What I learned speaking at events as a CEO for the past 2.5 years

I explain why I pursued speaking gigs as Know Your Company’s main means of marketing, and if you should do it too…

Me speaking at Big Omaha last year.

“How do you get the word out?”

As the CEO of Know Your Company — a two-person company with over 12,000 people using our software — I’m often asked this question. Figuring out how to attract customers is always a tough thing to do.

For us, we’ve relied on three ways for people to find out about Know Your Company: Inbound marketing + press (stuff like this and this), customer referrals (CEOs who love our product tell their friends, or employees will recommend us to their CEO), and speaking at events and conferences.

Of all the channels we’ve tried, I’ve found speaking at events and conferences to have been the most interesting experiment for us. While speaking wasn’t the biggest source of sales for us last year (we saw 47% of our sales come from inbound marketing, while 38% came from speaking opportunities) — it’s where our greatest learnings have come for me as a CEO, and for our business.

In fact, because of this, I purposefully chose to focus on speaking gigs for the past two and half years as our primary way to get the word out.

From pursuing these speaking opportunities, here’s what I’ve learned…

You get directly in front of your customers. Fast.

Instead of waiting around for potential customers to find us, speaking has enabled me to go to where our potential customers already were. At Know Your Company, our target market is business owners with 25 to 75 employees who’ve felt growing pains. So for us, it made sense to zoom in on conferences where business owners with 27 to 75 employees were attending, and go directly to them.

The most perfect example of this is an event called Owner Camp, run by the Bureau of Digital Affairs. A few times a year, they host a three-to-four-day gathering of about 30 CEOs of digital agencies — all who have 10 to 100 employees. It’s right in our sweet spot in terms of our target market.

I’ve spoken at this event about four or five times, sharing best practices on how to get honest feedback from your employees. We’ve also helped sponsor it for the past few years now.

At each Owner Camp event, we ended up selling our product to between two and seven different companies. With our average sales per month being four to five companies last year, speaking at and supporting Owner Camp has been a fruitful partnership and significant source of sales for us.

So if you’re a company looking to get traction, consider seeking out speaking opportunities like Owner Camp — where you can be a “subject matter expert,” and the audience is specifically in your target market range.

You build trust and credibility with your customer.

At its core, selling is about trust. The person who’s buying from you needs to trust you — that you’re an expert, that you’ll deliver on your promise. What better way to establish that trust, especially as a young company, than to have a customer watch you speak.

When I started speaking at conferences (particularly ones that were more high-profile) I saw how my association with those events helped build trust with a potential customer and influence a sale. For instance, we’ve gained about four or five customers who had stumbled across my Big Omaha talk on our website. These customers told me they liked the content I’d presented in that talk, or learned something useful from it. In other words, watching me speak gave us credibility as experts in helping CEOs solve this problem.

You hone in on your messaging.

This is perhaps the greatest benefit we’ve had from pursuing speaking gigs. Early on when I first took over as the CEO for Know Your Company, I had some general ideas about how to frame our service to our potential customers. However, when you give a talk, that’s completely taken up a notch; you have the most ripe opportunity to test your messaging with a live in-the-flesh audience, and refine your talking points firsthand.

For example, after presenting “The Top Four Questions to Ask Your Employees” at a conference, I watched people’s reactions to it. Everyone took out pencils and started to frantically scribble down what I’d put up on the slide. I made a mental note that information was very useful to people. And I’ve since included that in more talks, podcast appearances and media appearances that I’ve done.

Another learning I had was after I gave a talk at the 99U Conference this past May. I similarly saw a strong reaction to the data I provided on the top blindspots that CEOs have. So I turned it into a blog post, and now it’s been one of our most popular pieces I’ve written to date.

I also learned that the simpler I can boil down a message, the better. For example, a lightning talk I did at Business at Software was one of the most well-received talks I’ve given (you can watch it here). It’s the most concise talk I’ve done, and it hits on two key takeaways: “Ask for feedback in the right way” and “Act on feedback in the right way.” And that’s it. I keep this in mind as I write blog posts, speak on podcasts and write copy on our marketing site.

Lastly, it’s different.

Speaking is a medium that stands out. You’re able to showcase a bit more of your personality, your emotion, who you are. Blog posts are everywhere (ironic, as I’m writing this blog post right now, heh…) In a day and age of information overload and constant message bombardment, it pays to have your voice be different and memorable.

Now, there is one giant cost to these speaking gigs…

It’s time consuming and highly involved. A fellow business owner once told me, “Preparing for a talk expands to fill all available time.” So if you give yourself two days to prepare, it’ll take all two days. Give yourself a week? It’ll take a week. That’s time and attention being taken away from other areas of the business. Not to mention the amount of time, energy, anxiety and stress you’ll expend while you’re at the conference giving your talk.

Don’t get me wrong though: it’s also the most rewarding thing when someone comes up to you and says they’ll use the best practice from your talk at their all-company meetings. Or when someone emails you a month later and tells you that your talk helped them through a difficult situation with an employee.

I never take for granted that with a talk, you have an opportunity to really make an indelible impact. You can share your perspective in a very personal way that text sometimes can’t do.

Is it worth it?

For us, especially in the first two years of business, this time and energy has been totally worth it. As I mentioned earlier, it accounted for 38% of our sales last year (over a third!). And the learnings alone have been priceless. It’s how we’ve been able to level up our marketing — to figure out what to write blog posts about and, to refine our marketing content. For us, it made sense to sacrifice what goes into preparation for the sake of learning and the immediacy of simply getting in front of our potential customers.

Now as we’ve honed our message more and transitioned the product to allow more people to sign up more easily via self-service… that time-energy cost is something I’m more conscious of. So this year, I’ve pulled back on the number of speaking gigs I’m doing (around six, instead of more than 12).

I still find speaking gigs incredibly valuable for our business — it’s just that tradeoff is now something I am a little more conscious of, now that our business has evolved.

Should you pursue speaking events, too?

If you’ve been reading this, thinking, huh, I’m in the same boat as Claire — I’ve been running a business for a few years, and I’m trying to refine our messaging and get in front of more folks quicker. Or perhaps you’ve been in business a bit longer, but you’re looking to differentiate yourself from the competition… Awesome! I think it’s totally worth giving a shot.

Here are a few things I’d recommend doing as you approach getting speaking gigs…

(1) Apply to a speaking event where they’ll video you. The very first speaking gig I did was actually before I was the CEO of Know Your Company. I’d started my own consulting practice helping CEOs get to know their employees better, and I gave a short lightning talk at Ignite Chicago (you can view it here). And the neat thing about Ignite Chicago is they video your talk. This means my content became package-able and distributable. I could take that video link and send it to prospects, or put it on our website. On top of that, a lightning talk via video is effective because it’s short and to-the-point. There are a bunch of Ignite talks and similar organizations in a bunch of cities. You can look them up here.

(2) Before speaking at a conference, attend one. Before I sponsored and spoke at the Owner Camp events, I simply attended one. Greg Hoy, one of the founders, invited me as an attendee. From there, as an attendee, you can first see if this is a conference where speaking would be helpful to your company. And secondly, you can get to know the organizers and understand what their needs are. If the opportunity is right, you might offer how sharing your expertise in a talk could add value to their event and be helpful to their audience.

(3) Be nice and genuinely interested in everyone you meet. How I ended up getting invited to speak at MicroConf is I met the co-organizer, Rob Wailing, in Thailand (of all places) the year or two prior. I’d seen Rob give a talk in Bangkok, and I thought it was phenomenal. I went up to him afterward, over lunch we chatted about Know Your Company, and I got his thoughts on our business. When we parted ways, I had no ask. I didn’t try to sell Know Your Company to him or get anything from him. I was simply genuinely interested in hearing his perspective. And then several years later, he reached out and asked if I wanted to speak at MicroConf. It pays to be nice and genuinely care about the people you meet at an event.

(4) Find which conferences attract your target market. To get the most out of your speaking opportunities, you’ll want to figure out exactly who the attendees are and get in front of them. For us, that meant conferences where CEOs are, like Business of Software and Owner Camp, and where employees of small to medium-sized businesses are, like Big Omaha and 99U.

(5) Aim to be helpful, not self-promotional. When pitching your talk to the event or conference, look to provide helpful insights — not to sell your product or service. What’s a burning question or pain that your audience has? Address that. For us at Know Your Company, it’s employee turnover, company growing pains, being the last to know as a CEO, and not knowing how to give and receive feedback from employees.

(6) Provide a unique discount or offer at the end of your talk so you can track the ROI of the particular event. One of the trickier things with speaking events is that it can be difficult to track if an actual sale came from an event. I tried to track this in several ways. When I would give a presentation at Owner Camp, I announced to folks that if they told me before the end of the conference that they wanted to buy the product, I’d offer a 10% discount. And at MicroConf, I told folks that if they did end up buying the product I’d give them five free employee accounts if they mentioned that they saw me present at MicroConf.

Hopefully my experiences give you some context to decide whether speaking at conferences as a CEO is something that would be useful to your business. I’d seriously weigh the time-energy trade off against the benefits of getting in front of customers right away and the learnings you’ll gain around messaging… But if the weight falls on the right side, go for it. I definitely don’t regret it.

Big news! We’re now Know Your Team. Check out our new product that helps managers become better leaders, and get the full story behind our change.

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)