An Event Planning & Marketing Checklist for Startups

Godzilla Plans His Attack

I hear “Let’s do a big event!” as a marketing solution for startups more frequently nowadays. This sentence is often followed with “But we don’t want to spend anything,” “The community manager should totally have the bandwidth to plan this all out tomorrow,” and “Make sure TechCrunch covers it.”

Consider this blog post a textual version of future-you running across the street towards present-day you, arms waving, frantically yelling, “Stop! You’re about to make a huge mistake!” You’re smart, you’re capable, you’re competent, and that means you possess the potential to pull off a successful event. But if you have little to no experience in event planning and marketing, and your startup is flirting with the idea, you’ll need to consider a few things before you overwhelm yourself and your unsuspecting team.

The concepts and questions in this 5-Minute Marketing guide cover all types of events from small Meetups to large trade shows. Whether you’re sponsoring, attending, or hosting, the same problems will forever be on your shoulder: Goals, Bandwidth, and Budget. I’ve also written a few short sections below about “How do I get this all for free?” (thanks to @jenna for the idea) and “When should you outsource?” (thanks to @elof). Got more questions/suggestions/wanna fight about it? Feel free to email me, and I’ll add your wisdom here.

Start here with this simple flowchart I created. (I’ve also created a simple Google Doc template with a checklist and event planning sheets. To use, go to File > Make a Copy.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 10.30.15 PM

Define Your Goals & Metrics

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”  — Sun Tzu

Claiming you want to “gain exposure” isn’t sufficient reason for sponsoring, hosting, or attending an event. You can gain exposure from doing all sorts of silly and off-brand things, but the goal “gain exposure” doesn’t answer the question, “why is this event different from all other events?”

Here’s a short list of event goals you could pick and measure:

  • Goal: Convert X number of new users. Measure: Signups at the event, or as a result of the event.
  • Goal: Acquire X number of new leads. Measure: How many email addresses or business cards you collected from qualified parties.
  • Goal: Recruit new employees. Measure: How many qualified people expressed interest/followed up.
  • Goal: Increase social media following and engagement. Measure: How many new followers/fans you received during the event (make sure you can verify that it’s due to the event). See how many attendees mentioned you. Compare the number of mentions of your brand to mentions of other event sponsors.
  • Goal: Get featured in X number of media pubs attending or tracking the event. Measure: Which pubs wrote about your presence/booth/speaking slot at the event? Did you speak to the journalist covering the event? …Were any journalists present? (Note: No one owes you coverage. Consider which events are most likely to create a compelling story that a reporter would actually care to write about.)
  • Goal: Solidify relationships with key influencers. Measure: How many times did you hang out with them at the event? Do they want to meet up again or were they super creeped out by your desire to “synergize proactively”?
  • Goal: Make your branded swag the best swag. Measure: Did you run out of all your swag because it was so popular? Did you see people wearing your brand t-shirt during the event?

And so on.

Before you consider any additional goal, you need to define what table stakes are to you. Making sure the event is on-brand should definitely be table stakes. If you’re a family app, you probably shouldn’t sponsor a wild, alcohol-fueled shindig no matter how much you like the organizers (or even if you plan to attend for fun). Somewhat related, if you’re B2B, should you really be looking at that neat-o B2C event?

Table stakes might also mean that you have a speaking slot, a booth, access to an attendee list, or extra tickets for your team to attend. If you can’t receive your most basic needs, don’t do the event.

Verify the Point Person’s Ability

Don’t assume your otherwise reliable team member knows how to plan an event. Don’t assume they know how to evaluate venues, attract attendees, set up an event registration page, arrange catering while considering attendees’ dietary restrictions, contract security, test Wifi, check for ample power, write a non-harassment policy, recruit speakers, count the number of available bathrooms and parking spots, rent furniture, hire janitors, follow safety guidelines including clearing the way for fire exits, obey legal restrictions…

Your otherwise reliable team member may be capable, but they might not have ever organized or sponsored an event before. Make sure they know what they’re doing and that they have the bandwidth, resources, and team support to get it done. If you or they or no one else on the team has that expertise, consider hiring a short-term contractor or, heck, ask people on Twitter for more pointers. Experimenting with something new is encouraged, but minimizing waste is essential especially with limited budget and time. Start small and iterate.

If you’re sponsoring rather than hosting, don’t assume the organizer knows what they’re doing unless they have a proven track record. When attendees show up and the Wifi doesn’t work – and you’re the special Wifi sponsor – guess who they’ll blame? On that note, if you’re sponsoring, make sure you have details of your sponsorship in writing. You’d be amazed how many startups don’t do this. Good fences make good neighbors, and good contracts make good partnerships.

Budget What You Need

You don’t need to spend a lot to accomplish key marketing goals. Heck, you could sponsor a solid Meetup for $300 (or bring a keg) and land new business. My own Meetup, SF Nightowls, has had such sponsors as PubNub, Mashery, Apigee, HP, and Zappos do just that.

But if you’ve set your heart on big time sponsorships or hosting your own event, be sure you budget appropriately. A couple hundred won’t cover Moscone. A couple hundred won’t cover Wifi + catering + power + staff + furniture. Also consider how many other events you want to sponsor/host. Spending $5,000 (or even $500) here and there adds up quickly.

Google Docs Template

Reading this blog post means you’ve read enough to get started planning or sponsoring events. As another way to help kickstart your efforts, I’ve created a simple template you can copy to help you assess whether or not you should sponsor or host any given event. It also includes a checklist for items you should consider. To use, go to File > Make a Copy.

Have more questions? Email me.

So… How do I get this all for free?

Yes, it is possible to achieve key marketing goals through events for free. You have a few options:

1) Speak at Relevant (Local) Events: You and your team members are experts in something. Let’s say you’re based in SF and your startup employs Lean Startup principles: You should apply to speak at The Lean Startup Conference. (Note: I’ve been a sponsor previously, and I’ve worked with the producers previously.) Pitching a speaking proposal is free. If you’re a speaker, attending is free. Getting up on stage and having hundreds of potential leads listen attentively to every word you say? Yup, also free. Just make sure you have something interesting to say – don’t demo.

2) Ugh, yes you CAN lobby con if you really want, just, you know, be classy about it: I’m not a fan of lobby conning, but I know it happens, and I know it leads to a certain amount of success. Lobby conning means you somehow snuck your way into an event without paying, and you use the time to chat up attendees about your business (this is not the same thing as being someone’s legitimate +1). If you’re an asshole about it (you start handing out flyers, make a scene, or start stealing food – YES THIS HAPPENS), you will be thrown out. If you harass attendees because you think that’s what sales does, just quit your job now.

3) Be a Model Meetup Attendee: Meetups and other free events are full of potential business and potential new employees. Once you determine which free events are most likely to help you hit marketing goals, get your business cards and smile ready. The same advice from lobby conning applies here: Don’t be an asshole. Respect whatever the Meetup or event rules may be. At Nightowls, for instance, if you keep bothering people who are clearly heads down and don’t want to talk, you’ll be asked to leave. One more pointer: Try to be a regular of recurring events you find valuable. Community members – versus just visitors – have better engagement with other community members over time.

4) Barter: For some reason this option frequently gets forgotten, perhaps because many marketers think paid is the only solution. I’ve done hundreds of barters, and I always get some value from them. Events big (and I mean big) and small will generally be open to barters if you happen to have something of value to offer. Some even have open policies about barters. If you find an event you’re interested in, but you can’t afford a sponsorship, contact the producer or marketing manager and see if they have a barter partner program. This is also known as a media partner program.

When should you outsource?

This question deserves a blog post of its own, but let’s keep it short and sweet for now. In short, focus on the items you can do best (e.g. lining up speakers your audience will love), and outsource the rest. If you’re doing a small event, and you’re certain you can handle it on your own, feel free to DIY. If the event is anything beyond a Meetup, drinkup, or other such event, and if you honestly don’t know what to do, outsource! A variety of event production houses exist, and they will be happy to take your business. One such company – who I’ve worked with in the past – is Reinventing Events. See their front page for an idea as to what production companies cover.

But let’s say you’re running the show yourself. What types of things might you still want to plan to outsource due to lack of bandwidth, ability, or resources?

  • A/V
  • Power & Wifi
  • Signage
  • Registration page (ex: Eventbrite vs. building a system yourself)
  • Pre-event customer service (if you outsource registration, make sure this is taken care of! Many people will have registration questions or need to cancel/get money back.)
  • Catering (as in, you don’t make the food yourself or even pick it up.)
  • Security (apparently there’s a startup for this now)

And one more thing…

  Top photo credit: “Planning Session” by

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