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The SiriusDecisions Executive-Level Event Framework

September 29, 2017

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, an invisible voice convinces an Iowa farmer to replace his corn crop with a baseball field. After initially dismissing the idea, the farmer accepts the voice's reassurance that "If you build it, he will come." In the business world, this quotation has been repeated countless times in reference to investments whose value must be taken on faith.

To host a successful event for executive attendees, B2B organizations must do more than simply build the event. While gathering a group of decisionmakers in a controlled environment can offer significant value, marketers must consider several best practices to structure events that meet executive personas' needs. In this issue, we present a four-part framework for building executive-level events.

One: Goals

Unfortunately, many executive-focused events occur simply because they always have occurred, or because almost every organization wants to appeal to C-level audiences. Event success must be measured against specific goals, especially when the event is time-consuming and expensive to produce. Although executive-level events can host mixed audiences, goals for at least one of the following audience types should be clearly defined:

  • Existing customers. Goals may include strengthening or expanding current relationships, advancing existing opportunities and introducing new offerings or capabilities. Invited executives may be asked to participate in event hosting to serve as an advocate to peers. Existing customer events can also be structured to gather executive insights to guide future innovation and product development.
  • New prospects. Goals may include making introductions and encouraging interest in a relationship, educating the audience about offerings, creating demand and advancing existing opportunities.

Two: Event Types

Depending on the goals and intended audience, executive-level events can be standalone affairs or integrated into broader events. Either type can focus on either hospitality or educational and business issues. Consider the following characteristics and advantages of these event types:

  • Standalone events. By eliminating the potential distractions and complications of coordinating with a larger gathering, standalone events allow focused interaction among executives. These events can be short hospitality-led offerings (e.g., golf outings, dinners) or multi-day educational programs (usually combined with hospitality). However, recruiting an executive-level audience to attend a standalone event can be difficult; agenda strength and the potential value of interactions drive attendance.
  • Integrated events. Holding an executive event within a larger corporate event allows organizations to base recruitment on a wider range of topics, speakers and high-value activities likely to impress an executive audience. Executives can participate in general sessions presented by the host organization as well as a forum exclusive to them. This structure often makes it easier for the executive to justify the investment in time and resources to attend. Integrated events use both hospitality and exclusive content to differentiate executives' experience from that of other attendees.

Three: Execution

Few marketing events require more complex planning and execution than an executive-level event. Keep in mind the following execution considerations:

  • Attendees. Because of sales' account-level insights, it should help identify executive attendees. Marketing should encourage sales to be selective by defining strict criteria by attendee type (e.g. company size, revenue or specific product considerations) to reduce the risk of inviting the wrong people. Marketing should also work with sales to understand the state of existing buying processes and plan how to facilitate meaningful interactions between attendees and peer executives and/or host company leaders.
  • Duration. Executives' demanding schedules shape event planning. Whether the event is standalone or integrated into a larger gathering, limit the duration to one or one-and-a-half days. Longer events risk becoming burdensome. This schedule allows time for an executive agenda, plus networking and/or a social event.
  • Invitations. Executives like gaining access to other executives who are true peers. In invitations, highlight the event's exclusivity and any event-exclusive materials. Direct outreach from host company executives is an effective invitation technique. A dimensional mailer can help get the event noticed and signal its quality.
  • Theme/topics. Gather insights on executives' interests by asking them directly or through account managers. If budget allows, book a high-profile or sought-after guest speaker, and work with him or her to incorporate key messages into their speech. To increase interest, consider making the speaker's presentation - as well as early insights into product roadmaps, company vision or other information - exclusive to attendees.
  • Cost. Many organizations struggle with the issue of funding executive attendance. Although offering an all-expenses-paid trip can drive attendance, it might not be a sustainable long-term approach, especially if the event is expected to grow. Consider offering free admission for executives who agree to speak or participate in an advocacy activity (e.g. case study, video, customer reference) outside the event. Or use a shared-cost model where executives cover their transportation costs, but the host organization funds event entry, lodging, car service, meals and onsite services.
  • Travel. The watchword for executive-level events is convenience. Make travel minimally disruptive for attendees. Try to build an agenda that allows executives to travel the morning of the first day, arriving in the afternoon for event content and/or a reception. Allow time for executives traveling through several time zones. Because executives traveling long distances may stay in the area before or after the event to make their journey more worthwhile, consider adding optional networking sessions to accommodate them.

Four: Measurement

Measuring executive event success can be challenging because lead creation is not usually the focus, and the event is usually one of multiple factors influencing a sale. Based on the goals defined for an event, track its success based on attendee type and demand creation goals:

  • Existing customers. Did the event strengthen the overall customer relationship? Were new executive-level contacts made? Did the customer leave with a better understanding of how the host company adds value? Will the host company's newest offerings be accelerated through the pipeline as a result of information provided to the executive?
  • New prospects. Evaluate whether prospects established relationships with host company leaders and influential customer executives. Was content of interest to prospects presented at the event, either formally or informally? Did the event effectively enhance prospect executives' perception of the host company and specific offerings?
  • Reputation. Executive events can enhance the brand and help develop customer advocacy. Conduct a post-event survey to determine the event's impact on reputation. Some organizations use relationship health metrics (e.g. qualitative ratings assigned by account managers) to compare data from before and after the event. Executive events also support customer retention and growth goals. Marketers can use financial data, customer loyalty scores and other data to measure the event's success in these areas.
  • Demand creation. Although event attendance may not always be directly connected to pipeline activity, it usually provides a strong influence. Map event attendance to the creation of new opportunities and the closing of existing ones.
  • Market intelligence. Executive events can provide account-level and contact-level insights, as well as broader market insights (e.g. new contact names, competitive intelligence, new product opportunities, possible acquisition targets). Contact host company attendees shortly after the event to gather insights and distribute them to appropriate internal resources.

The Sirius Decision

As decisionmakers, executives add complexity and high expectations to event planning. Mistakes at executive-level events can be costly, while positive attendee experiences can build relationships and lead to new opportunities. A structured approach to executive-level events, from pre-event planning to onsite activity management and timely post-event followup, increases the likelihood that these events will exceed attendees' expectations and result in benefits commensurate with the investment.