For the past year and change, it’s been my privilege to serve as content manager (and publicist and social media director and business plan author and programming director and chief information officer) for BoroughCon, a startup pop culture convention held last month in Queens.
It was a great idea, a great market opportunity, by far the most fun thing happening in New York over Memorial Day weekend but, ultimately, not an immediate commercial
success. We don’t learn much from success, though, do we? It’s from our most humbling experiences that we gain wisdom. So, because I’m feeling downright solomonic right now, I’d like to present to you some things I now know and can put to work for new clients that I wish I could’ve put to work for myself and my teammates in recent months.
- Respect the marketing cycle. It’s true. You can’t just open the cash register and expect customers. You have to begin by establishing awareness. You can only do this through repetition, which means it takes time. You must then build engagement; to make this happen, you have to do two things. The first is to post new content, daily to start, then even more frequently as you roll along. The other is to give people a reason to respond to those stories. “Likes” and even “Loves” are useless. Comments, DMs and — most critically — shares are what count. (Contests and flash giveaways can help generate these more meaningful interactions.) Once you have that committed following, then you can move into sales mode (again, try flash sales).
- You’re probably not doing everything you can to boost your signal. Opportunistic advertising buys are necessary but not sufficient. Organic reach is what you really want to see snowball. You’re probably already driving eyes to your website via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter which, again, are necessary but not sufficient. I’ve discovered that Reddit and StumbleUpon can be force multipliers and, depending on your target audience, you might also need a presence on Pinterest or Tumblr. (If I were writing this a couple months ago, I’d have gone on at some length about how important it is to be on Snapchat, but Instagram has been so successfulinhead-to-head competition that Snapchat is beginning to look more like a flavor-of-the-month.) And let’s not forget about direct email. I know everybody hates it; it’s been “yesterday’s technology” for more than a decade. Even so, a well-composed weekly newsletter can help you immensely. (‘The Nerd Yorker,’ BoroughCon’s Friday missive, had open and click-through rates as much as 10x industry standard.) As for the messaging apps that have supposedlysupplanted email, you shouldn’t ignore them either. WhatsApp, Kik and WeChat are the ones that come up most in conversation; the trick is that you have to find ways of getting your company, product or service talked about on them; this is where viral content gets incubated. By the way, they haven’t fully replaced the Dial-UpAge’s bulletin boards (a.k.a. forums), and you’ll need to at least identify and monitor the ones that directly discuss your business. You also need to make sure that those who would share in your success also give you a signal boost by creating original content, tapping their own social media following or providing you with inbound links. It’s also important to get exposure on podcasts and web series that your intended audience would be interested in — in BoroughCon’s case, Boldly Going Nowhere and Comic Frontline were prime examples.
- Don’t neglect the ground game. You already know that images drawexponentially more eyes than text, and streaming mediadraws the next exponent. But these images have to start somewhere. The best place is in-real-life engagement (like this video Hot 97’s Hip Hop Gamer hosting The Walking Dead’s Khary Payton). You can’t just hide behind your keyboard. You need friendly, outgoing people sharing the spaces where your intended audience gathers. So sponsor or run events like Meetups or user group gatherings. Rent booths at trade shows — even your competitors’ (better if you can exchange them for professional courtesy of course).Send out a “street team” to represent you at sidewalk level. And consider backing up your onlinepresence with old media — again, employing a blend of paid and earned (such as this interview with the Queens Chronicle or this nod from Fox 5 News) attention.
- Metrics don’t always mean what you want them to mean, and you better not delude yourself. At BoroughCon, we had impressed industry observers — including, but not limited to, ourselves — by how well visited our website was. Its Alexa rating improved at an astonishing rate through its first 11 months. There are a billion or so sites in the world and, by the time our event weekend came around, we were roughly the one-millionth most popular. That is, we were on the cusp of being in the top 1% of the top 1%. We compared that to more established pop culture conventions across the United States and our rating was roughly equal to those that attract 15,000 to 16,000 visitors in a weekend. When our advance sales fell far short of that, we figured that people were just waiting until the last minute. So we braced for a rush at the gate — which didn’t come. That’s how I learned the importance of challenging such wishful thinking early on, of having someone on the team whose job it is to argue vigorously against it. In BoroughCon’s case, I or one of my colleagues should have considered that maybe our message wasn’t getting out sufficiently (I believe now that was the case), or we were sending the wrong message or that there simply wasn’t the demand we anticipated. In any event, one should not simply wait passively for the money truck to drive by.
- There’s no substitute for direct sales. That marketing cycle you need to respect culminates with sales. Alexa rankings, Facebook likes, Instagram followers, direct mail lists, and real-life encounters all meant nothing in their absence. I wish I knew how to convert these factors into actual revenue and I’m sure a lot of other people do know — but I simply ran up against the fact of that gap’s existence and the need to span it. If that bridge doesn’t build itself, then your organization needs to either develop a capacity for selling, hire a sales pro or engage a sales service. Maybe that means giving up anywhere from 30% to 50% of the ticket price, but that’s better than keeping 100% of $0.
- Work your plan. We’ve all heard great quotes about this. “Plans are useless but planning is indispensable. (Eisenhower) “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.” (Woody Allen) “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” (Mike Tyson) So do set goals and quantify them. Estimate a budget with some degree of granularity. Determine your need for skills and provision your staff. But don’t write a novella-length treatise — as I did — describing all your key performance indicators, projected growth rates, project timelines, funding requirements and grids of responsible and accountable parties unless your organization intends to track these factors over time, compare variances between forecast and reality, then take corrective action while there’s still time.
I’m sure I could think of more takeaways like these, but not all the lessons I learned were in the form of, well, lessons learned. Along the way, I also gained a lot of hands-on experience. Here’s a partial list of things I did at BoroughCon that I couldn’t do before. It involves a lot of applications I’d never used but had to master quickly, as well as specific leadership and investor relations capabilities:
- Wrote a business plan that helped attract six digits worth of equity investment, enough to fund a startup through its first year
- Used MailChimp to design and disseminate a weekly newsletter
- Built an event phone app on Cvent CrowdCompass
- Managed CMS developers who have a working knowledge of Joomla and Drupal as well as WordPress
- Supervised the creation of an e-commerce portal using WooCommerce and Network Merchants Gateway
- Used Market Samurai to research and generate keywords (and discovered that keyword research, while somewhat helpful, might not be as critical as SEO consultants would have us believe)
- Analyzed web traffic and site visit data via SlimStats
- Led a “street team” of volunteers who built awareness at cinemas and comics shops
Wow. That’s a lot of bullet points.
It’s been an education to say the least, and it shouldn’t be wasted. So how can I help you avoid the mistakes I made as I learned all this on the fly?