Q&A: Using Events to Build a Loyal Audience

Find out why the head of the Content Marketing Institute believes brands will start purchasing events as a shortcut to a subscriber base.

By Mitra Sorrells January 14, 2016, 7:15 AM EST

Photo: Courtesy of Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the founder of the Content Marketing Institute and author of the new book Content Inc.: How Entrepreneurs Use Content to Build Massive Audiences and Create Radically Successful Businesses. He regularly provides training to brands on how to attract and retain customers through multi-channel storytelling, which is the basis of content marketing. Pulizzi puts that strategy into practice at the Content Marketing Institute, which produces podcasts, e-newsletters, webinars, e-books, executive research, and events to maintain and build its audience. BizBash spoke to him about content marketing and why he believes events are a critical piece of the strategy.

First, give us a brief understanding of content marketing.
The goal of any brand when they are looking at a content marketing strategy is to build an audience. Everybody talks about wanting more leads or activity or some kind or engagement, but at the end of the day what we are trying to do is build an audience, a subscriber base, a pre-customer database. Then I’m hoping in the future they will buy from us or they will talk favorably about us. In most cases they are not just going to see your company and then buy from you. It takes time to build that relationship. Let’s build them as an audience member first. When I look at lead generation I [say] don’t just get their lead, what you want to do is get a subscriber. Build an audience member and then from there you’ll get opportunities to drive business. A lot of people don’t look at it like that. With all the opportunities we have to build audiences out there, all the ways you can distribute content, that’s an easier way to go to market. Let’s get them in a database and deliver ongoing content, and then when they are ready to buy they’ll just go ahead and do that. They won’t look at anybody else because they already know, like, and trust us.

Why do you believe events are one of the most effective ways to build that subscriber base?
It’s very cluttered from a digital media standpoint. There might be more opportunities for differentiation with events today because there’s much less competition. We see that every day at the Content Marketing Institute. Our most important thing we do is our event, Content Marketing World. It’s much easier for us to separate us from the pack, to tell a different story, to position ourselves differently because we have a physical event and the competitive set is just much, much less. And so we believe we’ve been able to build that event and build everything we have at the Content Marketing Institute because of the physical event nature and that’s been our differentiation. When we get called in to do consulting, sometimes they ask, “Who are you against, who’s your competition?” And I say we don’t have any. We’re the only one they’re looking at. Our audience has been getting our content for a year and a half, they are already bought in, we’ve already sold them.

You’ve said that in the future we will start to see more companies purchasing existing events as an alternative to creating them from scratch. Tell us more about that.
If I’m a brand today in any business and I believe in this, I believe we have this targeted audience, then I want to look at: where are they getting their content now? Where are they getting value now? And in a lot of cases it’s coming from events. So if I’m a brand I might look at purchasing that event. Maybe I’m going to buy that event and it comes with a subscriber database already, and now I’ve got it and I don’t have to spend all the effort it would take to build that brand, to build that event, to get that awareness out there. That’s already happening and it will happen more in the next two to three years. Instead of what you’ve traditionally seen [which is] event companies buying other events or media companies buying smaller events or event companies, you’ll see brands that have huge budgets saying, “Instead of launching our own user event and spending all the time and energy to do that, let’s just go buy this thing.” This is how it has always worked in the publishing world. You say, “Do I buy or build? Here’s our editorial mission and we need to hire these editors and I need a sales team, or is there an existing property I can purchase.” Every publisher does this. But brands don’t usually do that. Now they are a little more savvy and are starting to ask these questions. Not just for events, but for any content platform.

“The number one reason to go to an event is not for education, it’s networking. … Events are now more robust than ever been before.”

Let me list the five to 10 places where my customers are getting content—some are blogs, some might be associations, some might be influencers, some might be real media companies, some might be events. I’m going to list all those and say, okay what should I do with this one? This one is a target—we can buy them, this one we might want to partner with, this one we don’t want anything to do with. At least you go through the process. When we go into these companies that are gung-ho about launching a blog or a podcast I always say, well what’s out there? And they look at me like I’ve got two heads. I’m like, you didn’t do an analysis of what’s out there? How do you even know that what you are going to put out there is any different? Because if it’s not different why is it worth doing? Events are part of that equation. I think now as the event industry continues to grow, we will get into the portion where you have marketers looking at events and not just online platforms to purchase.

You first hosted Content Marketing World in 2011 with 600 people. By last year that attendance figure had grown to 3,500. What have you learned about how to create a successful event?
It’s everything outside the event that’s most important. It’s the engine that builds the audience that makes the event possible. There are 15 different things that we do, from the daily content, to the podcast, to the magazine—that’s the engine that gets people to go to the event. Then you have to make sure they’re having fun because then their eyes are open to educating themselves. We have so much content. And if you are a speaker and you don’t rate at least 4 out of 5 on our survey, you can never come back and speak again. We take that very seriously. So almost all of our speakers are the best speakers in the world. I go out 365 days a year to other events and find them. It’s a full-year process putting together an event agenda that will be amazing. Those things are all fine, and I’m sure you’ve heard the same thing from a million people. What we do different is everything else we do in communicating and building the audience. Now we have about 160,000 people in our email subscriber base and that’s what makes the event. And as this community has grown, a natural extension is they want to meet each other in person.

Are you ever concerned that with all of the content you offer your audience online—webinars, podcasts, e-books—that it will cut down on the number of people who want to attend your annual conference?
We found that’s completely not true. Actually because there’s more connections online now people are more willing to meet these people for the first time in person. The number one reason to go to an event is not for education, it’s networking. They want to meet people going through the same challenges they’re going through. Events are now more robust than ever been before. At least in the marketing space, events are huge. Look at C.E.S., South by Southwest keeps growing every year, Dreamforce went from nothing to 150,000, Hubspot’s Inbound, Social Media Marketing World, our event—every one of these events is blowing up. It’s obviously around an area that people need a lot of education, but at the same time these are the most technology-savvy people of all, and they are all getting together in person when there are thousands of other ways for them to communicate with each other. I think the event industry has never been stronger and just will continue to grow as more people want to meet in person.

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