Breaking new ground
This summer, I crossed into the world of online education. I gave two live, 90-minute presentations on creativeLIVE.com – one session was on direct mail, the other was on creative folded solutions. It was fun, and a little scary and everything in-between. Even my parents were watching me from their little desktop computer in Rochester, New York – yikes!
I was in Seattle in a studio with producers, camera operators and hosts. Questions came in live from the online chat rooms, and there was a small in-studio audience, too. The events were free for anyone to watch on the day of the event, and now theses sessions are available in the creativeLIVE store. It was a fabulous experience. I am actually invited back to creativeLIVE this December.
The cool thing about that event was that it was a bridge for me. creativeLIVE’s audience is different than the groups I usually present to. There are lots of creative entrepreneurs, photographers, people who have creative careers, and even those that are just sharpening their skills or hobbyists.
What I’m seeing is that there is a real hunger for meaningful information in the industry (and in any industry, I imagine). For example, although there is so much potential for mail and digital print combined with other forms of media for a true cross-channel marketing experience, the how is very overwhelming for people who used to be able to buy a mailing list, send a mail-piece, count responses and repeat. For people who are just starting their careers, there is a critical foundation of practical knowledge that just is not taught in academia.
There is a lot of confusion over acquiring, gathering and managing of data, and understanding how to leverage it. There is confusion about what can and cannot be done with mail from a format perspective, and how to avoid costly mistakes while staying creative and engaging. There is discovery in learning about the strategic side of the process – the written word and the positioning of the offer, which is eye-opening for people. It’s also a challenge to cover mail requirements without putting an audience to sleep. It can be done, however (wink, wink).
Audiences want an information-packed, in-person or online experience that fits their schedule and is respectful of their time. It needs to be in an accessible format or in a comfortable venue. They love having something tangible to take with them – for future reference, and for proof to their coworkers that they were not shopping or napping during the hours they were away.
Audiences want people who are easy to listen to, can answer questions, and provide solutions. They do not want to be overwhelmed with details and dry, overly wordy PowerPoint slides. More visuals, fewer words, lots of examples, powerful statistics and case studies will do the trick. That’s the formula.
Advice for a successful event
My advice to everyone who wants to put on an outstanding event is to talk to your customers and identify the pain points they have and the topics they want to learn about. Focus on a few (or even one) high-quality events per year and bring in speakers that will engage and educate the crowd. Whether it’s me, or another experienced speaker from the industry, it’s great to bring attendees someone they would not otherwise have easy access to.
When it comes to marketing, do not just send an email blast – market the heck out of the event. Give it a catchy name, show off your skills with a well-designed invitation and maybe offer an easy online registration process. Have your sales team follow up with their customers to remind them to attend and to build excitement. Keep the quality and the energy up from the moment the invitation goes out to the moment the event is over and the last person leaves.
The worst events are the ones where the intentions are good, but the details are overlooked, the momentum fades, and the corners are cut. Think of it like a wedding: Put together the best event you can for the audience size that you can afford. If you cannot afford to do a high-quality event for 150 people, then try for a high-quality event targeting your 50 best customers.
I hope this is helpful to everyone. I’ll see you on the road!