A lightly edited transcript of the episode follows.

Scott Tran

I’m super curious to hear what’s going on with SaaStr, just how you’ve handled the pandemic and how that shifted things for you?

Bryan Elsesser

Yeah, it’s a good question. 

What’s been crazy, in 12 years of doing this, we’ve been known for our flagship SaaStr annual event, which took place every year in the San Francisco Bay every year area 50,000 people showing up like the biggest and best of big thought leaders. COVID was hard, man. During COVID we lost the majority of our business overnight. Scary times. The company had to really take some measures to understand; what do we do now? How do we shift?

A few things happened for SaaStr first, is the COVID actually allowed us to take pause and take a look at our community.

And it allowed us to really carve in and see, wow, we have these niches that seemed to predominantly engage with us, that there are these opportunities for different subset communities and that we could cater to them in a really unique way. Additionally, it gave us the opportunity to. Think about our content standard and how we continue to produce that really high content bar while at the same time produce an event that people are going to value and piecing those two together.

So what we did is over the past year ,we did five digital events that were really curated. And built for specific genres and they were so successful. It actually increased our reach. We hit over 500,000 people engage with our events over the past year, which is crazy.

And so now we’re thinking about the future here and I think we’re going to be back in person in September, which you know, knock on wood.

Scott Tran

So I want to touch on that but also I want to talk about digital events. What makes them different from a zoom meeting? 

Bryan Elsesser

I think when we first started COVID there was a webinar every day. So at first they were nice. Cause it was like, Ooh, we can still do business. And we all wanted to hold on to that, but then it became annoying. So viewership dropped. So we didn’t want to be another webinar. We wanted the SaaStr conference to maintain the integrity it’s had for over a decade. And what we did is we said, well, we first experimented with the idea of digital booths. How did that go? No, it didn’t go right?It doesn’t work.

So we’re like, all right people don’t want that. What do they want? They want to be able to speak. They want to be able to speak about their topic and about leadership.

Well, first off the biggest thing that came out of the COVID when it comes to branding and brands, trying to figure out what to do is they started thinking about thought leadership as the way in which they engage their community and the community they engage with their brand. That was cool. I actually love that. I think it was a really smart movement. But SaaStr took it a step further. And we’ve always had an enormous network of insanely talented VCs and C-suite members. And so we were like what if they were the thought leaders?

What if they were driving the conversations? And that’s what we did and that, so we’re not just another zoom call. Our conferences are thought leadership pieces from the unicorns, from the people that are doing this every day that are growing their business to a hundred million dollars and beyond and recurring revenue. And we become that thought leadership piece, that baseline for success, which we’ve been trying to be in and have had some, you know, very, as long as we’ve been around.

Scott Tran

And so you’ve mentioned that you’re thinking to be in person in September?

Bryan Elsesser

Yeah. So every day I wake up I go outside. I started doing jumping jacks and calisthenics and to try to serve whatever spiritual energies in my yard to maybe make it happen that in-person events will happen. Put in a rain dance there.

I don’t know if it’ll work, but spitting over my shoulder every five seconds. It’s we, yeah we are going to be in person in September in some way, shape or form. We’re going to make every effort to do it. But the idea is that we’re going to do it safely and we will couple it.

So we’re thinking at least on having some sort of digital offering as well for the brands that need that. But we’ve gotten a lot of response from brands that they want to be in person. This is where they wanna be.

Scott Tran

Right. So will it be a hybrid event or would the digital things be completely separate?

Bryan Elsesser

I think we did a hybrid event, we would probably dilute our audience. So it would be, if you’re trying to have people that are in person, try something digital what does that even mean? How does that work? No one’s ever done it yet. 

And this is all hypothetical, still, like nothing’s been solidified. But if I could imagine what this could look like if we had some sort of digital component or day for the people that can’t be in person. And then what if we then just drove the regular day? Of in-person, right. And maybe simulcasting some of the big talks into our network. So we’re trying to just play with the format, nothing’s there yet. All we know is that where you want to get back in person. Cause that’s where everyone wants to be.

Scott Tran

Yeah, that’s the thing that I’ve seen, there is still a lot of demand for in-person. People are just  waiting. It almost feels like people are waiting for other people to do it first. They want to do it, but they don’t necessarily want to be the first ones to do it. And so I know that in person will come back, right. It’s just a matter of when and that’s the thing, it feels as a conference organizer, it feels really a bit of making a bet, right? Where things will be in September and just where the country is going to be and if SaaStr draws an international audience, which I’m pretty sure it does. 

Bryan Elsesser

The reality is that’s where the digital audience will probably make somewhat sense of having something digital. Europe is still in a very strict lockdown for the most part. And whereas we see in the States, some areas opening and our European friends aren’t as lucky yet.

But we serve everyone. We’ll figure it out in a way that contributes to that audience. 

Scott Tran

Yeah. Cause  like I said, a lot of us want to go, but few of us want to be first.

Bryan Elsesser

I think honestly, there’s a way to do something safe and safety matters. And, but at the same time, like community matters, right. And protect your community, protect the safety. If you can check those boxes, it should work out. And I think that to anyone listening, thinking about, should I go to an in-person event?

Look, there’s word on the street that New York is going to open up their vaccines and another three or four weeks to everyone. Well, wow. That’s what opens up a lot of opportunities.

So to think of September, October, what the world is going to look like, I’m very confident and I’m optimistic. And so I think that we have a great opportunity ahead of us to see the change and come back to reality and maybe share a cocktail with a colleague. 

Scott Tran

I want to go back to the virtual events for a bit where with the virtual events, what platforms were you using? Did you charge for them? Cause I guess the whole operational side of it is in some ways similar, but also in many ways different than an in-person.

Bryan Elsesser

Yeah. It’s funny, you have to pick and choose your monetization. The idea for us, we wanted to keep the content available to our community. That was really important to us. And in fact, so much so that we started really embracing our live stream on Jason’s Twitter feed, on our YouTube channel. Jason alone gets over 500,000 followers on his Twitter feed, right? That’s crazy. The reach there is nuts. And then when you simulcast there, what happens is you have 20, 30, 40, 60, 80,000 people watching a single event. That’s not something that happens in person, right? That’s crazy. So that’s exciting. We want that value added to our community.

The second side is you have 20,000 people on our YouTube channels. when you couple the platforms exciting things happen. So what we’ve decided though is, whereas we make the content open our networking side, which is really valuable, right?

If you think about the people that attend SaaStr, you’re talking about the C-suite VP level. We’re talking about venture capitalists. We have so many really interesting people. You want to network with these people.

Okay, now we talk about charges. And occasionally there’s a VIP only session or something of that, but that’s not the norm, right? That’s outside of it. The second piece, I think, to platforms. So we try to combine a few of them. But I actually don’t think we’ve really figured out yet exactly the best ones. When I say that, I think it’s because we’re using a few different platforms to try to solve a bunch of different needs.

And that’s for instance like Swapcard was a platform that we’ve used to go and try to figure out how to have an onsite virtual conference. But we also wanted to have the networking piece, so that component had to be facilitated through another service. And then we had to have a registration site. So that was facilitated elsewhere.

So there’s still like conferences have evolved, but the software to get us there gonna be kept up.

Scott Tran

Especially for something that wasn’t that mainstream, right? Like two years ago. It wasn’t mainstream. I remember using them two years ago and even a year ago. And they were still in their infant stages of development. And yet boom, 400 million bucks, like, holy goodness. What next year is gonna look like for them. 

Yeah. So the last thing I wanted to chat with you about was your content and kind of the programs that you built out from there. Because I took a look at the sponsorship opportunities, and there’s a lot of content. Kind of opportunities in that deck more so than I would have guessed was there like a year ago when things were in person.

Ijust wanted to hear how did that come together and how it’s going?

Bryan Elsesser

When you were to sponsor us in person like the speaking and the sponsorship was a separation of church and state, right? Like, they were not together. They were handled by two different teams. You were sponsoring, you were getting a booth, you were engaging with your community hands-on. In digital, that’s where we originally had said okay, well, we’ll do the digital booth, but none of it works. We had to evolve and what the sponsorship becomes is that speaking opportunity, like the one thing that people valued of SaaStr, and maybe this is advice for any brand out there thinking about their events. But the one thing that was valuable about SaaStr is people want to speak in the SaaStr stage. They always will. We’re the largest community for SaaS B2B. And putting your brand in front of that community has tremendous value, huge outcomes, big value. Right? So for us, we said, okay, well, let’s make that the sponsorship and that’s the sponsorship and let we still have the ability for you to go be a speaker.

You can still apply. But for the most part, like the way you guarantee your speaking session is through that sponsorship. And it’s so valuable, right. That, we’re driving thousands of leads for every session. It’s for every piece of content that’s coming out of that session.

And then we do the long tail of it forever. We’ll capture that, hold it, curate it and give the long tail back. When it comes to being an extremely valuable asset that a company can reuse and distribute.

Scott Tran

Gotcha. And then does that ties into speaking on the stage, but also saw opportunities for creating written content or sponsoring the podcast or..?

Bryan Elsesser

Yeah. So outside of our events, sponsorships, we do a huge amount of media part of building this brand back in 2014 when they started the podcast. Today the SaaStr podcast has over 150,000 downloads a month. Right. That’s crazy. When our newsletters have hundreds of thousands of impressions every single month. What we have are these brand assets.

And so you have the ability to place your brand through our different content and make it so that you’re being a part of the story. And so best-in-class brands that are doing events, couple it with media, for like a one-two punch to make it so that they are striving their brand story. From beginning to end. And that’s been very efficient.

Scott Tran

And so like it all makes sense, right.

How easy was it for brands to get on board with these new ways to work.?

Bryan Elsesser

You have believers and non-believers, there’s always going to be the marketer in real life. There’s always the marketer that is willing to try new things. There’s always the marketer or the brand that says we still have to do something. We still have to engage in our audience.

I remember working at Aircall and having a conversation with Colin Cadmus and he had once said to me, to be at SaaStr is to exist in SaaS. And I thought that was the most arrogant thing to be said about a company. And then I really got to know SaaStr, I was like, “Oh, I get it.” There’s an element of people that want to be part of something. They still want to continue the conversation. You can’t have two or three years of just nothing and then expect to have something later. So people are continuing their conversations. Just they have to stay top of mind somewhere.

And just because your customer isn’t meeting with you in person, it doesn’t mean that they’re not devouring content every single day. Cause they are.

Scott Tran

Right. Cause, they’re still there doing their thing. They still have their needs and you might be able to help them.

Bryan Elsesser

Our online community has grown at 200% year over year. So people want more content. That’s what they’re devouring right now while they’re in lockdown and hiding in their closet.

Scott Tran

Well, so for all the marketers out there, right. Did you feel like they self-select themselves, or do you feel like there’s a part where you’re trying to educate people?

Bryan Elsesser

We always try to educate that’s for sure. I think education is a huge piece. There’s a lot of disbelief still in the digital side. But then there’s also a lot of believers in the digital side. So that’s where I believe. I’ve kind of carved it up pretty simply into believers and non-believers like, it’s like they’re either in it, or they’re not.

But there is an ability for us to tell the story. Some workers don’t want to hear it though. And they have the way they’ve been conducting business 15, 20, 30, 40 years for them to try to teach them something new is like, that’s not going to happen. There’s a mix, but there’s enough of a mix to make it interesting. And to keep it exciting and to keep me employed.

Scott Tran

Very cool. Well, thank you so much. Thank you for making time to chat. It’s always great to catch up with you.

And so where can our audience find out more about you?

Bryan Elsesser

Thank you. For those that want to engage with me or anything that I can help with, I am religiously on LinkedIn to a point where it’s at a detriment to possibly my marriage. Just kidding, honey. If you’re listening to this, I’m totally kidding. I love you.

Go on to LinkedIn. Look me up. Bryan Elsesser. But if you just put SaaStr, you’ll find me. 

Thanks so much for having me today. I really appreciate it. And I really love your community, so this was great.

 

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