These days, it seems like a lot of companies are putting on conferences.
While they’re a ton of work, they’re a great way for companies to get closer to their customers.
This past year, we hosted, what became the largest remote work conference in the world. What follows is the story for how we planned, promoted, and made money from the conference.
You’ll learn everything that worked and you’ll learn what didn’t work. Basically, everything that happened behind the event marketing we did.
We’ll even show you how much money we made.
But I’ll save that for the end.
So, if you’re reading this, grab a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy our journey of planning, promoting, and running a conference.
Here’s the outline of the post. You can click on any of the points to skip to them:
- 4 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Location for Your Conference
- How to Identify Which Speakers You Want to Speak
- Community Partners
- Cold Outreach to Targeted Companies
- Sponsor Form on Website
- Create as Many Videos as You Can
Where to Host the Conference?
Once you’ve determined that you’re going to host the conference, you’ll need to determine where.
As a conference that caters to remote teams, we made the conscientious decision to avoid big cities like New York, Chicago, London, etc.
We wanted to keep the “remote” feel to our conference. That feeling of freedom. That feeling that in order to run your company, all you truly need is your laptop and an Internet connection.
We reviewed 3 major locations for the conference, Asia, Europe, and North America. Our goal was to find a destination since we’re dealing with individuals who are running 7 figure businesses.
We also wanted a place that would be easy to access for a large percentage of our Time Doctor customers who we knew were remote first friendly employers.
Here is a topographical breakdown of our current company owners for TD.
Based on this map, and these credentials, we settled on Bali. As fate would have it, the lead conference organizer, Egor Borushko, resides in Bali (it’s a tough life, but someone has to do it), and recommended a venue called Fivelements.
4 Questions to ask when choosing a location for your conference
When we were looking for a place to host our conference, certain criteria needed to be met outside of being “cool”.
Can it accomodate your guests?
Given that this was our first conference, we didn’t know exactly how many people would show up.
Between our own company, the speakers, and guests, we decided that the venue would need to comfortably hold 300 people.
This was important because if we thought that we’d have thousands of people attend, then fivelements would not be a good candidate to host our event.
Be realistic with how many people you think will attend, and search for a venue size accordingly. Start small, but high quality – don’t go for massive scale right away.
You see, there are two main ways conferences make money. The first way is through ticket revenue and the second way is through sponsorships.
After doing some research, we realized that it would take about 1,000 attendees for sponsors to pay “big” money to sponsor our conference.
We were very realistic in our chances of getting 1,000 attendees since this was our first ever conference.
So, we set a goal of 300 attendees. This would allow us to maximize attendee revenue. You can charge a high amount and provide attendees with a very intimate and exclusive experience that they don’t find at enormous conferences.
In the next 2 to 3 years, we will set a goal for 1,000 attendees to attract high ticket sponsors, however, we are going to do so strategically as to not water down the experience.
Is it appealing to your speakers?
Our goal from the start of the conference was to get the best speakers we could to present on remote work.
In our opinion, the quality of speakers determines the success (or failure) of the conference.
One of the things we learned as we went was just how big a role the venue played in courting our speakers.
For instance Wade Foster, who is the CEO and founder of Zapier responded with:
“Oh wow, that looks awesome! Let me check with my wife on the timing. :-)”
And here are a few video testimonials from speakers about the conference:
When you boil down a conference to its essence you simply need to get really good speakers and make sure everyone is fed and the venue is nice.
We determined that the quality of speakers are probably 80% of the success or failure of the conference so securing them is critical.
Can people get work done?
Because we’re hosting a remote conference, it’s easy to get carried away with just how remote the venue could be.
While we want our guests to be immersed in the conference, we also know that they have businesses to run, customers to serve, and employees to manage.
In other words, they still need to be able to get some work done.
We wanted to make sure that our venue would be able to accommodate and facilitate their business interests.
We actually spent an extra 560 dollars per day to improve the resort’s Internet access to try our best to accommodate everyone’s Internet needs. For next year, we plan to do even more to ensure the increased network capacity for our attendees.
Will people have a good time?
Last but not least, we wanted to make sure the event provides a unique experience and is a good time.
Whether you wanted to tour the jungle, indulge in local traditions, relax by the river, or take an early morning yoga class, our venue offered an experience that could appeal to both thrill seekers and those who want to relax at the same time.
Unlike other conferences we actually collected A LOT of data on this including ranking us per day for the event.
On average we got a 4.4 stars out of 5 for the event overall with a 4.1 for day one and a 4.4 for day two and 47% percent of attendees said they would come back 33% said they’d most likely attend with 20% saying it wasn’t likely that they would come back to attend.
How to Identify Which Speakers You Want to Speak
As I’ve stated before, one of the most important decisions we made was to focus heavily on getting the best speakers we could.
We got feedback from two separate sources and then used a formula to assess overall fit for the conference.
First, we ended up polling all our Time Doctor customers on who the biggest influencers are in remote work. The feedback we got was quite interesting. Here is the top five we got from our polling:
- Matt Mullenweg
- Tim Ferriss
- Jason Fried
- Joel Gascoigne
- Wade Foster
We realized that if we didn’t get at least one of these attendees from this list that we shouldn’t do the conference. Thankfully Joel and Wade were very interested in coming. Unfortunately, Wade had to drop out but Joel understood our vision for what we wanted to do and supported us with a blog post on his blog and social sharing.
Second, we had a lot of people that came in and requested to speak at the conference. We boiled down whether somebody should speak at the conference to two things.
- Do they had some kind of unique value/learning about remote work that our attendees would love to hear about?
- Can they drive ticket sales?
The first point was measured qualitatively, as an example Estonian E-residency wasn’t going to move tickets but it was really interesting and we wanted people to have access to that talk.
For ticket sales we looked at their social media, whether they were a leader in remote work and the most effective measure was how much traffic their personal name or company drove in terms of searches. Here is an example of where Joel sits:
Running a Remote Business
We didn’t want people who were going to speak on the “theories” of running a remote business.
We wanted people who were deep in the trenches. Entrepreneurs who’ve embraced the remote work culture and can speak from deep rooted experience.
We’ve gone to far too many conferences where the speakers would talk about business “theory”, either because they’ve never actually run a business before, or because it’s been a while since they have.
We truly wanted entrepreneurs and business operators who were doing it right now.
That’s why we also allowed non founders to speak at the conference if they had some incredibly unique thing to teach our community. For instance, Sarah from Dribble put together the best talk we’d ever seen on how to build a design team remotely.
Or operators inside of 9 figure remote friendly and remote first companies like Gitlab, Github or Atlassian. So basically if they were a 9 figure company we didn’t have a hard requirement on bringing in a founder, if they were not 9 figures we’d insist that the founder come.
Build a Brand Name
Building a brand is really hard…
I know this because we have two seperate brands right now: Time Doctor and Staff.com. Operating two at the same time is not ideal and adding a third brand, Running Remote, was something I was initially against.
However, we ended up choosing a separate URL and brand for the conference for two reasons.
First, I wanted to make a brand that could pull everyone in that’s currently building companies with remote first teams. There are a lot of equally relevant disagreements in the remote work industry regarding best practices.
I see the space divided into three subcategories:
- Tech startup remote teams who are focused on disruption and their primary driver for being remote first is to give their employees a unique employee perk so they don’t have to come into the office.
- Large scale outsourcing and BPO companies that are focused on hiring large swaths of labour in developing countries.
- Digital Nomads who travel the world and work as freelance consultants (there are already a LOT of conferences for these guys so we didn’t want to touch them that much).
So if we made it the Time Doctor or Staff.com conference then we’d only be pulling our own community into the tent and I wanted something a little more broad so that we could learn from a large diverse group.
Second, I really wanted to start a new marketing experiment where we could work canvas and website. This would allow us to find out where conversions were coming from if we ran a completely new campaign. We learned quite a bit! But that’s further down in this article.
So basically, we wanted a brand that would be broad and I wanted to do something fun 🙂
Help Us Sell Tickets
Finally, our initial goal was to get the speakers to help us sell tickets.
We offered discounts and sponsorships to speakers who would email their list of customers promoting Running Remote. (More on this later)
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Reaching Out to Speakers
Now that you’ve identified who you want to speak, it’s time to reach out.
And for us, our primary channel was Linkedin. (We did use Facebook messenger as well.)
We also used a lot of our personal network. About a quarter of our speakers were through personal connections that I think can’t be discounted if you don’t have any personal connections to start with.
Outreach Message to Speakers
We’d like to invite you to speak and take part in our conference focused on Remote Work!
I’m the international marketing guy at Time Doctor, a time-tracking app. As a fully REMOTE TEAM of 60+, we are one of the organisers of the event in tropical Bali, June 2018.
You’ll be joining other remote leaders such as the CEOs of Doist, Staff.com & Empire Flippers.
It would be a pleasure to forward you the speaker invitation, would you consider joining us in Bali?
LinkedIn Hacks for Effective Outreach
- Make sure you have a clean and updated profile first.
- Check whether the speaker is active on LinkedIn: recent shared/liked posts. If not active, use another channel.
- Try to connect with one of their connections first. When the potential speaker gets the request, the first thing they might check is “connections in common”.
- Subscribe for the trial account for 15 free inmail credits. With every reply you receive a credit back. We had a 30% response rate, so we sent 20 messages in total for free.
- Send a short message, not a long-winded pitch.
- Shortly after sending, hit the “Connect” button and add a note ”Hi XX, I sent you a message earlier. I’d love to connect with you!”. The recipient will get 2 inbox emails which gives your message more visibility and higher chance for response.
- Always finish the message with a Question
- Also, if you have mutual connections ask for a mutual introduction from your internal network. I’m leaving this as the last point because not everyone can do this but we definitely did do it in certain instances.
A few other notes that are worth mentioning on outreach for speakers. DON’T GIVE UP! If you don’t get a NO from somebody keep messaging them until you get a no.
The goal of the initial outreach is to get them to respond to you, not to get them to say yes to speaking right away, keep the messages short.
Sell people on the phone or on a video conference, if you’ve set up the right alignment for your conference speakers will probably say yes.
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How to Promote Your Conference
If you’re an experienced marketer, you probably have some thoughts on how you’d promote a conference.
We made several assumptions:
- We’d be able to market Running Remote to our customer base of several thousand remote employers.
- We’d run ads, primarily on Facebook, to sell tickets.
- We’d have our speakers email their email lists at discount rates.
So, how did all of this work out?
Let’s break it down.
Emailing our customers
Because our conference took place in Bali in June, we thought it was going to be hard to convince Americans to attend.
American businesses make up a large portion of our customer base at Time Doctor and we didn’t think we could count on them as ticket holders. So it was weird when we ended up being proved completely wrong!
Surprisingly, a whopping 23% of our attendees were from North America.
When speaking to people who made the trans-pacific flight to come to Running Remote, they were really excited about a conference like this that they’d never seen before. These folks ran multi million dollar businesses so didn’t care about spending 2-3k on a flight and hotel.
Some of our attendees flew business class and stayed at 500 dollar a night hotels and spent over 20k just getting here which really blew us away.
We also focused a significant amount of our digital advertising budget on the Australian market. This ended up being a great place to find attendees for the conference because the flight is approximately six hours and June is winter in Australia.
This was an advantage for the Australian market because getting to Bali in the middle of summer was just not feasible for most of our customers.
Kids are out of school, people are on summer vacations, and families typically want to spend the beginning of summer together.
Email Copy to our Customers
Title: Hi (name) Quick Question Re Running Remote
Would you like to meet Time Doctor in Bali for the Running Remote conference on June 23 to 24?
As customers of Time Doctor I wanted to give you our private discount of 30% off the regular price before the discount ends on May 13. (see discount code at the end of this email)
For those of you that don’t know, Running Remote is the world’s first conference for CEOs, Founders, and Project Managers who build and manage remote teams.
There is a powerhouse lineup of speakers from companies that are building remote first like:
- Flexjobs / Remote.co
- Time Doctor
This is a chance to network with other amazing founders who run remote companies. Plus it’s a really good excuse for a holiday in Bali…
To get the 30% discount (until May 13) use this coupon code on the checkout page: (insert coupon code here)
There are a few days left to get tickets at this price and work with the largest group of remote founders.
See you there!
This brings us to Facebook ads; which we had some mixed experiences with. Let me explain:
We spent $13,000 on Facebook ads and definitely did not see a positive return on investment. As far as we can tell, only one ticket sold can be attributed to Facebook advertising.
We did spend a large chunk of our Facebook Ads budget on community building. This drove quite a few conversations on the platform. In fact, 41% of our attendees first heard of us through Facebook and Instagram ads.
Unfortunately, conversation and first impressions are nebulous terms that hard to calculate the CPA of the Facebook ads.
That’s what I mean by mixed experience: Would the conference have been as big without Facebook ads? Probably not. But we don’t have any way of being sure of that.
Having Speakers Email Their Lists
If you’ve spotted the trend, then you’re quick to realize that having speakers email their lists was not very successful either.
We assumed that this was going to be the primary source of conversions for us but it ended up driving approximately 20% of ticket sales overall.
While we were able to sell some tickets this way, this strategy drastically underperformed our expectations.
And the reason was simple:
Business owners were reluctant to email their lists about the conference. After all, it was the first one we’ve ever hosted. How could they know if it was a good conference or not?
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The Two Channels That Provided Us the Most Ticket Sales
Now that you know what didn’t work, let’s talk about what did work!
Get on Podcasts
One of the most effective ways to get in the mind (and ears) of your audience is to appear on podcasts.
In the five months that we had to promote the event, we appeared on over 40 podcasts.
We targeted podcasts whose audience were entrepreneurs focused on building remote companies. Here is an example of Jaime Masters from Eventual Millionaire.
Our process for outreach was pretty simple, this was the initial message.
This was the followup.
If you want to check out how we manage the document for this outreach, check out this video.
We basically accepted any podcast that would have us and was willing to help us promote our conference. Doing 3-4 podcasts a day was a hard grind but they provided a great amount of backlinks for a brand new URL and having somebody listen to us for 30-90 minutes would always produce at least interest in the conference.
Reach Out to Sponsors
We were able to sell tickets via our sponsors promoting us in the newsletter, not our speakers. Sponsors did much more in terms of promotion in general.
Speaker names and companies spoke for themselves and sometimes gave us some love.
Would you be interested in getting exposure for Bolton Remote at Running Remote Conference 2018, attended by tech leaders and remote teams in Bali, June 23-24th? This is the first conference we’ve seen entirely focused on building remote teams.
These brands are taking part: Buffer, FlexJobs, Atlassian, Github, Dribbble, Balsamiq, Time Doctor & Sococo.
Would you consider promoting Bolton Remote and joining us in Bali?
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Additional Promotion Strategies
Create Community Partners
One of our favorite promotion strategies is to create community partners.
It turns out, a lot of people wanted to be a part of the conference in some way, even if they didn’t want to commit to paying for a sponsorship.
This led us to our main channel for promoting the conference: The Community Partner.
This was a low barrier sponsorship tier, which allowed partners to join in exchange for promotion.
Depending on the size of the partner, sometimes we asked for a blog post & newsletter mentions, but sometimes a social media post only.
This allowed us to get a lot of tweets, shares, and quite a bit of social proof from influencers before the conference even began.
Cold Outreach to Targeted Companies
One strategy that we didn’t want to overlook was simply reaching out to remote companies. Yes, this means we were literally selling one ticket at a time. But it paid off.
We paid researchers to collect names and email addresses for anyone interested in a remote work conference. This led us to compile a list of 2500 remote companies around the world.
We then got one of our outreach specialists to reach out to every single one inviting them to get involved.
Many bought tickets, became partners and even a Gold Sponsor – Heetch – came out of his campaign.
Moreover, we are now going to publish the world’s largest directory of remote companies for free to the public.
Having an epic leads database can have many applications and is a starting point.
Besides being active and doing outreach, we also had a few other promotional strategies to find speakers and sell sponsorships and tickets.
Sponsor Form on Website
When we first launched our website, we put up a “speaker request” form. This created over 40 inbound speaker requests.
While we didn’t accept everyone who requested to be a speaker, several of these folks became sponsors and attendees to our event.
Important to mention, not all sponsors paid money. We set out to build a community so we told most sponsors that we either prefer an in-kind position, such as using their product/service in for free (e.g. Slido).
But in many cases we would offer sponsorship slots in exchange for a promotion through the sponsor’s networks.
Some decided that it was easier to pay us than do the work, which we happily accepted as well.
The more niche sponsors and partners you have the better you are connected to the community which equals more potential attendees.
Create as many videos as you can
Video content was the best form of promotional content for Running Remote. We had the speakers to record personal video greetings that were approximately 1 minute long.
That way when people came to the site through the podcasts or other means, there was social proof that this was THE conference to attend on remote work.
We also had a professionally made trailer highlighting the conference details and the beautiful location which we threw together in pretty much two days. Here is that initial trailer we launched.
Finally, we gave free tickets to writers in return for publishing articles about us. We had 3 such agreements and all those writers write about remote work.
Recruiting volunteers can help with marketing.
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When can you expect to see tickets move?
This honestly scared the living crap out of us.
When you put up a significant amount of money, build a team around a conference and tell everyone you’re going to do a conference you just have to commit to the project.
Our breakdown of ticket sales over the months were quite concerning. From the little experience I have in talking with other conference attendees some people said you’ll sell 50% of your tickets within the last month, some said 70%…
So it’s pretty stressful when you’re 30 days out and you haven’t sold 70% of your tickets!
We found that our results were actually pretty different from what other conference experts were telling us.
It might have been because 90% of our attendees were from outside of Bali so perhaps they had to make travel plans at least a month beforehand.
But regardless I would use the following breakdown in ticket sales if you’re running a destination conference event.
Here is an approximate breakdown.
- January – 9% of tickets sold
- February – 19% of tickets sold
- March – 30% of tickets sold
- April – 15% of tickets sold
- May – 28% of tickets sold
- June – 10% of tickets sold
We did a very heavy promotion during March and we moved into a larger venue about 2 months before the event started because we ran out of space at our first venue and were projecting higher turnout in June based on feedback we received.
However, we were honestly quite disappointed at how few tickets were sold during that last critical month.
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Here’s the question you’re all asking…
How much did we make during the conference?
Yup, you read that right, we lost almost $2,000 putting on Running Remote. We also estimate that we lost another $10,000 in time spent on the conference and additional opportunity costs.
There are several items we spent money on, like $13,000 in Facebook ads, that if we eliminate would make this a profitable conference.
Here is the total cost:
If you want to check the breakdown of all the costs, you can download it here.
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Was it worth it?
Even though we lost a few bucks, we consider the conference a success and will be hosting Running Remote in 2019. And next year, we will be profitable. Sense of community building is priceless and that’s the main reason conferences exist.
However, here’s why it was all worth it:
Liam, our CMO, has been invited to speak at several conferences which has directly attributed to an additional $48,000 in annual recurring revenue for Time Doctor.
We have greatly deepened our strategic partnerships with several companies and are creating product offerings that will pay dividends in 2019 and beyond.
One of our top speakers is closing an $8 million dollar deal with a Fortune 500 company.
And finally, we’ve procured trials with enterprise level customers who are interested in using our software to manage their remote teams.
Beyond that, we want to be seen as THE leader in managing remote teams, so it’s important for us to run a conference on the subject.
The conference helps to build our brand and reputation in the remote work space.
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What’s the Marketing Plan for 2019?
We estimate that about a third of our budget was wasted simply on experimental spend that didn’t end up producing a good return on investment.
So we’re going to try to become more efficient in our spend while still scaling the conference to 500 attendees as a target.
Here are a few things we’re planning on doing.
- Generally if you hit a 50% alumni rebills by next year that’s a good indicator that you’re going to be able to at least hold on to your initial numbers and exceed them, we sold almost 20% of our 2019 target on stage at last year’s event and we’re on target to hit our 50% target by December based off projections.
- Use what we learned from last year and launch marketing 3 months earlier than last year. Get more efficient outbound ppc spend, particularly on facebook which wasn’t as successful as we wanted it to be. Decreasing the CPA from $491 to approximately $116.
- Focus on getting the remainder of our 2018 alumni excited about 2019 by spreading the word. Referrals are the best source of traffic so keeping in touch with that community will be critical.
- We’re building a lot of educational content around remote work on our YouTube Channel as well as posting all our talks for free to get people interested in 2019.
- We’re going to implement more price increases. Everytime we did a price increase we’d get a pulse of ticket sales, so adding more of those bumps will enable us to move more tickets earlier. We will have LESS price decreases than in 2018.
- What’s totally new for 2019 is the PRESALE TICKET LAUNCH. Nobody can buy unless they register first. Once they register they get a private link sent out. A 2-step process might provide better traction that a direct buy.
- We’ve introduced Team Pricing, since we had many group purchases of 2-5 tickets. The more you buy, the more you save. And our event needs teams!
- Partnering with a Media Agency that will help us reach deliver our story to top media outlets.
- Out of the box partnerships – we are talking to WWF at the moment. The theme would be “remote work is environmentally friendly”. They have a massive PR reach. Running a multifaceted advertising campaign across multiple platforms will be important. So we won’t just target Facebook but we will have multiple video ad assets that will culminate in Youtube, Facebook and Instagram Direct marketing ads to buy a ticket before prices increase after we have sent them an awareness campaign.
- We built a ticket giveaway using Gleam which you can check out here and win a free ticket! (expires December 5)
- We are handing out a free ticket to each speaker and getting them to find creative ways to give that ticket away to gain exposure.
- Reaching out to any sponsor or speaker from 2018 and getting them to help us spread the word particularly through emails for 2019 ticket sales.
- Do another round of podcasts starting in January about the conference. Also, speaking at other conferences on being a digital nomad has been useful in building partnerships and moving tickets. Here is an example where Egor joined as one of the mentors in Startup Weekend.
- Hosting our own booth at Australia’s largest tech conference, StartCon and running a separate win-a-ticket contest there by collecting leads.
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In this video, I go into detail as to how we planned our event successfully and not getting bankrupt.
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Liam Martin is a co-founder of Time Doctor—a time tracking and productivity monitoring software designed for tracking hours and productivity of remote teams.