How To Maximize the ROI of Sending Your Marketing Team to a Conference

Posted by Bill Colbert on Nov 21, 2016 7:54:10 PM

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Traveling to a trade show as an attendee has a cost to it. You pay to get in, but you also have travel, hotel, and food costs. To add to that, let's not forget the opportunity cost of time away from whatever else you could be doing. Depending on who you send, it can end up being the younger members of your team struggling to find their way to the next breakout session. Or to the parties that night.

So how do you justify the expenses to yourself or to your boss? Here's the thought process and formula I used recently while attending HubSpot's Inbound conference in Boston. Setting goals beforehand took me out of my comfort zone (in a good way) and sharpened my focus.

Think About Your Goals Beforehand and Write Them Down

Writing that sub-headline gave me a "yeah, well duh," feeling in my head. However, doing it beforehand really changed the way I looked at each day.

My goal was the following:

  • Generate 5 new clients from people I met at the conference

That's it.

That's a lot easier said than done though. How many people would I need to meet to make that happen? Well, there were 18,000 attendees, and I had heard, 80% of those attendees were prospects considering purchasing inbound.

Back Out Your Goals Like You Would for Sales Planning

Hitting revenue goals means knowing how many customers you need and what their average transaction size will be. So, I backed out the stages of the sales process I would need to meet to reach that goal.

Customers: 5

Proposals: 20

Discovery Calls: 40

Intro Calls: 70

Leads: 140

140 leads! From noon on Tuesday until 3pm on Friday? So, 4 days. But wait. Tuesday is kinda-sorta a day at the conference, and Friday people are tired and many people will be flying out that morning and skipping the rest of it! So, really, I had 2.75 days to generate 140 leads. Out of 18,000 people. That's only 0.007 of the conference.

140 / 2.75 ~= 51 leads per day.

51 leads per day divided by roughly 10 hours of time on-site, between the conferences and the parties, was, 5.1 leads per on-site hour.

Ok, meet and exchange contact info with 5 people per hour. That's 1 person every 12 minutes.

Except I had to take out time for the 5 sessions per day I was going to be attending. 4 sessions were 45 minutes, which was 3 hours of time. Another keynote was 1.5 hours. So now I was down from 10 hours of open time to 5.5. At this point, I knew one thing; if I was going to meet my goal, making time to go to the bathroom was completely out of the question.

So, 51 prospects in 5.5 hours. That means I would need to meet 9.27 prospects per hour, leaving me with 6.47 minutes per prospect.

To be honest, this goal was starting to feel a bit unrealistic. How was I going to execute to hit a target that was starting to feel impossible? What if I had to go to the bathroom?

Find Strength in Numbers

The thing about Inbound is, a lot of people come as part of a group. I have no idea how many people came as part of a group or how big the average group size was. But I realized if I could spent 6.47 minutes with 4 people instead of 1, the odds of me reaching my goal would improve drastically. And as I looked around the vast open space that is the center of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC), I saw plenty of groups.

So I altered my thinking about who I would approach. If I just approached 8 groups of 4 people per hour, would I increase the odds of hitting my lead goal? My potential lead rate per hour was now (8 x 4) = 32.

140/37 = 4.38 hours needed to hit your goal.

4.38 hours / 2.75 days meant I only needed 1.59 hours per day, also known as "about an hour and a half" of "prospecting" activity.

My goal was starting to feel a lot more manageable.

Optimizing the Execution

That's right. "Optimizing the Execution." Talk about a marketing buzz word. My friend and former co-worker Ryan Grogan and I used to have a monthly top 10 ranking of our favorite buzz words. This one would have to be on it.

But I was seriously thinking about making the hourly goal happen. As a professional marketer, I thought I should have the answer for the best way to do this.

The answer was A/B testing ice breaker opening lines.

A/B Testing Your Ice Breaker Openers

On the plane I wrote out some ideas. There were a lot of options, but I thought I would start with two that are fairly different from one another.

My starting options:

  • Hey! (feigning intense enthusiasm) How are you enjoying the conference so far?!"
  • Hey! (feigning intense enthusiasm) Do you know what time Alec Baldwin comes on?"

I went with a very vanilla and a very "shouldn't you already know the answer to that?" option. But I was curious what the response would be.

Alternating back and forth, I started approaching groups. I'd like to give you a very click-baity answer in, "You wouldn't believe what happened next". But after approaching 10 groups in total, 5 and 5, option 1 was clearly resulting in more engagement and a more genuine connection.

My hypothesis as to why? Option 1 opened the floor for more open-ended conversation, whereas option 2 was sort of a dumb question that asked for a more yes or no answer.

The End Result?

Spoiler alert: I did not hit my goal. But was my conference experience way more productive than it would have been otherwise? I really believe so.

Groups started conversation with: 26

Avg people per group: 3.76

Total people "met": 98

Leads generated (cards exchanged): 72

Customers from the conference: TBD


In conclusion, I'll say that I'm not disappointed I failed. Nor am I ashamed to admit it. On my list of things I'm comfortable with, walking up to groups of strangers alone to meet people is pretty far down on my list. It's just not my strong suit. But that's ok. Know where your strengths lie, right?

I think if I hadn't taken a goal-oriented approach to attending the conference, I would have met probably 10-15 people. Instead I met 4-7x that amount.

Even if those 72 people distill down to just 1-2 clients, those average contract sizes will more than pay for the cost of attendance plus the opportunity cost of the next best thing I could have been doing with my time. So if you're attending a conference in the future, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Set ambitious goals, and see how much more value you get out of it than you otherwise would have thought.


If you want to hear first hand about my experience, you can listen to the B2B Growth Show podcast where I was featured as a guest! 

B2B Growth Show Episode feat. William Colbert via 

Topics: Customer Acquisition


300 to 18,000