The world as we knew it was forever changed by an epidemic that reached every corner of the globe. The sudden shift to a digital-only reality put the world on its head. It was a challenging time for everyone in the industry, especially for event planners, as they had to think of creative ways to gather a crowd online and make the experience as memorable as it would be IRL.
So what does it take to strategically plan, execute, and evaluate an event that your target audience won't easily forget? We virtually sat down with three PR pros to learn their biggest learnings on how to get the most exposure out of events and integrate them into your PR strategy. They also offered us insight into what they think the future of events looks like during and after COVID-19.
Events are a crucial part of any PR strategy. Here's how to manage media relations - minus the press release.
- Max Pater: "In order to be remarkable, be bold, relevant and accessible"
- Fiola Foley: "Not setting clear objectives will be your biggest mistake"
- Jon Woodroof: "The key is being consistent and giving people something to remember."
Max Pater: "The key to remarkable events? Be bold, be relevant, and be accessible."
When Max Pater and his partners, Joost Aartsen, Roby Hormis and Thijs Dekker come up with project ideas they put them through something they’ve dubbed ‘the Grandpa test’. They ask themselves: is this idea so cool that I would tell my grandchildren about it? Children, infamous for having very little tolerance for boring stories, are the most honest audience out there- so it’s a wise strategy. And it’s working.
With events as zany as a tomato fight and a supermarket disco, it’s likely that some of the Millennial attendees will gather their future grandchildren around the fire too- and tell them about that time grandma did the funky chicken down the vegetable aisle.
Part of the success of Tosti creative stems from the fact that most of the team do not have a background in advertising or marketing- so they can approach ideas with fresh perspectives. Having worked for brands like Siemens, HEMA, Booking.com, and the Municipality of Amsterdam, the team specializes in creating events their audiences genuinely look forward to.
Tosti Creative's concepts and events really stand out. What makes your events so remarkable?
"I think that is largely due to the fact that we have varied professional backgrounds. So we are not restricted by the formulaic advertising thinking patterns that most brands follow. Instead, we go looking for new solutions.
"First and foremost, we focus on what is actually going on in the lives of the target group we are trying to connect with- so we can create things that will genuinely bring them joy or value.
"We are lucky enough to often be the target group ourselves. It’s much easier to start with what you like, as you know that more intimately. Then (and only then) we see if we can link a brand to the things the target audience is actually interested in. That way we’re not forcing someone to receive our message- we’re just making things that they would be into anyway.
"Of course, sometimes we will have projects with an extensive brief; but even in those cases, we still start by completely putting this aside and brainstorming the real-life preferences of our target audience. Then we move on to the brief. It’s always been our process.
"The ultimate goal we have for every project is that it becomes so epic that people would happily pay to attend. If this is accomplished, then brand awareness will follow automatically. In this way an event becomes a kind of living advertisement."
In 2014, Tosti Creative organized a Spanish-inspired 'tomatina' in the heart of Amsterdam - solving a national tomato surplus while promoting a brand.
What kind of objectives do your clients tend to have in their event briefings?
"The goals we get briefed on are almost always to do with awareness. Attention, activity, buzz; everyone has a different word for it, but it all comes down to the same thing. That is our core concept: creating something people want to talk about because it’s so striking.
"Another goal, besides achieving wide reach, is making sure people really respond to your content. Visitors should like the events so much that they want to make great content out of it too.
"Our client often wants to build a reputation or create brand preference. That is always a little more difficult to measure, especially because our clients have heaps of other marketing activities running simultaneously, our events being one of them. This makes it more challenging to measure."
How then do you measure awareness?
"One good way to measure is with media value. We use tools like Clipit or Media Info Groep to calculate how much reach we have and how much media value we generate. It comes down to what the value of an article is - compared to what it would’ve cost you if it were an ad in that same newspaper.
"Imagine that an ad costs €1000 for half a page, and we land an article that takes up half a page in that same newspaper, organically. Your media value for that article equates to the value of the ad. This gets a little trickier when the coverage is online because the advertising model works a little differently.
"Every assignment or brand also has different media target groups. We work mainly with large brands that have a very large target group, so they often want to reach the national news and lifestyle media. On the other hand, we also work with niche brands like PaulCamper, the Airbnb for RVs. We did a campaign with them to attract more people to rent out their RV on the platform. In that instance, we were reaching out to a niche industry - with camping media like Camperlife, ACSI, and Kampioen, etc. Naturally, you also have earned media in these types of niches.
Measurement in PR is always controversial. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Here's our honest take on how to measure and report results in PR.
Can you tell us your secret formula to creating great events?
"Over the years we have found three things really help campaigns to be remarkable: Being bold, being relevant, and being accessible.
"I think being bold, speaks for itself. We always try to push boundaries in our campaigns- in order to create some friction. This provokes people to think, which makes them much more likely to talk about it. With this also comes the possibility of doing things every now and then that some people won't like, or might take offense to. We try to find that edge. I believe that strong brands dare to stand for something.
"Secondly, being relevant. Well, this has to do with the target audience- really seeing what's going on with them, what they need, and how we can help them.
"Lastly, being accessible. On the one hand, the idea needs to be simple. You should be able to explain a concept in one sentence, otherwise, it is a flawed concept. Like with a disco supermarket, where it’s very easy to envision the whole idea. It should also be accessible in the sense that if you come up with a big campaign, you want to make sure that people can really participate in it, and make it their own.
"Accessibility is also very important for PR because we’ve noticed that media are (understandably) less quick to write about things that are not accessible to their readers. If there’s an influencer party, for example, organized for just a select group, why would they write about it when their readers can't even attend?”
So does that mean you invite the media to your events as well?
"Yes, there are no separate events or media days just for journalists. I don't think a separate event is interesting to them either. They also just want to see what we come up with for the consumer."
Can you give us an example of the events you have worked on and are proud of?
"There are many campaigns I enjoyed about but one I especially liked was the HEMA marriage. HEMA wanted to do something for Amsterdam’s Gay Pride that was more than just standing on a boat and waving flags. They actually wanted to add something meaningful to the day and do it through a channel that was more impactful than just posting a video.
"The discussion, during that period, was whether or not Gay Pride should still be organized each year, because being gay is so accepted in the Netherlands. People were asking if it is still necessary. And that was an interesting conversation to have because we are doing well in the Netherlands, but this is still a big issue in other countries. Realizing that many people come from abroad to celebrate Pride in Amsterdam, we identified a big opportunity there. So, we organized a wedding with HEMA during Pride, where we gave three couples from countries where same-sex marriage is not allowed the opportunity to celebrate their love.
"We wanted to make a statement that same-sex marriage should be legal and that fortunately, it is in the Netherlands. That was a very powerful message from HEMA, especially because its slogan is 'HEMA is for everyone'. During pride, their slogan changed to 'Love is for everyone'. When we launched the campaign during the Gay Pride, it hit like a bomb. It was such a sweet and beautiful action."
What should you look out for when organizing events? Can you share any mistakes that you’ve made before?
"A mistake I’ve mentioned is starting to build a concept based solely on a brand. So thinking that your product, innovation, or corporate message is so important that customers can’t wait to hear it. Very often, that’s just not the case. The best way to build a concept is by finding out what is going on in the target group, what is relevant, and match that with your product or with your message.
"Needless to say, another is don’t lie or spread false information. That is quite obvious now, but up until a few years ago, you could get away with creating a hoax. Take Tony’s Chocolonely as an example. They announced they were considering listing their company on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. This turned out to be a PR stunt- which didn’t go down so well.
"You really can't do that anymore because it severely affects your reliability with the media. When you lose credibility with the press and your network of media contacts, things can get pretty ugly."
How have things changed for Tosti Creative in light of COVID-19?
"Almost all of our assignments have been cancelled or rescheduled. That is very painful and hopefully getting back to 'normal' will not take long. Luckily, we have been assigned a subsidy from the government, so that helps even though most of our costs continue. However, we are flexible, young, and creative. We’re making the best of it and this whole situation will make us stronger.
Despite switching to a digital-only reality, events still thrived. Here is our list of online events that stood out in 2020.
So how can you set up events in times of self-isolation?
"We are of course working on it. We are seeing a lot of initiatives. Most of them are very similar to each other, so people are having the same ideas. But they’re all coming from a well-intentioned place, which is very positive.
"The situation changes almost every day, including the information we get from the government. I am still very much getting used to the new reality. But there’s an opportunity to really deep dive into this issue and respond to what is going on, which we will certainly do. I am confident that we will come up with cool things during this time.
"However, we are still sticking to what we are good at - which is offline events. We have to prepare ourselves for what will happen when this is over, so we can continue with life as usual when the time comes.
"As a team, we’re trying to find a balance with these activities. We are also using this time to think introspectively and develop ourselves as people."
What does this mean for you long term?
"The ideal picture for the long term is that this situation leads to an increase in remote work. I think it’s already proven that working from home is entirely possible.
"I think this in itself will lead to people experiencing a greater need to go to events. Because they’ll still want to see each other. If you are at home all day, then you feel much more like going to an event or a restaurant in the evening, just to see people. So that's something we hope for.
"Luckily I don't have to carry this challenge alone. We are in this together as a team. Everyone stands behind each other and supports one another. Fortunately, the government is helping too which really gives a feeling of support and confidence. This is why you can indeed enjoy the peace and the great opportunity to work on your company instead of in your company."
Fiola Foley: "Not setting clear objectives will be your biggest mistake"
When Fiola Foley is not exploring the world by bike, she's directing media relations for Komoot - a navigation system that allows to you plan and experience authentic outdoor adventures. The app has rapidly grown in Europe and is expanding worldwide.
What kind of events does Komoot do?
"We usually ride out with editors and journalists. In October, when we launched the premium version of Komoot, we invited 10 editors with us on a bikepacking ride. We did a two-day ride with them to showcase the products and set them up with their devices. During lunch we would get together so that the editors could ask us questions about Komoot. The rest of the day they would be doing what they love to do most: riding bikes.
"That brings me to the experiential types of events that we do with the media. So, for our Dutch launch, we planned an experience with outdoor editors. We had lunch with them in the city, we invited them to stay in a hotel by the coast, and then the next day we gave them a little scavenger hunt. They did this scavenger hunt by themselves, which is really effective because it puts them under pressure to get to know how to use the app in real life
"For the launch of Komoot in Dutch we did a media launch with cycling editors, an alleycat kind of ride, where people use Komoot to find the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Often editors sit at their desks and write a review based on what they look at on the phone. At our events, they go out and really experience our app.
How do you integrate events into PR?
"At all our events, we're prepared with a media pack with all the images that journalists can use. We use pr.co to set up all of the assets that we have available to them. These media kits include info sheets about the app or a press release if there is a product launch, for example.
"Also, in order to engage with key titles it is absolutely imperative that one of the PR managers on the team meets the journalists face to face. If possible, we go on a ride with them. I have seen that 95% of the people that actually open our newsletters or press releases are editors that I have met within the past year.
Looking for a tool to help you manage relationships, and send out news beautifully? We might be able to help.
Are there lessons that you learned the hard way about events in the last few years?
"Definitely. Not setting clear objectives is one. So for example, being very loose around objective setting and saying, 'we're going to go to this event and we expect to get coverage in the press'. You know from the start that it's not a good objective, but you think that you can do it and then eventually, you find yourself really under pressure to achieve an objective that was never realistic from the get-go. It’s totally fine to say 'it didn't work out and I learned from it'. But it should not be an objective that you set for the next time we do the same event. In the end, you need to hold yourself accountable for your efforts."
What's a clear objective for you?
"It starts out with the event itself. Asking questions like: 'Who will be at this event? What do we want to gain from it? Does it support a product release? Do we have some news or a story to pitch? Also, being clear with expectations is important.
If we invite ten journalists on an overnight ride with us, we might expect to get ten articles from those journalists because they rode with us. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen. It's good to be clear with those attending the event, but also important to be realistic.
"When it comes to PR events, your objective shouldn't always be an outcome. Like for example always having articles published, it doesn't always happen so you have to be a bit more realistic."
"I think the main objective of events should be about relationship building and product education; really spending time with the journalists to show them the tool; how it works, and everything they need to know when it comes to Komoot."
What are your biggest takeaways?
"I think the key thing to be really clear on is objectives. Just be very honest about them with your team, because it's really easy to put yourself under pressure and expect something that's not realistic.
"And also, be clear about the efforts that you make when it comes to relationship building versus ones that are more transactional in nature, which are, you know, the paid media sort of projects that you have with magazines.
"There's a big line between the two. One is taking care of the editors, providing them with a great experience they won't forget, and providing them with all the information they need to know on how to use Komoot."
What does the future look like for Komoot in times of self-isolation?
"We are seeing massive effects on the activity levels of people, based on the lock-down instructions of each country. After this crisis, I reckon I'll be getting very busy in September to November and hopefully traveling to Spain to catch up with some key partners from all over Europe."
Jon Woodroof: "The key is being consistent and giving people something to remember"
Jon Woodroof is the CEO and founder of Twotone: a sales, PR and creative consultancy for startups, mostly in the cycling industry. He's the kind of guy that people gather around to talk to, as he is easygoing and naturally charismatic. It's no wonder he's built up a network of contacts and crafted memorable events around the activity he enjoys most - cycling!
How did you first get involved with event planning?
"I organized my first events just after I moved to the Netherlands. I was working at a company called Springest, helping them with outbound sales. What I noticed back then is that sales had a bad reputation, but every company needs it. At the time, there were so many salespeople doing the same things and not getting any results. So I saw the opportunity to gather salespeople around to share their lessons and create an open discussion so that they can learn from each other. This is how SalesHacker Amsterdam first began.
"So by getting people together, putting them on a stage, handing out some food and good beer, somehow I ended up in the center of it and began building up a reputation for sales acumen for startups.
"You have to realise that things take a long time. Whether it's a business or a campaign or really, anything in life, it takes a long time, maybe even years. Everyone in our generation or younger certainly thinks you can build something up in six months or a year, that's just not the case."
"Another meet-up that I started that was Roll Call: a weekly bike ride to meet entrepreneurs, developers, designers, and other people who were active in the startup scene. I guess the key to getting people to connect and create a network with them is by sharing a common passion - in this case, it was cycling."
What type of events do you organize for your clients?
"The events that we've done as Twotone are for brands in the cycling industry like Oakley, Brooks England, Shimano, Cannondale, among others. They ask us: 'We want to launch this product. Can you make it happen?' We feel it's important that people get to experience the product, and we love getting a lot of people with the same passion in one space. There are tons of ways to do that: we organize test rides, we build awareness at conferences, or we get people together for a group ride, where we organize routes, stops, and other activities.
Do you host separate events for journalists and potential consumers?
"I don't know if they're always so differentiated. It's often a mix. And I think that's actually nice. Planning these kinds of events are more about getting people that reach an audience - either an influencer, journalist, or even a retailer or distributor in some cases - that can further the message about what your product is about. So that is why the most important thing about events is the experience you create for them.
"During the event, you get to guide them by showing them how certain products work, explain characteristics or details. With an event, you get an opportunity to have people experience your product the best way they can: with good food, with good music, and with a nice crowd. This will show in the photos you shoot at the event, and in the articles, should the editors choose to write about the product."
What are events that have stuck with you and why?
"I think it all comes down to how much I actually enjoy being at events, even if it means I am chained to a booth. One of my favorite events was probably the Berlinner Fahrradschau, a cycling show in Berlin. I love big shows, but in this case, I really loved how this event gave small brands a platform and expanded the range of audiences that attend because it appeals to tons of different segments in the cycling industry. You had a cool overlap of people that attended. I think the takeaway from this is if someone's organizing an event, maybe it is their goal to only have marketing managers from this industry from this company size there. But really, for me, to have a crazy overlap of people, company sizes, backgrounds, disciplines, niches and demographics is what makes the difference."
So what's your secret to standing out in these kinds of events? What differentiates your booth?
"I think it goes back to my point about things taking time. I remember going to my first event, back in 2011, was a very intimidating experience. I learned that you have to cut your teeth and do it wrong. It’s almost impossible to expect you're gonna go to your first show and smash it as an individual or as a brand - you have to get experience. This goes for anything. So now that I've gotten this reputation over the years, I guess I can say it took a lot of time.
"The secret is to be consistent over the course of several years. Slowly a community will start to accumulate. The key is doing things over and over again, being consistent and giving people something to remember."
"Something I've learned along the way is the importance of collateral. I use stickers from Twotone and hand them out to everyone I meet. The most important is that they are useful or visible and they have to have some sort of memento. Once I hand out stickers, people tend to follow us on Instagram or sign up to our newsletter. Our sales collateral gives people something to remember us by. It's also great to meet people at events the following year and find their Twotone stickers on their phone.
"Another thing I love to do is introduce people, get them connected based on common interests or goals. So you become this kind of cross-pollinator. That really makes you stand out."
What is the key to networking? Check out our interview with Jon for our online magazine, Unfold. Read the article here.
Do you have any tips on how to throw events such as media days?
"The first thing that comes to mind is to find something in common. Depending on the industry, people have similar interests. Based on that, and referencing to what I said before, this is the basis of making something fun and memorable. It’s all about creating a sense of FOMO and getting people to really want to be there. I think at TwoTone we have built up that reputation up to now and we really see that reflected in the experiences we have with those who attend our events. So for example, our last event for Komoot’s Dutch language launch of the app, we invited the press but also other industry movers and shakers to come out on their bikes for a competitive alley cat (messenger style race), a great barbecue outside with live music and great food. Since the app is all about getting people outdoors, it really motivated people into attending and not missing such a special occasion."
"I may be saying something that's way too obvious, but I think people sometimes think more about their own goals about whom to have at the event and the aim of it, that they forget to be creative and personable about it. People get caught up in success metrics instead of focusing on what will actually get a journalist to take time out of their day to join your event."
How will event planning change in the upcoming months or year due to COVID-19?
"The biggest challenge lies in accomplishing some of the same results under different circumstances. Are there other things you can do? When can people expect to be riding together? It's all about deciding how to proceed. How do we stay sensitive and not too salesy and commercial in the midst of all of this? What kind of messages can we put out there?"
What are things that you really shouldn't do that you’ve learned the hard way?
"Something I've learned along these years is that even if events don't turn out the way you expect them to, there are still positive takeaways such as nice imagery, good memories and clippings. Sometimes there are many factors that are not under your control such as bad weather or a bad turnout.
"I think a good tip might be to make people know that they are expected. We use Whatsapp Web to notify people personally and say things like: 'looking forward to seeing you tomorrow'. Because sometimes emails can get lost and assuming people will just show up doesn’t really work.
"Another important element is to really engage with people, especially in a small gathering. People expect more out of events now. "
"Just leave people with a smile. That's a very nice rule of thumb to lead an event. I think this is a metric that can often be overlooked. You want people to be there, you’re counting the attendees, but you’re really forgetting the human aspect which I think will be more important now than ever before."