The Largest Event in B2B Tech Is Taking Over the World
Each month we interview an events professional that is doing something remarkable. This month we spoke with Dayna Rothman, former CRO at SaaStr, about multi-channel event promotion, the differences and similarities between B2B and B2C events, and what it takes to scale a rapidly growing event.
Founded in 2012 by Jason Lemkin, SaaStr is the world’s largest community of SaaS executives, founders, and entrepreneurs. Although the community started online, it has since grown into the world's hottest conference for business software in the world. Each year tens of thousands of software enthusiasts partake in the flagship SaaStr Annual in San Francisco. But this event is just the one part of a much larger picture.
Dayna Rothman is Chief Revenue Officer at SaaStr and a marketing thought leader. It's her job to continue to grow and scale the SaaStr brand. As soon as she joined, Dayna found herself balancing large scale event marketing and nitty-gritty event logistics. Prior to SaaStr, Dayna worked at Marketo, BrightFunnel, EverString and has published several books on marketing, including "Lead Generation for Dummies."
Brandon: Before serving as the chief revenue officer of SaaStr, in what ways did you work with events?
Dayna: I've never quite been so involved with events in my previous roles. At Marketo I ran content marketing there for about three and a half years. I was part of the core events team but wasn't in charge of any logistics. I was just working on all the content around an event. If we had to do any type of infographics leading up to the event or live blogging, that's what I was in charge of.
At EverString and BrightFunnel, I was VP of marketing, so obviously I was involved in events from a higher level. I had people on my team that executed on the events, but at both of those companies, we were more exhibiting and doing field events—not something of SaaStr’s scale for sure.
Now that you're at SaaStr how do events fit into your day-to-day?
Events are now a huge part of my day-to-day because at SaaStr, the larger initiatives that we do are around events. That's the way that our community comes together to network and meet in-person, so events have become a much larger focus not only from the promotional demand gen side of things but also logistically.
Then the other thing that's different here is that my companies in the past used events as a pipeline generator or a deal accelerator. But here at SaaStr, events are our primary source of revenue.
A revenue-generating event is much different than a pipeline-generating event.
Having dealt with a B2B pipeline approach and now a revenue approach, what are some of the things that stand out as being different?
Stuff like profit margin is something that is focused on at SaaStr quite a bit. Of course at my previous roles, ROI was always incredibly important with events and we did diligently track ROI—I had a general marketing budget—but sticking to a very specific profit margin wasn't something that I focused on in previous roles.
So here, because our event needs to generate revenue so that we can reinvest into the business, I have to make sure that I'm keeping track of how budget and real-time revenue is going to affect how much money we'll make from the environment.
We have to have a variety of different dynamic ways that we look at the PnL for SaaStr. We're looking at a high, medium, and low scenario—and we can quickly change things if they aren't on plan from a revenue perspective. I think that's the main difference.
The other thing is that the two areas of revenue for us are ticket sales and sponsorship sales.
Sponsorship sales follow a pretty typical B2B sale cycle. There's a funnel and different lead stages and different opportunity stages and SDRs and the whole nine yards, but ticket sales are definitely more of a unique beast to me. It is a little bit more of a B2C motion. Getting used to that has been a learning curve.
Are there any particular obstacles you ran into or best practices that you've learned along the way, specifically with trying to generate a volume of ticket sales?
I think it's just coming up with a constant stream of promotions or things that'll make people interested in buying throughout the year.
When you're selling more of a B2B lifecycle, it's a little bit different in that your end goal is to have them buy your product. So everything you're doing is leading up to that, but you're looking at metrics from a quarterly or a yearly perspective where there's a whole sales cycle involved.
A promotional video for SaaStr 2019.
Ticket sales are very transactional—they're very quick—so it's making sure that you have the right mix of campaigns that are going to consistently drive that in a very high volume fashion.
Fortunately, as you mentioned, you're stepping into this events role with a lot of experience in marketing.
Yeah, there's a variety of different ways that I am leveraging my past experience in what we're doing now.
Obviously the sponsorship sales—that's really a huge focus for us because that's repeatable revenue that can be renewed year over year. Some of those contract sizes are quite large and they do follow more of that typical B2B sales cycle where we are generating long-form content, putting folks into lead nurture tracks, running targeting ads to them. And then on the SDR side having SDR cadences and different target accounts.
For the ticket sales, I think that website conversion optimization is really important. We're redoing our website and thinking through some of those conversion paths. Also, we're going to be generating more longer form content so that there are different, interesting ways for people to get into our database and learn about the event.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the type of long-form content that you plan on using or are using?
Content is a key pillar of the SaaStr brand and so a lot of our community has been generated and based off of different best practice content on how to grow your company.
Most of that to date has been a lot of blog posts—we have done videos—but I think our community would really love things that are just a little bit meatier. Things where people can actually have a piece of content that's gated by form. They'll put their information in and we’ll have more ways to grow the database.
One of the things that we have found is our database is really our primary source of ticket sales when you're looking at just what performs the best. So then it becomes crucial to grow that database, and I think long form-content is a really important way.
In addition to longer form eBooks, we’re thinking: "What are some of those different mediums of content?" More infographics, maybe putting out some type of industry report at some point, building out our video content library.
We're thinking of a bunch of different things that we can use to further engage our audience.
It's interesting because it seems like some of these same tactics, again, would somewhat tie back to that B2B space.
I'd love to learn a little bit more about the conference in general. I know that you recently joined SaaStr.
Right before this past event. This past annual.
At the past SaaStr Annual, I understand there were around 15 thousand attendees and over 300 speakers. Back when the conference first launched in 2015 there were two thousand attendees. From your perspective, what could be attributed to this extreme growth that the conference has seen over the past few years?
I think that there's a few of reasons why.
One is that most of the tech conferences that people attend are vendor-hosted tech conferences. You go to Dreamforce, that's a Salesforce conference. You go to Marketo summit, that's a Marketo conference. A lot of that is based around those particular vendors and their products.
At SaaStr, we offer a tech conference, but one that's vendor-neutral so that we don't have any of those particular product ties nor do we have an underlying goal of selling you a product.
We can provide unbiased content to our attendees.
I think another reason is our content. We are able to bring together a huge variety of CEOs from some of the top companies in the world to speak at our conference in formats that are slightly different from other conferences. We do a lot of “fireside chats”, panels, one-on-ones and AMA [Ask me anything] style sessions.
A panel at SaaStr Annual (Source: SaaStr)
I think a third reason is historically, SaaStr conferences have been a little bit less corporate-seeming than a lot of the other conferences. We've got a cool, fun stage design. We do parties that are a little bit different. For this next year's annual, we will have a Burning Man theme throughout the entire conference, which will be fun.
This is the first year that SaaStr is going to be holding a large scale conference in Europe. What factors went into deciding that now is the right time to expand?
We have a very large global audience that comes to our events in general, so we thought of bringing the SaaStr Silicon Valley overseas to folks that might not be able to experience our annual event another way.
Also, we get a lot of people that come to SaaStr Annual [in San Francisco], so we don't necessarily need to hold another one in New York City. The event is big enough that people travel from all over, so really, the next step is to try the format globally.
In Paris this year and then who knows where next, right?
Who knows? Could be anywhere.
To touch on your marketing background again, what’s one strategy that you are applying in your promotion SaaStr?
I think the important thing is having a multi-channel approach and making your message available on all different channels that people frequent and in different formats. Some people would rather read a blog. Some people would rather listen to a podcast. Some people would rather watch a video. So making sure that we have different formats of content to help attract people that consume content different ways.
What is one of the most rewarding parts of the event process for you?
I think the most rewarding parts of the event process is just being at the live event and seeing everyone's excitement and getting people's feedback.
Events are very, very impactful. They're probably some of the more immediate results-type marketing activities that you can do because they are live, they are in-person—you get that energy straightaway.
I think that's the best part of an event is just really seeing what effect it can have on the community, when people love that event and get super excited. Maybe it changes their life in some way like they meet a future employer or a great mentor.
A novice events professional is looking for some advice. What would you tell them?
I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make when it comes to events—and I think this is really hard to predict—is to be prepared for the unknown because you don't know what you don't know until you know, and it might not be very good.
That's something that I have learned, especially here at SaaStr. When I joined I had to really, really jump into an event that was three weeks away and just be in there in the nitty-gritty. Really on a whole other level than I ever have been with events and it was a lot of, "What don't I know?"
I would recommend talking to as many people as you can to figure out, "What are those unknowns?" If you know people that have hosted an event in the same venue, give those people a call, understand what their budget looks like, what was a super surprise?
Also, if you're doing a very large event, partnering with an agency helps you avoid some of those pitfalls, but even still you might go on-site and it's the day before an event and your signage is all wrong. Gosh, it can be a lot of problem solving in the moment.
How do you stay inspired and keep your creative instincts fresh?
We do try to hit up local events to see what people are doing. We're lucky: I'm in the Bay Area, there are lots of tech events you can go to and see who's doing creative things. What are people doing for AV? What are people doing for booth design? That will often just keep you fresh on what's going on in the event world.
This weekend here in the Bay Area is Maker Faire which I've never been to but I'm going to go to. It's not a tech event or anything really but there are lots of really creative people there that probably have creative, crazy things and so I might want them to be at the event.
Cool. Once an event is over, what's one of the first things you do?
You got to make sure that your email follow-up gets out. Especially if it’s your own event, make sure you're the first one that sends that follow-up.