I was pleased to get the email yesterday confirming that I was selected to speak at SQLSaturday #362 on January 31, 2015. I think the last time I was in Austin was 2004 or so when I was at Dell for a week for SAN and cluster training. It was a memorable trip for a few reasons. One was I got a full tour of the PC build facility, impressive to see. Another was it was cold. Cold as in ice on the roads and traffic shut down. We were staying about a mile away and didn’t know if the class would go or not, so we drove – slowly – and got there, narrowly missing sliding into one of the three cars in the parking lost. It was the first time I saw a Keurig style coffee machine and that led to an adventure later on. I also had time for a short visit to the LBJ presidential library. I’m looking forward to returning to Austin and I might go a day early to have time to explore. I might drive up to Fort Hood for a couple hours and think on the path I’ve taken since I left there in 1986 – surely one I couldn’t have projected or expected.
SQLSaturday Tampa is the first SQLSaturday in Florida for 2015, scheduled for February 28th, 2015. The event is held at the USF College of Business Bldg, 12212 USF Maple Drive, Tampa, FL 33620. Easy to find, free parking, lots of hotel options near by. The weather at the end of February is typically pretty good too. I’ll be attending and hope to see you there!
After finishing up six months of managing the marketing for SQLSaturday Orlando I’ve been going back through all my blog posts to outline stuff we (or any other event) can use next year. It’s not a complete project plan, but I hope it gives you some ideas and a structure to start from. I wish I had time for a true task list! If I really, really condense it, I’d tell you these things:
- Your success depends on the size/quality of your mailing list. Nothing else comes close to being as productive.
- Marketing is writing more than just about anything else and writing copy every week is tiring. Learn to write before you take on marketing.
- If you’re doing seminars (“pre-cons”) use a template that allows you to mention them in every single email
- Invest time (or money) up front on a good email template and a good flyer
- Track your progress against previous years and look at the number every week (every day!)
- Beat the drum slowly, consistently, and go faster as you get closer the event
There is some work you can get out of the way when (or before) the event site goes live. I believe in opening up registration early, at least 4 months prior. All of these tasks should be done before or within a week after the site goes live:
- Begin monitoring the event hash tag (and I prefer #sqlsatorlando over #sqlsat318 – ask HQ to configure it for you) on Twitter
- Get the front page HTML laid out. There isn’t much room to work with and you need the most important parts ‘above the fold’
- Create (or reuse) and test your email template. We used one with a right hand column that we used for our “calendar” which included our seminars, plus our flyer, and more. This is the vehicle for all that writing you’re going to do – make it look good, and make sure it works at least in Outlook/Gmail and on a couple different phones
- Create an event flyer. Event name, location, date, URL. Simple, catchy, graphical. This is what you’re going to print and hand out, and what you’ll ask people to forward and/or print at the office.
- Pull your entire mailing list forward from last year (all previous years). In Orlando that was about 2000 addresses. We did it by adding them with a status of “bulk loaded”. Add to that any net new addresses from your chapter list.
- If there is a local .Net group open the conversation NOW about having a developer centric track, attending their D-60/D-30 meetings to plug the event, and see if they will do a blast to their list at D-30 just about your event (hint: offer to reciprocate when they do Code Camp)
- If you’re going to do one or more seminars start talking to the team about picking topics that you can market (which doesn’t mean pick the one with the highest earnings potential) – what audience will you be selling it to with what story? Does the speaker have name recognition and if not, does the abstract/social media presence offset that? If at all possible someone else should own the seminars, but you’re the one that has to drive the message consistently.
- Set a registration and attendance goal
- Come up with a way to track registrations vs previous years. If PASS doesn’t field this soon reach out to Kendal Van Dyke for the powershell he used for Orlando.
- Push your team to lock in the speaker schedule at least 90 days out, and preferably 120. I recommend “releasing” the schedule to the public at D-60, but it’s a big win to let the speakers know they can commit to travel sooner than that, and you can then feature those speakers in your email in the mid-intensity D-120 to D-60 window.
- Get your sponsor plan to include a plug/push for the sponsor to send a geo-targeted blast at D-30 (which doesn’t mean they will do it) and get your sponsor person telling it to every lead and new sponsor – help us help you by emailing your list once about being at our event.
- Publish a message calendar to your team (based on tempo zones below and what worked last year). That lets you work ahead a week or two on the writing.
How often to message? Never an easy question, but I used this in Orlando and I think it worked, and it generated few complaints. Most people I talked to said the frequency felt right (that’s with the caveat that the content has to be fresh, not a repeat every time).
- Greater Than D-120. If you’re more than 4 months out you do at most one message to the SQLSat list per month. Mention it via your Chapter list each month and be patient.
- D-120 to D-60. Here I recommend one email every 2 weeks. You can go a little longer, or drop an extra message in, but it’s early days.
- D-60 to D-10. I like to see one email a week, and you can skip a week or so if you’re closer to D-60 and it feels like too much.
- D-10 – D. Pretty much one email a day. Some will be yours, a couple will be sponsor messages
I tried to tell them three things each time, always putting the most important thing first. I also included the seminars in the right hand column, though sometimes the message would also be about the seminars. We all write differently – mine are probably plain, yours might be more dynamic, do it your way – just make the format and the message understandable. Some tips:
- Use a long subject line that covers the three things and always starts with “SQLSaturday YourTown – “. The subject line may be all they read (and re-read, if they don’t delete it)
- Repeat the subject line in your message. It helps you stay structured and it looks nice if they print it
- Be wary of complex CSS. You need it to render on all devices. I’m not saying you should HTML tables everywhere, but they work!
- Put images in every message. It makes it interesting. Also, upload the images to the event site so they are all in once place. Ideally you have some great photos from the year before you can sprinkle in to make it personal and real.
- Only link to things you care about. Really care about.
- Spell check. Twice.
- Run the early ones through HTMLTidy, will increase the chance it renders ok everywhere
- I wrote all of mine offline and tested in a browser, then pasted into the emailer.
- Be sure you know what each list definition really means!
- A consistent template is good, but it’s okay to evolve.
The messages from the last event and all the other events is viewable via the administrative site. Great place to find/borrow ideas. There’s a “copy message” link that is really handy!
Google ads are price prohibitive. LinkedIn Ads are affordable, but didn’t generate much for us in Orlando (you might do better, worth trying). Meetup may work for you if you have it for your chapter, they denied setting one up for SQLSat Orlando because it was annual event. Some things worth trying are:
- Email every PASS Chapter in the state/some big radius and ask them to plug your event to their list and on their site
- Ditto for your local .Net chapter and any others you know well enough to ask
- Ask every speaker to blog/tweet about attending
- Try to put flyers (and someone to hand them out) at any SQLSaturday in the area that happens before yours does.
- Visiting chapters in person is a lot more powerful than asking them to mention it during the standard meeting intro
Don’t stop there, but don’t let it take away too much time/money from your email marketing. This is one place where having someone focus just on this would really help.
Pick seminars that will benefit your community, but think about the marketing. You need a short, strong title, a clear abstract, and a good bio/photo of the speaker. Ideally the speaker has a blog and is on Twitter, but you can make it work if they don’t. Don’t feel bad about asking for/suggesting tweaks to any of it. Most seminar presenters are techies, not marketing people. Explain what you need changed and why, it’s rarely an issue.
- Make a flyer for the seminar (if you have multiple seminars its up to you, one that mentions all, or one page per seminar). Create thumbnail (or a bit bigger) to use in email and link to the flyer.
- We offered speakers a 50% discount if they attended. Not sure it was a marketing win, but it was a win.
- Ask the seminar presenter to blog/tweet about it on a regular basis
- Coach the email reader on how to take it to the boss. What’s the value prop? What would a good email request look like?
- Mention it in every email to the core list
- Price bumps might work, but it’s not a big win. We did a $20 discount if they registered for 2 days and we did get a lot of those.
Be patient. Much lower/slower numbers on this compared to the main event. Whoever is managing them needs to be watching costs/attendance, you’re just driving the message.
We tried hard this past year to make Twitter work. We didn’t have a huge number of registrants opt to have it auto tweet that they registered – those that did we followed and tweeted back a welcome. We wanted the twitter feed on the front page to not look dead, so we tried for one tweet a day from D-120 or so. From D-30 we had multiple tweets per day and the last week we had hourly tweets. I generated them used a hack query to build combinations of messages about speakers, sessions, and sponsors, and then scheduled using Hootsuite ($10/month, you can turn it on and off). We even scheduled 15 minute and 5 minute reminder messages for Saturday. Did it matter? I’m hard pressed to say it did, but it was a seed planted, we’ll have more on Twitter next year and if there is one thing Twitter is good for it’s event news and interaction. Great if you can find someone to own this and just follow along on the calendar.
You need a few good photos from last year to liven up your messages, and you need a few good photos this year for next year. That’s what you need, ask the team to staff getting it done. It’s a great way to engage volunteers and show sponsors some love/success.
I’m a huge fan of writing up notes diary fashion. You can get two for one if you share these with the team as part of the weekly call, or you can just put highlights in the status call and write all the details elsewhere. I blogged about it because I can easily point someone else to it and I have the blog up, but you can do a Word doc on DropBox. Just write down what works, ideas, etc, etc. Just writing it has value, but wait until next year when you go back to those notes!
Track Your Progress
I mentioned it earlier, but it’s critical that you track registrations towards your goal on a weekly basis. Minus that you have no sense of what works or doesn’t. You’ll wish for more info, but this is enough.
Doing the marketing is a lot of work, but it’s fun and a great learning experience. Stick to the tempo/calendar, write clear and concise messages, and don’t let up – keep pushing the message. As my friend Steve Jones reminds me, people don’t read every email you send them. I hope these help you and your team, and please do comment or email if you have questions, or ideas to share!
One of the items I’ve had on my todo list for a while is to write up notes on the state of the admin tools for SQLSaturday as they pertain to marketing. For those who haven’t managed an event, SQLSaturday is really three different sites; the public facing one that most of you see, an event administrative site for event teams, and a higher level admin site for PASS HQ to use in provisioning events. Of those three the public site by far has had the most visible work. The event admin site has definitely had a few changes, but nothing big. I wrote most of it back in the day, Steve Jones and I trying to stub out tools we thought we needed and then seeing which ones really were needed, so in many ways the tools are about the say as they were when we handed the keys to PASS back in March 2010. Not glamorous, bare bones even, it was interesting to return to being a consumer of them for SQLSaturday Orlando and see the places where we just didn’t have a deep enough vision back then.
Building The Front Page
At a high level marketing for SQLSaturday is about what we say to visitors on the landing page, email messages to the mailing list, event flyers, and what we broadcast on Twitter. Let’s start with the front page. Here’s the editor:
The editor isn’t bad. It tends to reformat based on some rules it has internally, but in practice I build the HTML offline and do some testing on it, then paste it here and do some final testing by sending to the ‘Test Group’. That’s definitely a tip worth remembering, don’t invest time in a web session that could time out when you take a call!
Related to that on the home page the twitter feed takes up a lot of space and that leaves precious little space ‘above the fold’. Maybe we can move it, or stack it, or change the layout so it more horizontal down further on the page. In practice we don’t see much traffic there but we had to generate traffic to make it feel alive. Maybe an option to turn on/off would be useful too
There is also a menu for uploading files and we used that quite a bit. Sponsor logos, PDF’s, and even some calendar files, nice to have them in place where they don’t disappear. Not fancy, but very useful. The only time it was a challenge was when we had a file type the upload didn’t support..
Here’s what the “send” screen looks like:
The default template is blah and it’s one place where PASS could help in two ways. One is by having some design a nicer email template as the default, the other is by allowing the event team to upload their own template. For those that use the ‘auto messaging’ which is a default set of messages they would get a nicer look, and for those who custom write their messages they could save the time designing a template. The template needs to be responsive, something that looks good in Gmail, Outlook, and on phones. I ended up using tables for the formatting and that worked ok, if not cutting edge. Definitely mark up your template so it’s easy to see where to put the various elements (sponsors, seminars, etc). Not everyone will fit into a default template, but a choice of two or three might well cover most. We used one where the right column carried out calendar of events, links to flyers, etc, that we wanted to repeat, and on the bottom we had the sponsors at Gold/Silver level.
Another area that needs upgrades is the tokens that you can embed in the message. It would be nice to have one for unsubscribe and one for attendance status (Attending, Not Registered Yet, ?). One for Guidebook also.
Autotext is a great idea, have it construct the schedule or list of sessions on the fly, but the formatting is plain, and you can’t control it at design time. We didn’t use it, and just the one email with the nice looking schedule as easily an hour to build.
There is a good handful of supported mailing lists, but the titles aren’t always clear on the impact. I’d like to see a link to the Wiki for details, and I think it would help a lot if the estimated send count was shown, either in the list box or near by.
By far the biggest gap is we don’t get stats on the email beyond the number sent. Bounces go off to some place, and we don’t get open rates, or at least click throughs. The links in the email don’t get coded so it’s hard to tell which ones work and which ones don’t (and that applies to the event site too).
A note here too about the “bulk loaded list”. We were able to get HQ to load all the distinct emails from previous events here in Orlando and they get added to the registration table as bulk loaded. That worked pretty good, far better than trying to send to them from outside the framework. We found a few bugs along the way, but it helped us reach people that missed the event last year. Well worth doing, but requires HQ to do it.
The only issue from bulk loaded that mattered was the unsubscribe. We had about 10 people complain that unsubscribe required them to login first. Totally valid complaint, and I think something that got missed when logins to the site were enabled. High on the list of things that need to be fixed.
We charge $10 for lunch. Some pay at registration, many wait, which is ok. When we send to the unpaid lunch list we got quite a few that were bringing their own (20 or 30). It would be nice to have that as a registration option to save coming back to it later.
There is also no support for trying to track things like “bring a friend”. Something along the lines of affiliate links would be very useful, and that might not be enough (but a start). Capturing the source at registration would help a lot in assessing where to put effort (such as our attempts at LinkedIn ads).
Another problem was that when people cancel, it’s a manual process (as in they remind you) to refund lunch money (based on your policy for doing so) and you can’t see the impact. In the final couple days prior to the event we watched our count do plus one minus one all day long as we had cancellations offsetting last minute registrations. I typically count on 30% no show, but is that 30% of total reg, or 30% of those that say they are attending? When you’re sweating space and/or food you really want to see those numbers.
We also had to market seminars and we used EventBrite for the registration. The reg part works fine, but we pay more fees (EventBrite + PayPal) and because it was external, there was no mailing list for “registered for seminar”. Really it’s bigger than that. Managing it separately isn’t the worst thing, seminars really need their own “manager”. The question – on which I’m not clear on the answer – is whether it’s worth the time to do the integration. That’s worth a big discussion.
I’m convinced a good flyer is an important marketing asset. Not just for printing, but for people to forward to colleagues. Designing a good one is hard. I suspect we’d be happy with a stock flyer if it was well done, and that is one area where HQ does great work on the Summit, we should leverage that for SQLSaturday (same thing for the email templates I mentioned earlier).
There is only minimal support for Twitter, auto tweeting when the user opts in. We went way beyond that this year, generating sponsor love messages, lots of messages about speakers and topics, and the speakers/sponsors really liked them. We also tried to follow anyone who registered and provided a Twitter handle. I used HootSuite paid edition for the scheduling, and I hacked the messages using the XML feed on the site to get various combinations. It would be really nice to load a template “Thanks to ….. for sponsoring SQLSaturday Orlando” and have the system generate the tweets and sending them at the right time, or scheduling them via the API.
While I’m wishing I’d like to see support for Twitter cards added.
Another miss from the early days, there is no built-in plan/display for sharing photos related to the event. Flicker, whatever, we need a pattern, and we may need tools to help with it, including a slide show viewer for the site.
I saved the biggest need and biggest win for last. You saw this in a bunch of marketing posts, this is what helps you figure out if you’re on track or not, if something is working or not. This needs to be built in and emailed daily (if enabled). Kendal Van Dyke did with with Excel and Powershell, but it should be native, along with the ability to see other lines (lunch reg, cancellation) and it would be nice to have it overlaid with how similar events have done (does our curve skew from the national trend? from the Tampa trend?)
There are lots of wishes here, but let me boil it down to the few things that I think PASS can do quickly and easily to help the marketing person on the event team:
- Build in support for the chart above
- Create a nicer/responsive email template
- Create an event flyer template that events can tweak themselves or have someone do at a nominal cost
Plenty of room for investment, and I think investments in marketing are worth doing. Later this week I’ll try to recap my marketing plan that we will use next year.
Notes from a speaker/volunteer perspective:
- It was a lot of fun to talk to the students at our Student to IT Pro Seminar. Interesting to hear their questions, easy to forget what it’s like to be a true beginner. 70 people in the seminar. Win!
- I had about 20 in my 9 am presentation. Went reasonably well and I identified some things to tweak before the Summit.
- The chef coats we received as speaker gifts were just excellent!
- We sold 25 SQLSaturday Orlando polos this year at our cost of $25. Not bad at all.
- We had 8 serving tables to expedite lunch (which worked), but I could see attendees struggling to see past the lines at the front tables. Minor tweak for next year.
- Lunch went very well and we had food left over that went to a local shelter
- We had 5 or 6 schedule changes in the last two weeks, makes it challenging to commit to the door schedules – but change is going to happen.
- The super sized schedules in the elevators were well received, perhaps in part due to the elevators being really slow.
- We found a volunteer to do photos and I’m hoping those turn out well. We just didn’t have enough volunteers to do it the way we wanted.
- 54 speakers is a massive schedule. Not sure I even got to say hello to all of them. We couldn’t do it without you.
- Shawn purchased a water balloon slingshot that worked well for tshirts. Kendal was sending tshirts all the way to the back table in the gathering area
- We had minor glitches that we noticed, but I don’t think anything that the attendees noticed (all 450+ of them)
We manage the event as a committee here in Orlando, with leadership alternating between oPASS and MagicPASS. I think this year was our best year so far and a really good team. Everyone had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to get done and stayed focused, and Kendal did a nice job of figuring out which ideas to take and which to leave on the list. Our weekly Tuesday calls really helped maintain communication. We also focused on numbers a lot; registration, speakers, sponsors, seminar registrations too. It was also nice to reinvigorate our relationship with ONETUG (.Net group here in Orlando) and we look forward to doing a lot to help with with the Code Camp in early 2015. We’re all writing up notes on what we could do better/different next year and in the next week or so we’ll have our first planning call for SQLSaturday Orlando 2015, then we’ll mostly be on break until March.
We had a lot of great volunteers, but I had a note to mention one – Rodney Landrum. Rodney is quiet and behind the scenes, but he gets things done. By the time I arrived Saturday morning he was covered in sweat from moving tables and handling problems, then came the student seminar at 9 am to teach students about what relational databases are, and then he went back over at 1130 to host the raffle for them, and that’s just the parts I saw. All of which took up so much time he didn’t get to do the thing he wanted to do – be the roving reporter. We’ll get that next year Rodney! I didn’t get to spend hardly any time with volunteers and I missed that, I like hearing the stories and having time to say thank you to them, something for me to do better at next year.
This year was the most I’ve been involved since I handed over the keys to Orlando years ago. It was good to be back. Interesting to see lessons learned, and some lost and re-learned (coffee plan). The local franchise feels strong. We’re lucky to have a lot of people in Orlando with talent and energy. It was good to have the time and energy to put into trying to push the edges back some, and sometimes a challenge to remember that while ideas area good, they can be stressful when the team sees something else that might get added to the stack.
I meant to take more photos, only ended up with a couple. Here is Jedi Knight Mark Souza defending the attendees against the Empire, which was attacking with a t-shirt slingshot. He put up a valiant fight but was finally knocked to the ground by Sith Lord Rodney Landrum. Obi-Wan was bent and a little crumpled, but was able to attend the closing raffle by leaning against the wall, light sql saber still at the ready!
This is mid-raffle. It’s a lot of people! Green shirts are volunteers. The walkway behind the crowd is where we put the serving tables at lunch (and check-in before that), with the building that has our classrooms on the far side.
That’s for it this year, now we have to finish up our joint meeting of OPASS/MagicPASS in October featuring Mark Souza, then it’s off to the Summit and then I think it will be time for the end of year break. Time flies.
This past Saturday we held our eight annual SQLSaturday. I’ll write some notes about the event and post today or tomorrow. The final registration count after marking 20-30 people as cancelled (things got hectic, was hard to track) was 640 (vs 344 last year) and our best effort on attendance count is 450 (and was slightly higher than that because we ended up with some students dual registered). Our Student to IT Pro Seminar had about 70 attendees (and some of those were dual registered). We had more people pay for lunch than registered last year. We’ll try to get the final drop percentage refined, but it looks like the expected 30% or so. I surpassed both my goals for this year, 450 attendees against the goal of 350, and 640+ registered against the goal of 500. Definitely satisfying to hit the goals after months of work.
I still have some work to do that I’m planning to have wrapped up by Oct 17th:
- Send out the remaining sponsor email blasts
- Related to the event, market the upcoming joint oPASS/MagicPASS meeting starring (featuring hardly seems to be the right word) my friend Mark Souza
- Write up a core set of lessons learned
- Write up a plan that can be repeated next year (and by other events)
It’s been a long road and I’m definitely tired. Not unexpected, but a reminder that I need to find ways to make it less intense next year. We haven’t met yet to discuss roles for next year, but I’m leaning towards a different role and a new challenge while I coach whoever takes on marketing. It’ll be interesting setting a growth goal for next year, I know I’ll want to think hard about whether 20% is doable after the kind of growth we had this year!
- We sent out a final you haven’t paid for lunch reminder on Wed, asked for a reply if they were planning to bring their own. 20 or so are, so far. We don’t mind that they do of course, but it’s really valuable information because it’s another block of attendees we can confirm (or as close to confirm as possible). Paid attendees are one group (very likely to attend), comps (speakers, sponsors, a few volunteers, all very likely to attend), and then the rest. The way the site works we don’t make it obvious that you can NOT pay or how to change your plan. Not huge, but something we could tweak at the system level.
- We also asked for people to cancel if their plans changed, and we’ve done – guessing here – as many as 20. Every little bit helps us to understand where we stand.
- Why the obsession over counts? Back at #1 it was food, scared silly that we wouldn’t have enough. With paid lunches (and we order a little extra, still) we don’t sweat the food, but we still want to have about the right amount of water, soda, coffee, donuts, etc. Sucks to order 100 people worth extra, that’s money that could get used elsewhere. The other part is seating. Based on what we think we added a 10th room to make sure we could handle the attendance.
- We’re at 604 right now, and the count has bounced up and down over/under for a couple days as we add one/lose one.
- Maybe if we did another push to the not-reg list we might push it some more, but we feel like it’s a busy email week and we’ve done enough
- All of this a reminder that registrations are all good fun to count, but what matters is attendance. Kendal has one projection that puts at 500 on site. Im curious to see!
- We had the waitlist count sent to 600, but we moved it to 700. We don’t expect it to go that high, but with the count bouncing we’d rather just add people to the list rather than worry they don’t register because they’d be on the waitlist
Here’s some more art from Kendal looking at day by day number for the last week going back to 2009. The guess is +25 registrations from today. The question is how much that will get offset by cancellations.
Registration count after some cancellations now at 577, way above my goal of 500. We’ve decided not to spend on LinkedIn this week, our numbers are good and we’re not thinking it would drive a lot. Tough call. I’d like to find out, but agree it’s money we can spend elsewhere. Sent the final message yesterday to the unregistered list, we’ll have a message to the attendees on Friday and a final reminder on Saturday morning. I also just sent out the first sponsor message to the list. We have four this week, then more to send following the event. Not sure of the final count, but we’re going to send a lot of sponsor messages (email blast on their behalf to the registered/opt-in list), quantity worries me, but I get the perceived value to sponsors. Something to watch.
Big conversation on our weekly call today was guessing attendance. We want rooms reasonably full, but not so full that people get frustrated. Paid unches plus comps, minus sponsor comps – a few speakers – a few volunteers? Registration * 70% (my rule of thumb). We’re adding a 10th room/track, we’ll schedule 3 morning sessions, reserve the three in the afternoon for any that were maxed out in the morning. Room size is the challenge. With some rooms holding only 30, just not a lot of flex. Really curious to see what the final is (goal is 350), but in terms of goal and trying to decide on a good enough formula.
Ever since SQLSaturday #1 our venue has been Seminole State College (Seminole Community College back then), provided graciously and perhaps more importantly, at no charge. Finding a venue is a big deal when it comes to planning an event and finding one that’s free, that’s harder! Putting a bunch of IT people on their campus is a win just by being there. Instructors from the school staff a table, answer questions, and more importantly, they ask questions. It’s a really good way to stay connected with the profession. What’s new? What’s changing? What are you focused on? It’s a pretty good focus group when you think about it.
Each year we invite students to attend including a free lunch, but attendance has always been low. Typically it would be a handful of students. Several years ago Jack Corbett and I visited the IT classes to invite students. Worth doing, but it didn’t change the numbers much. The students are trying to make it through class while paying the bills and/or managing a family and giving up a Saturday for something that may not even come close to what they hope to do is asking a lot. Even the content is a challenge, our “beginner” topics look pretty advanced to them.
This year I had the luxury of extra time/energy, so I went back to the college with a new idea. We’d set up a half day seminar just for the students. We’d cover networking, the value of community events, how to work with a staffing firm, common resume mistakes, and – being a SQL Server event – some coverage of databases at a very high level. We co-located it with SQLSaturday to simplify (we thought) the logistics and to try to give them the whole experience. We did a quick three slide deck and sent it to all the IT instructors asking them to encourage attendance and to consider making it an assignment for students. We added a room the schedule with capacity for 30 and set a goal of 20 attendees. We set up registration on EventBrite, thinking it would be useful to be able to see the attendees clearly and worrying about managing two lists instead of one. We did all of this before the fall semester started, so once in place we had to wait and see.
Once school started we saw some registrations and we quickly exceeded our capacity of 30 and started a waitlist. Success! Never content, I asked if we could get a bigger room and one was available, this one with a capacity of 60. More is better, except of course more costs more. Our lunch cost is about $9/person, so we were now talking about adding an unplanned $500 spend to the budget. We decided to proceed and then we hit 60. Now what? We debated switching to pizza to cut costs, but then we had to figure out how much pizza and have someone manage that, so we decided to just stick to the plan. The college found a room that would seat 100 so we set our limit at 120 to plan for some cancellations and went again. As of today we’re at about 75 registered with a reminder email going out to them today.
Now to some lessons learned, so far.
Eventbrite turned out to be exactly the right call. Without it we’d be stuck with hoping they filled in “how did you hear about us” with “student” or hoping they used their college email address. Without it we’d have no way to cap/manage attendance separately from our regular attendees. That turned out to have an added benefit that we didn’t “spam” sponsor lists with leads with a very chance of immediate value. We’ll allow students to opt-in when they check-in for the seminar and if they do, that list will go to the sponsors who can decide whether or not to use it.
The seminar ended up being quite a distance from the main event, requiring a separate check-in table and staff. Good and bad. We’d have two lists anyway, but it does take them out of the flow and confusion and fun of the event.
On the money side, we decided to include them in the regular lunch. We’ll all troop over after the seminar is complete. Beyond that though, by NOT having them on the SQLSaturday list we’re not providing them with an event bag, raffle tickets, and whatever else. Again this takes them out of the event flow some, but manages our money (and that of the sponsors by managing who gets the collateral they send). We worried that this was too removed, so we’re going to spend $200 on raffle prizes for the students and do that raffle before we break for lunch. We’re inviting the students to attend the afternoon sessions, but it’s optional. We don’t mind spending, just a matter of making sure we spend wisely.
We’ve had some that dual-registered, so we had to go back and try to clean up the attendee list for SQLSaturday just to make sure we had a good count. That dropped us just below 500 for a while. I can see where it’s confusing for students, something to do better next year.
We’re having to design a quick eval for the seminar, one more task we didn’t plan on (if an obvious one).
Talking about it so far, we’re debating whether we’d be better off next year to hold it 1 or 2 weeks prior to SQLSaturday. That would streamline the message, we could then do pizza, and we – the organizers – would have more time to devote to it and more time afterward for questions. We’d then invite them to SQLSaturday, but there would be a huge fall off. Do we care about getting them to SQLSaturday, or helping them? The latter of course but can we do both? Should we? Is there a new brand needed there? One event not yet complete isn’t a template yet, but it could be!
On top of all of that we’re not sure if we have enough room. With registration at 535 + 75 students, the afternoon could be very very packed. We just don’t have many options for rooms with larger capacity, so we may have to add a track.
So that’s where we’re at. We’ve designed something that appeals to them, will they show up? Will they find it valuable? I’ll guess that some won’t attend, but we’ll have more than our goal of 20 and we’ll learn a lot. Inviting them to SQLSaturday was easy, but not effective. Building something for them was effective, just not easy – took some experience and then the time/energy/money to tackle it. I’m guessing that most will find it interesting, but relatively few will wind up at oPASS meetings – these aren’t all database students after all. It’s nice to do something to give back, and I think the college sees it a huge win, something that they talk about, something that helps students, even something that helps justify continuing to support our events.
- Registration at 520. Not as big a bump this week as we expected, probably due to the message going out to the unregistered list Tuesday late afternoon, but equally possibly that we’re reached the ones that plan to go. I’m tempted to email again this week, but I think that’s too much. We’ll stick to the plan.
- Kendal sweating having room for attendees, running some different calculations to decide if we should add a 10th track. We’re lucky that we have a room we can use and speakers on the wait list, so if want to do it, it’s a small amount of work to do so. The potential downside to adding a room is that we thin out the number of attendees per room. Good if we’re crowded, not good otherwise. I think we’ll add the track and go.
- My goal was 350 attendees. I think we’ll hit that with our current reg count. Can we add more next week? I’m going to believe history and say we will, so my optimistic bet is 400 on site next Saturday.
- I’ve also got to move things along on marketing our October meeting featuring Mark Souza. We debated, decided to go for something visual. Ordered two cardboard cutouts that we’ll “enhance” with his photo and a message about the event. We’ll have one at registration and one in the main foyer, and we’ll move them around during the day. Hoping for lots of chat and pics from it, and we might raffle off the cutouts at the end.
- We have 52 registered total for our two seminars. Did we set a goal? I need to go back and look. I think we were thinking 20 each. Regardless, 52 is good, and we’ll see if we get a few more next week.
- Related to that, reminder that we offered our speakers a 50% discount for the Friday seminar and a few of them took us up on it. I’d like to see that pattern grow. Wish we could do free, but a days training for $60 isn’t bad. I’m going to one, always something to learn!
- We have 75 students registered (and not included in the 520 above because we’re not sure how many will attend in the afternoon). I’ll have a separate post on that.
- So far only two of our sponsors committed to sending out a geo-targeted email about the event. Like to see that go up next year, need to build into sponsor plan and have those conversations early. Good for both sides.
- We ended up selling 25 SQLSaturday Orlando polos (at our cost), I like that extra marketing outreach for next year!
Also, here’s the message that ONETUG sent out for us to their list. We saw a bump of about 20 so far (we can’t measure well), and I think we’ll do even better next year when we make an all our effort to have content designed to appeal to their members.