Before I started Boardroom Insiders I worked as a consultant to some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley, helping them improve their return on investment in industry events.
Along the way I developed specific expertise in CXO events—those rarified experiences designed to attract the highest level of executive. As CIOs, CFOs, CMOs and even CEOs became important target audiences for technology vendors, my clients worked to navigate the CXO event landscape. Many even launched their own C-level events with varying degrees of success.
With Chief Information Officers becoming one of the most popular targets for tech vendors, events targeting CIOs have proliferated. The “holy grail” is Gartner Symposium ITxpo (ITxpo for short). Their annual event, just held in Orlando last month, is arguably the biggest gathering of CIOs in the world, attracting more than 3,000, as well as thousands of other senior technology executives. It regularly sells out and has expanded to seven other cities worldwide. If your company is seriously targeting enterprise CIOs, you have to be there.
Participating in ITxpo is a very, very expensive proposition. It’s not just sponsorship fees; many vendors invest in parties, dinners and other add-ons, such as industry-specific sessions and special exhibits designed to wow and engage attendees. Every year, ITxpo sponsorships and “extras” sell out months in advance.
So you get the picture. This is one hot event with everyone trying to stand out and grab the attention of the biggest players in technology.
But here’s the disconnect. Despite their staggering investments in ITxpo and other major events, few companies go the extra mile to engage meaningfully with the attendees, particularly the CIOs. Instead, what prevails is a “build it and they will come” mentality.
To its credit, Gartner tries to lead sponsors in the right direction with pre-event conference calls in which attending CIOs talk about what gets their attention. I sat in on a few of these over the years and the CIOs always say more or less the same thing:
Tell me how you can solve my business challenges and help drive my business goals and I will meet with you. If you are just giving me a generic sales pitch, I’m not interested.
Yet year after year, I’ve watched companies fail to follow this advice. It makes me nuts to witness such a huge (and costly) missed opportunity. Here are some of the essential things that companies fail to do at CXO events like ITxpo—followed by five things you can do to improve your ROI at CXO events in the future.
They don’t identify which of their target accounts are registered for the event. Gartner—and many other event producers--often provide this info to top sponsors weeks and months before the event. While they don’t share the names of the registrants, they will give you a list from which you can find out, for example, that 25 people from GE are registered. Their titles are also typically provided, so you can figure out which business units or departments the attendees are coming from.
Even when they do know which accounts are going to be on site, they do little or nothing to try to engage these accounts. Sales leaders have told me that without the exact names of who is coming, it is “awkward” for their salespeople to reach out to key accounts pre-event. Really? Why can’t a salesperson call a customer and say, “Hey Joe, I know you guys are sending a lot of senior people to XYZ event and that one of your big initiatives is ABC. I think we can help you with this. Can we set up a meeting on site with you or some of your colleagues?” I worked with one company who spent hundreds of thousands sponsoring ITxpo and in the end had just a handful of meetings even though thousands of their top customers were on site. Major fail!
They treat everyone the same: If you have a $100 million customer on site, shouldn’t you plan a special experience for them, as opposed to a $500,000 customer—or a prospect? Companies should segment their audience and create special VIP experiences for top accounts. I have made this recommendation to many clients over the years but they seldom follow through. And this next point below is the main reason why they are unable to do so.
They fail to get their own CXO team to leverage major conferences as a crucially valuable face-to-face-customer opportunity. Many who work on ITxpo or other big events are unable to convince their own C-level leaders of their importance. With so much talk about the importance of being “customer centric” and engaging customers at the C-level, it is amazing that more tech company CXOs don’t use key events as an opportunity to learn and network alongside some of their most important customers. Imagine you are a CIO and a sales leader tells you that the CIOs of many of your top 100 customers are going to be at an event. Would there be any question that you should be there, investing several days, setting up as many customer meetings as possible, hosting hospitality events and participating in multiple sessions alongside customer CIO peers? How better to spend your time than meeting face-to-face with your most important customers? And how convenient is it that so many are in one place the same week?
The failures described above are common across many different types of CXO events, including proprietary events costing hundreds of thousands—and in some cases millions—of dollars. As a rule, companies spend more time and money on planning the food and beverage than they do targeting and learning about their C-level attendees! ITxpo is just one example of how we have seen companies fail to do what is required in order to make the most of their investment in a CXO event.
OK, end of rant. Now let’s look at five things you can do to get some real value out of your investment in CXO events.
1. Ensure Your Own CXOs’ Participation: If you are targeting enterprise CXO customers, you need to have your own CXOs at the event. Period. Enterprise CXOs want to meet their peers. In fact, if you secure a commitment from your own CXOs early in the game, you can use their presence as a hook to schedule more customer meetings. Some companies designate one or two CXOs to be the official “hosts” of their customers and build a whole VIP experience around them that includes receptions, customer lunches and dinners, by-invitation-only presentation sessions, meetings in a company hotel suite, VIP booth tours, prioritized seating at keynotes, etc. Do you get how a customer CXO might be a lot more interested in this type of experience than a vague invitation to “Come meet with us?”
2. Have an Account-Specific Strategy: Your top accounts merit special pre-event outreach and activities such as those described above. Obviously you can’t invite every single account to be a part of your VIP events, so you should prioritize whom to invite and then make a special effort to get them to attend through personalized communications and CXO-to-CXO outreach.
3. Prioritize CXO-to-CXO Meetings: Private CXO meetings are where the rubber meets the road. An event like Gartner ITxpo gives your CXOs an opportunity to knock out literally dozens of customer meetings without having to travel all over the country. It goes without saying but just to be clear: you should prioritize your most important accounts for these meetings and make sure that every scheduled meeting is worthy of your CXOs’ time.
4. Do Targeted Pre-Event Customer Outreach: Meetings between CXOs don’t just happen on the fly. Their time is scheduled months in advance. I have seen companies just hope and wait for a CIO to happen by their booth. Really? Instead, decide which customers you want to engage and then design a strategy for doing so, well in advance. Executive-to-executive outreach works best, so ask your CXO sponsor if they can send out personal emails (that you write for them using information you know about each customer) or make a call to their peer to seal the deal.
5. Do Your Homework—Thoroughly: Once you have a CXO’s commitment to meet with your company, do your homework so you can brief your executives on every aspect of the customer, their company, and your company’s relationship with them. This includes not only information from your CRM and sales team, but up-to-the minute external research including any published interviews and insight from their latest earnings call. One tech CXO said that he doesn’t go into a meeting without knowing absolutely everything there is to know about the customer, including “what color socks they are wearing.”
And, as President Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This is a great guiding principle when it comes to planning your presence at CXO events. Time and money spent getting your own CXOs on board, targeting the right customers, and doing your homework on them is more important than the catering.
Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.