I recently attended one of the more commercial insights industry events.  A lot of the content at these events is ‘pay to play’ – when suppliers and agencies pay a fee to get a slot on the platform.

In essence, I do not think this is a bad idea.  It funds events and conferences, so getting more knowledge out into the industry, and it gives emerging companies an opportunity to share and network.  Often what starts as a paid for opportunity can turn into great presenting experience for the company, this experience can then help pitching to peer reviewed conferences and a great deal of ongoing exposure.

However, given the speaking opportunity is paid for (so comes out of the sales or marketing budget), these presentations are often delivered by a member of the sales team from the supplier or agency in question.  And all too often said presenter sees it as a chance to pitch their company.

This is a bad idea on so many levels I am almost at a loss to know where to start.

First of all, who looks after your client relationships, manages accounts and runs projects?  Who adds value to those relationships?  Nine times out of ten that is not the sales or business development manager.  The audience does not want to hear from the sales team.  They want to hear from the people they will have ongoing relationships with, who they will learn from.

Secondly, the sales team is comfortable with pitching, and they can’t resist selling, particularly if they’re on commission.  But the audience does not want your pitch.  They want knowledge and learning.  If you can’t work out how to tell your company story without describing all your wonderful attributes, you have a marketing problem.  What do I mean by that?  I mean you need to think about the benefits to your clients of working with you, what is the need they have that you are delivering against?  You should then demonstrate that you solve the client’s problem.  So if you are an agency your client might have a need for insight, in which case what you communicate is insight, not how great your agency is and how many offices/services/methodologies you have.  For a supplier your client might need automation, so you communicate great stories about the benefits of automation and how it helped other clients. If any of the information in your presentation would sit in a company brochure, leave it out of the presentation.  Don’t tell them, show them.

Thirdly, a good sales person knows that you cannot sell to a whole room of people.  A great sales person has fantastic personal story telling abilities and the ability to tie their narrative to the individual they are talking to.  You just cannot make that personal connection to a room of 150 people, who will all have different needs and experiences.

Fourthly (yes, it’s a long list!), we are a knowledge based industry.  People are at events to learn.  Yes they are also there to network and get contacts and sell, but the backbone of the event is learning.  In particular in the conference sessions – the audience is looking for insight.

Finally, anyone who has been on the receiving end of a sales pitch instead of a learnings presentation will remember your pitch.  Before you say all publicity is good publicity think about that.  They may well be sure to avoid future conference presentations by your company because they know they won’t learn anything.  They will almost certainly talk about you to their colleagues as the company that did a pitch, and not in a good way.  The chances of you then building a good relationship with them which enables you to work with them will have been greatly diminished.

So next time your sales team buys a slot at a conference think hard about who will present, what they will present about and how to make your session as engaging and entertaining as possible.  Or you might end up doing more damage than good.

Author:  Lucy Davison, Keen as Mustard (originally posted on the GreenBook Blog).