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How to Create Viral Events: 5 Lessons from PR Hacker

I was recently at the Experiential Marketing Summit in San Francisco. One of the most impactful speakers was Ben Kaplan from PR Hacker.

Ben started out in this field as many trade show and event professionals did, by accident. He shared how after years of counting on an athletic scholarship to go to college he was faced with an injury that would preclude him from playing. In order to find a new way to pay for college he put his energy into researching a multitude of scholarship options and was able to fund almost his entire college career though non athletic scholarships. Given what he learned, he decided to write a book about it, and his parents printed enough copies to fill their garage. He was now only faced with one problem, how to inform people about his great product, and get them to come and buy it. He did what many of us would do, granted not in our teens, he convinced a local bookstore to hold an author event so he could sell his book.

Given that it was unlikely that many people would rush to the bookstore to meet an unknown author they advised him to give a free workshop on finding scholarships. The opportunity to attend a workshop with the author of a book named How to Go to College Almost for Free provided a much better perceived benefit for the event than a regular book signing would have. The event far exceeded his expectations, and those of the bookstore. The event and the book then proceeded to get press due to its relevant content and catchy name. It probably did not hurt that Ben is a charming and accomplished speaker.

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Here are the most actionable ideas I took away from his talk:

1. Surround your message in newsworthy context. In other words, when you send your message out there, make sure to communicate to the public why they should care, in the context of their own lives. For example Kaplan sent out a survey for a client, Kloof, an app for dog owners, to test out what kind of news would be most relevant to potential clients. He tested a number of possible concepts before landing on “Which dog is more likely to land you a date” and then used that information to send out a press release that would be relevant to this particular target market. His release was posted by the Huffington Post. Here is the link in case you are curious to see what dog you may want to adopt when you go to your local humane society.

2. Create a story around your message. Work on your headline before you even plan your event, campaign or trade show theme. I am sure that Ben’s book signing event would have not been as well attended if he had called it: ‘Scholarship Workshop 101’. Ben said he will develop up to 25 headlines for one PR release to ensure he has the right one. He will make sure they are relevant. Then he will provide top options to the press so they can customize their favorite. For a food truck for dogs he provided: “San Francisco Food Trucks Have Gone to the Dogs… literally” and “San Francisco Food Trucks Have Gone to the Dogs, Bone Apetit!” Giving the press a story and a catchy headline can improve your chances of getting coverage.

3. Localize in a massive scale. Here Kaplan shared how you can often get national coverage if you target a story that the local press is more likely to pick up … but that can be relevant on a national scale. This may be easier for consumer brands but even for B-to-B events you may be able to make a local tie that is more likely to get industry press. I know … easier said than done, right? For our global launch of Skyline® WindScape® we were able to get some local press and then leverage that to get industry coverage, but sadly we did not make it to the Huffington Post.

4. Piggy back on timely news that is relevant to your brand. In this example Kaplan’s client was a food company looking to promote its product. This particular product is typically consumed during the holidays. By sending out a nationwide survey regarding the consumption of this particular food they were able to create a story ranking its popularity by state on a national scale. He started out pitching it to local news outlets that had an interest in a local and timely story and then let the national news outlets pick it up. While this story would not likely get coverage in the summer it was able to do so right before Thanksgiving which is typically their best selling season!

5. Test and optimize. No matter what your strategy or event make sure you have the opportunity to test on a smaller scale or at least test headlines before you launch any campaign or event theme. I know at Skyline we often test the headlines for our newsletter before we send our newsletter out to clients to see what is most relevant or what article to highlight. In addition, we often share ideas or concepts with our dealer network and trusted industry contacts ahead of time to get their take before we launch a full-scale program. You can test different headlines on Twitter and see which one is most effective in getting attention from your followers and use that to inform your decision regarding your campaign, newsletter, trade show or event theme.

Each of these lessons can be considered as you plan for any event, including trade shows. Surrounding your message in newsworthy content can be relevant when you plan your trade show or event theme or promotion. Creating a story around the message is very relevant as you create pre-show promotions and explain your company’s benefits and how they are relevant to clients. Localizing in a massive scale will be important as we attempt to leverage our local event to get nationwide or industry-wide attention. Piggybacking on what is relevant should be considered when promoting your product, event or campaign. You will want to consider what trends your clients will care about and how to tie that into what you are doing. Test and optimize. Regardless of what your story, campaign or display idea is always stop to test it with a smaller audience and refine as needed to ensure you make it as effective as possible.

Learn more about promoting your message and your event with the Using Promotions & Social Media to Get More Trade Show Visitors white paper. Click here to request your free copy and learn valuable tools to optimize your marketing strategy.


About the Author

Sofia is the Customer Engagement and Industry Relations Manager for Skyline Exhibits. An experienced marketing professional with branding, innovation and product commercialization expertise, she heads up Skyline’s marketing efforts in customer engagement, exhibitor education, industry relations and market research. Sofia has more than a decade of experience with both B2B and consumer packaged goods companies and an MBA from the University of Arizona Eller College of Management with an emphases in marketing and entrepreneurship. Sofia is fluent in Spanish having lived and studied in Latin America, and currently sits on the board of directors for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa.

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