Real Event: Home Grown Bloggers Conference, Birmingham

I'm so excited to start profiling some AMAZING women around the country who are hosting their own REAL EVENTS and are with some strong organization and passion to the mission of their event. Each month, I'll interview a new entrepreneur (or team!) who is creating an event from scratch, and will ask them the questions that you want the answers to. Today's interview is with Kirsten Thompson of Sweet Tea LLC. Kirsten is talking all about her upcoming blogger conference Home Grown Bloggers, and we're getting the behind the scenes scoop on the planning process.

This is the first post in the series, but stay tuned for future posts!

Home Grown Bloggers Conference

Hey there! First things first, tell me who you are and how you got into doing what you do.

I’m Kirsten Thompson, owner of Sweet Tea, LLC and co-founder of Home Grown Bloggers. I’ve been blogging since 2010, first as a hobby sharing my home decor and DIY projects, and currently as a blog educator specializing in email marketing. My blogging experience led me to offer virtual assistant services to other bloggers, and I quickly realized that email marketing was an area that I was particularly excited about, and an area that other bloggers were suffering. I’d found my niche, and have since authored an ebook and built a business around my knowledge. I speak at conferences, host a podcast & a membership site, work 1:1 with clients, and now, host events.

Since my very first blog conference more than 3 years ago, I’ve had the desire to create intimate blog events that combine education and community. It was just a matter of timing and finding someone who was equally passionate about the community of blogging to help create these events.

Tell me the story of Home Grown Bloggers and how it came to be.

Heather Brown, my co-founder and blogger behind My Life Well Loved, contacted me at the beginning of 2016 offering to swap guest posts on one another’s blogs. Because of other things going on in both of our lives, we kept pushing back our guest posts, until one day we decided to have a phone conversation to finally hammer out the details.

I casually mentioned my desire to create blogger events, and a spark was ignited. Within two days, we had a business name, a website, and our first event on the calendar - Sept. 24, 2016 in Birmingham, AL. Home Grown Bloggers was born! Heather and I both desire to combine hands-on education with in-person networking, and our skills compliment one another so well that it’s just a natural fit. Heather is a social media expert and has a natural gift for forming connections with brands, so her expertise has really helped build the sponsorship foundation of our business.

I, on the other hand, am responsible for communications with attendees, ensuring that we have a consistent blog post and email schedule, designing the website and all of our graphics, organizing our free monthly webinars, and setting up a spreadsheet and checklist to make sure we don’t forget anything.

When you decided to create the Home Grown Bloggers Conference for the first time, how did you go about finding your venue? Was it a place you’d visited or did you do a lot of research?

It was through a lot of trial and error, to be honest. We didn’t want it to be boring, like a bland hotel conference room. We wanted the venue to have as much character as the event itself. Heather lives in Birmingham and knew several potential places, but finding a venue that allowed outside food, or was willing to work with our miniscule (read: non-existent) budget was challenging.

Through a friend of Heather’s, we connected with the owner of Morgan Creek Winery and they were more than gracious in allowing us to not only use their gorgeous facility, but have also provided us with a free tour & wine tasting for attendees. It’s perfect!

How do you and Heather split up the tasks and work on this project as a team?

In the beginning, before HGB was a “thing”, I had the idea to host retreats for bloggers. I ran into a lot of obstacles trying to do everything myself, though. I was chatting with Heather one day about something totally unrelated, and the topic of blog community came up. I mentioned my desire for blog retreats, and she enthusiastically showed interest in being part of something like that.

Literally within 2 days we had a website, city, and ticket price planned. Home Grown Bloggers was born! Honestly, I don’t think Heather and I could do this alone. It’s hard to do it with just the 2 of us because SO MUCH goes into planning events like this. We had no idea…

We’ve actually brought on 2 “brand ambassadors” who will be attending and speaking at the event, and will help carry the burden of content delivery, so that helps quite a bit. And I have a 14-year old daughter that I’ll be putting to work to manage social media the day of the event. Start ‘em young!

What did your planning process look like in terms of laying out the content of your talks, how you organized the different subjects, how you got other speakers to speak on specific topics?

Heather is a social media rockstar, so that was a given topic. I’m an email nerd, and have spoken and written about my email knowledge multiple times. We decided to choose topics, particularly for the first event, that we are very comfortable talking about and teaching. That allows us to focus more on the actual event, rather than the content, since it’s so familiar.

The brand ambassadors will also be speaking. We chose them because of their social media and online presence, as well as their knowledge of the blogging industry. We really want our conference to be interactive, more hands-on, so we aren’t trying to pack it full of 15 different topics. We’re scheduling time to actually apply what is taught, and scheduling time for networking.

How did you go about approaching potential sponsors? Was it scary? Did people say no?

It was scary at first, but the more emails we sent out, the easier it became. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response, though, and have had a couple sponsors tell us “no” but to keep them in mind for future events, so that’s encouraging.

Initially, we started with brands we already had relationships with. Heather and I both have done sponsored blog posts, so we reached out to brands who had worked with us previously. We also asked our community for ideas, brands they wanted to see represented at our event.

Heather drafted a pitch email and sent to tons of brands and businesses, both local to the Birmingham area and national brands that might be interested in working with bloggers. She told them about Home Grown, about each of our perspective blogs, and what we had to offer sponsors. We also created a media kit that shared all of the information about HGB, as well as listed the sponsorship packages available, and attached it to the emails we sent. This made it very easy for them to reference everything in one place.

I will say, too, that having deadlines, and letting potential sponsors know those deadlines, has been helpful. Because we promise social media and blog coverage, we had to have sponsorship agreements by a specific date in order to fulfill our end of the agreement.

Tell me a little about your marketing/launch strategy for HGB. and how you got the word out about it. How early did you start promoting and what were some ways that you spread the word?

Our event is scheduled for Sept. 24, and we officially launched our website and brand in March, six months prior to the event. Just like our sponsorships, the marketing for the brand has been very organic. We started with our existing community - my own and Heather’s readers, email subscribers, and social media followers.

From there, we started asking for people to tell their friends, which, thankfully, they have done. In May, we started hosting monthly webinars, which have been huge for helping spread the word. We advertise those all over social media and in our emails and through blog posts on Home Grown Bloggers. Our email list and FB group continues to grow because of those webinars.

Did you have a number of people you had to hit in order to make it financially feasible?

Our maximum number of attendees is 50, but we would be over the moon with 30 for the first event. To be honest, we’re not trying to profit from this one. We want to get the word out about what we’re doing, then piggyback on the momentum of the first event to make future events more profitable for us.

Fortunately, due to great sponsorships, we haven’t had to come out of pocket yet for the bigger expenses, like the venue or the food, so we’re already doing much better than we ever anticipated!

What was the scariest part of launching?

We were afraid of launching to crickets - that nobody would register. We had several registrants within the first month, though, so the stress was pretty much instantly alleviated. (At least THAT stress! We still have the stress of ALL THE THINGS that go into planning the event.)

What are some of your online resources for a big project like this? Do you subscribe to any newsletters or blogs you love?

YOURS! Seriously, your blog has been a huge help as far as providing us with ideas for how to spoil our sponsors, and creative ways to increase ticket sales.

We’ve also learned a lot just from watching what other, larger blog events do. We take bits and pieces of things we like, and toss things we don’t, all combining to make the cohesive and community-driven event that Home Grown Bloggers has become.

What is/was the most challenging part of doing this event? What would you do differently/are doing in the upcoming iterations?

Since our first event isn’t until September, I’m sure this will change afterwards, but right now, the hardest part has been keeping up with all the various tasks. We are literally 2 Southern women who love community and love learning, and we want these events to represent that. But we’re doing this all on our own, and it’s brand new to us both, so it’s been tough to navigate what to do next.

Can you tell us your proudest moment?

Actually, two things: when we got our first registrant - serious happy dance moment there. And secondly, when we got our first nationwide sponsor. The fact that a big brand would give us money for something that hasn’t happened yet? That was huge!

Can you tell us your most stressed moment?

At this point, I have a feeling it’ll be the day before the event. 😄

What advice would you give to someone excited to start doing in-person events, but not sure if they have a big-enough audience or could sell something out like a big workshop?

Find a partner and DO IT! Seriously. All the stress, all the crazy, is totally worth it if it’s something you’re passionate about. But don’t try to do it alone - there are so many little things you don’t consider when you’re excited to get it done, so it helps to have the “buddy system” in place to make things go more smoothly.

You guys, isn't Kirsten the greatest? And even after all that dish, she's offering up a ticket flash sale for readers of this blog! On Friday, Aug. 12th ONLY, click here  to get $50 off your ticket price to Home Grown Bloggers in Birmingham on September 24th (Offer expires at11:59pm CST so don't miss it!)