About this episode:
Though better known for its colorful costumes and enthusiastic crowds, the fifth annual Salt Lake Comic Con is also a prime example of audience engagement and nimble marketing done right. Bryan Brandenburg, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Salt Lake Comic Con, talks about where the popular convention has come from, where it’s going, and how really listening to an audience can help propel an organization or event higher and higher.
[The following has been edited for grammar and clarity.]
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. This is the fifth annual Salt Lake Comic Con. It’s the organization’s ninth event since it started in 2013. Here to talk to me about the event and some of the lessons learned so far is Bryan Brandenburg [chief marketing officer and co-founder of Salt Lake Comic Con].
Bryan Brandenburg: Hi Lisa, great to be on your show again.
Lisa Christensen: Well thank you for letting me talk to you. So just in general, tell me about this event. You have said that you believe this is the best event yet. Tell me why you believe that.
Bryan Brandenburg: I think it’s one of the most organized and fine tuned events that we’ve ever done. We try to learn every time. Every once in a while we make a different mistake in the same category, for example: registration or photo ops. And this time my job has been tremendously easy because most everything is working properly. Our biggest hiccup was the cancellation of a with Dick Van Dyke. And then the next day, two days later, he said I want to do everything.
Lisa Christensen: Well that’s great. That’s the way you want glitches to go.
Bryan Brandenburg: Yeah. So they used to call that, “snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat.”
Lisa Christensen: Well you mentioned learning lessons along the way. So since this started in 2013, and between Comic Con and Fan Xperience you’ve had quite a lot of opportunities to learn lessons. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned year over year?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well there have been so many thousands of things that we’ve learned and mistakes that we’ve corrected. Some of the bigger ones have to do with managing this big of a crowd. Right now we’re the most attended, not the biggest convention, but we’re the most attended. We have the most bodies in the Salt Palace. And there are so many moving parts to things like photo ops and registration.
We’ve solved a lot of problems. Right now our stats for getting into the convention center are a 13 minute wait. It’s been hours in the past. We’ve made huge progress with using RFID technology and pre-mailing early registration. So that’s been a great breakthrough. Photo ops is a huge problem to solve because we get people excited about coming to meet somebody that is a once in a lifetime opportunity. They get panicked if they’re confused or if the lines are too long or a guest has to cancel an appearance. There is a lot of technology going on in the background and we’ve gotten so many rave reviews today about how smoothly the photos are running.
Lisa Christensen: You mentioned tweaking some of these things and smoothing out some of the rough parts of the process. What is your process to identify problems or little rough spots after each event? And how do you find solutions before the next one? Especially considering that a lot of these problems would require trying things out. You can’t just figure it out on a spreadsheet.
Bryan Brandenburg: Right, well Dan and I come from a software background. After developing software for literally decades we were in a high paced technology environment where changes happen. So we developed processes, and in the software world it’s called incremental iterative approach, where you move beyond the days where you’ve got a three year plan.
Now you come up with okay, we want a new version of this that works a month later or three months later. And then a new version a month or three months after that. So there’s that kind of perspective of bringing software best practices into a brick and mortar environment of a convention. The thing that really drives where we choose to put our energy is our polls. We are constantly listening to our customers, the fans.
So we run polls. Things like, okay, we just finished our event. What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it? A lot of people don’t like to ask that question – what didn’t work for you or what was annoying or frustrating? But we’d rather have the short term pain of being told we didn’t do everything perfectly so that we can have the opportunity to continue to improve.
Once we have that feedback and we solicit our volunteers, we’ve got 900 boots on the ground, a couple hundred boots on the ground in the celebrity row. And that’s a lot of feedback to digest but we’ve got a process for doing that using technology. Then we do a lot of stuff on paper. We make a lot of revisions on the fly. For example, our technology team at GrowTix are adding features over the weekend to solve problems as they come up. If the problem comes up, two hours later we have a technology solution. It’s as quick as that. We can’t solve everything but we’re very good at recognizing stuff that we can invest our time and resources into – things that will solve a problem that means the most to a lot of people.
Lisa Christensen: Would you mind giving me an example of one of those problems that you were able to identify either during the course of an event or through a poll and then how you were able to solve it?
Bryan Brandenburg: Sure. We just implemented a bare bones infrastructure for communicating through email through a very special email system based on products. So we went back to them and brought up the Dick Van Dyke situation. We had people that bought photo ops and autographs and the super fan package, but we also had people that were signed up for the lottery. They wanted to go to the panel and we expected more demand than supply. So when they cancelled the panel we needed to communicate to those people through the lottery system.
In the old days we would have exported a bunch of emails and gone through our MailChimp system which doesn’t necessarily have the highest delivery rate. So some people would not see the message. So they implemented technology so that instead of just being able to target products, with the proprietary email system we are now able to target the lottery system. We can then communicate to the people that there’s no longer going to be a panel. That worked great. But then the same thing happened two days later where we did have the panel and we had that same system where we could go to a very targeted subset of our fan base that wanted to see the panel and we could communicate to them very rapidly.
Lisa Christensen: Do you anticipate that kind of system and means of communication expanding in the future?
Bryan Brandenburg: Yes. I mean, it’s a whole different ball game in corporate communications when you’re just blasting out a general message to every corporate customer or consumer. But what we really needed was the ability to communicate a specific message to a small subset of fans. You want to communicate to the people interested in your message and not bother the people that aren’t interested. Then your messages are more welcome and relevant and it’s a more powerful system.
Lisa Christensen: You mentioned using your experience from the software realm. Both you and Dan come from the software realm. You also have a very strong background in marketing, too. So what are some of the ways that your background has helped you to navigate an industry that is really unlike any other? I mean, this is not just a store or a simple event or even a business conference.
Bryan Brandenburg: Right. That’s an interesting question. One of the little known facts about me and my career is that I spent four years at Symantec Corporation. You know, a high-tech software company. I helped develop the first virus lab for the Peter Norton group, the Norton Anti-Virus, Norton security products and so on. And while there I learned how viruses propagate in technology. And then of course, my job was to reverse engineer those viruses and learn how they propagated so that I could find solutions to stop them. So as I got more into marketing in my career, I used that idea.
One of my next career paths was that I got involved with a scientific visualization company and actually understood how real viruses propagate. So taking those two kind of components from my career, which you wouldn’t think is relative to marketing, and then applying them to viral marketing. Understanding how viruses propagate I was able to grasp that a viral marketing message that goes one to one is not as powerful as one to five or one to ten.
So in marketing I really focused on how in order to get my message to go from one person to ten, it needs to be a better message. It needs to be something that people want to spread by word of mouth. And so we really focused on the question of how do we go from one to twenty or one to thirty? So we did lots and lots of tests. We perfected some techniques. It doesn’t happen with every post or I wouldn’t be here, but we developed some systems. When Mark Hamill comes to Salt Lake Comic Con, that’s a message that people are going to want to share and it’s something that they’re going to get excited about. So using those techniques we were able to spread that kind of message and reach a million people.
Lisa Christensen: Are there any things that you have identified during this event that you will be doing some sort of post-analysis on and working on before your next event?
Bryan Brandenburg: Yes. You know, we’re fairly mature. In terms of the fundamentals I think we’re working really well. We’re getting such great feedback about the core things like registration and panels and so on. The area that I personally want to move forward with is very technology driven. We know that we have designed a show that is not all things to all people. But we have something here for Star Wars, we have something here for Harry Potter and so on. A lot of people we know will come here and say, you know, I don’t care about Harry Potter, but I care about Star Wars. I want to understand all things Star Wars.
Currently you can go into our app and you can find all the panels. But the next generation of our convention will be about, oh, you’re into Star Wars? Well here’s all the Star Wars guests and here’s all the Star Wars panels, but here is also all of the Star Wars vendors that you can visit. You want a art print of the Millenium Falcon or BB-8? Here are the different places you can go. And there will be a technology, a geo-targeted technology where it can let you know that you’re walking by a particular type of vendor that you’re interested in. So the more we can make it easy to digest and consume the stuff that people really want, then they’re going to have a better experience because they’re not wandering and doing things that they don’t want to do.
Lisa Christensen: And is that information, that information that helps classify why people are attending, is that something that you also get through your extensive social media polling?
Bryan Brandenburg: Yes. We really take a look at all the data from social media. Never before has there been the opportunities that there are today. Facebook knows more about what I’m thinking than what I know because it tracks me and interfaces with Google Search. You can learn things about yourself from the things that these search engines and technologies know about you. But to use that in a useful way we take advantage of the technologies, for example, we use Google Trends extensively.
We go in and we’re like, we’ve got this opportunity to bring John Cusack, so how popular is John Cusack in Utah? Well we can go to Google Trends and we can type in John Cusack and we can tell which states he’s popular in. Then we can decide that he’s pretty popular here, popular enough to make it financially viable, and there’s going to be enough fans that want to see him. Then we’ll book the guest, announce the guest, and then we use the technologies of Facebook to then target all the people that like John Cusack on Facebook. And then we can create a loop.
Then we can get them to sign up on a lottery to potentially win a John Cusack photo op. We’re categorizing and collecting information that allows us to let them know when photo ops go on sale. When the announcement was made, many people said, “You have to bring Joan!” They’ve been in eight movies together. So sure enough, we used that information to complete the loop and book his sister. Now they’re both here.
Lisa Christensen: I remember last fall I got an email with a link to a series of photos. It was a poll asking me to rate which photo I liked better. It would show one celebrity and then another and I was supposed to pick my favorite. Then the same celebrities didn’t necessarily appear together. Is that another thing that you have found is successful? And how does that help?
Bryan Brandenburg: Yeah. So we tested out some, what we called celebrity battles. Basically we would aggregate votes and decide very quickly which people we would want to book. It was essentially a poll. What’s your favorite celebrity that you want to come? Who’s your favorite alumni that you want to come back? And we use that and we categorize it. It’s unbelievable the sheer amount of information that we are able to use to decide the guests. Economically it’s not a slam dunk to make money at these types of conventions. Many of them go out of business. Fortunately we use the analytics much like the movie Moneyball. We can’t find those top three players to make a World Series team but we’re very good at taking 10-12 people to create a World Series team.
Lisa Christensen: So speaking about the guests and the alumni, this is your ninth event and your fifth annual Comic Con. You’re kind of racking up a large collection of alumni at this point and some of them, unfortunately, have passed on. This year you have a memorial poster featuring Adam West and Richard Hatch. And then last spring you had a memorial poster featuring Carrie Fisher. Talk to me just briefly about how the guests become part of the legacy and the family of Salt Lake Comic Con.
Bryan Brandenburg: So it was kind of a new phenomenon to me. When you hear of the passing of someone that you really admired and respected in the film industry or other areas you say, “Oh my gosh, that’s the end of an era.” And after getting involved with Salt Lake Comic Con the first alumni that we passed away was Leonard Nimoy. He wasn’t able to attend in person but he attended via Skype and interacted with the crowd. It was still magical. He was live and he was answering fan questions and, you know, he was mocking Shatner and things like that. It was fantastic fun. And then he did one more panel and he passed away. He’s a legend.
Watching the fan reaction to that not just with our Comic Con fans but everywhere in the world was a good lesson for us. Then Carrie Fisher was very close to a lot of people. She didn’t do a lot of these convention but then she came here and you could tell that she wasn’t in the best of health. When she passed it was really shocking. Our fans and those around the world started posting memes and things like that of, “you will always be my queen,” and you know it just showed such a respect. And of course much of it was associated with Princess Leia’s character.
So we thought, there’s just too much going on here. Why don’t we do something special for Carrie Fisher? Her family had asked that any donations be made to Make-A-Wish charity. So we thought why don’t we do a beautiful piece of art on a poster? We’ll do two sides so that people can kind of have their choice of art and style and we’ll sell it for really cheap, $5, and donate 100% of the proceeds to Make-A-Wish. So we solicited the idea to the fans and they loved it and they said Carrie Fisher would have loved this. So we did that and we were able to donate almost $7,000 to Make-A-Wish in Carrie Fisher’s name.
And of course, as you know, for this event Adam West and Richard Hatch both passed away. They also have designated charities so we’re doing the same thing and there’s a lot of excitement about that.
Lisa Christensen: Is there anything else that you want to add about the event or going forward or how it’s evolved over the last few years?
Bryan Brandenburg: You know, every time we do these we push to be better in as many ways as we can while still being successful financially. You could throw a lot of money at a convention like this, but then you lose money. So it’s a really fine art as a business person to evolve it in a way that you still have money to put back into it and pay people and be successful in that way.
Every time we finish an event our question is, how are we going to improve on that? All it takes is asking the question. Because then it triggers all the answers that will come next. You have to ask the question, of course. So the evolution will be to, kind of, go back to the customers. This has become their event. Dan and I are the shepherds, so to speak. We are the leaders but we really pride ourselves on the fact that our volunteers and our fans feel that this is their Salt Lake Comic Con. We will listen to them and get their feedback and they’ll tell us what they want. They’re really good at it because we ask the questions. Then we’ll use that to drive the changes going forward.
Lisa Christensen: Do you find that having shown that you listen to fans helps you get more honest and helpful feedback?
Bryan Brandenburg: I think in any relationship you’re going to benefit when you listen. You have two ears and one mouth and that indicates the proportion of use. We’re really good about recognizing that we will be more successful the more that we listen. We don’t have a billboard campaign like Ken Garff, but we do listen a lot to our fans. It’s become their event and we’re now a family. They know so many things. If we didn’t listen and Dan and I sat in an ivory tower and said we know what’s best for this event, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as the event that’s created by the fans themselves.
Lisa Christensen: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I appreciate it.
Bryan Brandenburg: It’s my pleasure Lisa. I really enjoyed it.
Lis Christensen: Be sure to check out Salt Lake Comic Con, running through Saturday, September 23rd at the Salt Palace Convention Center or go to saltlakecomiccon.com for information on future events. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us on social media at @utahbusiness. Thanks for listening.