Conference Success for K12 Edtech Startups: How to Maximize Your Impact and ROI
There’s no magic bullet, but planning ahead and stacking value-added activities together can optimize your conference results.
Recently, I had a conversation with a founder who asked, “How do I get the most out of a K12 conference?” It’s a great question and one that I think is important for edtech founders to consider, especially since it’s becoming increasingly difficult for startup teams to break through the digital noise and reach customers effectively. Many founders I’ve spoken with have observed that digital outreach such as email and social media has plateaued as a means of engaging K12 buyers, especially cabinet-level administrators in school and districts. With the explosion of edtech tools that are available, administrators and teachers are bombarded by digital outreach from edtech vendors and deal with a regular onslaught of ransomware attacks. As a result, entrepreneurs are finding it harder to reach K12 prospects via email as school and district IT leaders are turning away more messages from startups via spam filters and firewalls.
I’m not advocating for founders to stop trying to reach K12 prospects via email, social media, etc. Startups must continue to experiment with digital outreach and lean in where they see results. However, since there’s more digital noise than ever before, I believe that K12 startups, especially those selling to administrator buyers, should look to conferences and other in-person events as an effective way to engage with administrators and teachers in K12. As we’ve emerged from the COVID pandemic, K12 leaders are re-engaging with their national and state trade groups and returning to conferences in strong numbers. Marketing and sales via conferences is an old school approach, but it can work.
While conferences are valuable events for connecting with K12 buyers, they require significant resources both in terms of time and money for startups. It’s impossible to justify the time and money required to attend conferences without clear goals and expectations. That’s why the first step for any startup is to take some time to think about what you and your team want to achieve and to set clear goals. Are you looking to network with potential customers or partners, learn about a specific industry trend, or find new investors? Having a clear idea of what you want to accomplish will help you prioritize your time and focus on the right activities.
For most startup teams, connecting with potential customers and partners is at the top of list. So, how do you get the most out of a conference with potential customers and partners? As an edtech operator for 15 years, I attended hundreds of conferences and learned over time how to maximize the outcome. Importantly, I learned that there’s no such thing as a magic bullet for making conferences work in your favor. If you just show up with your booth and exhibit, you might get lucky and have a key prospect or two to drop by, but the odds are not in your favor.
Instead, I found that developing a portfolio of activities and stacking them together at a conference is a much more effective way to optimize your chances of a getting a great ROI. Here are some of the most impactful activities that I’ve seen startup teams use to optimize their conference time and money.
- Use lures/incentives to invite and attract people to your booth. There are some obvious ways to do this including raffling off a trendy prize, incorporating a fun game in your booth, or giving away free stuff. Those tactics help lure the right people to your booth. One of my favorite less obvious ways to attract people is to arrange “office hours” in the booth with a few happy customers. Ask a few of your most enthusiastic, well-networked customers to spend at least 30 minutes with you in the booth (60 minutes is twice as good!) during prime traffic time at the exhibit. You might offer the customer some benefit or incentive to do this, but it’s often not necessary for your most enthusiastic supporters. As attendees walk up and down the exhibit hall, you’ll be amazed at how many warm introductions you’ll get to prospects when a well-regarded colleague of theirs engages them in conversation in your booth. Prospects that used to pass by without a thought will now drop in to say hello to their colleague and you’ll get to visit with them as well.
- Host a mini-event with customers and prospects. Plan an interactive event where you can build relationships. It can be a breakfast, lunch, dinner, or happy hour. Invite a nice mix of current customers and prospects and schedule it when there’s a gap in the conference schedule so you won’t be competing with too many other events at the same time. I like to keep these events relatively small at around two dozen attendees or fewer so that you and your team can spend some time with everyone who attends. A well-planned breakfast, lunch, dinner, or happy hour can last 90 minutes or more and give you lots of time to build relationships. If you have an SDR (sales development representative) team, this is a fantastic way for them to reach out to and engage prospects. Let customers and prospects know you’re attending the conference and would love to invite them to hang out with colleagues over a nice meal. Keep the program short and not too focused on your product/service. The event is about building relationships and establishing credibility with your audience. The right prospects will be happy to engage in a more product-focused conversation when you follow up with them after the conference.
- Schedule 1:1 coffee or drinks. This is my favorite way to de-risk a conference investment. Have your sales team begin outreach three or four weeks prior to the conference and invite attendees to have coffee or a drink during gaps in the conference schedule. Half an hour is great, but even 15 minutes is enough to establish rapport with the school/district leader, learn about their priorities, and share a little bit about what your startup does. In my experience, they’re easier meetings to set up (as opposed to cold requests for a Zoom call) because you and the prospect are both attending the same conference (which establishes some credibility) and it provides a little break from the conference action. Meeting interesting people and learning about new products and services are reasons many prospects attend conferences. A solid outreach effort can yield six to ten of these meetings even before you show up for the conference. When your team shows up with a solid set of meetings already scheduled, they are in a much stronger position to get the desired ROI.
- Co-present with a successful customer. If you have successful customers already, work with them to submit a presentation proposal. K12 leaders want to hear from other K12 leaders, not salespeople. Make the proposal about the good work that the K12 leader is doing at their school or district. Find a way to integrate how your product or service helps make the work of the district possible, but don’t make that the main point of the presentation. Once you secure the presentation, invite prospects to attend and learn more about the great work of one of their trusted colleagues.
- Attend the lunches/dinners/parties provided at the event. It may seem obvious, but go to where the attendees are going to be and you’ll meet more people. If you can spend time with your happy customers at these events, you’ll likely get introduced to their colleagues who could become prospects.
Finally, I know the ultimate goal is to measure conference success in terms of the number of customers and the amount of revenue signed up as a result of the conference. However, measuring success based on new customers and revenues alone typically takes many months (perhaps even a year or more) to determine, which makes it hard to judge whether or not the event was a success. Instead, consider measuring the success of the conference by the number of quality meetings you had with potential customers. This provides some immediate measure of the conference’s success and the best indicator of whether or not you should prioritize returning to that conference in the future. Few conferences are a home run the first time out, but with repeated attendance, your audience will become more familiar with you and your customer numbers will grow. As connected as we are via digital means, in-person conferences and events are still a go-to way to connect with K12 buyers and grow your business. Edsurge tracks K12 conferences and events and that’s a good place to start your conference plans.