Betting on a Star: Why Marketing and Tech Conferences Caught the Celebrity Bug

“Everyone loves Fabio.” That’s what I was told by a Stensul representative in a packed bar in Atlanta one steamy evening in May. The occasion was a party held by the New York-based email creation platform, one of countless satellite events surrounding Salesforce’s Connections 2016 conference in Atlanta. But the draw was undoubtedly the model, actor, and…I don’t know…tech ambassador?

All around town, people were talking about the man with the flowing mane. Who met him? Did you get a photo? (For my daughter, yes I did.) Not that there wasn’t competition for the crowd’s attention. Stevie Wonder was headlining the Connections Music Festival at the Georgia Dome. Congressman John Lewis, Astronaut Scott Kelly, and TV Anchor Robin Roberts had already appeared on the Connections main stage. Tech summit or not, Connections was simply star-studded.

And that’s increasingly the case. Throughout my coverage of marketing tech conferences over the past year, I’ve heard inspirational conversations with mountain climbers, NFL stars, and fashion designers. I’ve been face-to-face with Salt’n’Pepa, pushing it real good in a lounge in Las Vegas (thanks, Experian). I’ve had my photograph taken (yes, for my daughter) with stars of the US Women’s Soccer Team. I’ve seen Stevie Wonder actually serenade Salesforce’s CEO and Chairman Marc Benioff, altering the lyrics to one of his hits for the occasion. I did miss Elton John’s concert for OracleWorld 2015, but I saw Elle King sing “Xs and Os” at a Salesforce New York event before I even knew who she was.

Why have these conferences become increasingly a branch of show business? Who benefits? And in particular, what’s in it for the superstars? 

Follow the money

One answer to the latter question, of course, is money. Fees for celebrity appearances are widely published online. Salt’n’Pepa’s booking agency, for example, quotes a minimum US appearance fee of $ 40,000 to $ 74,999—a bargain compared to Stevie Wonder’s rates, which begin at $ 1 million.

But you don’t have to be a Grammy-winning artist to rake in the big bucks. Arianna Huffington, for example, will discuss her book about the need for us all to get more sleep for a minimum of $ 40,000 in the United States. I saw her do recently at a New York Sales Hacker event (although, the relevance of the topic to lead generation eluded me). A touch of Hollywood glamour? Michael Keaton’s booking agency will supply a quote on request (more about the Birdman star later). If you’d like to stage a discussion between Seth Meyers and Diane von Furstenberg—like the one I witnessed at Salesforce Connections in San Francisco last year—I guess you add the two minimum fees together (totaling: $ 190,000 to $ 375,000) and start bargaining from there.

Of course, it’s important to put those fees into context. Tens of thousands of people attend these conferences (well over 100,000 for Dreamforce), and the full cost of registration can easily top $ 1,000. Against those revenues, even a Stevie Wonder headliner starts to look affordable. Nevertheless, it’s clear that companies like Salesforce, Oracle, Adobe—and many others—are consciously seeking to bring performers and sports stars to the conference stage, and the guests are well rewarded for participating. But what’s really in it for the tech vendors paying the bill?

Why do the hosting companies care?

Look, an awful lot of people attend these events. Dreamforce effectively takes over downtown San Francisco each year. They’ve even added hotel inventory by stowing guests on cruise ships anchored in San Francisco Bay. Adobe Summit outgrew the business’s Salt Lake City home and took over two vast Las Vegas Hotels for this year’s conference. Do celebrities actually help sell these tickets?

Julie Martin, senior director for corporate events at Adobe, denied it. “The primary reason people choose to attend conferences is to come away with inspiration and information to do their job better,” she says. “While celebrities are a fun addition, we see them as icing on the cake rather than a boon for ticket sales.” Jeffrey Wilks, EVP and general manager of Experian Marketing Suite, identified company strategy as the main driver of conference content: “That said, celebrities that have a relevant message to the audience can have a positive impact on attendance.”

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has a slightly different perspective. As a nonprofit that promotes data-driven marketing, the organization isn’t concerned with promoting any particular company’s strategy. Nonetheless, its annual &THEN conference, a popular gathering for the marketing community, is still star-studded. This year’s conference, which is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles in October, will be headlined by what DMA itself describes as “all-star talent”: Kobe Bryant, the former Lakers star, will be a main stage guest while bands Sugar Ray and Third Eye Blind get the party started with a private concert.

Paul McDonnough, DMA’s VP for conferences and events, has been in the event and trade show business for some 17 years. Like Martin and Wilks, he agrees that celebrities aren’t the primary ticket drivers. “First and foremost, attendance is driven by quality of content,” he says. However, McDonnough acknowledges that celebrity content does propel incremental growth, as well as awareness and attention. Plus, it can categorize the event as a “leading experience,” he says, which may help potential conference-goers sway their managers into letting them attend. 

I asked him if an old cliché was applicable here: Is marketing, and the technology that supports it, turning into the new rock and roll?  “Absolutely,” he said, “and you’re going to see more of it as more and more celebrities become storytellers.”

How about those celebrities?

Aside from the fee, why do performers, musicians, athletes, authors, etcetera increasingly see themselves as appropriate guests, not just as entertainers, but also for the main stage at marketing and/or technology shindigs? One clear reason: Today, everyone is in tech. This doesn’t necessarily mean from a personal or biographical perspective, as was the case with Fabio:

As the son of an electronic engineer (my father designed & manufactured large conveyer systems), I have always been fascinated by technology. 

“As the son of an electronic engineer (my father designed and manufactured large conveyor systems), I have always been fascinated by technology,” the model-actor says. “So, it was a natural [fit] for me to come aboard when I got the call from Stensul.…The team is awesome and we have a lot of fun together. Who could ask for more?”

It means, rather, that for most celebrities, digital channels are a bigger platform than any real-life stage. “More and more celebrities are using technology to reach their fanbases,” said McDonnough. The primary technology is social media, of course, but personal websites and blogs remain relevant. For most of their fans, celebrities are much more available in digital space then on the playing field or at a live concert. Lindsey Hutter, SVP Communications at the DMA, had some figures from the Pittsburgh Steelers loyalty program. While one percent of fans hold season tickets, and two percent attend individual games, 98 percent follow the team remotely.

Fabio, ironically, has a limited social presence—too glamorous for Twitter, perhaps; but Kobe Bryant? Almost ten million followers, and twice as many Facebook likes. The graphic artist Erik Wahl, who I’ve watched scatter paint on behalf of more than one tech brand (it’s his version of a keynote) ranks high as a social media influencer.

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