When Erik and I got a PASS Summit pre-con this year, I asked Alison and Leeza a question out of morbid curiosity: what was the pre-con attendance record? They reported that 7 pre-cons since 2012 have gone over 200 attendees, and the record was 269.
I figured that would be really hard to beat, especially given that word on the street is that Summit attendance is down overall due to the Halloween scheduling. To make matters worse, I keep hearing “thought leaders” say that database work is dead, and the magic cloud is going to solve everything.
Would there be anyone out there who wanted to spend their Halloween with us, learning how to make databases go fast?
As it turns out, yes: y’all bought 360 seats.
Three hundred and sixty.
Achievement unlocked: we smashed the sales record. We were on track to break 400, but PASS can’t fit more seats in the room so they’ve had to close registrations.
The economics of that: our share is $75 per person, so that’s $27,000. I know the natural inclination is to say, “Wow, that’s a lot of money for one day of work,” but the reality is that there’s a lot of work behind the scenes to pull off something like this.
So now let’s go behind the scenes – I’ll share what we did and what we learned so everybody can up their pre-con game.
Part 1: Writing the Application & the Abstract
This year, PASS took a really cool approach: rather than submitting a title & abstract blindly, prospective pre-con speakers just filled in a form talking about what they’d wanna talk about. Here’s my submission:
Richie & Tara aren’t copresenters because they’re staying home from Summit this year due to the Halloween scheduling, and I totally understand & support that. The scheduling was also a worry for me, too: how much lower might overall attendance be, and how would that affect pre-con attendance?
Later, PASS gave us the word that our application had been accepted (YAY!) and it was time to start writing the abstract.
I start presentation design by defining the perfect attendee. Erik & I fired up a Google Doc (it’s like multi-player word processing) and brainstormed:
Here’s some of the highlights of our planning document:
Based on that, we sketched out the most important performance tuning tasks they needed to learn, prioritized them, and drew the lines on what we thought we could teach them inside one day. (When you’ve been teaching for a while, scoping a one-day class is brutal: there’s so much you want to show folks.)
Then we turned that into an abstract, sent a first draft in to PASS, and they started working with us to hone it and make sure it didn’t overlap anyone else’s abstract. I think PASS was a little surprised when I said, “Just tell me who the other speakers are that I might overlap, and I’ll work with them directly to make this happen faster.” Turned out the other big performance session was Erin Stellato’s, and we happened to both be at SQL Intersection in Orlando, so we just got together in person and finalized our abstracts. Erin wanted to focus on Query Store, so we removed that from our abstract altogether, and ended up with this:
Yeah, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of words and paperwork here, hahaha. At the end of the day, selling a pre-con all boils down to putting the right words together to communicate your goals to the attendee. These words matter a lot.
Part 2: Launching a Marketing Campaign
In our pre-con application, I put a lot of my heart into answer #13. PASS is taking a risk by giving me one of the limited pre-con sessions. They’re investing in me, and I need to deliver a return on that investment by busting my ass to make sure they don’t have empty seats. For every empty seat in the room, we both lose.
It’s my job to tell my readers, “Hey, if you like my work, you can come see me do my best stuff in person here.” That meant we did a ton of marketing work that I’m really proud of.
Blog posts – everybody does a blog post announcing the pre-con, but it’s just not enough. People miss a single blog post. When we blogged about related topics, like How Much Can One Row Change a Query Plan?, I closed the post with lines like this:
Erik and I will be covering these DMVs and the ways we use ’em in our Summit 2017 pre-con, Expert Performance Tuning for SQL Server 2016 & 2017. There’s over 200 seats sold, but there’s still seats available – get yours before they sell out.
Online presentation – PASS hooked a lot of the pre-con presenters up with 24 Hours of PASS session spots, so Erik and I brainstormed a really fun topic that would bring folks in (bad fashion), teach them something, and then have a natural lead-in to the pre-con. We announced it, bought costumes, wore them on webcam, had a great time and generated a lot of buzz. (I wish PASS had included the webcam footage in the YouTube recordings – our costumes were spectacular.) When the video came out, we blogged that too. All of the posts tied back in to the page about the pre-con and the Summit registration form.
Email announcements – we’ve been building up our mailing list for years (coming up on 100K subscribers now.) Mailchimp helps us target people by physical location, what kinds of training they’ve bought from us, etc, so we did a few different emails announcing the class.
- One to Seattle area locals who haven’t bought a full in-person class from us before, and who DON’T subscribe to the blog posts (some folks just get the Monday newsletter, for example) announcing the class, and explaining that you can go even if you don’t buy a full Summit ticket (because they may not have the budget for a $3k conference)
- Similar demographic, but people who HAVE bought a full in-person class – because they’re likely to go to the whole conference
- One to non-locals who have bought an in-person class from us – because they’re likely to travel to attend the conference and/or pre-con
- Later, emails to people who didn’t click the first time, using different subject lines and/or bodies
Granted, this kind of slicing and dicing only makes sense when you’ve got a big mailing list with a lot of history, but even when you’re just getting started with a mailing list, you can still get a lot of bang for the buck from your subscribers.
This part is a lot of work, but once you’ve done it the first time, it’s easy to repeat the process each time you get a conference pre-con or training class. (I do this work for all of our classes.)
Part 3: Giving Attendees More Value
If you’ve been clicking on some of these links as we’ve been going along, you might notice that the BrentOzar.com pre-con announcements have a line that the PASS ones don’t:
Attendees will even get a one-year Enterprise (Everything) Bundle – with that, the $495 pre-con pays for itself!
There’s a reason for that – PASS is in a tricky position. They have to balance the goals of the attendees, speakers, and sponsors. Speakers love to give stuff away, and attendees love to get free stuff, but…some sponsors have a problem with that. Those sponsors say, “It’s not fair that speakers get to promote their company from the podium for free. When the speakers give stuff away, they’re advertising, so they should have to pay to do that.”
That’s why the speaker contract says:
You recognize and agree that the purpose of your session is to provide educational content and that it is not to be used as a sales or marketing platform. Personal contact, company information, and applicable copyright notices are permitted within the designated slides of the PASS provided PowerPoint template. You will not promote your company’s products or services, or that of any companies with which you have a monetary, sales, marketing, or business relationship for the purposes of sales or other commercial engagement. Provided that PASS is notified in advance, branded and non-branded item giveaways, draws, and/or prizes are permitted within your scheduled session with none being left behind at the end. In addition, you are solely responsible for any and all state tax related matters in connection with any branded or non-branded item giveaways, draws, and/or prizes.
That’s fair. I’ve sat in Ignite/TechEd vendor sessions that turned out to be pure spam, and the attendees lose there. It’s my job as a speaker to make sure attendees are happy, and that means zero advertisement. Plus, I love that they just say “PASS is notified in advance” – there’s no pesky approval process, and we just need to say, “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Initially, we just thought we’d give everybody the free Everything Bundle, but when we broke the sales record, we thought, “How much more value could we add?” We came up with a couple of ideas, and then asked the readers for Kickstarter-style stretch goal ideas.
- 325 seats – free recorded version of the class
- 350 – repeat the pre-con online
- 375 – free 1-day class designed by the attendees
- 400 – free 2-day class
- Sells out – free 3-day class
These stretch goals didn’t really cost us much – we already have our own online infrastructure to sell & deliver live training classes – but they added a ton of value for attendees.
In retrospect, I should have asked PASS what their max number of seats was. I’d consulted the Seattle Convention Center’s capacity charts, and our room 6B supposedly goes up to 513 capacity in classroom setup with 3 people per table. However, I should have remembered that sometimes venues quote layouts that don’t really work well in reality. (“This Volkswagen Beetle seats eight comfortably.”)
It’s Not Really $27,000 in One Day.
I hate those blog posts that say “I launched an e-book and made $27K in one week!” Launching a product and promoting it is one hell of a lot of work leading up to launch week – and I’m not even talking about the work we’ve put into building the content. (This class is going to blow away expectations – as we rehearsed it last week, all of us had moments where we said, “Whoa, I didn’t know that.”)
Do you need to do all that work in order to have a successful pre-con? Of course not – but like anything else in life, the more work you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Like Andy Frisella, the MFCEO, says: do the work.
That’s why I’m so happy with the outcomes, and why I’m sticking this as a point on my Epic Life Quest. We did the work. Next up, and a little related: trying to set a record on our upcoming Black Friday sale.