Howdy Partners #37: Conference Strategy with Jason Ashman

Jason Ashman, Senior Director of Strategic Alliances & Partnerships at SaaS Labs, shares his conference strategy as a partner leader. The group discusses the advantages of being transparent when planning conference attendance and how to optimize ROI in different circumstances.

Jason shares his playbook for what to do before, during, and after conferences.

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Tom Burgess  0:03  

Howdy partners, welcome back, joined alongside us, we got Jason Ashman Jason works with me. So I see his beautiful face every day, we've got a fun topic. But the reason I wanted to bring Jason on today is I think it's one we're getting into this kind of relevant season around conferences, and events. And so really today, you know, Jason, from my experience of working with him has this knack and expertise around really cultivating a solid, you know, event strategy and conference strategy when it comes down to partnerships. So that's really what we're going to talk about today. And Jason, if you wouldn't mind just doing a quick intro, I've been

Jason Ashman  0:41  

in the tech and release startup space for a little over a decade, 14 or so years, give or take from everything from, you know, see companies, you know, just got like under a million dollars in funding to companies that are post acquisition. So I've kind of seen all shapes and sizes and kind of growth throughout throughout my years. And my my core focus has really been large scale strategic initiatives that really help companies scale, right, so not transactional deals, but like, long tail long term deals. And so currently, right now, I oversee our tech partnerships and our strategic alliances at a company called SAS labs, with our main primary product, called just call a kind of like a soft phone cloud phone type solution, basically,

Tom Burgess  1:27  

what like, what's the value of a conference strategy, or even attending conferences, from Park partnership play,

Jason Ashman  1:33  

being able to get out there and engage in this face to face conversations and build that rapport has been nothing tremendous, especially for me just post COVID Being able to drive conversations forward. And in hitting kind of one conference with a 25 partners or 10, partners, whatever it is, instead of traveling to East 25 cities is tremendously helpful, I think.

Ben Wright  1:52  

And I think I kind of plus one that I think, is interesting, I think the remote work piece has brought us a lot of benefits in terms of, you know, being a hire people. But I would agree with you in the way that I'm kind of old school in the way that if I'm going to work on a project or a big bit of work, or even to your point, I'm trying to solidify a partnership, I feel like there's a lot more that can be actioned in like a 45 minute face to face conversation, maybe even around a whiteboard. And I don't know why that is, but I think I kind of plus one, on that point around competence be in that place that you can actually get a ton of work done just by having those kinds of face to face interactions.

Tom Burgess  2:32  

It's something that you've got to build towards, like, I think I would also plus one, and I've been to a couple of conferences since COVID. Broke. And it's just like, it's invigorating, like, it's kind of reinvigorating, and brings back to like, the professional kind of like growth and mindset that you want, where it's like, alright, you know what, like, I can still do this, like, I can talk to people and stuff like that is some it's something so simple, but But on top of that, when you look at, like the planning and strategy that has to go into it, like you're pulling a lot of legwork upfront to make that a successful conference, you know, like you're meeting people on site, but you've got like it, it can be, it can be noisy, it can be very chemistry, from like the free build up to going to a conference or an event where you know, you've got a wealth of opportunity available to you, you know, what do you think are the most important strategies or inputs that you need to do to make sure that you're successful there?

Jason Ashman  3:29  

I think the first thing I start with right is making sure you do some research, right. So choosing the right conference, I think that's the kind of the first step in the game, right? Making sure that the right audience is going to be there. Beyond that, right, studying the agenda, the speaker lineup, the attendee list, right. And identifying potential partners or current partners that are either actively there or attending off stuff. Definitely really impactful to my decision making process thereafter, right. And that's where you kind of start laying all the groundwork, you start off with maybe the your, your closer circle, it's a way of engaging with current partners. And if you have the ability to maybe sponsor stuff at the conference, I think it's a really strong strategy to take as well by doing some cross collaboration, sponsoring like a happy hour, or an event or a dinner or something like that. Even actually having people that say if they have a booth, and we have a booth, right, and we're close partners, having maybe someone from their team be in our booth a little bit, and let's have our team being there with a little bit right. And so because again, we share those mutual customers right now, I'm speaking out also from like the tech side of the house, right. So for example, we integrate with HubSpot good integration over there, right. And so it will make sense for us for someone from HubSpot to speak to customers that come to our booth at a conference because that's a very strong connection right there. Right? So when needs cloudfone type solution, software solution, whatever it is, they need a CRM for all that stuff to kind of be housed into and then vice versa as well. And so really Align yourselves with the right partners. early on. Isn't

Ben Wright  5:00  

So one of the things that I was very mindful of the conferences, and I think it just depends how close your organization which is your budget, but a lot of organizations, especially if you're going to make an investment in a booths, or even it's just airfare in a hotel, you need to provide, like the ROI, or the expected ROI, or the business been attending. And so I think that's a really interesting thing to consider, especially when you went through, hey, like, check the attendee list, hey, like, make sure that there's actually gonna be partners that, even though some of that stuff can be very hard to quantify, I think a lot of a lot of departments, especially in this kind of economic environment, are looking at, hey, what's the kind of quantifiable ROI of is going to sign to strategic partnerships, and it kind of makes sense, but I think that's another piece to kind of layer into conference strategy is that kind of upfront business case, right to actually get the cash,

Jason Ashman  5:48  

of course, and it also kind of depends on the overall goal is right, if the goal is to maybe land partners, or expand partners, maybe stuff like that, where you can be more exploratory sometimes. So like me, we're not going to do a booth. But if you're gonna send someone there, it's gonna probably cost you ballparking it for, you know, two, three days at some hotel, or in some airfare and a couple Ubers and a dinner, probably two, three grand on the company budget, right? And that to me, as a person, okay, I want that to three grand in my pocket, right. And so being able to build that case prior to it, like, make assumptions, is really important. And so then therefore, you go into that show, with very clear expectations, meaning when you come back, the executives or your boss or your manager, where your colleagues, whomever, they aren't trying to make assumptions or trying to like, Hey, why didn't you do this? Or Why'd you do that? It's kind of like a like a pre read before. And then additionally, beyond that, right? When I get back, I very much make sure to kind of write up a, like, I guess, a retro or like a post mortem type doc, which really kind of elaborates my findings from there, right? What's going to happen next time, Should we turn this, again, my recommendations, recaps of various meetings and things like that, that I saw there, that we can then kind of distribute that kind of, we can then distribute it to the larger audience, and maybe distribute to the product team. And now the product team will see this as a conference that they should maybe attend in the future, right, or the marketing team will see this as a conference that they can attend in the future as well as a sponsor, or making some big splash to use it for customer acquisition stuff. So communication upfront, I think is very important. And making sure there's a good ROI, like you said, it's a random head,

Ben Wright  7:26  

the piece that I found really interesting, especially if it's like a booth purchase, or to your point, like a joint partner kind of happy hour, there are numbers, you can kind of partially back into it like okay, this happy hour is costing us $1,500. If we get one qualified lead as a result of that, it kind of pays off. And so I think in some circumstances, it can get really kind of To the Point of, okay, we generate 567 leads off the back of this conference, that means a like, you know, next year makes sense, because the ROI is kind of quantifiable. So that's always something that I think I used to do is just by came back tracking leads, if there is like a way of tracking those on a conference, this can be difficult. But

Jason Ashman  8:05  

for better or for worse, a lot of these conferences now have their own apps, right. And so I'm waiting for an app that Lee I guess functions really well, that can be plugged directly into like a CRM platform, instead of having to export it, and put notes in there and then export or whatever it is, and then upload it somewhere else, right?

Tom Burgess  8:22  

The app side brings up like a lot of funny memories of going to inbound. And I had this one client who was hilarious. And just like, there was a just like a communication thread on there. And just the I'll have to go through it later. But it was a, it can be noisy. And so that's where it comes down to like, I think you brought up some good points of just being very open, upfront and transparent about how you're planning and strategizing. And I think the other side that that is super interesting for all partner professionals, or just any professionals in this space is when you go to going to new conferences, or a conference that your company hasn't gone to is and can be like pretty anxiety riddled like, is this going to work out? Or is this going to be sunk costs. But I think from you know, someone who's attending, it's, it's important to keep a very open mindset around, you know, what, like, I might not be the right person to go to this next year. But to your point, Jason, like this is this is square in our marketing teams, like wheelhouse, it's, it's absolutely somewhere where our sales team should have a heavy presence there. It's you've got to do a lot of detective work both beforehand. And while you're there to make sure that you're you're really like figuring out if this is something that's viable for the future, not how do you start to determine what conferences you should be going to and why now, you touched on it earlier, but I think, you know, like really like the conferences that someone from a SaaS company is going to leave and be like, You know what, this is a conference we need to be going to every year this conference, we need to be sponsoring. This is a conference, we need to have a huge presence.

Jason Ashman  9:50  

Fortunately, I'm part of a couple pretty good groups like partnership leader group, Slack groups and things like that. And there's a lot of good good conversations. and thought leaders in those groups of people that have good insights into various congresses, I think there's a channel or two dedicated to just conferences, right. And so being able to engage with people where they're, you know, just starting to explore, like, I went to a conference recently, as an example, the channel partner conference and expo a couple weeks ago out in Vegas. And so going through just the the list of sponsors on the website and noticing things over there, and we have relationship over there. So doing some proactive outreach, right, it's kind of the first step, just to practically outreach into these partners prior to the event, right, getting their input about that event themselves, right? If you are in a position also, offer to host maybe sessions or workshops, you've been a huge keynote speaker typically comes along with being a big time sponsor. And obviously, no one's gonna be a big time sponsor. But there's a lot of other valuable input, it incites people to take witness conferences from these kind of like the side sessions. And personally, I think those actually provide to me what I've had in my past, I learned a lot more from those versus those flashy keynote ones, you get a big speaker from, let's say, Microsoft, or Dell or Facebook, really cool and fun and exciting. But the stuff they're sharing on stage is nothing too deep, because it has to appeal to a mass audience. And so showcasing your offerings and expertise and how working together, this partner and that partner makes sense, promoting to a more selective group audience really goes a long way. The next piece, I would say, the third piece, is that cross promotion, engagement, across booth staff, happy hour, things like that, those have been very helpful as well. And then it goes up kind of leading into the conference. You know, social posts, email posts, things of that, you know, cross collaboration on that stuff, or commenting back and forth on things, or being able to call out in our own social posts. We're going to be at XYZ conference with, you know, Tom and Ben from, you know, wherever, right, those are all things also kind of start feeding this funnel a bit of trying to get more engagement and more eyeballs on you, which will then feed back into that ROI conversation, making sure it's, you know, really valuable, it's a really worthwhile investment that is sorry, to attend.

Ben Wright  12:20

Yeah, I think like the data that we've got available now via tours, like crossbeam, and reveal, you can work out kind of pre conference as well overlaps, customers you want introductions to, and that becomes a soft landing for, for partners to make those introductions, especially using HubSpot, you've got joint customer that also uses HubSpot, even intro to us probably a good point to go and to go and kind of, you know, take him out to dinner or whatever, and have a have a joint dinner. I agree, I think those things are really impactful.

Tom Burgess  12:51  

Yeah, there's two, there's two points that I gather from that Jason, which is one, you know, you've got to put in the work beforehand, if you if you want to see success, or own I guess your own success, you have to put in the work beforehand, or, you know, like, who might show up and not really have any meetings or have any agenda. And I think it goes back to another point, which is, you know, conferences, conferences can be seen in in kind of two lights. One is, you know, how can I, how can I drive success for our company? So, you know, like, what are we being? What's kind of like, the measurable impact that we're seeing, is it going to be, you know, qualified leads coming out of it, is it going to be solidifying partnerships, that's all really sustainable and enabled, you're able to visualize, but then there's, there's more of a personal side, too, which is you're trying to grow professionally, like, I want to go to conferences to hopefully, learn and educate myself, or be a sessions or, you know, via networking, and just meeting more people in the space, I think, you know, at the intellectual property that you get from going from a conference, what kind of excites you leaving it, and it ties into the point that I'm gonna make, which is prepare yourself to try and not burn yourself out. Like, I remember the four or five years that I attended inbound. Now granted, like, we were a fun agency that would go out and half years after two years, so I there was the Mass Effect of waking up early or waking up late. But my point there is like, be strategic and how you plan out your days. You know, much like you're coming into the office every day and you're like, you're hopefully calendaring like, what's your what's your day look like? Honestly, for conferences, it's almost like 5x more important for me to make sure that I'm like very strategic about where I'm going, what I'm doing, because you will start to feel that burnout effect by like, day two. Yeah. And so it's really important to just take a step back, you know, understand you're only human and really just like go in with a plan. Well, yeah,

Jason Ashman  14:43  

I think so. My first conference I went to, I remember I was very overwhelmed. And then thereafter, I said, have a lot of meetings and I was very overwhelmed again, because they didn't realize, especially in Vegas, sometimes going from let's say, the one coffee station to a booth to The bar all that stuff, it's a lot of like walking and travel. And so what I try and do now is really kind of really book, like five strong meetings a day, and spacing out like an hour between. So in case you go over, you have to rush through conversation, gives you time to walk, or take a bathroom break, or get another coffee between to re energize yourself. Because it is, in my mind, it's more of a marathon than a sprint sometimes. But if doing five meetings a day, and these are impactful meetings, it's, you're there for three days, right? That's 15 years meetings. And that's not counting the stuff you're gonna have in between the dinners, or the happy hours, or the beers or the booth interactions, maybe if you're walking the floor sometimes. Another thing, which I noticed just recently, and I'm out of the game a little bit right, is that the more you go to these conferences, the more faces you'll start recognizing. And so there's like these like posses or clicks, if you will, for better or for worse, right. And so if you're going to a conference by yourself, doing that pre work prior to it is extremely important. Because trying to break into a click or a posse, or a group of people who go to conferences, these conferences every year, I mean, not easy, and to be hard to do that. And so, so setting your day in advance, doing the outreach and events, do your research in advance, right? setting your expectations in advance. And ultimately, like a day, I'm talking to like weeks, right? Like your meetings, we booked weeks before, and there's gonna be a lot of no shows and confusion on stuff and missing stuff that's going to happen. So just don't worry about that. But the pre show work is really what drives the success of the actual show.

Ben Wright  16:36

What's your post conference workflow or checklist that you kind of that you kind of work through as well,

Jason Ashman  16:42  

I am not the best of the post conference checklist, especially that week. So I usually wait like a, like a full week afterwards. Because I know myself, I'm getting bombarded with messages from everyone, like, hey, just met you yesterday, like holy relax, then, you know, slowly roll, I got one like, you're going to conference, like, your day to day work also probably gets put on the backburner a little bit. So you're trying to work at night or the next day. So you got to get people to catch up. And so I found my, throughout the years, that were taking a slow approach and relaxed approach, not following up immediately or the next day, like, give it a week, like, hey, we met last week, want to follow up on these two items, or whatever we spoke about, and take the conversation further. Right? That to me is just like very impactful, like giving them space to internalize the meeting, especially if it was a great meeting. And don't forget your plenty of events in your space and an hour between meetings sometimes, right? So you're not having to rush through it. It's not just like a meet and greet and you're running out, like, let's actually have a good conversation. And from this, let's say 15 conversations, maybe five, we're really good ones, right. And from those five, maybe two or three result into something like really impactful to the business or some sort of impact of the business. Now I think office teen will be have eventually down the road, because you're paving that that path for success. Eventually, this partnerships obviously take time, right? It's not a transactional deal like sales, it takes time to build that. And so having that first conversation, let's say a conference a that meeting again, a conference B finally a conference See you when you meet them. Now it's more casual. And then you're gonna hit scrum a beer instead of just meeting like in a face to face like one of these, sometimes just like these many booths, if you will, and his conferences. And so having begun having that pre show work sets you up for success in that in the after show. And so that, give it a week out. Make sure your top your talking points are relevant. And I would say even in your in your meetings, at the conferences with these people take notes, don't be afraid to walk around with a pen and a notebook. That's what I always do. And take notes write and then ideally, you'd be able to kind of transcribe that somewhere into a Salesforce or some other digital place so you can search those a bit better and helps you remember that more and and share that obviously as well. But it's given a minute to kind of sink in I would say that's the most important thing for me.

Tom Burgess  19:04  

You know, in terms of the tactical takeaways here, I think you brought up a couple of good ones that I just want to recap for the audience. One is you clearly need to put in the work beforehand, you cannot you know book a conference show up to the conference and expect you're gonna get value unless you put some pretty decent legwork in on the front side. And once again, like you know, depending on your role, you know it partnerships, we've got a full marketing team that can help support us like I'm not saying you need to do it all yourself but come in with a plan and make sure that you're utilizing your your internal resources to prepare for that conference. And then finally, you know, once you leave, when you're at the conference, figure out how to avoid that burnout, like slow everything down come in with a plan coming up with an agenda. And honestly like we've been talking a lot of we've been talking a lot about of about a lot of items around just being open, like carry around carrying around a notebook and taking notes even if you're talking to someone or just you know, needing to like back out and take like a bathroom break or a 10 minute break. It's you should never shy away from like taking Here's what you need to take care of whether it's professionally or personally. And then finally, when you leave the conference, everyone's also leaving the conference. So take a pause, give it a few days, and then start to kind of hit back to the I like, I think you're gonna find like the honeymoon phase of leaving a conference, you're gonna feel really high, and then all of a sudden, you're gonna crash because you gotta get back to your own stuff. So just give it a little bit of time. Everyone's in the same boat. And then, you know, do diligent research and follow up when you're ready to go. Audience. Good to chat with you again. This was howdy partners. Thank you, Jason and Ben, and we'll catch you next time. Thanks, guys.

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