Are conferences worth it for marketing?

Conferences can be expensive and hard to measure, especially compared to digital marketing. So why do we do them? Here’s what we learned from our last two conferences, including how we designed our stand, our list of must-haves for the event, and what made it worthwhile for us.

Michelle Geslewitz·

A photo of the team posing in front of the Cliniko stand at Podiatry 2023

Last November, we made our UK conference debut for Podiatry 2023, the Royal College of Podiatry’s annual conference.

We’ve been partnered with the Royal College of Podiatry for a few years now and we love working with them, so when we learned of the opportunity to exhibit and meet over a thousand podiatrists as the conference Gold Sponsor, we were certain we needed to do it.

What was less clear at the time was how to go about it. As in, what to do with the space, what our stand should look like, and how we wanted people to experience Cliniko as a brand in person.

As a team, we’d done conferences before in Australia but we were essentially starting from scratch for the UK, and we wound up with a design completely different from what we’d done before.

Here’s what I learned as a marketer leading this project as well as a bit more on how we approach events at Cliniko.

The team posing in front of the Cliniko stand at The Foot and Ankle Show 2024

The big question

I should say up front that, as a person accountable for business growth, the question that is top of mind with any bit of marketing activity is: What is the return on investment the business will get out of it? Or, put another way, how will the business profit from the resource cost of any given campaign?

It’s an important concept, but for transparency’s sake, it wasn’t really our top priority when it came to this event. If it had been, we may not have signed up.

The truth is, events are a lot of work and money for what amounts to a couple of days of activity. Unlike a digital campaign, which may run for months, a conference or in-person event is really most effective over the few days it actually happens, at least in terms of winning customers, but is extremely resource intensive—especially if you’re doing a lot of the work in-house. Cliniko employs only 52 people as of writing this, with a marketing/content team of just six. So even with outside help this was a huge undertaking for us.

It can also be a little bit harder to measure the impact of an in-person event directly on the bottom line because people may not sign up or buy something from you at the show itself, or even within weeks of it occurring. If your top priority is new customers, a conference can be a risky endeavour.

So, what’s the point of doing an event when it’s possible to get a clearer, higher return in terms of revenue or new customers from advertising on Google or Facebook or even partnering with other businesses?

For us, it was an opportunity to bring a little bit of the Cliniko experience to our customers. That may sound cheesy, but it was most important for us that our stand should reflect the best of our brand, so that people stopping by could experience what we’re all about in person, face to face.

The team at Podiatry 2023

Reinventing the wheel

That brings me to the first major challenge of this project. If you’ve ever been to a conference or trade show, you know there is a certain universal look and feel that seems to be “standard”. Think lots of plastic signage, fluorescent lighting, and the usual conference paraphernalia like business cards, branded pens, and name badges. Basically, the norm for B2B software as an industry but the antithesis of what Cliniko is all about.

Looking back it’s not surprising that it took many, many tries to come up with a stand design that felt right for us. If you find yourself similarly stuck on how to make your stand stand out, I offer this piece of advice that I wish I’d known earlier in the process:

Focus on your values, not just your brand’s look and feel. This is definitely something that’s easier said than done but the main thing I learned from this project was that in order to create a great experience for people visiting your stand at an event, you need to find a way to make what you most believe in tangible, not just ‘sell’ your product. For us, that meant honing in on our efforts to be sustainable.

Cliniko is a carbon-neutral company and we contribute to environmental charities. While we’d never claim to be perfect, one of our most important principles as a company is to leave the world a better place for having us in it than not.

We worked with The London Display Company to source materials for our stand that were as sustainable as possible, including natural cork flooring, glass signage, and plywood construction.

We chose a more subdued, monochrome look than most of our other marketing creative, which is usually busy and colourful, and the effect was clean and striking in a good way. Exactly what we wanted.

That said, don’t be surprised if next time you see our stand looking different. For us, this process will always be iterative and I think that took some of the pressure off trying to be perfect from the get-go.

Our stand at The Foot and Ankle Show 2024 under construction
Our stand at Podiatry 2023 under construction

At the conference

Once we had the design more or less decided, it was time to focus on creating a great experience on the stand for customers and curious people dropping by alike.

For this, we mainly relied on the team who came along to the event. We pride ourselves on great customer service, so it’s no surprise that most of the people on the stand were from the support team. However, we also had developers and our founder Joel on hand. We wanted a range of team members with varied expertise around to answer any questions from attendees, and it was also important to us that we got the opportunity to listen and learn from real people how Cliniko impacts their day to day.

Photo of Katie and Zac hard at work at The Foot and Ankle Show 2024
Fahad talking to delegates at The Foot and Ankle Show 2024

As a marketer, it was a crash course in learning how differently people use Cliniko, even if they’re working with the same set of features. This is the kind of qualitative info you just can’t get anywhere else but from customers directly.

We had a few people approach us with feedback on what features to develop next, of course, and it was really uplifting and encouraging to hear firsthand that the vast majority loved Cliniko and feel it has improved their lives.

There’s also a bonding element to conferences for our fully remote team. Most of the people working the stand were based in the UK but there were also some from Europe, the US, and even Australia. We tend to treat events as ‘mini-meet ups’—a rare opportunity for us to get together for a couple of days. So while the events themselves are hard work, we also try to fit in some fun stuff, even if we (ok, I am mostly talking about myself here) only have enough remaining energy for a team dinner.

A photo of the team having dinner at Bundobust Liverpool

What we brought

Though conferences tend to only be one or two days, they are intense and can be exhausting. Here’s our working list of stuff to have on hand to help keep everyone comfortable:

  • Tissues
  • Screen cleaner spray and cloth
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Spare device chargers
  • Mints
  • Throat lozenges
  • Pain relief tablets
  • Water bottles
  • Sugary sweets
  • Plasters/bandaids

We also had a volunteer from the team pick up some beverages and treats from an offsite cafe (in this case COFFI, personally selected by Joel) daily, to make sure we all got our quality caffeine hit. It was a surprisingly effective morale boost.

It’s my opinion that giveaway items are second only to the stand itself in terms of importance, because who doesn’t love a freebie? It’s also the best way to keep your brand front and centre for attendees after the event, especially if you choose your giveaway item wisely.

We offered up free stickers plus someone on our team had the brilliant idea to give away branded socks. We chose a high quality speciality supplier because we really wanted to create something premium for the event attendees, and it paid off because the socks were a HUGE hit. We offered two sizes, medium (fits most) and large. People wore them to day two of the event and stopped by to show them off to us, as well as posting pictures of them on social media.

Feet wearing Cliniko branded socks posed in the shape of a star
Socks stacked on the stand shelf at an event

Measuring success

With any marketing activity, there is always a lesson to be learned for next time based on how performance measures up to your goals. In our case, we decided to focus less on quantitative success and more on qualitative. This is a choice we’re lucky to be able to make as a business and we don’t take it for granted. But, I would say the value of brand awareness and brand sentiment shouldn’t be underestimated, even if they are harder to measure—and events are a fantastic way to raise both at the same time.

We made a conscious decision not to collect emails for the purpose of following up after the event, instead choosing to advertise in the association magazine before and after the show. However, the impact of our presence at the conference was immediately obvious, as we had people who weren’t currently using Cliniko coming up to us, curious to learn more because of the buzz our stand created.

We had customers spontaneously come up to us for photo opportunities and recorded testimonials in front of our stand. People brought their friends and coworkers to talk to us, while gushing about how Cliniko has changed their lives.

Rachel and Sheila from Tuckton Foot Clinic posing in front of the Cliniko stand at the Foot and Ankle Show 2024

It’s hard to quantify the goodwill that just being present at events can generate but this experience has proven to me that, done right, conferences can bring value that no ad space can.

Author information

Michelle was born in Chicago and now lives in Leamington Spa, UK. She currently works on growth marketing for Cliniko, looking after paid marketing channels, social media, SEO, content and more.

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