Intercom’s Megan Sheridan on managing events at a product-led company

The 2017 Inside Intercom World Tour visited 10 cities with 12 speakers, who bared many of the most difficult lessons they've learned in the six-plus years of building Intercom.

The aim: Share many of the mistakes we learned the hard way, so that the 6,000 total attendees could avoid repeating them.

Spearheading the strategy and execution of the tour behind the scenes was Megan Sheridan, our Manager of Events. And to share why we invested so heavily in events as part of our marketing mix, how we measure their success, and the principles at play to get started, I recently hosted Megan on our podcast to hear her own lessons learned.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the chat.

Stewart Scott-Curran: Megan, welcome to the of Intercom Podcast. To set the scene, we just wrapped up the 2017 edition of the World Tour, congratulations. You’re probably ready for a holiday now.

Megan Sheridan: Thank you. I’d like to take a nap.

Stewart: Your official title is Manager of Events, which covers a fairly broad range of tasks. Can you give us a glimpse into what you do?

Megan: The obvious thing that my team does is produce events, and really our level of mastery would be in logistics more so than anything else. A large part of the role itself is about strategy and having the right roadmap, plan and tactics in place. Particularly working in a company like Intercom, which wouldn’t necessary have an in-house events team – I’m sure that you’ve felt the same about a brand design studio – it’s just a little bit out of the ordinary.

We spend a lot of our time aligning ourselves with the product team, with the recruiting team, the sales team, the brand design team and the content team. There’s a lot of collaboration that happens on that level, so strategy internally and externally is our secret sauce.

Stewart: Why do events? What does that give us that advertising or more common ways of getting in front of customers and potential customers might not?

You’re actively getting someone’s attention for a long period of time.

Megan: The difference between events and advertising is that you’re actively getting someone’s attention for a long period of time, in a space that you design and create yourself, for people that you specifically wanted to meet. You get to have your own voice for that length of time, too. So that’s a much bigger opportunity than having a billboard. Is it as measurable? Slightly. But more generally, it’s something that’s much, much more targeted – in a way, it’s risky.

Creating the Inside Intercom World Tour

Stewart: This year’s edition of the world tour could certainly be called risky. It wasn’t like your run-of-the-mill tech show. For anybody who wasn’t able to make it out, or we didn’t make it to their particular city, what kind of experience were you trying to create? What would people see when they showed up to this?

Megan: Essentially we created a theater show that had four people as a cast, passing one piece of content over to each other. It was like a one-man monologue style show. There were no slides, and there was no clicker. Instead there was artwork designed by your team behind the speakers to support what they were saying.

Everything was really about allowing people to be very present. There was a designed newspaper that had key takeaways from the show itself, like a theater program but in the tech world. We had these undefined spaces that were really big and quite dark, and we only lit areas that we wanted people to focus on. The whole thing was about allowing people to not be overstimulated, and be in control of their experience as well.

In terms of the content that people spoke about, it was a lot of honest storytelling, candid storytelling about the mistakes that they’ve made, as well as the good stuff along the way, in the past six years at Intercom. That included content that people normally don’t want to talk about, like the difficulties with people management, trying to be on a marketing team in a product-first company, things like that. Also, the bigger picture of our industry – what’s our responsibility? Is there a responsibility? How do we operate? When are we going to run out of luck, and how do we need to build for the future? The whole thing was designed from scratch. It’s something that we’re very proud of.

Stewart: It ran for six months, the production of which I know goes back much, much farther. We visited 10 cities with 12 speakers and had around 6,000 attendees in total. Those are pretty big numbers. When you go back to the very early stages of planning this thing, what were the big goals that we were trying to achieve?

Megan: There’s obviously business goals, and then there’s the personal or more creative goal that you have. A lot of the time what we’re trying to do is challenge perception or the limits of what other people have set before us and question if that’s the right way to do things. Something you’re not unfamiliar with yourself.

One is measurable, and one is completely not measurable. That’s something that event managers will never tell you because it doesn’t make us sound great, but it’s the truth. You can’t measure it all, like brand awareness necessarily. You’ve got to get out there, let people know that you exist and say hello to them. Then, there’s brand differentiation, like, “Hey we’re here, and there’s something interesting about us”, or “There’s something special that we think we have to share with you.” You can’t really measure that. More than 6,000 people came to see this thing, but what did that really do to your business? So there are less measurable goals.

Similar to a theater program, world tour attendees received a take-home newspaper summarizing the show’s key lessons.

Then there’s other things that are a little bit more measurable, like meeting and nurturing your customers. How many people did you actually get to meet out of your customers subset? There’s also things like doubling your audience. That’s a really, really powerful thing for you to do and was one of our big goals this year. We managed to up a couple of cities by 2X, which is super powerful. I’m not sure you could do that with many other functions in that quick succession of time.

How to start and how to grow

Stewart: That was this year, but our first event was just two and a half years ago in April of 2015. There were 100 people in the canteen of the Dublin office, and it was five euros a ticket. What are some of the important lessons that you learned in those early days of our events that have stuck with you?

Megan: I look back on them with so much fondness, because almost nothing has changed. Literally the same principles are still there. Are people going to have a good experience? Are we getting the right people here? Are we being as smooth as possible? Are we allowing people to not have to worry or stress about how this gets done, or what’s next, or if the TV’s working? Simple, simple things to just make sure that it’s polished so that people can be present.

None of that’s changed over the years at all. What we defined in those early days and what we stressed over at that first event is exactly the same brief, the same problems, the same points that we focus on today no matter how many people are working on it.

Stewart: How did we scale those events so fast, and why?

Megan: We scaled those events with blind ambition, to be totally honest. We didn’t even know if we could. It was a risk. There was nothing to say that we could get 700 people in a room six months later, but that’s what we did in Dublin. We decided to go for it and see what would happen. We basically doubled down on our promotional efforts and actually started thinking about how we could talk to people. Could we use Intercom? That’s the main way we actually promote events – we run campaigns with it. But that was the main thing, we just booked a dangerous venue and that was our goal. And I think once you have that it’s actually quite methodical.

You can’t tell until you start to run your own events and you’re in a room with a couple hundred people that care about what you’re saying, but you’re having an open conversation and that’s massively valuable and actually pretty priceless. It started to become pretty clear to myself, our co-founders Des and Eoghan and a couple other folks who were in the marketing team at the time that this was something special and that we should quite intently and aggressively keep moving forward.

The power of sharing your failures

Stewart: When you go along to a lot of tech events, you hear about the success stories and you hear that everything is going great. One of the things that I really loved about the world tour was that we talked a lot about failures as well, things we learned along the way and things that we did wrong as much, if not more, than the stuff that went right. What’s the thinking behind that?

Megan: No one wakes up a winner, do they? If they do I’d like to meet them, but I just don’t believe it. It’s a strange thing to put forward. It works against how humans think and act and want to react with each other. It’s also why we laugh at reality TV, because it’s so unrealistic.

But generally speaking, maybe it’s something to do with our company culture and how open we’ve been from day one about where we’ve really messed things up or where things just didn’t go well, but you realize that the most interesting and stressful and the biggest growth periods that you’re going to experience are all around mistakes or unexpected things happening. All of them, and when you’re in a company that changes so quickly, you can’t ignore those things.

Co-founder Des Traynor shares his lessons learned in people management.

So if you’re going to get on a stage and speak to people, I think you owe it to them, or even to yourselves, to do something a little bit more valuable than to pretend that everything’s just dandy. I actually think it’s a respect thing on many levels.

This is kind of related, but recently your team supported our booth at DreamForce, and the whole theme of that design was about recognizing people being human. There were posters reading, “I know you’re tired” or “I know it’s Day Four and you’re overwhelmed,” and people proactively interacted with us because of that.

Events 101: The what, why and how

Stewart: We talked a little bit about what measuring success looks like, and how it can be difficult to lock down on the ROIs. How did we convince anybody to do this stuff? And for someone who’s thinking about starting to put on events, how should they go about planning for that and getting the internal support that they need?

Megan: I don’t think it’s easy to do that; it’s probably the hardest thing that I do every 12 months, when I’m trying to get a budget for this. When we started it was much more organic, and that’s where we were lucky. I didn’t have to answer those difficult questions or really pitch these things to people. These days, I genuinely have to pitch to finance and analytics, then I pitch to Des and Eoghan, then I’ll pitch to you about the brand design direction, then I will pitch to any speaker that I really want to take part in this thing, then I’ll pitch to content.

Pull from your values, your authenticity and what you already have in the company.

There are so many different pitches on so many different energy levels with so many different goals in mind, it actually takes a couple of months to genuinely seal the deal. But earlier on, when you’re trying to think about how to convince people to do it, I actually think the healthiest thing to do is to look at it as, “What’s the risk genuinely at play by us not doing this? I bet it’s much, much bigger than the risk of us actually doing this.”

When you’re starting out, similar to what I was saying earlier about how the principles never change, the way that you can put on an event and focus on goals never changes either. You can put a very small amount of money into this and pull from your values, your authenticity and what you already have in the company. You’ve got smart people, you’ve got thought leadership, you’ve got good values, you’ve got an interesting culture, and you’ve got an office somewhere. You’ve got things to work with. The real buy-in at that stage is emotional, and making sure that people show up and feel the difference. You can then do some simple feedback on how it actually went and who showed up.

Stewart: What are the key things to consider when you’re starting to actually plan out these events? There’s obviously a bunch of different variables, like venue choice, the cities that you go to, the type of content. How do you actually start to put all of those things together in a package that makes sense?

Megan: The first thing is to have a reason to do it, a concept. The concept is the first thing, actually, really. It’s like asking, “What do we have to say? How do we want to say it?” The first document that was ever put together for the world tour was this one-line blurb: failures and successes of an unconventional product company. That’s what we wanted to put out there. How do we want to do it? Let’s remove all the things that we don’t like about events. Let’s take away slides and clickers, let’s take away emcees, let’s cue everything with lights, let’s work directly with the brand design team, let’s really create something from scratch, and let’s use venues that most people probably wouldn’t be excited to use because there’s nothing in them.

Rather than using traditional theaters or conference centers, world tour venues were created from within unconventional, empty spaces.

Then you start to think about where you should go. The tour started making sense for us a long time ago. We didn’t feel like we were in a position where people were going to travel to come and see us, and why should they? We’re still a baby company in many different ways. So we want to go somewhere, how do we decide where we’re going to go? We do specifically look to create net new annual recurring revenue (ARR) also. So it is a revenue thing, on a very small level, as much as it is about seeing our customers. So we’ll go to cities that are known, growing tech hubs, we’ll go to cities where we have a lot of customers because we want to meet them, and we’ll go to cities where we have a lot of users that don’t yet pay us, so that we can meet them too. You’re killing about four birds with one stone by doing that, and strategically that’s how we pull it together. So A, concept, B, clear goals, and then C, go to the people.

Stewart: What are the promotional channels that you’re leveraging to try and get the word out to these people. How do you make sure you’re reaching the right types of folks?

Megan: There’s the old-school way and then there’s the new-school way. I guess I’m calling Intercom new-school, but we use Intercom for probably 85-90% of our promotion. We’ll use the messenger on the event’s website or the tour website, and then we’ll actually use auto messages in each city also. Then we’ll use manual messages for anyone that’s ever been to an event before. It’s really important from day one that we’re still talking to and building on the same small 100 people that we had in that room in Dublin. It’s important to build your events database.

We use social media, we do paid advertising as well, and then we do old-school things like we posting out hard copies of posters to different incubators and coworking spaces around the world. You’d be surprised how much they’re willing to help you out. We also make sure that we have promotion up on any event website where they do listings. So there’s a couple of different things that you can do, but really the main driver is using our own Intercom product.

Why live events are an evolving product

Stewart: With the launch of a new product, you get one chance to ship it. You don’t really get another chance to make a first impression. This world tour was a little bit different because we were definitely rethinking and reshaping it as we went through. Was that a really conscious process, or was it more in reaction to just seeing improvements that you could make?

Megan: A little bit of both. When we spoke last October, it was about creating something so bare that we were completely in control. I always feel that with events, or anything live, even live launches, not a lot of things are under your control, and that’s something that bothers me. I really thought it would be an interesting project because it goes on for so long, to be able to build and change and swap things out.

That happened more than I thought it would, and I think you’ll agree it was a really positive thing to do, and possibly something that we should always put in place to create a more forgiving environment. The first show that we did is something that I’m very proud of. The last show that we did was very different, but it stuck to the same concept and it’s something that I think we can be really, really proud of as well.

The quality of speakers and content is something that needs to be consistent.

There’s some things that you can afford to swap out, but some things you can’t. The quality of speakers and content is something that needs to be consistent. The creative spaces in all of this is down to experience and design. You get a bit of leverage with that kind of stuff.

After every show there was some feedback or changes, and we couldn’t always make changes in time for different shows. We had to begin prioritizing things in different ways and and break it down as separate projects. From your point of view, was that something that was useful for your team?

Stewart: It’s somewhat of an abstract concept that you’re going to put on this show in a physical space. We design it really in the same way as a lot of other things that we do, but it’s hard to really visualize how it comes to life when there’s actually people in the space and lights and music and those types of things. How we were thinking about it before the first event definitely evolved as we moved through and we started to realize some opportunities that we didn’t necessarily think of at the beginning.

World tour attendees experiment with a sensitive screen designed by the Intercom Brand Design Studio.

Megan: That’s something interesting that I definitely learned. In an events role you’re definitely a bridge between many, many functions and a marketing team. And it’s actually your job to communicate and manage that expectation with people, first and foremost. A lot of times there’s a misunderstanding between the breakdown of production and then brand design work. And that was definitely a challenge for us to pull that together. There’s such a difference between stepping behind something that’s on a screen and being in a space with energy and people and unpredictability.

Lessons learned running events at scale

Stewart: What are the lessons that you learned from Lessons Learned?

Megan: At this stage it’s the worst pun ever, there’s so many lessons learned from Lessons Learned. I learned that when you design something that should feel simple, it will never be very simple. I learned that ambition is something that you should probably budget for a little bit more. Maybe it’s just a personal thing, but there’s such a temptation when you have an opportunity to push things that you expect a whole team of 35 people in your company to go with you, which isn’t realistic all of the time. I think this tour in many ways is the epitome of close to too ambitious.

Stewart: Here’s what I really want to know: there must have been a low point, the point where you were just like “What am I doing?” And conversely, there was surely a really high point as well. What was going on at those two points in time?

Megan: This is going to sound terrible, but my lowest point in the tour was the day after the first show, and the few days towards that. Three minutes into the first show, I needed to leave the building basically. It’s a lot to come together, and if it’s not working, it’s really not working. Our design for this thing was so simple that if anything is off, it’s a total crash-and-burn, which I don’t really advise anybody to do so much. Maybe that’s one of my lessons learned as well. But it was definitely after the first show. We just didn’t have our shit together, to be completely honest.

All of the different functions that we’d been collaborating with didn’t meet in the middle, it was messy, it was difficult, and it’s the first time we realized we were just doing a crazy production. It’s a live broadcast with 35 people running the show while there’s a speaker onstage, everything came together, you spend all your time pitching and then you get people on a stage. Everyone’s sitting there waiting for this thing to happen and it’s a total mess. So that was a real low point, and it took a while to get out of that. We were in Berlin three days later, and we needed to fix everything.

So that was a low point. It can be tough, it can be draining, it can be tiring. And we’d been on tour the previous year, so it really felt, including for the film crew and everybody, like we’ve been doing this thing for two years.

The high point was in San Francisco when you see like 950 people in a room, when a year ago you were struggling to get 450 people in a room, and we’re at a point where we’re really proud of this thing. Everyone’s really proud of the production they’re about to put forward, and it ran really smoothly. It was at that point we saw what we planned to do literally a year before that, and that’s a fantastic moment to be lucky enough to actually get. Mostly in events, and I think just generally speaking, you’re not going to get to see that happen, so it’s a really crazy thing to see it and experience it and see other people experiencing it. That’s such a high to witness.

A subset of the Inside Intercom World Tour crew following the close of our San Francisco show.

Stewart: So what’s next for events at Intercom?

Megan: I think events are going to take a step back and maybe grow or build from the bottom-up a little bit more. I don’t think it’s normal to go on tour every year, but I definitely think there’s some fun things that we can rethink and redesign and challenge as well. I’d love for us to start thinking about community an awful lot more, that’s going to be a fun one for you and me to work on. And just get a little bit more down to the ground, and a little bit smaller with things. You can’t keep putting 1,000 people in a room, give them a crazy light show and expect things to go well, so paring it back and actually going a little bit back to our older days is going to be really nice. There’s a power in being kind of DIY and guerrilla about things, and I’m really hungry for us to do that.

Stewart: It’s been a pleasure to work together on this, and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

Megan: Thank you so much, Stewart. It’s been a pleasure.

If you’re excited by what and how we’re building at Intercom, we’d love to chat about roles we have open. We’re hiring across all of our teams!