How to Draw a Crowd in 2017: Start With Unlikely Unions

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Trip Hunter, CEO of the fledgling Silicon Valley Comic Con, tells Renegade CEO Neisser that print advertising still works.
Trip Hunter, CEO of the fledgling Silicon Valley Comic Con, tells Renegade CEO Neisser that print advertising still works. Credit: Silicon Valley Comic-Con

Pulling off a first-of-its-kind event -- with more than 60,000 attendees -- is not an easy feat. Without a legacy to generate momentum, the marketing department is almost entirely responsible for getting bodies into the room. Attracting a crowd is, however, made a little easier when the event is qualified with the tagline: "created by Steve Wozniak and friends."

That's not to diminish the role of Trip Hunter, CEO of Silicon Valley Comic Con, in making the inaugural tech and pop culture conference a success in 2016, and then doing it again in 2017. Hunter and his team filled out the latest event with an enviable roster of star power across film, technology and -- in more literal terms -- space, with the participation of astronaut Buzz Aldrin and other notable NASA names. Read on as Hunter shares his experience and ingenious insights for fellow event-marketers.

Gathering the heroes
What differentiates Silicon Valley Comic Con from other "cons" is its union of pop culture and tech. While the cast of Star Trek and other sci-fi actors earn their place on the marquee, so too do the world's prominent scientists and, well, notable geeks. Sharing the stage at the April 21-23 event was NASA's Tracy Drain, chief systems engineer on the Juno mission to Jupiter; Jill Tarter, who inspired Jodie Foster's role in "Contact"; Jessica Coon, the chief language consultant in the more recent "Arrival"; Richard Garriott, one of the first civilians to spend a week on the International Space Station; and many more.

For Hunter, building a roster of talent involved more than just liaising with Hollywood agents. Earning these professionals' interest required creativity and persistence. "They're putting their reputations on the line for an event that you could say is probably not completely proven," Hunter says. "I think Steve Wozniak gave us a lot of credibility, and then it was up to the team to deliver on that credibility and to deliver on a brand experience that they anticipated we would deliver on."

Hunter and Wozniak weren't the only ones interested in this union of bright minds. Problem-solving powerhouse X-Prize saw an opportunity in SVCC to not only drive awareness but also execute on its mission. The organization gathered a closed panel of 20 scientists, technologists, writers and actors to discuss some of their larger goals. "They had a two-hour think tank, presenting some of these challenges and getting these people to respond with what they could do to help solve these problems," Hunter says. "That is something that's interesting, because it will extend beyond our event and hopefully reap benefits down the road, outside of Silicon Valley Comic Con."

Not-so-new marketing frontiers
When it came time to market the event, Hunter learned several valuable lessons. "Print still works, which I was surprised about!" he says. His team ran a half-page print ad in the San Jose Mercury News every other week leading up to the con. "Every time that ad ran, our ticket sales doubled on that day. It was without fail."

Outdoor, too, factored in to their second-year success. "We had a lot of people through social that would say, 'Hey I saw your new billboard today, and you guys must be huge,'" he says. "It just gives this impression of being a very, very large local event when you're 30 miles from San Jose and you see a billboard for the Silicon Valley Comic Con."

Print and outdoor spurred ticket sales, but they likely worked so well because main campaign drivers -- social media and PR -- were aided by Wozniak's involvement. "Last year, we generated almost three billion PR impressions leading up to the event, which is a phenomenal number," Hunter says. "I think one of the benefits of our event is there aren't many other companies that have somebody like Woz associated with the brand."

With a comic con, news about the event also generates itself -- a welcome absence of a major marketing challenge with B2B events. As Hunter puts it: "Here, you sign up a new guest, or anything that you do is newsworthy to someone. So you can continually have this pulse of content that people find interesting and compelling."

To infinity and beyond?
Despite its repeat success, Silicon Valley Comic Con is a nascent event. Ticket sales climbed from 62,000 to 67,000 in the second year, and the physical boundaries have expanded with encouragement from the city of San Jose. Still, Hunter reports that Wozniak and the team are focused on building a sustainable framework for growth, with a third-year goal of 80,000 attendees.

"We don't really want to grow much beyond that," Hunter says. "Our goal is to be the best, not the biggest. We wanted to build something that was long-term and something that San Jose and Silicon Valley felt they could own. And I think we've done a pretty good job of doing that."

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