Welcome back to #TrackThis! Today, Matt Rissell, CEO of T Sheets Time Tracking, and I sat down to talk about tracking your ROI of attending conferences and trade shows. It’s an important question: Is it worth attending these events to get your name out there, or to have your people trained? It’s hard to know necessarily, and that’s why it’s so important to track your ROI. People have so many questions about this topic, and we really tried here to talk through all the pros and cons to think about when you’re considering attending these events. Matt is a bit more cynical about these conferences than I am, which is a completely fair view point on these oft-expensive events, but we both agree that if you’re going to go, you have to go all-in. These events are typically quite expensive, and it’s important to make a big splash if you’re going to spend big cash!

The audio of our conversation can be found above, and the transcript of our conversation can be read below:

Matt: Hello and welcome to episode number six of #TrackThis, small business tracking tips from CEOs, specifically, Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, and Matt Rissell, CEO of T Sheets. We’ll be talking today about tracking the return on investments of attending conferences and trade shows. It’s a hot topic—should you or should you not make the investment in trade shows? If you do, how do you actually track your ROI? Up first is Sabrina Parsons.

Sabrina: Thanks, Matt, really excited to do another episode of Track This with Matt and T Sheets. I think this is one of those topics that people have so many questions about. I find anything to do with marketing in general, all of us in the small business world just have a hard time sometimes figuring out should we spend the money, should we not. In the online world, you have so many tools to track your spends, if you’re doing pay-per-click marketing, banner advertising. You’ve just got a lot of different tools that can actually show you how many people clicked, how many people buy, what they purchased, how much money they spend. It’s a whole lot easier to prove your return on investment.

When you get to marketing activities like conferences and trade shows, it can be a lot harder to figure out what is actually going to be a good conference to go, how you’re going to have a return on your investment, and how do you even make that decision. I love the images here. Any of you who watch the HBO “Silicon Valley” show will recognize this; if you don’t watch it, you should definitely check it out. It’s a very fun satirical show about startups. This is exactly what these guys face—should they go to conferences, what kind of money should they spend, and what are they going to get out of it.

We all deal with that. If you’re the CEO or the president or the owner of a small business, you get bombarded by salespeople trying to sell you all kinds of things, including “come to this trade show, come to this conference.” Those of us who go know that conferences and trade shows are expensive. You’ve got to have materials to present. You have to have things to give away. Your booth has to look well. You have travel there. You have to spend money on a hotel. It’s really hard to go to a conference and spend less than thousands of dollars, usually in the $5,000 range. That’s probably a cheap conference. How are you going to actually track it?

The first thing is start with SMART goals. Throughout your business, I really recommend you use SMART goals. SMART really stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. If you’re going to go to that conference, you might think about putting together a special offer for only conference attendees, that has to be redeemable in a certain time period. Maybe redeem this offer in the next two weeks and then you can actually track and see did the offer get redeemed, how many people redeemed it, what did they purchase, and what is my ultimate return of investment.

Now, you may be going to a conference purely for the branding and for the awareness. If you do that, then you still have to have specific measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound goals. Maybe what you want is to get a certain group of thought leaders behind your products. Maybe your goals are “I want 10 quotes from these thought leaders that I can put on my website. If I can go to this conference and get these 10 quotes, all raving about my products or services, then this conference will be worthwhile.” Even though these goals aren’t sales and revenue, there are still goals that you can set up before you go, and then you can measure against those goals and say, “Did I get that?”

Once you put those quotes up on your website, in your brochures, in your marketing materials, track the difference from before you have those quotes. Are you selling [to] more customers? Is it easier to close deals? Did those quotes help you in the way that you thought? As long as you set things out and put the goals down and track them, you’re going to be in good shape.

Matt: [laughs] Well, I don’t know what conference you went to Sabrina for $5,000, but sign me up for that one.

Sabrina: [laughs] Well, exactly. I mean, it does [inaudible 04:55], we know. That’s like minimum. That’s probably a conference down the street.

Matt: Yeah.

Sabrina: Not the one you have to have to fly to.

Matt: Right. If you’re going to travel to a conference, I mean, typically the conference just to get a booth is $5,000 to $10,000. That’s for the smallest booth you can get. Let alone flying three or four people down with air fare and meals and then your booth is an extra expense. Don’t forget, if you want internet, that’s another $2,000 at your booth. I mean, it’s just a big investment. Typically, I think the average for small businesses is to spend like $25,000 at a conference. Definitely go in with a good idea with exactly what your budget is so you don’t get there and run out of money, run out of budget and go, “Oh, geez, I can’t maximize this.”

One specific, I love what Sabrina said [inaudible 05:44]. I tend to be on the cynical side of conferences. If I can recommend one thing to you is that I would really shy away from just doing the brand exposure conferences. What we do, it’s one of my own personal rules, this is like rule number one for Matt Rissell and T Sheets for going to conferences, is that we have a call to action right there. This isn’t the conference—I don’t go to conferences and just collect business cards. I think that’s a waste, no one wants to get those emails afterwards, but what we do every single time is we have a call to action. We try to make it digital, something that they do right there on the spot.

It doesn’t have to cost them money, but it’s something that they know that they took the effort to engage with your company right there. Your retention rate of that individual, after the conference, is 85 percent higher if they responded themselves versus you doing it for them. So, that would be my one recommendation. And then, if it is digital, back to the return on investment, you can track anything that you’ve created in revenue, in sales, relationships, that can all go back to that specific conference. That’s one way, probably the most significant way that T Sheets tracks our ROI on conferences.

Sabrina: Thanks so much, Matt. I’m just going to jump in here because I think Palo Alto Software has learned a lot from seeing what T Sheets does at conferences. If you’re going to go, if you’re going to spend the money, and like Matt says, a $5,000 conference is probably a teeny tiny one; most of the time, you’re looking at between $10,000 and $20,000 when all is said and done. One of the things T Sheets does that I think is the way everybody should go is they get a theme around which they present their booth, and everything they do is around this theme and that theme goes back to who they are as a brand and fits right in with the audience. It really gives you an impact with the people that you go to.

If you are going to go and you’re going to spend money, not only should you do all this tracking, think about fun ways to stand out and drive your brand and your message home with the audience. You’re already going to be there, and they don’t necessarily have to be expensive things. It’s as simple as the T Sheets booth had a superhero theme and all their employees that were at the booth had superhero themed outfits for everyday. It’s as simple as that. You can hear the chatter amongst the accountants at the conference we were all at together about the T Sheets booth.

Start with your SMART goals, and then add in a little bit of fun that fits with your brand and gives your message out there to that audience because I think Matt is right, you want to hook people in, but you want them to respond to you. This whole “put your card in a fish bowl and you’ll win something” is fine, and it’s an okay way to get leads, but at the end of the day, most people putting their cards in there just want the iPad mini that you’re giving away. They don’t necessarily want your products and services. So, figure out a way to engage them and get them to ask for whatever it is that you’re giving out, so that you know that they’re engaged.

Matt: That’s exactly right. I would just add one thing, is that we are big on giveaways at our booth, but we always take those opportunities and leverage them intimately into creating that desire, that interest in T Sheets or in our company in order to get them to a call to action. So, well said.

Folks, thanks for listening to this episode number six of #TrackThis. Please do us a favor, tweet your business tracking questions and comments to us. We want to respond to them, and we know that tracking things is not always the sexiest, and it’s not always the funnest part of your job as an entrepreneur or a business, but it’s one of if not the most important to know you’re headed the right direction. Again, tweet your business tracking questions and comments to #TrackThis.

Signing off from Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Live Plan, and Matt Rissell of T Sheets, have a great day.

Sabrina: Thanks, Matt. Thanks, everybody.


AvatarSabrina Parsons

Sabrina has served as CEO of Palo Alto Software since 2007.