To Sinan Kanatsiz, chairman and founder of the Internet Marketing Association (IMA) and CEO of marketing communications firm KCOMM, right now the switch to digital presents more opportunity than it does obstacle. On Oct. 2, the IMA will host a virtual edition of its annual IMPACT conference, and in the process, attempt to break a Guinness World Record for the largest attendance for a virtual marketing conference in one week.
“Most of our content doesn’t necessarily have to be done in person. And people just wanted the access to the network, and they wanted the great content that we do every year,” said Kanatsiz, who is aiming for more than 100,000 registrants and 100 sponsors. This year’s program will emulate a rapid-fire format (similar to the TED conference), offering a lineup of 50-plus speakers along with a startup pitch challenge and IMA’s annual awards. But to keep attendees’ attention, speakers will be capped to five minutes and stick to topics related to the conference theme, “The Year of Reinvention.” To boot, they’ll weave a mix of entertainment throughout the daylong program, including magic, mentalism, and live music.
So what’s the strategy? Kanatsiz has upped the incentive to attend by making registration free and giving away a Tesla Model 3 as well as $100,000 worth of merchandise. “We’re doing what’s called ‘atomic-bomb-level marketing,’” he said, explaining that limiting the number of big announcements makes more of an impact. Instead of “drip, drip, drip, drip, it’s like boom, boom, boom. The world will hear us three times.” To help meet IMA’s lofty registration goal, he has asked speakers and sponsors to post one message on their social-media channels — the event’s logo and theme, #impact20, and a simple ‘see you there!’ Their audiences, combined with the association’s one-million-plus database along with partners Pepperdine University and Entrepreneur Magazine, will give them “a magnificent reach,” he said.
And what makes scaling an event to this magnitude seemingly attainable? The digital format. “The stress level is actually 95-percent less than with our traditional [in-person] events,” Kanatsiz said. With the time-consuming details of coordinating food and beverage, transportation, space, lodging, etc., swept to the side, his team is free to focus on creating engaging content that keeps both attendance and sponsor satisfaction high. With a few exceptions, most sessions will be prerecorded, and instead of limiting sponsor benefits to just the day of the event, he plans to engage them year-round. “Now we’ve got this opportunity to shift and grow,” he said. “We’re nimble, we have low overhead, and can move fast.”
But “the million-dollar question is, How do you engage people in way that is similar to in-person?” Kanatsiz said. He believes the way to do that is through dynamic storytellers — speakers who know how to use humor and tap into their authentic selves to more deeply connect with their audiences. To do this in a way that livens up the virtual format, Kanatsiz’s team has asked speakers to film their talks from locations that inspire them. So far, speakers include Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR and Anduril Industries, along with several leaders from Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, among others. “We will not stop at asking the craziest people that we have access to, to come and be themselves, take off their makeup, and tell us who they really are — that creates engagement, and that depth of intimacy is what we find creates electricity in a virtual environment.”
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.