A Virtual Event Success: Story: 4,500 Paid Attendees - Alex Shipillo

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

B2B and SaaS companies are scrambling to find ways to connect with prospects and customers at a time when in-person conferences aren't happening.

Some companies are attempting to replicate the in-person experience but many of these efforts are, at best, mediocre.

Clio, which offers software to law firms, however, appears to have discovered the recipe for success.

Its recent virtual conference attracted 4,500 paid (yes, paid!) attendees from 46 countries.

In this Marketing Spark episode, Clio's Alex Shipillo offers a behind-the-scenes look into:

- why and how the event was so successful

- why it charged people to attend, and

- what one sponsor did to make an impact. 

You're listening to marketing spark. The podcast at delivers insight, tools and tips from marketers and entrepreneurs in the trenches twenty minutes or less. It's fair to say that in person conferences aren't happening anytime soon. In the meantime, BBB companies are trying to connect with prospects and customers using virtual events. It's a challenging proposition to replicate the interactivity, energy and spot in eighty of in person events, but some companies have discovered the secret to success. One of them is Cleo, which provides cloud based software to small and large law firms. Cleo recently held its Cleo cloud conference, which attracted forty five hundred paid, yes paid, attendees from forty six countries. So how did that happen? To find out, I reached out to Alex Shippelow, CLEO's director of growth marketing. Welcome to marketing spark. Hey Mark. Thanks for having me, Alex. let's step back and talk about CLEO's marketing. How would approach conferences before covid? Yeah, great question mark for us. Conferences and personal events for a huge part of CLEO's growth over the last decade and that resulted in lots of different kinds of events. We sponsored lots of events and trade shows, we hosted meetups around North America and we hosted our large flash of event eight years ago. We started the first annual CLEO cloud conference in Chicago ago and over the last eight years that's grown to being the largest conference of his kind for the legal technology industry. Obviously, conferences were a key part of the marketing mix. So when covid emerged in March, how did CLEO ADJUST ITS MARKETING? Were you thinking right away that conferences were over and that was not going to happen for a while? Did you guys explore other marketing channels? We walk me through that a whole process. Were a lot of BDB companies, while there are, some of them panicked and some of them had...

...to quickly adjust what they were doing. So what was happening at Cleo right away? At cleo in the middle of March, we realized pretty quickly how serious this thing was and how the impact is going to be quite substantial in our business. And we knew that because we sent all of our employees home, all five hun employees around the world, very early on in the process. And we knew that we were going to be going back to an office anytime soon. And the same with our marketing. We realized that the plans we have put together for two thousand and twenty just didn't make sense anymore. We had to think differently about what our customers needed. Fortunately, our customers felt extremely supported during those initial moments of covid because our software helps them work in the cloud and that was something that was really meaningful to them and very valuable when they couldn't go into the office. So right away we shifted our strategy. We kind of throw out all of our pre existing narratives and the conversations we wanted to have in two thousand and twenty and we said, Hey, the focus is on moving law firms to cloud as soon as possible to enable them to keep working throughout the concept of this virus. We knew our customers needed help. Most of our customers are really small businesses, small law firms which a few employees, and they were going to struggle financially, especially if they were in a practice area that was going to be very challenged by covid. So, as a result, we quickly launched a one million dollar relief fund to help our customers where we could distribute funds as quickly as possible. We took our insights and our bility to do really valuable research, using our existing customer base to anonymize our customer data and actually share that data with all the state bar associations across the US so they could actually see the impact of covid on the amount of matters being created, amount of bills that are being sent out and how is affecting different practice areas. We jumped in very quickly and pivoted all of our in person events, obviously, into virtual and we launched a meet up series and all kinds of other content related to working from home. We had a remote remote working guide that had tens of thousands of downloads within months because people really understood that that was a big problem they had. So very quickly for us it was a jet adapting to our customer...

...needs, adapting to our product needs, to quickly launching integrations with Zoom and dial pad and other pieces of technology that's going to make it easier than work remotely. And as soon as we got all those things in place we were able to focus on some of the other big projects, knowing that our big conference was scheduled to be months away in San Diego and it was very unlikely that twenty five hundred people were gonna be able to come by the San Diego and fly to attend a conference this year. So, before we get into the conference or me ask you a little bit about the ability of Cleo to be agile, be flexible, do things rather quickly on the fly when it comes to marketing. A lot of organizations, specially companies that are they have five hundred employees, they don't move that fast. You get locked into your two and twenty marketing plan. The ability to change on a like to so turn on a dime, has to be extremely hard. So what were the keys to success for Cleo to basically say we're going down this direction, this is what we were what we had in mind. You know, we had all budgeting and our plans in place and suddenly you're not doing that anymore. Like, how did you pull that off? Yeah, great question. I think obviously was a team effort and we've got a forty five person marketing team and that's a really well resource organization, which means we can do a lot very quickly and we're able to pivot. I think for us, I clear marketing is a huge driver of growth. We're driving somewhere close to seventy percent of new revenue that comes in the door. I think as a result of that, it was very clear that there was an initial observation that things were changing very quickly and that the landscape was going to shift and all of a sudden our customers were going to need us in different way, but also our prospects, ones that maybe hadn't considered cloud based technology or didn't think as highly of needing cloud based technology. We're going to need a very, very quickly. So it was imperative for us to shift very quickly and the fact that we were well resource as a team, the fact that we had all these partnerships in place, the fact that we had sort of these foundational pieces,...

...it's really made it easier for us to quickly change our narrative and say, okay, what are the project we want to invest in? Let's launch this relief fund, let's start shifting our content to be focusing on supporting the work of lawyers being able to work remotely. Let's shift our our in personal events to virtual meet ups and Webinars. It was almost like a commitment across the whole marketing team and really the whole organization to say we got to make this shift as APP because that's what our customers and our industry needs. So it's one thing to shift your meet ups to virtual instead of having fifty people or a hundred people gather together, let's do it online. It's another thing to go virtual when it comes to a two five hundred person conference, a conference that gives Cleo the opportunity to engage with prospects as well as customers. It's the event of the year. What was the initial reaction or the initial feeling when it came to that conference? Did the company say, you know what, we're going to have to scrap it this year, like a lot of conference if you're simply canceled, that was it will see you in two thousand and twenty one. Or was it there a feeling that you could pull it off, somehow, you could take this massive event and turns into a successful virtual conference? Walk me through some of the strategic thinking and let's talk about a can you pull it off and be whether you could pull it off and still charge people to attend, because that's a very interesting thing that Cleo did. The thought process was actually very interesting and we have a great team that runs this conference. Lauren Sanders as the brainschild behind it. She's been running it for eight years and she owns obviously she's the main owner of the conference, but also in charge of the logistics. The actual event experience, the attendee experience, are of our platform and my role, of my team's role, is really driving the registrations and revenues. So how do we enable that conference with successful by getting as many people in the coal community to actually attend? We met as a team and one of the things that was really clear from our from our CEO, Jack Newton, was this idea that none of...

...us had ever actually attended a virtual conference that didn't suck. And Right. It right, and Jack really said a really clear expectation for us. He said, Hey, the only way this is worth doing is we believe that we can create a virtual conference it doesn't suck. As soon as we thought, yes, we are able to achieve that bar whether it's through the experience, through the kinds of speakers we're going to have, through the technology and platform that we're going to use as soon as we had clear idea that, yes, we could make a virtual conference didn't suck. It was it was sort of the green light to say, yes, let's do this and let's try a something very, very different. Let's try to convince our audience to to experience this new way of the Cleo cloud conference and take advantage of some of the amazing opportunities that being online and being virtual actually created for this for this event. Let's dig into that, because most conferences, as you say, virtual conferences, suck. They're terrible, they're not interactive, it sounds like people speaking at you. Most of the sessions aren't terribly interesting. Virtual conferences by and large are not very good. I mean, I got a lot of attention a few weeks ago when I interviewed somebody from Narrative Science and they ran a virtual conference at it that attracted threezero people and that was one of the few success stories that I've heard about. When we started talking about Cleo and your conference, it was like wow, this is pretty amazing, but I have to ask you, why are you guys so confident that you could have a conference that didn't suck? Because it's a huge challenge for every company out there. Yeah, we were confident because we had already been doing it for so many years. We've had that experienced expertise and obviously running an in person conference not the same as a virtual conference, but we knew that we had continued to deliver a year after year, amazing experiences for attendees and that's where our focus really began. We knew if we can deliver this amazing event experience for attendees, we can convince them to attend, we can convince them to actually take part in this event. To think about it first, I think a lot of virtual conferences feel like webinars or they feel very prerecorded. So one thing that we really focused on was actually filming and playing our whole conference live. That was a big deal for us. And guess what?...

Created some hiccups. It ritis some screw up. So created some some technical difficulties at times, but it felt intimate and didn't feel like you were just watching or recording that happened elsewhere like in previous conferences. We have amazing, amazing keynote speakers. So having people like Seth Goden, Angela Duckworth been crump folks that are, you know, world class keynotes being there was actually really meaningful and that helped set the tone for the kind of event that want to have. And we also want to use this opportunity to do something very different from an experience standpoint. So again Lauren and her team camp with some amazing ideas. We had various boot camp sessions every day so that you could do a workout and an exercise break during the conference. We had incredible daily entertainment, including a cooking session hosted by top chef Stephanie Isazard. We had musical performances by Ben Harper and Nathaniel ratliff. We had a DJ set from DJ quest love to all these entertainment experiences that we would have obviously done in person and San Diego, we took them online, and the platform is probably the most important part of all this. So actually using a platform that enabled us to create some of that intimacy and connection. The reason people tend conference as they want to meet other people. So our platform had a ton of capabilities around creating a round tables. People could just jump into the discussions with other folks. There was lots of opportunity for virtual networking. There was profiles every single guest where you can message them and communicate with each other. So we saw a lot happening there and, surprising enough, there was a few things from the virtual conference that we thought was really different and interesting. First sample, from experience standpoint, I was shocked by how intimate it felt. Now we're used to sitting in a large hall, maybe with two or three thousand people, and you you mean maybe you're at the front, but most like you're pretty far away from the stage. You don't get that same intimacy as when you're watching this live video and the camera is right in the speaker's face. You feel like you're sitting next to seth goat and write. It definitely feels much more intimate. The other thing that we thought that the end up being really interesting was actually the live chat that went side by side with...

...the videos and the streams. Because again, if you're at a conference, maybe you've got your your mobile phone open and you've got twitter open and there's a conversation, but that's very different from a very intimate real time chat with thousands of folks adding their comments, adding their emojis, reacting in real time to the speakers. It actually created a really engaging experience having that live chat side by side with the speakers. That's some really cool stuff. I mean the idea of watching the concert. I mean personally, I like to work out a lot. To the idea of a boot camp sounds really great to me. One of the things I got to ask you about is asking people to pay for the conference, and I'm going to ask you how much did they pay and what was the thinking when it came to continue to sell registration. A lot of people say, well, I pay for the experience. I pay to attend a conference in another city. I paid for that in person interactivity and the engagement, and now you're asking me to pay for an online conference. Why did clear decide to go down that path and did you get any pushback at all? Yeah, I think making it a paid event was actually one of the most important decisions we made early on and I'm really happy that we did it. One thing that we know as marketers when we run webinars or virtual events and they're free, a few negative things happen. First of all, any time I get invited to a free event, I think the first thing that we assume is this must be a sales pitch. There's no way to avoid it. Right. You know, some if a marketer is inviting you to a free event, they're probably trying to sell you something, and that's not the case with our conference. We're really trying to educate the community. Yes, Cleo was hosting it, but it's not about clear the products, about the community and the impact on legal technology that we're creating. Second of all, when we host a Webinar virtual events, guess what? Sixty percent of people don't show up to the event. They'll register but they won't actually show up in person. And we know that when we have a forday conference that's split up and yes, even if they're half days across four days, people are going to be tempted to book over that event.

There we tempted to say, you know what, I'll skip the session or a book a meeting over this. And when you pay for an event, I think it really changes your attitude or relationship to it and it makes you commit to it and makes you believe, yeah, I'm actually going to attend this thing. So the last thing we want to do is host this amazing event with all these great speakers and sessions and this great platform, only to have a fraction of the registrants actually show up. So it was really really important for us to make it a paid event. At the same time, we thought it was really important to make it accessible to so most attendees paid about ninety nine dollars to attend, which is not a huge amount considering the value we were creating in the quality of speakers and sessions that we had in place. And in addition, we had ways for those folks that were less less advantage to be able to get free passes the conference. So if they were law school students or working for legal nonprofits or other areas, we were able to give away a few hundred free tickets to those groups as well. So nine Eine dollars doesn't seem like a huge price tag, but I think it is a big difference in terms of getting that commitment and that buy any from the attendee to say yeah, I want attend this thing. So we had forty five hundred people. Most of them paid ninety nine dollars. I mean, in terms of economics, did you break even? Do you it? Did you racket up as in a marketing expense? Yeah, so the clear cloud conference, for all it's eight years, has never ever come close to breaking even and the intention of this conference is not to break even. We want to create an amazing experience for legal industry and we know that. We put a lot of work into creating that and we have these big name speakers and big name attendees and we have this experience for legal industry. It's not cheap and put on, but we see it as an expense that contributes to overall brand and helps drive customer advocacy. For us. Having done this conference now for eight years, Lauren and her team of creates something so special and so amazing where it is such a huge part of our customers experience. For them it's the how it of their year. It's the used to be the time when they would mark down to church travel and take a week off and be somewhere with us in Chicago or New Orleans or San Diego.

We don't break even on the event, even after revenue from attendees and from sponsors, but we do believe it's an important investment in our brand, an important differentiator for us in the market. It becomes the single week in the year or the whole industry is talking about Cleo, which is really, really meaningful. One of the things I want to ask you about is sponsorship. It's one thing to put on a conference, you can charge for it, but how do you get sponsors involved? How do you deliver value to sponsors when they can't directly talk to your prospects and customers? I've been at an event and having a booth and having that interactivity is super important from a sponsorship perspective. So can you tell me about one of your sponsors and maybe how they did something differently to get value from the conference? Yeah, I definitely. I want to call it law pay, who has been are one of our key sponsors for many years the CLEO cloud conference, and I was so impressed with what they did, because we offered all of our sponsors, you know, a virtual booth and a way to chat with attendees and share content, all kinds of the basics that you would expect to have as part of your platform. But the law pay team, they want above and beyond and they created a virtual booth that I think set the bar for how to create an engaging experience for attendees. So, first of all, they actually created a conference themed video game that you could play inside of their virtual booth with prizes for some of the highest scores. I don't know how they pull that off, but it was really, really cool. Second of all, they know that swag is an important part of the conference experience, so they had an attendee offer or they would ship you custom swag. Just fellow your address and they'll ship a straight to your door. Lat Pay has great swag and again they really connected that and I think sending something physical to these attendees is really helping creasely engaging. And lastly, they had a lot of fun. So at their booth they featured principle conference do not disturb signs that were themed with some of the conference teams to put up around your Home Office and of your kids or your other people living with the wouldn't distract you in the conference. So they really want, above and beyond, to say, okay,...

...from an attendee experience, how do I create something that the super engaging, and I think that's at the bar for me in terms of how do you use a virtual conference as a sponsor successfully so you can actually engage your tends instead of delivering kind of the same old virtual booth experience? That sounds super cool and I think there's a lot of best practice is to be had from the approach of law pro took. Here's the big question. When the vaccine emerges and we can go to conferences again in purses, in person conferences again, what's going to do? So you've had this successful virtual event. You delivered value in different ways. You maybe have made it accessible to a lot more people to gain the insight to drive your brand. What's the approach for next year? I you. Are you thinking about maybe we should do this virtual conference again? Are you going to go back to the in person conference? Any thoughts about future strategy? We haven't made the decision next year yet, but I do believe that what we've discovered is creating a virtual experience that doesn't suck is possible and that was a really important thing that we figured out. And the second thing we realize is we were able to create an event that was just so much more accessible we've ever had before. And the reality was for someone to take a week off of their schedule and fly to San Diego and stay at a hotel and not work during that week and all their meals and expenses, that's are pretty privileged position to be in. For you to be able to attend and here all of a sudden we were able to create an event that had that same quality of speakers, different but very intimate experience, really amazing entertainment, great networking. But guess what? We had way more attendees and ever before, Forty five hundred, and we were able to reach people all over the world. Forty six countries attended, from places as far away as Panama and Peru and Trendad and Tobago and Turkey and Slovenia and Venezuela like that is incredible for us to reach so many people that I know would have been able to come to San Diego. I'm not sure what the future holds for us, but I do think that we are surprised and excited by how accessible it can be. And I wouldn't be surprised if not...

...sure, but next year, but future years, if we're able to see different kinds of events that might be hybrids, that might blend the the best of both worlds and the best of both in person and virtual events the same time. Well, thanks for that terrific insight into the world of virtual conferences. I'm sure that people are going to approach you to find out best practices and how they can make their own virtual events more successful. Alex, where can people find you and Cleo online? I can find us at Clearcom, cliocom. My name is Alex Chapella. We can find me on Linkedin or twitter and follow me there. Just one final plug. We're actually hiring someone to help lead our marketing strategies for next year's CLEO cloud conference. So, if running and supporting and driving registrations from massive online conferences, listen link you're excited about definitely reach out to me so that we can see if you're interested in this role. Thanks for listening to another episode of marketing spark. If you enjoyed the conversation, leave a review and subscribe by Itunes or your favorite podcast APP. If you like what you heard, please rate it. For show notes of today's conversation and information about Alex, visit marketing spark Dotcola blog if you have questions feedback. Would like to suggest a guest. Want to learn more about how I help BBB companies as a fractional CMO consulted and advisor, send an email to mark at marketing sparkcom. I'll talk to you next time.

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