Event Heroes: How to Build a Successful Event Brand from Scratch
Each month we interview an events professional that is doing something amazing. This month we spoke with Vasil Azarov, Co-founder of Growth Marketing Conference, about starting a career in events, building an event brand from scratch, and how to be smart with event partnerships.
Built from the ground-up by marketers for marketers, Growth Marketing Conference has quickly become Silicon Valley’s largest digital and growth marketing event. Their 2018 conference has drawn speakers like the Growth VP of Spotify, the Head of Enterprise Marketing at Lyft, the Chief Digital Marketing Officer at SAP and many other experts from leading brands.
At the core of Growth Marketing Conference’s success is its event community. Perhaps no single individual is more responsible for creating the conference’s community than Vasil Azarov, the event’s Founder.
Before Growth Marketing Conference, Vasil cut his teeth in managing all aspects of the Online Marketing Summit and serving as a marketing consultant. Today, Vasil still is a highly regarded growth marketing consultant, but is also the CEO of Startup Socials and one of the chief masterminds behind Event Marketing School. Regarded by many as a growth marketing thought leader, Vasil’s passion for building thriving event communities is infectious.
In this Event Heroes spotlight we discuss:
- The challenges and rewards of events
- What it takes to build an event brand from scratch
- How to create a dedicated event community
- The biggest mistake that event planners make
- How to land amazing event partnerships
- The growth of event marketing
Note: This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Learning to Love Events
Brandon: One of the things that strikes me about your career is just how long you’ve been in marketing and events, it’s a really long time. You started as a social media intern and have become the founder of a globe-spanning event series. How did your career lead you to Growth Marketing Conference?
Vasil: Yeah, so it’s interesting, because back in the day I was working as a waiter in a restaurant. I had actually just graduated back in 2009, and I had no idea what I was going to do. My major was International Relations, and I felt that I became really good at it, but I wasn’t really passionate about what it. I then took a job as a social media intern at an architecture company.
I still had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that marketing, social media, and engagement with people was something that comes naturally to me.
I joined a consultancy that specialized in social media and worked in that for a while. Then, I transitioned to an internship with an events company.
At some point, I grew from being a social media manager to sort of being in charge of logistics here and there. And then it happened that two of the main event producers at our company, Online Marketing Summit, left the company a month before we had a huge regional tour where we were supposed to bring marketing workshops to 14 different cities around the U.S. We didn’t have anybody to run the tour, so our CEO told me, well why don’t you try it?
The first two weeks, I really hated it. I passionately hated it, and I felt I could not wait until I was done. Then, after two or three events, something just clicked. By the end of it, I knew that I couldn’t imagine my life without running events.
Then, the company that I worked with back in the day got sold to a big giant events business.
I started looking for an opportunity where I could continue to organize events, connect people, and also create events for marketers. I was fortunate to connect with some big names while I was working with my previous company.
I joined a small group here in Silicon Valley that was organizing startup social mixers, and I really loved the energy at the events. Moving forward a few years later, I decided why don’t we combine my expertise in marketing events and their network when it comes to entrepreneurship to create one very unique event, and that’s how Growth Marketing Conference was born.
Brandon: Looking back at when you first started doing events, you mentioned that you hated it. What were some of the challenges that you encountered that made it difficult for you?
Vasil: Right now I consider myself more on the event marketing side. But I started off running all of the logistics, coordinating all of the speakers, all of the sponsors and really doing all of the event management.
I was just thrown into it. I didn’t have any advanced training. So the biggest challenge was, without knowing everything, making sure that everything ran on time, all of the speakers were happy, all of the sponsors were happy. I had to learn everything on the battlefield, so to speak.
But the most stressful part was making sure that we had all of the pieces connected.
In the beginning, it’s really hard to love events, because of all the stress that is connected with them. But there’s this tipping point. I highly encourage everybody to wait until you really feel that, when you start loving it.
Where Most Event Producers Fail
Brandon: An interesting thing about Growth Marketing Conference is that it’s a B2B conference whose primary source of revenue is tickets. How does this focus shape your promotional strategy for the events?
Vasil: In this case, your budget is the revenue that you generate from ticket sales and sponsorships sold. You don’t generate any revenue from a product sold.
Because of this, you cannot invest as much into event production as some brands like HubSpot or Salesforce do. They are OK with losing millions to create that experience because they know that the business that will come from the event will be 3X, 5X, or 10X in the long run.
So it’s all about planning out budget very carefully and negotiating on everything with your vendors first. This is one of the things that most event producers fail to do. They really don’t take the time to negotiate initial contracts.
Ticket sales and a promotional strategy are great—we can talk for hours about them—but if you fail to negotiate a really good deal on conference production, you can lose a lot of your revenue.
Brandon: That definitely makes sense. Otherwise you’re going to get yourself a much higher overhead than you need in the first place, and that can really make the difference.
Vasil: We’ve been planning events for five years, but there’s always the risk that with the next event we’re going to bankrupt the company. We sort of plan on it, even when we put together a budget, we try to commit as minimum as possible. Because later on, if the event is doing really well, we can always add things. If it’s not doing well, at least we didn’t spend money that we didn’t have.
Building an Event from Scratch
Brandon: You’ve said that community is essential to Growth Marketing Conference. Could you speak a little bit more on that?
Vasil: I would say it’s impossible to build an event without having a community or at least a vision.
One of the biggest challenges for us at the Growth Marketing Conference was that we never had a recognizable brand behind it. We had to start everything from scratch. The most successful conferences and communities have a big personality and personal brand behind it.
For example, at GrowthHackers Conference it’s Sean Ellis. SaaStr Conference, it’s Jason Lemkin. They’ve been blogging for a while and have been able to build that knowledge and authority.
In our case, Growth Marketing Conference started as just a small group of people really who were passionate about events and marketing, and who were trying to understand how to bring the like-minded people together. That’s the philosophy of our conference: to bring together the growth mindset of entrepreneur and founder, as well as the creative type of a marketer, and see how they can collaborate, and how we can all grow together.
We started with very small meetups. And as soon as we got good feedback on the content and speakers, we would take that into consideration and try to grow from it. We would try to make it bigger, try to create a very unique experience, try to engage our audience in between the events by sending them relevant information, not from us directly.
We would leverage our network of speakers, of brand evangelists, of those who would want to contribute. And this tied into our philosophy, again. It’s not just one product or one personal brand who is behind the Growth Marketing Conference. Every single speaker is welcome to contribute.
Take for instance, Sujan Patel [co-founder of Voila Norbert] who’s one of the most talented content marketers out there. He speaks at our event, he gets value, we get value when he produces content for us. That’s how we build our brand.
Community is very important especially when you have no product to sell. You market your event and build your event as a product and a service for your community. It’s very hard, but if you reach a tipping point it becomes easier and easier.
(Source: Growth Marketing Conference)
Brandon: You mentioned just then that partnerships are huge for growing an event and an event community. Are there any other ways that you leverage partnerships at Growth Marketing Conference?
Vasil: If I had to choose just one single lever for us to grow year after year, it would be partnerships. Not to be confused with sponsorships—where sponsors pay for exposure at an event—partnerships are where we leverage our community by providing value to our partners, and in exchange they provide us with a service, or media promotion of our events. It’s a win-win situation.
The key is to really structure it in a way that it makes sense and brings value to both of the partners. For example, a couple of years ago, we never had enough budget to hire a full-on digital marketing agency to run our Facebook ads or content marketing. So we leveraged a spot, we provided a partner with value by giving them exposure to our event in exchange for the service.
Brandon: On another note, your work has taken you all over the world. What’s one of your favorite destinations to visit?
Vasil: I really love Paris. It’s one of the cities in Europe that I could probably live in if there weren’t a language barrier. I also travel quite frequently to Brazil. We have a partnership with a conference in São Paulo, so I go pretty much every other year. But it’s really hard to name just one favorite destination because I love exploring.
Brandon: How do you stay inspired and keep your creative instincts fresh?
Vasil: Travel is a big part of it. If I need to get inspired I might book a hotel in San Francisco for a weekend just to explore new neighborhoods, to feel like I’m on vacation and to get inspired.
Once a year, I need to travel for at least one month to get a fresh perspective by meeting new people, by connecting with fellow marketers and event organizers in different countries. This is something that gives me a new perspective, and some innovative ideas.
Brandon: When you’re not revolutionizing the growth marketing landscape, or traveling around the world meeting new people, experiencing new places, what do you like to do in your downtime?
Vasil: You know, I love my job so much, so I meet so many people, but when I come home I just disconnect. I love to turn on the TV and just completely pass out. And spend time with my wife.
Brandon: If you had to give someone one tip, say they’re just starting out or trying to run an event like yours, what would it be?
Vasil: Know your product, know your event very closely, visualize the experience, brainstorm the unique vision of the event, understand your speakers, understand your attendees very intimately. Connect with them, meet them in-person. Then learn from some of the smartest industry leaders, and see how some of the key takeaways can apply to your event.
One of the messages that I’m trying to move forward: anybody can start an event. It’s not as difficult as a lot of people feel. Events are one of the most underrated channels for marketing and sales. There are a lot of old school event planning agencies out there that you don’t need to bother hiring. This industry needs to be disrupted, and everybody can do it.
- Event planning is stressful, but it’s also immensely rewarding. There are a lot of challenges that come with events, but if you stick with it, you’ll reach a tipping point where suddenly it’s easier and more enjoyable.
- Try to produce an event with a minimum commitment at first, and then build on to it. When testing out the waters on a new event, consider organizing a smaller, more casual event via meetup or another platform. As your event continues to grow, be conscious of how your budgets scales (and doesn’t).
- When building an event from scratch, your community is your most important asset. Consult your community members to hear what they want in a conference and see how they can contribute to promoting your event.
- Partnerships are key to scaling an event. By negotiating with event partners, you can get access to venues, tools and other resources that would ordinarily be out of reach.
- Anyone can start an event. There have never been more resources available to help people get an event off the ground. Whether you’re an independent planner or are trying to launch an event strategy for your company, the timing has never been better.