On the last episode of #EventIcons, Erica Bishaf said, “A lot of organizations put about 60 – 80% of financial risk into one live event.” Unsurprisingly, companies are heavily invested in attendee satisfaction. Often, event planners turn to metrics and attendee engagement as a measure of an event’s success. That’s why we’ve brought on an expert on all things attendee engagement metrics, Ryan Costello.
Ryan is the founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Event Farm. Today, hundreds of organizations use Event Farm. Over the last 20+ years, he’s become a leading innovator in the events industry. His obsession with attendee engagement metrics and experience is evident in both his company and today’s episode. Rather than hyper-focusing on the precise metrics you should focus on for engagement, Ryan shifts our attention to mindset and approach. He challenges us to remember that we are in the business of humans. Let’s get right into it!
How Ryan Costello Came to Events
In Will’s own words, Ryan Costello is an OG who’s been around the block. Ryan is passionate about everything events. Here’s how he got into the events industry.
“I got into events kind of backward,” says Ryan. “I fell into putting on an event. Originally, I got a computer science degree but I didn’t want to code. Actually, I ended up in politics on Capitol Hill lobbying. I came across a nonprofit organization I wanted to help raise money for. My thinking was I was a big bad lobbyist and I could bring this charity to D.C. and I could make them some money. So I brought the charity up to D.C. and I failed, but I was interested in the work we were doing.”
“My takeaway was to put on an event,” he explains. “Let’s show Capitol Hill what we do and leverage congressional support by having them attend and talk about the importance of music. That event turned out to be such a big success that I ended up doing it 8 times over the course of 10 years. Over the course of 8 years, we ended up raising several million dollars for this charity.”
The Start of Event Farm
It’s that series of events that led Ryan to start Event Farm. “I ended up learning how to produce events from the ground up and I did it by myself as a side job. Along the way, I started running into challenges that I thought technology could help with,” Ryan says. “What drove Event Farm to be a thing was my handing physical invitations out to people. I needed a non-transferable electronic invitation. In the early 2000s, this did not exist. That’s one of the key factors in how we generated millions of dollars of revenue. My sponsor dollars went through the roof.”
Will, “That’s really interesting because events are sometimes about getting the right people in the room as much as it is just getting people in the room. Fast forward, and you launch Event Farm. What does your event stack look like? What features did you take on beyond just ticketing? And then where are you now?”
“We actually came to market with a couple of basic things,” says Ryan. “The idea of non-transferable invitations to targeted audiences was feature #1. Feature #2 was design and branding. The fact that I would send out an email to have you register for my email on a non-branded experience blew my mind. I think event brand and event design are critical parts of engagement. Very quickly the brands that were sponsoring our event wanted it at their other Capitol Hill events. It was word of mouth.”
Facebook: A Turning Point for Event Farm
Ryan’s path went from computer science to politics, then from politics to events. There’s still one major milestone that has helped Ryan get to where he is today: Facebook. “Facebook calls us,” says Ryan. “They found we were the first company to have a check-in app. In 2006, in the app store, we were the only thing that showed up when you typed in ‘events.’ So people were getting this app and someone at Facebook found it. All it did was check people in at the door.”
Ryan continues: “Then Facebook asked to challenge me with something. They said, ’You know that like button on Facebook? We want to make that in real life at our events.’ That’s where Event Farm deviated from being a registration company to being an experience and engagement company. We ended up landing on NFC and RFID technology to do that. So we built the ability to use the check-in app to activate a wristband and hand that to the attendee. They would walk somewhere to this button that was an NFC reader, tap the button, and voila.”
“Then I started to go down that path,” continues Ryan. “I was like, what else can I do? I got to this idea of personalization and attendee engagement metrics. If I know who this attendee is, I could serve up a really engaging experience through the things he interacts with. I could customize those experiences. I got interested in this idea, if I can use technology to better serve you, you’re going to be excited to give me more data,” he concludes.
Be an Event Designer, Not Just a Planner
Will wants to pivot and talk about attendee engagement metrics. “You understand what actually engages an audience. I wanted to bring up how so many planners are asking how they can increase attendee engagement. What sort of things do you think move the lever when it comes to engagement? What really matters?” asks Will.
“It’s part art and part science,” says Ryan. “I’m a big believer in the design side. We try to push people to be experienced creators, not just planners. I really try hard to inspire because to create engagement you have to inspire. It takes some artfulness, being current, and understanding what humans want and need.”
He references how convenient many of our everyday experiences are. “We’ve been living in this on-demand economy. You get what you want when you want it. Is the first impression of you as an event organizer at that level, above that level, or below that level? Are they feeling convenient, know me, serve me on demand?”
“No. They have to do work,” adds Will. “They have to show up to the registration, get in there, know where to go.”
“‘I don’t have wifi anymore. Who’s got my badge? What’s the agenda for this thing?’” are some of the questions Ryan says attendees ask themselves right when they enter your event. “All of a sudden, the second they show up at your event, life has gotten worse for them. So back to our check-in app. What if you get a message when you show up? And that message has the wifi password or a reminder about your next experience. That’s an enormous part of our platform today.”
Will agrees. “People are almost expecting you to read their minds now. I think a lot of event technologies do this through leading indicators,” he says. “You can tell that they’re at risk of losing a potential customer if someone signs up for a trial and doesn’t use the trial. Or if they become a customer, and don’t get fully onboarded, then there’s a chance they won’t renew. From a traditional event standpoint, we don’t do that.”
“As an example for our own company, everything we’re doing goes into Salesforce. The idea here is that over time you would get smarter,” explains Ryan. “For example, over the last 5 years, we’ve seen that if attendees do X they become a member or buy a product. So you use these insights to decide how to drive the interactions that are more valuable to you.”
Ryan’s Final Challenge: Don’t Cut Corners
As Will and Ryan wrap up this episode of #EventIcons, Will wants to know what Ryan’s number one tip for event planners is.
“I’m a guy that likes to challenge people. So the tip is, don’t cut corners,” says Ryan. “Have you ever walked into an event and you knew 3 seconds in, that this was not your event? That’s what I’m fighting against. That takes commitment and not cutting corners. Inspiring humans is a challenge. You’re in the business of humans. They’re taking 5 hours of their day to be in your care and your marketing. It’s more of a challenge than a tip; don’t forget that humans are hard.”
We hope you enjoyed today’s episode of #EventIcons with Ryan Costello. We’ll see you next time for more from our iconic guests!