What’s In Your Event Tech Stack? Featuring Keith Johnston

In our continuing quest to pester event experts about where technology is taking the industry, we tracked down Keith Johnston, managing partner of i3 Events and publisher of the PlannerWire blog. With more than 20 years under his belt working as both a planner and supplier, Keith now helps small to medium-sized associations do “a lot with a little” when it comes to their meetings and events. 

Known for telling it like it is when talking about how technology is impacting the industry, in this issue of “What’s In Your Event Tech Stack” he explains why planners are struggling with tech adoption, talks about his dream event tech stack, and offers tips and tricks galore. Here’s what he had to say.


About Keith Johnston

  • Title: Managing Partner of i3 Events and Publisher of PlannerWire blog
  • Contact him: Keith@i3events.com
  • Specialty: Helping small to medium associations plan events for 500 and 10,000 attendees
  • Headquarters: Chicago
  • Employees: 7
  • Industry: Association Event Planning
  • Years in business: 20+
  • Clients include: AVMA, American Osteopathic Association, Angion Biomedics and Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

Let’s talk tech

Team Attendify: I’m going to cut straight to the chase. Why is technology such a big consideration for today’s event professional?

Keith Johnston: There has always been a problem in our industry with technology — we’ve never been on the forefront of adopting them. I remember when online registration came out, and people were going from fax to online registration. The association world primarily went kicking and screaming. They thought their members were never going to accept this new-fangled thing. So we’ve always been slow to adopt technology, and I think as an industry it hurts us.

Team Attendify: How so?

Keith Johnston: Because technology gives us insight into our intended behaviors we’ve never had before. And now that it’s getting so inexpensive, it’s easy to learn about your attendees and what type of experience is going to make them happy. In years past, before tech was already boiled into everything we do, you kind of had to guess what attendees like. There was anecdotal evidence. For instance, you could see how many people went into a session room. But if you had somebody who came late to a session, you got the wrong numbers. Now there are technologies that allow us to track what our attendees are doing online, including what they’re clicking, what emails they’re opening, where they are walking through a conference hall — all the way down tow their stopping at a single exhibit. It’s time that we stop fighting, and actually roll with technology.

Keith Johnston of PlannerWire talks about event tech stacks

Build your dream event tech stack

Team Attendify: One of the biggest challenges associations come across with event technology is budgetary constraints. With that in mind, what would be the ultimate event tech stack for a small to medium-sized association? Let’s break it down into the different stages of the event journey.

Keith Johnston: For the event planning stage, one of the greatest tools we’ve been working with is Smartsheet. Actually, I’m going to mention Smartsheet throughout the entire journey, before, during and after. It’s a tool that allows you take take all of your event data and put it into an Excel-like format.

But you can use it in ways you can’t use Excel. So for example you can see kanban boards and calendar views, and you can create web forms that allow you to pull data into the tool. It’s cool, because planners’ attendee information and content marketing calendars can all be in there. And because it’s so similar to Excel, planners and other stakeholders can jump right into it without a big learning curve! It’s also got a mobile app, so planners don’t have to be tethered to their computer. Asana and Trello are great, but many associations have bare-bones budgets, and no time to learn to use these types of tools. 

Once planners are comfortable with Smartsheet, they feel more comfortable diving into other tools. It’s not a shock to the system. It’s a bridge to other technology.

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Team Attendify: It also has integrations into a number of Martech-based platforms, like Tableau. I like that it’s bridging the gap between event marketing and digital marketing. Speaking of which, what should an association be looking for in terms of website or web chat technology for their pre-event marketing?

Keith Johnston: When it comes to websites, there’s no better platform for 90 percent of organizations than WordPress. First of all, it’s easy to use. And if you want to hire someone to build a WordPress site for you, WordPress developers are a dime a dozen, so it’s not expensive.

Once your site is developed, it’s easy to go in and edit it. I can show anyone how to use the backend of WordPress in 20 minutes. 

Keith Johnston of PlannerWire talks about event tech stacks

Team Attendify: What other tools do you like to use as part of your pre-event stack?

Keith Johnston: Everyone should be using Canva, which is basically Photoshop for dummies. By far it’s the best and easiest tool for doing graphics work. If you’ve got your conference logo, you can create all kinds of graphics, including social media banners. They’ve got all the templates already set up. You can design menus, signage, any printed materials you need. And that’s great for brand consistency, because your Canva account can be shared between your event and marketing teams.

Team Attendify: Awesome. What do you recommend for CRM and marketing automation solutions?

Keith Johnston: So I’ve got two choices there. Number one is Zoho. For the cost you just can’t beat it. But you have to get past a little confusion, because Zoho is a lot of things. It’s not only a CRM; they’ve also got a solution that’s very similar to Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Then there is also Zero BS CRM. It’s a tool that’s built right into WordPress and can help with your marketing automation. It’s got all kinds of integrations, and I think it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. We’re testing it on a client who has agreed to be a guinea pig. They’re always great sports, and the tool is incredibly inexpensive.

The biggest problem I have with some of these tools is that they were created by people who aren’t in associations or events. Event Espresso is a perfect example of that. It’s a registration plug-in for WordPress. It’s huge, and so many people use it. But because it wasn’t created by event planners, they never figured attendees might want to change their minds about what they’ve registered for once they’re done. It wasn’t designed that way.

Keith Johnston of PlannerWire talks about event tech stacks

Team Attendify: What other online registration tools do you like?

Keith Johnston: I know Attendify has just taken their Event Registration tool to the next level by offering Session Registration. And, to be totally objective, another great tool for associations, is RegFox. This isn’t the tool for some of my more well-funded medium or larger associations, but it’s great for budget-conscious associations.

Team Attendify: Competition! We like the challenge. What else?

Keith Johnston: For collecting abstracts, calls for speakers, or having sponsors pay for their sponsorships or exhibitors choose booth spaces, there’s a great plug-in for WordPress called Gravity Forms. We connect to Gravity forms though Zapier, which is a tool that helps you integrate different platforms. And then, BOOM, all that information goes into SmartSheet. So when a potential speaker fills out the web form with their proposal, they get a bounce back email that tells them what their next steps are going to be. Their information goes into SmartSheet, and from there the approval committees can go in and review it. And then for exhibitors…I’m going to give away one of my trade secrets…

Team Attendify: Alright!

Keith Johnston: There’s this plug-in called Draw Attention Pro. It allows you to do what the big boys do. You can put your exhibit floor plan into your website. Potential exhibitors can hover over a booth, see if it’s available, and then click through to a Gravity form, which pre-populates with the booth they want. They fill out all the information and hit submit. Zapier kicks in and sends the information to SmartSheet, where planners can keep track of all the exhibitors. There’s still manual intervention involved because the booth space they’ve chosen isn’t automatically removed. But you’re spending $2k instead of $20-$50k for the same functionality.

Keith Johnston of PlannerWire talks about event tech stacks

Team Attendify: There’s always a trade-off. It’s a matter of deciding if free, freemium or a lower price point is really the best option for you. Okay, when it comes to engagement, what are the technologies that really make your attendee experience pop?

Keith Johnston: When it comes to mobile event apps, 95 percent of our clients use Attendify. The price point is perfect and the functionality is spectacular. In fact, I had a client who went out to bid event apps, and needed something complex. I spoke to another event app provider and they didn’t do half of what Attendify does, but were five times what it costs. You can of course develop your own mobile event app. There are even tools out there that allow you to create mobile apps from WordPress websites. But when we looked into everything that went into it, we decided Attendify was the way to go.

Know what you want from your data

Team Attendify: What about event analytics? What are the core components of the event tech stack there?

Keith Johnston: This is actually the one part where I get bogged down; I’m always happy to tell people when I don’t have the perfect answers. We are starting to rely on Smartsheet for warehousing data quite a bit. And we have clients who use Tableau. It has nice charts and graphs, and a lot of really cool features. But on the non-technical side, first you have to figure out what you want to learn from your data. Then you can adjust and find the right tool to analyze the data. 

Team Attendify: I love that. It’s all about establishing your metrics first. If you don’t know what your KPIs are, how do you know what data to look at? Alright, let’s talk about post-event. You’ve got your data, and the event is over. What technology are you going to use to keep the experience alive now that everyone has gone home?

Keith Johnston: Every event tells a story, and that story doesn’t have to end after three days. We try to get our clients to use the content they’ve captured during the event, chop it up, and use it the other 362 days of the year. That means going full-circle with a lot of the technology in their stack. They can use Canva to create wonderful blog images from sessions. They can put those sessions into a podcast; Anchor is a great tool for that. They can interview an attendee and get a case study to put on their website using WordPress. And I keep telling everyone that at events you already have a video studio in your pocket — the average iPhone or Samsung phone is shooting in HD, 4k. 

Team Attendify: You’re talking about content hacking!

Keith Johnston: There’s a great tool called Missinglettr. It’s spectacular and so cheap. Once you publish your blog post, Missinglettr finds it automatically via an RSS feed and creates 365 days’ worth of social posts from it. That tool is a game-changer for organizations that have really small marketing departments.

Avoid these event tech stack mistakes

Team Attendify: What are some pitfalls to avoid when you’re considering your event tech stack?

Keith Johnston: The biggest thing is shiny object syndrome — jumping from tool to tool. Pick a direction, and stay the course long enough until you get the chance to really understand the solution.

And a word of warning: If you’re looking at a tool online, and they don’t tell you what it costs on their website, that tool is probably too rich for your blood. Event apps are a prime example. You go to half the event app websites out there, and they won’t tell you want they cost. That should be a big red flag. Most tools should either have the pricing listed or offer a free trial. Go ahead, try things out!

Finally, if you make a switch to a platform, make everyone switch. I’ll give you a quick example with Slack, which we use as part of our event tech stack. As a company, we decided we were moving to Slack. On Friday at 5 p.m. the week before, I sent out an email explaining that it would be the last internal email we send. On Monday morning, we only use Slack. You have to force people to do what you want them to do.

Keith Johnston of PlannerWire talks about event tech stacks

The future of event tech

Team Attendify: Last question: Where is event tech going?

Keith Johnston: Well first I’ll tell you where it isn’t going, and then I’ll tell you where it is. There’s been a lot of hype about virtual reality (VR). It’s never going to fly, at least until they have the Star Trek holodeck at events. Who’s going to go to an event and put on a headset? It just doesn’t make any sense.

One of the biggest things I see impacting event technology is Augmented Reality (AR). AR differs from VR in that it’s basically pointing your phone at something and having something else happen. We tested this with one of our clients with signage outside of session rooms. When attendees held up their phones to the sign using an app, it would take them to a YouTube video of the speaker who was going to be presenting next. You can also use it to navigate event maps: Just hold your phone over a map and it can walk you right to a particular booth. I think that’s going to be a much bigger player in the event space than virtual reality.

When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), it’s just going to make everyone’s life in the industry easier, but only if you collect the right data from the attendee when you first come into contact with them. If you capture the right data points, including attendee likes and dislikes, AI is going to help attendees more effectively choose sessions and meet the right people. And that’s a really big deal.

Team Attendify: Keith, thank you so much for an amazing chat!

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