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Largest Content Marketing Conference Builds An Engaged Community

Each month we interview an events professional that is doing something amazing. This month we spoke with Cathy McPhillips, VP of Marketing for Content Marketing Institute, about growing an annual conference, making data-driven decision, building an engaged community and more.

Every year, the online publisher Content Marketing Institute (CMI) holds the largest conference dedicated to content marketing—Content Marketing WorldAs VP of Marketing at CMI, it’s Cathy McPhillips’ job to oversee marketing efforts for all CMI properties, including their annual flagship conference. 

Prior to joining CMI, Cathy has 20+ years in marketing, including agency life, B2C, restaurant and non-profit marketing, and her own marketing consulting business. She has been frequently named a Top Marketer and is dedicated to providing event attendees with an incredible experience.

In this Event Heroes spotlight we discuss:

  • Growing an annual conference
  • Programming actionable content
  • Letting data drive the event marketing process
  • Content marketing promotion
  • Twitter chats and social media best practices
  • Selecting an event theme
  • Building an engaged community

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Brandon: As VP of Marketing at Content Marketing Institute, how do events fit into your role?

Cathy: Events kind of are my role. When I first started at CMI, I was handling social media, and our email program, overseeing it, as well as other marketing functions, but ultimately my job (and the job of our marketing team) boils down to two main things. We are trying to get email subscribers and event attendees.

The reason I'm trying to get email subscribers is that we know through a lot of our research is if subscribers take three or more actions with us - such as attending a webinar or subscribing to our magazine, they're 10 times more likely to attend our in-person events.

Ultimately, we're pushing everything that we're doing through the lens of "Will this help our events? Will this bring attendees to our events?" and most importantly to me, “Will this make a positive impact on our attendees?” Everything I do revolves around the event in some capacity.

Brandon: Content Marketing World is huge. Last year, over 3,500 attendees attended from over 50 countries in the world. But back in 2011, it started off as something lot smaller. Could you tell us a little about that journey from then to now?

Cathy: Originally, Joe was hoping for 100 people, and 660 registered.

So we knew in 2011, which was before my time at CMI, that we had struck a nerve, and we had found an interest.

I think the biggest point of differentiation in marketing the event from the very, very beginning is that our sessions are very tactical.

We get marketers from brands who speak at our event and say, "Here was my problem. Here's what I did, and here's what you could do." So our attendees from other brands can come and say, "Wow, I can actually implement that, because they just showed me how. Or I can take this portion of what they showed me in their session."

We try to make it as actionable as possible with real-life examples, because we just don't want someone to come up there and just be inspiring. While we love inspiration, we want people to go home with something that they can put into practice.

That's probably the biggest thing from an event standpoint: we make sure each year that our attendees—our new attendees and our returning attendees—know that they're still going to get the same level of quality of speakers and sessions that we’ve always had.

Over the years, I think a lot of things have changed. In the first year, we just had a couple of tracks. As the industry evolved so did the event. We're going to have 24 tracks this year over the two days. These tracks will cover everything from ideation to analytics and everything in between.

Many of our attendees, especially those from enterprise companies, aren’t doing every single aspect of marketing for their company, because the bulk of our attendees are from enterprise companies. So we have tracks so they can find the most relevant sessions for their role. That said, we do have attendees from small businesses who may actually be writing copy as well as reviewing analytics, so attendees aren’t tied down to a particular track.

We have lots of options and ways to tackle the agenda. But ultimately, we try to make sure that these tracks are built so you can get in there and find your niche.

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Brandon: I understand you’re working with your audience development manager in order to be very data-driven in how you are handling everything from messaging to the programming. Could you tell us a little bit more about this process?

Cathy: Sure. One of the things we did in 2017 is that we really got more in touch with our data. We have our daily blog post. We have our magazine. We know which blog posts each email subscriber is opening, and so we started making sure that everything that we're doing—with our webinars, with our blog posts, with our event—all fit into the same categories. Our editorial team took the lead on that, working with our web/IT team, and the other CMIers all made sure what we did complemented their work.

If there's a blog post written on demand generation and an email about demand generation, and a Content Marketing World session about demand generation, we can tie that all back to the person and run a list of those folks most interested in this topic. We can then look at a holistic view of what each specific subscriber is involved with and interested in and customize our messaging accordingly.

Brandon: That’s extremely data-driven.

Cathy: It's a lot of data. We could sit there and dissect it all day long, but John (the audience development manager) we sit down and, for example, we say: "Okay, where are we going to really see the best value? We can't dissect this all right now, so what's our big goal for this particular time frame?”

If the big goal for the month of May is early bird registrations, we want to make sure that people know about the early bird discount.

So then, we can focus on companies that aren't enterprise that may really value the extra $200 savings. If it's a small group or one person by themselves, then we want them to know that now's a great time to register at a discount.

If they registered before May 31st last year, we could message them again and say, "Don't forget that same deadline's coming up. We want you to get the same rate.” We're able to look at, "What do we need right now?" and segment and fill that need. And then we look at it and adjust our thinking for next time.

A glimpse at what Content Marketing World 2018 has to offer.

Brandon: Given that you work for one of the foremost content marketing authorities in the world, how do you implement content marketing to promote your event? You already mentioned how data from blogs and webinars and emails can be tracked and segmented. How else?

Cathy: We just make sure that a lot of our blog posts are covering some of the topics that will be at the event and then the call-to-action will say, "If you're looking for more information on X topic, be sure to join us at Content Marketing World where we’ll have these incredible speakers addressing these topics." The event isn't front and center in our blog posts, but we make sure to mention it when it fits. The editorial team manages that with the help of the marketing team.

We do the same thing with some of our ebooks and white papers, our SlideShare presentations, and then we're big on social media.

Monina Wagner, our community manager, will make sure that she has our entire list of speakers, and she has a list in Twitter, where she is sharing Ann Handley's [a marketing influencer and CMWorld speaker) post that she wrote on her own blog or the Marketing Profs blog, or Michael Brenner from Marketing Insider Group...and she’ll do this for all of our speakers. She's making sure that she's building up the names of our speakers for our audience so they get a chance to know the speakers before we even say, "Oh, by the way, they're going to be at the event."

We're trying to make sure that we're the source for our customers regardless if we're the actual author of what we're sending them. We want them to be able to get everything they need from CMI, curating it through our whole community.

Brandon: You’ve said that diversity was critical critical to the event. How did you bring diversity front and center?

Cathy: We wanted to make sure that we had diversity across the board last year, whether it was gender, race, or anything else. We used to say, "Well, we sent out the call for speakers, and only these people applied, so we had to take the speakers that submitted." This year, we did larger outreach and search on our own looking for larger diversity, while still looking for amazing speakers with amazing stories. Stephanie Stahl, our GM, led the charge here.

As it turned out for our Intelligent Content Conference that took place in March of this year, we had 54% female speakers. And that was just based on us filling the agenda with the best speakers, and it just kinda happened that way. So we were really excited about that.

But we do look at it very carefully, because it's important for our attendees to hear different points of view, which will naturally come with diversity.

We’re all smarter when we hear from different perspectives, different brands, different countries, and so on.

Brandon: How does the World of Stories theme fit into this initiative

Cathy: Every year we have a theme for the event. In the past, we had a Hollywood theme that was Bright Lights, Big Content, and one year we had a rock and roll theme, Amplify Your Story, and last year we did World of Stories.

We used it for a few different reasons. One, we wanted to showcase diversity. Two, we wanted to showcase that we had speakers from all over the world. Three, we wanted to showcase we had attendees from all over the world. And what a better Content Marketing World we will have if we have attendees, speakers from all over the world, because, my gosh, we can learn so much from people that aren't just like us. And that was important. And it was really fun.

Our creative director, JK Kalinowski, and I had a lot of fun with our creative applications on our set, and in our social media, and everything else that we were doing, going around that whole worldly theme.

Then, we were able to take that theme in advance and send it out to all our sponsors and our speakers, saying, "If you're thinking about a title for your presentation, or if you're thinking about a giveaway in your booth, here's our theme. You can really have some fun with this."

Content-Marketing-World-2018-min

As part of CMWorld's 2015 "Bright Lights, Big Content" theme, the speakers took part in a game of Hollywood Squares. (Source: Content Marketing World)

Brandon: How do you go about coordinating, communicating with your creative director to make sure that you're aligned in how the conference is going to turn out?

Cathy: Well, I have to tell you, it's very challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking to be marketing to marketers about marketing, so we need to make sure that what we are doing is fun, exciting, different, and attention-grabbing.

We actually started this in October of last year, just after our last event. We sat down, and we said, "What are we looking at doing next year? What are some changes that need to be made?" We do that as a whole entire team, and then the creative director and I sit down - either just the two of us or with other team members -  and we just go through a bunch of ideas on, "What do we want to do with the posters this year?" or "What story are we trying to tell?"

I don't know if you saw this year's theme, but it's Game On! It's a whole video game theme. I'm really excited about that, and JK may be a little giddy as he works on graphic ideation for our track posters. From the graphics to the speaker gifts—everything that we're doing will involve the gaming theme.

I'd talked to a few of our sponsors, and they were like, "We're going to have a Pac-Man game in our space, and we're gonna get so many attendees just to come up because they want to play Pac-Man."

It's really fun to bring it to life.

First, we will sit down for our initial ideation meeting. We'll blow out our ideas. So we know we want to do gaming, for instance. Let's think of a title for the event. And then let's go through and talk about between the stage set, and our posters, and all the different things that we're doing. What are some fun ideas?

We outgrew the convention center this year, so we have to use the Hilton, which is attached to the convention center. Although it's easy to get to, we know that some people might get turned around. To solve this, we're thinking about putting Pac-Man dots on the floor, as directionals to the hotel.

There's a lot of fun things that we can do that helps operations, to help the event flow, and to make it very fun for the attendees.

Once that's done, once we go through our litany of fun ideas, we'll go our GM and say, "Here's what we'd like to do," and everyone's very open usually to whatever we come up with.

And then we'll go to our whole entire team, whether it's Monina, our PR person, our event manager, our operations manager, and just say, "Here's what we want to do. Does this affect you in a positive way? Do you have any hesitation on why this wouldn't work?" and things like that, just to make sure, before we announce it to the world, that our whole team has had a say in it.

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Brandon: You’ve mentioned that you really enjoy building a relationship with people who are going to be attending the event. How do you personally take part in that journey?

Cathy: In 2013, it was about 10 weeks before the event, and we were trying to build our online presence some more, start getting some community around the event, and obviously trying to get attendees.

I started our #CMWorld Twitter chat, and it was an hour-long Twitter chat every Tuesday at noon that we had some of our speakers as our guests. We asked them 10 questions, and we were building our community that way. And I said to Joe Pulizzi, I said, "If after 10 weeks it's a total bust, then it served its purpose up until the event starting. And then we'll just forget about it."

Well, it was a lot of fun, but I really wasn't sure. Should we keep doing it? And at the event, our attendees said, "We cannot wait for next week for the Twitter chat talk about the event." And I said, "Okay, I guess we're gonna keep doing it." A few years back Monina took over and it’s been great.

We’ve had over 250 Twitter chats so far.

Aside from major holidays and our events, we've been running this straight through for almost five years, and it's been a great way for us year round to get interest from our attendees, to showcase some of our speakers, listen to our attendees, and say, "What's your biggest pain point this year, and how can CMI help you, and how can Content Marketing World help you?"

Then in 2014, after we had a year under our belts with the Twitter chats, we actually had a Twitter chat meet-up in our expo hall. About 30 people showed up, folks we had only known online. So that was really exciting. So it has become almost like a homecoming or reunion of sorts, where these attendees who have been online with each other all year long get to talk to one another. That's been really amazing.

There are some people, you see them, and you've never met in person, but you've literally talked to them for a year, for an hour every week. And you just hug them and say, "It's so good to see you in person." It is a very strange thing, because sometimes it might be a few years before you meet them, but it's so cool when you actually do.

That's how our community has been. A lot of our attendees come back just because of that feeling of seeing each other and now wanting to miss out on the group, the gang getting back together.

Brandon: How do you personally stay inspired and keep your own creative instincts fresh

Cathy: I've actually been recently speaking at a number of universities. I've done four in the past year and I have to say it’s been inspiring seeing students that are 19, 20, 21, who are so excited about the industry. These digital natives grew up with this technology and can teach us so much.

Just hearing all the exciting ideas that they have and questions that they have, really sparks something in me that says, "I need to keep doing better, because I want to help them to keep doing better."

Brandon: Once Content Marketing World is over, what's one of the first things you do, aside from maybe get a lot of sleep?

Cathy: I usually spend that weekend at home just kind of decompressing. But then I start writing notes to people asking if they had a great time, thanking them for something, thanking them for attending. I probably send out between 40 and 50 letters the week after the event to individual attendees and speakers. It’s important to me that they know how grateful I am they were there.

And then...it's time to get ready for the next one.

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