Skip to content

IN-PERSON is a podcast series that tells the stories behind the world's most daring events and the people who make them happen.

Music by Winesap.

 

GUEST SUBMISSIONS
By Industry
By Topic
By Role
feather_search

49 I Kim Darling, HubSpot: Unexpected Inspiration, Sponsorships, and Business Cases in a Hybrid World

  • August 5, 2021
  • 52:03

Kim Darling (VP, HubSpot) shares how HubSpot is thinking about the hybrid future, from sponsors and budgets to inspiration, all with an audience-first lens.

You can also listen on these platforms:

Top Takeaways

1

INSPIRATION IS EVERYWHERE: “Where are we drawing those inspirations from? I look at the digital revolution. The transformation is incredible, and it's certainly not going away. Movies, for example. Netflix has purchased a theater in LA, Allure Magazine now has an in-person popup retail experience store in New York. Glossier was doing an experience that bridged the gap between an in-person experience and a digital world. One of the things we were playing around with is, at INBOUND, we don't have a traditional sponsor hall because we have much more of that experience from consumer brands like Coachella and Burning Man. In the past, B to C and B to B have been kept in two separate boxes, but B to B can no longer have a clunky, disjointed experience, it has to be as slick as the B to C."

2

CREATING ENGAGING HYBRID SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES: “Take a step back instead of trying to replicate. So rather than a sponsor area in a digital experience, what does that look like if we truly integrated it into the event in the way that we're already planning the event? How does that help the sponsor? How can we sit down and partner with the sponsor and be a true consultant and partner to them? How do you be honest with your audience to allow them to opt in to hear from those sponsors in a classy way? We've looked at different programs, whether it be content or gifting areas or more campaign driven tactics inside the platform, that allows sponsors to bring their expertise in a way that's a very natural fit. I think we can learn a lot honestly, from the way influencer marketing works these days where certain influencers bring an audience. In this case, we bring the audience as well, but it has to feel organic and trustworthy and aligned with what that brand is for the audience that is there. At the end of the day, we are experts in our audience and the brand is experts on themselves and their area of expertise. So it requires deep partnership."

3

THE FUTURE OF HYBRID BUDGETING AND MONETIZATION: “The company was essentially still paying for about 45% of the cost of the event, and that was okay, we were not trying to make money on ticket sales and revenue. So we said all right, what does it look like if we get to 2023 and we have this many registrants and we continue to grow and the cost still is at that 45%? Those numbers were really high. So if we wanted to offset that 1. we can control the cost, 2. we can increase the revenue. For example, when we cut the free coffee bill at INBOUND, it saved $600,000 off of the budget. So it's a very different thing if you can level up and choose where you want to shine and be exemplary. On the other hand, we looked at scaling revenues. Yes, we've got ticket sales but the big area of opportunity was sponsor sales. Like I said, our goal is not to make a profit on Inbound, it's just to not bankrupt HubSpot in the process of hosting this and continuing to grow and serving the community."

ABOUT Kim Darling

Kim Darling is the Vice President of HubSpot, where leads the global event team at INBOUND, one of the most well-respected B2B events in the industry. Since 2014, Kim has grown the Global Events team from 2 to 20+ people and grown INBOUND registrants from 7,500 to 26,000+, and many more virtual attendees in 2020.

Under Kim's leadership, ticket and sponsorship revenue have grown exponentially and the team launched a media branch of the INBOUND experience that has achieved up to 1M views per week at its height while putting a spotlight on stories of company and personal growth.

Episode Transcript

Rachel Rappaport:

Hello, and welcome back to In-Person, brought to you by Bizzabo. In case we haven't already met, I'm Rachel Rappaport. And in each episode of In-Person, we explore the world's most daring events, and the people who make them happen.

Rachel Rappaport:

Today we’re chatting with Kim Darling, the Vice President of Hubspot.

Rachel Rappaport:

Kim leads the global event team at INBOUND, one of the most well-respected B2B events in the industry. Since 2014, Kim has grown the Global Events team from 2 to 20+ people and grown INBOUND registrants from 7,500 to 26,000+—and many more virtual attendees in 2020.

Under Kim's leadership, ticket and sponsorship revenue have grown exponentially and the team launched a media branch of the INBOUND experience that has achieved up to 1M views per week at its height while putting a spotlight on stories of company and personal growth.

Rachel Rappaport:

In this episode, Kim shares How Hubspot is planning and thinking about the hybrid future and what hybrid really means. We dive into budgeting and monetizing hybrid events and discuss the various - and sometimes unexpected - places to draw inspiration for creating immersive event experiences.

Rachel Rappaport:

Let’s get to it, here’s Kim Darling and our host, Brandon Rafalson.

Brandon Rafalson:
Kim, welcome to IN-PERSON.

Kim Darling:
Thanks for having me, Brandon.

Brandon Rafalson:
I am extremely excited to chat with you again. We had the chance to speak back in 2020 at Almost IN-PERSON, obviously over here at Bizzabo, we're huge fans of Inbound and the work that you and your team have done. It's awesome to have you on this show.

Brandon Rafalson:
Now, before we dive into the meat and potatoes of our discussion, there's one question that I've been getting from a lot of our different listeners leading up to this episode. That is, where on the earth did you find the adorable cockapoo and internet celebrity known as Jack Darling?

Kim Darling:
I don't know if he's an internet celebrity, but he has his own Instagram account, like I think every pet owner has. Yeah, Jack is my dog, for everybody listening. Of course, I love him like crazy, he's currently in Ireland with my family where he has been during the pandemic. So he's a frequent flier, he lived in the states with me for five years and then went back and forward, but we love him to bits. He's crazy about birds, that's his thing. He tries to catch birds on a daily basis.

Brandon Rafalson:
Is he ever successful?

Kim Darling:
Oh yeah, it's a problem.

Brandon Rafalson:
That's amazing, and I understand he's a frequent flier. Has he achieved platinum status yet or is still working on it?

Kim Darling:
That's one thing I wish the airlines would do, is that they would give you points for your pets traveling. I'd happily pay for that, no problem, but no, he has not, but they do treat him very nicely on the plane, I have to say.

Brandon Rafalson:
Delta, Aer Lingus, whatever airlines are out there if you're listening, there is a brilliant idea here. Pet reward status.

Kim Darling:
Love it.

Brandon Rafalson:
Okay, let's jump into the actual meat and potatoes, and that is, well, you and your work. You are the Vice President and Executive Producer of Inbound at Hubspot. You've grown the Inbound team from two to more than 20 people and growing, and you've grown the registrants at the Inbound experience from 7,500 attendees in 2014 to over 26,000 in 2019, and many more virtual attendees at Inbound 2020, among many other achievements.

Brandon Rafalson:
So, could you walk us through your career journey and the steps that led you to where you are today as the Vice President, Executive Producer?

Kim Darling:
It's interesting because even now, I still don't fully think of myself as a true event professional in a lot of ways. I think the skills that I've had from other jobs just really lend itself to aspects of project management, strategy, planning, experiential, more consumer focused ideation. I really think with the way that Hubspot has embraced... we have heart at Hubspot, like a lot of other companies have different acronyms, and the R in heart for Hubspot is remarkable. That is one of the things that I felt truly blessed and grateful. I know that sounds really corny but it's very true, is that Hubspot has always pushed and strived to do something that is out of the ordinary, that is different, that is differentiated, and really placed a lot of curiosity on our customers and what is resonating with people, what is resonating with audiences, what's the first step.

Kim Darling:
So to go back to the question, I've had a bunch of different roles in career. I'd say the one right before Hubspot is, I worked at LinkedIn, which is another tech company. I was the first employee there when they opened the Dublin office in Ireland back in 2010. Really, I had a marketing role there but it was not by any means an event role. I worked there, there was me and two sales people on day one. By the time I left in 2013, we had 300 and something employees in Dublin and we'd opened nine different European countries. I really worked on the market entry planning for those countries and those strategies for our talent solutions business. Worked really closely with our global marketing leads in the states in California, and really was the person, the point person for all of that in Europe, and started a marketing team from scratch and built that up. So that was really my first jump into making sense out of a lot of chaos and really not having a ton of resources and being really scrappy, and trying to think outside the box.

Kim Darling:
Back in 2010, Facebook was the hot thing, it was growing like crazy. It was like, how do we differentiate ourselves in LinkedIn? It's a professional network, not a social network. What does that mean? What is the value proposition? Not quite as cool. Instagram wasn't around back then, which is crazy. Twitter was around, we had a Twitter integration on LinkedIn back then. It was like the wild west of the social networks and we were all learning and all growing in the industry together.

Kim Darling:
Prior to LinkedIn, I had been a consultant in Silicon Valley at the earlier part of my career. I was actually based in Palo Alto and Twitter was nextdoor to our office. I do remember the day where they had Ashton Kutcher come and give a talk because he was one of the first... him and Demi Moore back in the day were the first celebrities that really embraced Twitter. I was like, what is this? It was so new, this was way back when. So I was just very excited to be at LinkedIn at that time, not only for the industry and the innovation that was happening, but also the rapid pace of growth. I was the second highest traveler in the company my second year at LinkedIn. I had such an amazing learning experience, there were incredible professionals who I still reach out to and get to learn from to this day. LinkedIn is also a phenomenal company, I'm so grateful for that experience.

Kim Darling:
I think that that was the career break of my life, it was the place where I was able to learn and grow and make mistakes and understand what this innovation is, and have that curiosity to learn and to push the boundaries, really, and to not be afraid to try because there was nothing in this industry that had been done before. It really was borrowing and being inspired by other things, yes, but really charting your own course.

Kim Darling:
So then when I moved to Hubspot, it was very just right place at the right time. I think I've just had a lot of luck, to be honest, where one of my former LinkedIn colleagues had left and had started working on a consulting basis with Hubspot in Dublin. Hubspot did a really smart thing when we opened the office in Dublin, they sent a bunch of folks, about between five to 10 people in varying rotations. Some were six months, some were 12, some were two years, from our HQ in Cambridge, Massachusets to Dublin, to have a transplant of the culture there. It was so smart and it was so supportive and I think even when we were at LinkedIn, I look back on those early days where we were so alone. There was amazing support, but tools like Zoom didn't exist back then, so I knew the WebEx number off by heart because I dialed into it to talk to my colleagues in Mountain View every day, but when Hubspot did that, it was great.

Kim Darling:
I think I was within the first 20 or so employees at Hubspot in Dublin or so. Really, when I was hired there, it was in a marketing role and it was originally meant to be for our partner reseller marketing channel. I'm not really sure how much of that I actually did, I worked on co-marketing campaigns with LinkedIn, with Twitter, with Eventbrite back in the day because I had such strong relationships with all of the Silicon Valley to Silicon Docklands in Dublin, tech companies from my early LinkedIn experience. I just had a really strong network and I was able to leverage that to do those co-marketing campaigns that helped us [inaudible 00:07:36] really established in Europe from Hubspot's perspective.

Kim Darling:
One of the campaigns I did was called International Marketing Week, and it was, essentially I got asked by all of our reseller partners all the time, all over [inaudible 00:07:50], "Can you have Brian Halligan or Hubspot CEO or Dharma Shaw, CTO, Co-founder, come and speak at this little thing in this part of the world?" Every other day, and one of the things that Hubspot is still to this day amazing about is having that feeling of almost a small company like you're connected to the founders if a reselling partner. You're connected if you're a customer, they will take a lot of their time out of their day to talk to our end users and be available, but it just wasn't sustainable. I think one of the requests I got, which was amazing but also crazy was, could Brian go on a cruise around the Mediterranean for an inbound marketing event? I was like, okay, we need to find a way to get some scale into this.

Kim Darling:
So we came up with a joint co-marketing campaign with Eventbrite at the time. It was called, Inbound Marketing Week, and we created a website, a standalone week where all of our reselling partners and people who had no affiliation with Hubspot could apply to host an event during this one week, I believe it was in June. We as Hubspot would host one in London for Europe, and one in Boston because that's where we were headquartered. We would essentially drive traffic to this website where all of the events all over the world, I think we ended up with just under 200 events in one week across those five days, were all listed on this one website. Our responsibility was to drive traffic, and then everybody had their own individual registration and landing pages, and we sent them essentially an event in a box kit. How to run a great event, how to promote it, how to think about experiential moments, how to think about your social strategy, and it was really successful.

Kim Darling:
I cannot remember all of the stats off the top of my head right now, but it was one of those things where I had needed creative support from our headquarters, anybody that works for especially a global company will know that wherever your company's headquartered, sometimes they're centralized services. Our creative team was centralized in Cambridge, and I had an executive sponsor who was the VP of brand and buzz at the time and she talked to me about this role on the inbound team. I initially was like, no, no way, I just bought a house, I just got the dog, he was a puppy. The house I bought, I'd ripped out every wall, ceiling, floor, done a massive renovation. I had lunch with a former colleague at LinkedIn who was the head of the Dublin operation and we had been putting it off for months because both of our schedules kept getting misaligned. Her name is Sharon, and she is such a mentor and amazing friend in my professional life. I'm so grateful for those people that push you at the right moments in time in your career. I think you really need that network for that.

Kim Darling:
So anyways, Sharon was like, "What are you doing? You're crazy, this is an opportunity to specialize, get more senior, get known for something, get your arms around a strategic program, make it your own." I was like, "Well, I'm not sure I want to go into events." I'm like, everything's going digital, is this the right thing for my career? I had done a little bit of event stuff at LinkedIn but it wasn't my core. She was like, "Go back and tell them what you want to make this role. Pitch them something exciting, see what they say and take it from there. Talk to them about the things that you would want to make this to make it interesting, exciting for your career," which I think was great advice because it wasn't about me being selfish, but what can I do for this business? What can I do that's beyond the norm?

Kim Darling:
So I did that, and I remember them asking me, would I commit to five years and I was like, no way. Let's do two to three and see how it goes. I've been in this role since 2014, so.

Brandon Rafalson:
Wow.

Kim Darling:
It's been going pretty good. I've certainly made mistakes along the way and I'm grateful for those too because they were the real turning points in my career.

Brandon Rafalson:
That's so fascinating to hear and it seems like especially during that time at LinkedIn and the earlier days of Hubspot leading to where you are today. One of the through lines is carving your own path. Say you're involved with partner resellers, but then you end up instead driving a lot of co-marketing campaigns or the International Marketing Week, finding that really creative solution to this bottleneck that the organization was facing, to pitching, this is what I'm looking to do with the next step of my career. Stepping into this role at Inbound and putting together that plan. It's extremely admirable and impressive.

Brandon Rafalson:
There's definitely a lot to unpack there, but one of the things I'd like to speak to you is how you and your team did the unthinkable again with Inbound in 2020 in that huge massive pivot that you all underwent with the events. I mean, Inbound is this typically as mentioned earlier, a huge in-person experiencing bringing in tens of thousands of marketing and sales and customer success professions together. In 2020, you and your team managed to create a pretty novel approach, providing multiple ways for attendees to participate through this virtual venue setup, to exploring a number of different virtual content formats like audio only sessions. What were some of your biggest learnings from that particular experience?

Kim Darling:
I would put them into two buckets as learnings. Some of the stuff that I think we did that panned out and that worked out really well. Then there's the things that you're like, okay, we learned a lot there, maybe it didn't hit the mark or it could be what would be better if... In the first bucket, what went really well. I think the one true thing that has served us on the Inbound team really well throughout the years is, the audience is always the priority, they're your hero, they are your north star, they are your reason for doing this.

Kim Darling:
I think in general, in broad terms, in marketing but in particular in events, we are often sucked into the politics of things sometimes. What is it that we the company need to say? It's not that that's not important, it absolutely is because the end of the day, what is your company positioning? What are you selling or promoting? What is the difference you are making in the world? That's great, but to think about that in a way that's not aligned with what matters to your audience is where I often see people get derailed. Just a very honest example in event world, especially coming from an event that serves a company the way ours does, is people will say, "But this person has to speak about this, and here's the laundry list of things and here's what they need to get out." You're like, A, is that the right thing for the audience? B, do they care? C, how is this engaging them? Are they going to receive this? Why is this important? How is this presented?

Kim Darling:
I think when we thought about that and we took a step back last year when COVID first hit, I think first of all, we were extremely lucky that the whole world was from March through to April time last year when things were really clear that COVID was going to shut down everything and everyone was going to go in lockdown, in terms of live events. Our event was scheduled for September, we were not one of those people that had to have an event plan pivot within four to six weeks. My heart goes out to every professional that lived through that, because that is extremely difficult and I salute everybody that did that and made it work.

Kim Darling:
We had four months, essentially from when we made this decision to get everything done. I think having that north star of like, well, what is the right thing for the audience? Let's look at the landscape here, we're not putting on a bunch of webinars, that's not the point. When you think of what the point of an event strategy is, it's that fear of missing out that everyone has to have a shared experience at one moment in time together and feeling connected. So, how do you translate that level of excitement that you naturally get when human beings come together in the same place in the same space around a shared goal or understanding or conversation? How do you replicate that online? How do you get emotional cues through? How do you make that interesting now that they live their life between their big screen, their little screen and their medium screen? That was really honestly, it sounds super simple, but that was where we went.

Kim Darling:
To be honest, at that time, I think there was a lot of companies that were on the precipice of having amazing technology but it wasn't fully there yet. We looked around, we did a very light RFP, and we said, all right, we've got some good technology vendors that we're going to continue to work with, but we're going to build a custom platform at this time for ourselves. We're also going to look at what content format works. So I was so proud of my team.

Kim Darling:
One of the biggest things that worked was having debates about things, where again, it was back to that live component. Okay, what do you think, what's your point of view if you weren't part of this? You looked at the clubhouse revolution that happened last year, that was a lot of what was happening. Audio only sessions, was people could take a break and go for a walk, that really worked and resonated with people. Having the ability to respond with emojis, which is a common language the way people would respond on their phone, on text, or even on Slack, was a really big part of the experiential component. So leaning into what already existed for people, how they were already consuming content, not trying to reinvent the wheel but doing it in a way that was all in the same place at the same time with a shared experience. That also really meant that we had to get a lot of people there. So we ended up with 70,000 people registered for Inbound online last year, which I'm extremely proud of.

Kim Darling:
One of the early decisions we really wrestled with was actually pricing. We saw everybody have to pivot immediately and I think that's like, okay, we're all doing these online events and we're going to make them free, was the way the industry really went early on last year. I remember having a conversation with Laura, who is Director of Programming and Revenue on my team, and she said to me, "This just feels like back when news sites were all going free, and then they all went out of business and weren't able to manage through that. Whatever we do, we have to make the decision now for the long run." I think that's one thing that event professionals have to be very conscious of is, especially large events. When you create a large event, it is like turning a dragon in the best way possible, you have to take very deliberate, big swing steps that you know are going to pan out, which is very hard to understand the repercussions of those decisions down the line. But you have to think, one, two, five years ahead of time no matter what the situation.

Kim Darling:
We did charge for tickets. We had a free type but we had charged and it went really well. We also added an in-platform upgrade option, which actually generated 20% of our ticket revenue last year.

Brandon Rafalson:
Oh wow, and that's I imagine something that organizers typically couldn't offer at an in-person experience. You're at the events, and then on the second day, I decide I'm going to upgrade to whatever that new tier is. In this case was that for access to on-demand content?

Kim Darling:
It was access to yes, on-demand and live content, there was a mixture of both at the event. So I think the big thing was that it was touch-less, that was why it worked. Yes, they can do that in-person at the event, but capacity allowing for breakout rooms and things like that, but it's seamless in an online environment. People order everything from Door Dash on their phone, to Uber, to Spotify, to Netflix, to Amazon. These are frictionless consumer grade experiences, and that was what we really took inspiration from, is we started to build a platform to have our event in and the way that we wanted to do it. So self serve ticket transfers, touch-less upgrades, we've got some other functionality that I hope will be available in the future.

Kim Darling:
For example, when you have Instagram close friends, how would teams share their content across that, in terms of building their agenda? That's a big request that we see. Spotify has the most amazing content recommendation engine, like this is made for you. There's no reason why as event organizers, we have so much data that we're sitting on top of that we shouldn't be able to be much more thoughtful. Again, back to the audience being the hero in all of this. What's going to help them? What's going to decrease their friction with your experience as they all are logged in at the same time having that shared experience? It's a world class, consumer grade experience for them.

Brandon Rafalson:
Looking towards Inbound 2021, where are pulling inspiration from? Are you able to share some of the ideas or experiences that you were thinking about producing after having already produced this fully virtual experience in 2020?

Kim Darling:
Yeah, I think for 2021, a lot of the US for example is having in-person events again. It's great, I love to see it, it's amazing, it's just so freeing, but it's not the case everywhere. There are different variants of COVID, there are different levels of vaccine adoption, there are different circumstances, there's different weather patterns. I think we all have to be honest about the fact that this landscape is going to continue to change as it pertains to live events through the end of this year in particular. Who knows about 2022? So in terms of this year, we are doing a digital first event. We will have a very small in-person component in Boston that the details are to be released still, but the digital experience, we're really building upon the success of last year and continuing to iterate.

Kim Darling:
I think what's even more exciting is looking to 2022, to be honest, on the fully hybrid approach. Where are we drawing those inspirations from? I think about this as a more macro level. I think the events industry is obviously what I think about on a day-to-day basis, but I do think looking around at every part of our lives has been eaten by technology in the last 18 months. That digital revolution and transformation is incredible, and it's certainly not going away.

Kim Darling:
I think of movies, for example. There's been so much buzz about, do studios do direct to consumer release over streaming or do they bring the in-theater back? Regardless of the COVID situation, the key question is, what is the consumer behavior that is going to be the norm as we go into 2022? I think of that example on movies, I know for example, Netflix has purchased a theater in LA and I think of other consumer driven industries, like I think it's Allure Magazine now has an in-person popup retail experience store in New York. I always look to brands like Glossier is a really good example of this that already was doing an experience that bridged the gap between an in-person experience and a digital world, in terms of social media and marketing. I think of that in those ways.

Brandon Rafalson:
Definitely, I mean that's something that we have been talking about a lot ourselves over here at Bizzabo is thinking about not maybe these specific examples that you shared, but generally the idea that the real world and the digital world has been blending for some time. There's something going on there in the events world, but we're still trying to put our finger on it.

Kim Darling:
Yeah, and how I'm thinking about this and this is certainly definitely not the answer, because I think it evolves all the time, is three ways. I think hybrid can be broadly done in two ways. One is, you can do what we're all doing now and build a digital first experience and an in-person first experience and little bridged to connect them. Whether that is live streams of content or digital experiences that mirror your in-person experiences. Like, one of the things we were playing around with is, at Inbound we don't have a traditional sponsor hall because we have much more of that experience from consumer brands like Coachella and Burning Man. It's very much on the aspirational end for us but it pulls us in the right direct with our club Inbound experience. What would that look like if we had people that were in the digital experience that were projected or mapped in some digital form in that in-person experience, for example. So that's what I mean by bridges that connectivity.

Kim Darling:
I also think the other option is, it's more of a fractured experience. So going back to the Glossier example where there's popups and they are limited in their capacity and size, and they're, go out to the people and they're smaller, in that example a retailer store. Then that creates content across social channels, which is more akin to a traditional marketing campaign. So, how would that content be fractured across places? I think the centralized core thing in a digital world is you still need the ability to have video content that pre-produced, you need people to be able to chat about it, and a place to log into.

Kim Darling:
But beyond that, what is that thing that's going to be that fear of missing out, that compelling moment for everyone to be together? I think one of the big shifts that we might see as an industry is those smaller experiential moments going out. Getting out of big cities like New York or London or LA or San Francisco, bringing that more popup mentality that generates buzz and marketing that leads into or out of your large event, will be something that we'll start to hear more about.

Kim Darling:
I think event people, having that consumer grade campaign. I think music when they launch new albums, do this really well. Where they have really, really interesting Easter eggs of stuff across the internet for their fans. I think marrying that experiential component with a really buttoned up marketing experience to get the content again to coalesce everybody and build that buzz and FOMO into and out of an event, will be key. I could see things like movies, a Netflix going on tour and taking their banner TV shows like Stranger Things, I think they had an anniversary today, I saw on Instagram. If they went on tour with two or three up and coming shows and did premiers, the way the music industry hosts tours for musicians. What if theaters had limited amount of time on their releases? I think all of these consumer traits is the things that I am thinking about and paying attention to. How does that translate back to a world of a B to B event marketer? What does that look like? How do you drive that, I've got this audience, I want them to be curious, I want them to be excited, and I want them to feel part of this. I want them to have a conversation.

Kim Darling:
I think in the past, B to C and B to B have been kept in two separate boxes, but if you think about how we live our life these days. My parents use Zoom just as much as any business people do for connection. That's not just because they were in the pandemic, it's now a norm. We're on our phone and we order Postmates, and then we have a Slack app for our work conversations. So B to B can no longer have a clunky, disjointed experience, it has to be as slick as the B to C, whether that be marketing campaign, popup experience, conversation, inspiration. It has to really live up to those expectations now. The game has been changing for a while, but the pandemic I think has completely shifted those expectations with our audiences.

Brandon Rafalson:
It's clear that the consumer, the attendee interest is there. I think we can all agree that, but how do we get our colleagues and our other executives on board for experiences like this? I'm asking you, Kim, because Kim, you're a trailblazer. We've already covered a few examples earlier on. What are some ways that you were thinking about or ways that you might suggest to some of our listeners to pitch these very novel experiences to their teams?

Kim Darling:
It's a good question and I wouldn't say it's easy. We all have different budgets, we all have different scales, we're all different sizes. I think trying something, I think one of the challenges oftentimes with anything new or anything a little bit more experimental or creative especially in our world, we get a lot of, I get a lot of subjective opinion a lot of the time. So it's being really, really clear on, what is your goals? How does this serve the business, is really back to basics and really clear strategy and alignment. What are you trying to get out of this? There's a lot of really great ideas, the consumer landscape has changes, there's lots of fun things we could do, but how does that serve the business?

Kim Darling:
One of the things I've been thinking about is, okay, if we had an in-person component or popup or experience that was in a different city, is that something that we can then create a big customer experience campaign with? That would be the goal of that, but also start small. Sometimes it's like you've got to try out something to have a proof of concept and when you're pitching this internally, I think there's, here's the context, here's the goals, and here's the first step, and we're going to dip our toe in the water before you try and pitch the entire thing.

Kim Darling:
The landscape is changing and it's hard for people that are not obsessed about this every day to imagine something that doesn't quite exist the way that we're talking about it now. I do think in B to B organizations in particular, there's often the like, okay, but we've got our checklist of things. We want to do our sales meeting, we want to have our product announcement, we want to have our PR, we want have our investor relations. Those are the components and I want to check my box and that's where we're at. It's like, great, we absolutely understand that and here's a way that we can make that experience the most compelling, cut through, curious, exciting, experience that there can be that the world not just wants but I think needs after the year and a half that we've already been in this pandemic.

Brandon Rafalson:
Sounds great, and I'm just thinking, we really need to do a dedicated master class to building a business case because that's super compelling and that's a very helpful way of thinking about pitching these ideas.

Brandon Rafalson:
We touched on it a little bit earlier, but with either this model or other models, are there any particular ways that you were thinking about engaging sponsors and exhibitors in this new landscape?

Kim Darling:
To be candid, I think this is one of the areas where we learned a lot where we didn't quite get it fully correct in 2020. One of the things that we really learned is that when we create digital experiences, yes, we want to be honest about like, here's some sponsored content for example, or here's a sponsor that's there and that's part of it. We also need to have a really good plan on how we as the event are going to drive digital traffic to those sponsorship areas.

Kim Darling:
So I think taking a step back instead of trying to replicate, we've got a sponsor area in a digital experience, we've got digital booths or lounges or our spaces. What does that look like if we truly integrated it into the event in the way that we're already planning the event? How does that help the sponsor? How can we sit down and partner with the sponsor and be a true consultant and partner to them?

Kim Darling:
We just did a European event in June and we really saw a massive shift from Inbound to our Grow [inaudible 00:31:06] event in June with those learnings. It really isn't rocket science, it's about, how do you be honest with your audience to allow them to opt in to hear from those sponsors in a classy way? Because we've always kept content and sponsorship quite church and state, so that was a big change for us to do that in a way that didn't make the audience mad. I think we really got that right this time in the last month or so.

Kim Darling:
We've looked at different programs from whether it be content to gifting areas to more campaign driven tactics inside the platform, that allows sponsors to bring their expertise in a way that's a very natural fit. I think we can learn a lot honestly, from the way influencer marketing works these days where certain influencers bring an audience. In this case, we bring the audience as well, but it has to feel organic and trustworthy and aligned with what that brand is for the audience that is there. At the end of the day, we are experts in our audience and the brand is experts on themselves and their area of expertise. So it requires deep partnership.

Kim Darling:
I think my advice is teams need to be planning to resource that. It's often a scramble to get all the assets in from a sponsor, and just the nuts and bolts of executing on a baseline sponsorship package is a lot of work. So that is the trade off, if you want to have sponsorship, you need to make sure that you hire the right people and the right resources on your team that has the time and the strategy behind it to have that consultation.

Brandon Rafalson:
With these novel experiences that are coming down the pipe or with these sponsorship experiences that you've already created with your team, or just the events that you've created with your team in the past. Again, even Inbound 2019 and the whole entire experience of that was amazing. What skills are you looking for in those other marketing/event professionals, as you think about the future of your team?

Kim Darling:
So my team is in a couple of different groups. We have a production group, which I think in the last year, that was just a well timed bet. We had transitioned that from an operations, very logistics focused group into what we call production, even before COVID ever hit. Our head of production comes from NBC Universal, from a lot of film, television world, and really had the chops. We were very, very reliant on this and just really lucky that we had this talented person on board to lead the team last year and beyond to do a lot of the pre-production, to do a lot of filming. We already did the Inbound Studios, we were used to a lot of pre-production and filming in that way, but to really think about storytelling as part of that production. I think a lot of times events are hard, there's so much logistics, whether it be food and beverage or venues and lighting and all of those elements that we could write a laundry list about. I think that's the stuff that's table stakes. I think the stuff that people find challenging to stretch to is like, hang on a minute. What story are we telling? How are we telling it, especially in the era of essentially TV production, which we really need to be at that quality now. So that's one group.

Kim Darling:
The other group is, we have a sponsorship sales team, we have a programming team that deals with everything from Oprah Winfrey's talent to the 300-plus odd breakout speakers. They need to deeply partner with production to really tell that story. Then we have marketing team as well, which does promotions and really runs promotion direct to our consumers. In any given year, anywhere from 45 to 65% of the registrants of Inbound have no prior affiliation with Hubspot, and that has been very important for us to be able to grow the event without compromising every other marketing team inside of Hubspot's priorities and goals. It's so painful to say, "Hey, can you actually just pull your customer campaign this week to send an email to drive tickets to an event?" With the pace of growth of Hubspot and the complexities of our products that we've been pushing out, it was a decision that we took early on to have that ability to independently have independent social channels, email, we have a separate Hubspot portal for Inbound.com. That's been key to the success of the growth.

Kim Darling:
So I think of, to answer your question, how would I grow out the team? I look at it wholistically as a mini business. Even Brian Halligan often jokes with me that he's like my lead investor in this business. I've been very fortunate that I have extremely supportive executives that will push on the strategy and buy into a longer term vision. So as I think about hiring those things, I think we're now as a team at the point where we do hire more specialized skillsets, whereas before when I was building the team, we really hired to project manager skillsets because they needed to be able to multitask and be more generalists. Now we've got a larger production, that's the phase of growth that we're at.

Brandon Rafalson:
Was there a clear tipping point when you went from more project managers to this specialized approach?

Kim Darling:
Yeah, there was. I started this role in 2014 and I'd say 2015 honestly was pretty bumpy. I know personally I made a lot of mistakes, I was inexperienced, I learned so much. I'm very, very grateful for that experience because I really think it helped me almost have a crash course into what not to do. Those decisions like having a separated marketing team at the time came out of that year where it was painful to understand that and set context with other folks.

Kim Darling:
The real turning point was when we sat down and had a five-year vision conversation. I took about six to eight weeks with our executive team in 2017 to 2018 and said all right, what does this look like in 2023? As a B to B tech company that's growing like crazy, that's still very reactive, that's yes, strategic and thoughtful and ambitious and visionary, and reactive and start [inaudible 00:36:55] which is beautiful. It was a very different conversation. It was like, oh, wow, five years, we have no idea what we'll do in five years, but to force that conversation and to have that rigor and really set that vision, that was the turning point into when those specialized skillsets were.

Kim Darling:
So I would say, don't just start hiring because it's exhausting. I would say that's where you've got more outsourced partners and when you have more flexibility to change your strategy. When you really want to start beefing up your team internally, you have to know clearly where you're going for a couple of years a run rate. Things will change and things will pivot and there will be a fluidity to that, but to have a clear north star to anchor around, well, what is we trying to achieve here or what's the point for the business, what's the goals and who does this serve, is just really important.

Brandon Rafalson:
That's great to hear, and I think essential right now, especially as so many event teams are rethinking the way that they're structured, the way that they're working with other teams within their organizations, and as they're thinking about what comes next.

Brandon Rafalson:
With that specific example that you mentioned, were there any specific milestones, in terms of painting that vision four or five years down the line, or three years down the line? Very far down the road for a growing tech company but were there any specific milestones that stuck or that you were really shooting for, around headcount or specific types of events or say, registration goals?

Kim Darling:
Yeah, all of the above. I think when you pull together a plan like that, you have to read the tea leaves a little bit for what's the norm in your organization? At Hubspot, one of the things that we're actually really good about is metrics and data. That was a really grounding point for me in those conversations because like I said before, subjective opinions on any type of creative endeavor or work is always going to exist. There's a lot of debate sometimes about what it should be or could be.

Kim Darling:
The end of the day, we do a lot of debrief on Inbound, we do surveys as most folks do, we look at everything from the number of scans into a session room, the amount of time people interact with content, what was trending topics. We look at everything from Google trends to on the Hubspot side, like the data on the Hubspot blog and what topics and content is resonating, and all of those things. There is definitely an art and a science approach, but I think the key insight is, the science part of it is what resonates with our leadership team. Really, approaching it from that perspective and having key milestones like you said around registration, and also the economics of the event.

Kim Darling:
We have not historically tracked ROI in a way that it was the leading goal. It's certainly always been part of the conversation, we don't want to lose money on this event, but it has been a community drive play. It's about allowing this group of professionals who are pioneers and a way of doing business that is an Inbound way of doing business, which is helpful, consultative, inspiring, thoughtful, to meet once a year, have a conversation about what's the next 12 months of this community and this movement look like. Have that social proof that not only are they doing something that works but it's the right thing and it's... so they get excited about and they take ownership over, is really what our north star has been.

Kim Darling:
We also looked at again, how does that serve Hubspot? It serves it because we are the host of this way of doing business, upon our products and services happen to be able to offer you a solution to do that. We have been able to be less pushy on our sales side of things, which resonates really well with our audience.

Kim Darling:
So just taking that scientific route of data really matters, one of the things we looked at was, what are we investing in the event? What are we spending, how is that changing over the years? I think the drag, the spreadsheet exercise was very helpful. One of the things that always helps me in strategy planning is to take a very extreme point of view or extreme data point as a projection because it helps really get people's reaction to see, okay here's where this could potentially go. Let's react, is that a good or bad thing?

Kim Darling:
So one of the things that we discovered is that as the event was growing, yes, we were growing revenue on the ticket sales but it wasn't accelerating at the rate that we wanted. The company was essentially still paying for about 45% of the cost of the event, and that was okay, we were not trying to make money on ticket sales and revenue, that was not the business model for this event. There's certain free ticket types for certain groups inside of Hubspot that we care about in some ways, sparingly.

Kim Darling:
So we said all right, what does it look like if we get to 2023 and we have this many registrants and we continue to grow and the cost still is at that 45%? What does that look like? Those numbers were really high. So that was a really conversation to say, "All right, if we wanted to offset that, part of what we can do is one, we can control the cost. Two, we can increase the revenue." So controlling the cost is really about, we're an industry event, we're not a user conference. We are not here to sell and push products, we're not trying to be anyway deceitful about it. We do absolutely proudly have Hubspot product announcements, PR, Hubspot academy track that educates people which are really popular at the event, but we're very honest in calling those things out.

Kim Darling:
The broad part of Inbound in-person in particular is very much that community play, trying to make sure everyone has that inspiration, education, and connection. It's always been our north start but for example, if you're doing a user conference versus an industry event where people are coming and they know that the expectation is that they're going to be sold to all day long. They're going to hear from a customer that says this product's amazing, you should just buy it. They're not really learning anything, it's not very inspiring, it's not providing great connection because there's nothing inspiring for them to coalesce around. If I was that person attending it, I'd be like, well, I'm already paying you for my software, I'm going to this place. Yeah, I'll meet some people but what am I really learning? What is in this for me? It seems more of a showcase for you. So I expect like I want my breakfast lunch and dinner. I want hospitality, I want to go to the Red Sox game, I want these things. That's the industry standard that had been set, unfortunately by a lot of other big events, which of their goals are different that's perfect for them, no judgment. That's not what we were trying to achieve.

Kim Darling:
Hubspot is remarkable, we are trying to be pioneers in this industry and serve this industry as a company. For example, when we cut the free coffee bill at Inbound, it saved $600,000 off of the budget. So it's a very different thing if you can level up and choose where you want to shine and be exemplary. I think people are not mad about having to pay for a cup of coffee because you're trying really hard to bring a level of production and excitement and conversation where they get something out of it for their genuine professional development.

Kim Darling:
On the other hand, we looked at scaling revenues. Yes, we've got ticket sales but the big area of opportunity was sponsor sales. Like I said, our goal is not to make a profit on Inbound, it's just to not bankrupt Hubspot in the process of hosting this and continuing to grow and serving the community.

Kim Darling:
So when we looked at sponsorships, we wanted to diversify out and not just have B to B, but also have B to C sponsors because one, they bring a level of excitement to the audience that they find curious and up leveled and just amazing as well as some of those amazing B to B partners. We work with Porsche, for example, who created a vision booth and really worked on, how does an individual see themselves in their future career as leaders. That wouldn't normally be a brand that you would associate with a B to B tech event, but they found an amazing audience in what we had built. They helped us create an experience that wasn't necessarily just coming from us and our centralized budget. So bringing in those sponsors that could create experiences as well as be a sponsor and take up space was really important. So again, that consultative approach and that has worked really well, in terms of scaling those revenues.

Kim Darling:
So I think an event of our size is a business by itself. So when I say I don't feel like an event professional, I often feel like a professional that is just trying to run a business and it's more of a GM who loves production, who loves storytelling, who understands the audience is really incredibly special. The Inbound audience is just very engaged and they give us a lot of feedback, and that can be really hard because it's overwhelming but it is absolutely the thing that has helped us grow and be successful.

Brandon Rafalson:
I know we are running out of time, so just going to ask you three more quick questions. First off, who is someone you look up to in events, marketing, or business in general?

Kim Darling:
I really look up to those entrepreneurs like Emily Weiss from Glossier, who's been able to forge a path and create a space where there wasn't one exactly like that before. I also follow people from entertainment, like we had Bozoma Saint John who's the CMO at Netflix at Inbound a couple of years ago when she was formally at Uber. She's just an incredibly gracious and kind human when you meet her, but just someone who's nailed it on being authentic, and her own personal brand, and aligning herself and her passions with her career. There's so many inspiring people, whether you're telling a story, serving an audience, doing production, being an entrepreneur, you can garner insight and inspiration from.

Kim Darling:
I also read a lot of business books. Everything from Jim Collins to Brene Brown, has really had an impact on how I think about managing my team and leading my team and growing and having the team be owned by all of us, and having a very open dialog on what's working and what's not over the years, I think has served us really well.

Kim Darling:
The one thing I'm the most proud of is actually my team. They are badass and they are an incredibly hard working group of people who bring new ideas and immense passion to their job every day.

Brandon Rafalson:
Love it, and on another note, I know earlier you mentioned that in growing out the Inbound brand, that there certainly were some lessons learned along the way. One question we like to ask our guest is, if you could give an earlier version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be and why?

Kim Darling:
I think it would be to constantly sense check what everybody else knows. I think in the earlier part of my career, I would've gotten direction from really senior people above me and took it as an assumption that everyone else understood that that was the goal as well. That's not always the case. I think setting the context for everyone else and first of all, trying to understand where they are, to align that context with them. So I constantly ask people, what does success look like for you by the end of the year, by the end of next year? What are your goals, what are you working on, to be really curious about what other people are working on and what makes them tick, is just huge.

Kim Darling:
I also think one of the beauties of working in events is, and I really do miss the in-person component I have to say, and even though we've absolutely had an amazing team [inaudible 00:48:17] on digital as well, is when you're on set, whether it's filming or on-site at a live event, you go through everything with your team. You go through the emotions, you go through achievements, you go through the problems and the challenges. I think being so conscious as a leader of my energy and what I give out comes back, is so true. If you approach it with a lot of gratitude, as graceful as you can, being really humble, asking questions, getting curious, don't make assumptions. Just being happy and positive and checking in, is everybody okay, as a default way to operate is incredibly powerful because you can feel those vibrations come. Really corny sometimes, but it really works and I'm just really, really grateful that my team and I have grown up together in that way of thinking. We put a lot of emphasis on, how is everybody doing? Does anybody need support? We're in this together. That is so important to proactively set that intention before going through a strategy planning cycle, and event, a recording, whatever it is to really want to have a positive energy in your environment is so powerful.

Brandon Rafalson:
That's resonating with me quite a bit. Well, thank you for sharing. The final question is, how can folks keep up with you and the Inbound team.

Kim Darling:
So check out Inbound.com, follow us on Instagram and Twitter at Inbound. With me, you can always connect with me on LinkedIn.

Brandon Rafalson:
Fantastic, all right, Kim. Thank you so much for taking your time to chat with us today.

Kim Darling:
Thanks, Brandon, for having me I appreciate it.

Rachel Rappaport:

Thank you again to Kim, for joining us, and thank you all for listening. If you enjoy listening to In-Person, there are several ways that you can show your support, subscribe, rate, leave us a review, and share the show with your colleagues and friends.

Rachel Rappaport:

If you'd like to share your feedback, please drop us a line at in-person@bizzabo.com. You can also find full transcripts of the show, along with key takeaways at in-person-podcast.com.

Rachel Rappaport:

In-person is a production of Bizzabo. Today's episode was hosted by Brandon Rafalson, co-produced by Brandon and myself, and edited by Brian Pake. Music by Ian O'Hara, until next time, I'm Rachel Rappaport, thanks for tuning in.