No, You Don’t Need a Famous Guest Speaker

Don't be blinded be bright household names, or go around scrounging for a speaker fee you can't afford. You won't see the ROI.

I’ve sourced guest speakers for 80+ industry events, webinars and podcasts, including a million-dollar conference. I’ve done this with zero dollars and with six-figure budgets, for audiences of 10 to 5,000.

The biggest surprise? Big name guests are rarely needed to boost attendance.

What you actually need is the right type of speaker for your event — who may or may not be a known name.

I’m referring to “event” in the broadest sense: an in-person conference or a digital counterpart, like a webinar or podcast. And known “name” applies to individual and brand names.

With any event, there are generally at least one of three goals:

  • Drive awareness
  • Establish credibility
  • Demonstrate value

Each of those goals should ladder up into your overall content strategy. And the “right type” of speaker is one who aligns with that strategy. I’ll explore each one below.

Drive awareness

To drive awareness of an event or brand, most people will look to secure a big name. They want to make a splash, steal the headlines, trend on Twitter: so they get Michelle Obama to deliver the keynote address.

And hey, when you’re Salesforce and you can easily drop six figures on the speaker fee for one person, why the hell not?

But most of us are not Salesforce. 

And while so few people have Michelle Obama-level credibility and fame, there are many lesser known influential people who command a five-figure speaker fee… which most of us still can’t afford.

That’s where you need to find someone with niche fame. This is someone who’s well-known in a small circle of influence but virtually unknown outside of it. A niche famous person can have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, or maybe they’re just that outstanding in their field that they don’t need a digital following to prove their impact. 

Those are the people you want to find: innovators in a defined space. They raise the profile of your event, and you give them a captive audience for their message. It’s win-win.

Innovators are people who are not just building new platforms, but also driving industry conversations forward. Some examples? Rand Fishkin and his startup SparkToro, where we’re redefining audience research at scale. Bernard Huang who co-founded Clearscope, the maker of the most trusted SEO content optimization tool for writers. Katelyn Bourgoin, whose work with Customer Camp makes her among the best known champions for customer psychology. Dr. Emily Anhalt who co-founded Coa, where, as a psychologist, she’s working to normalize mental and emotional fitness.

When you get a relevant innovator to speak at your event, your audience will pay attention. Because the people who matter the most — the ones whose attention you really want, the ones who are most likely to become your subscriber, customer or fan — know who these innovators are. They’re already listening.

Establish credibility

Securing an innovator with niche fame will boost awareness and credibility of your overall brand. But they’re not always well-positioned to help establish credibility in your product.

To truly establish credibility, you need a speaker who’s more closely aligned with your content and business goals. A speaker who can frame a specific narrative you’re trying to tell. 

Here’s an example from when I ran editorial strategy for Fitbit’s B2B events: We dreamt of having renowned social scientist BJ Fogg delivering the morning keynote. But we didn’t have the budget to support his speaker fee.

Reverse engineering the situation, we knew we wanted an expert to dig into the psychology of motivation for this keynote — but it didn’t need to be BJ Fogg himself. Instead, we turned to other charismatic speakers in academia, like behavioral psychologist Jeff Kullgren at University of Michigan.

Another, more recent example from when I hosted the Growth Machine Marketing podcast, a show about content and SEO growth: Marc Thomas is a content marketer who co-founded a SaaS company. His tactical expertise in SEO and the remarkable results he drove for his own business cemented my show’s credibility in content marketing. 

When considering guests who will boost your credibility, think of the people who tell the stories you can align yourself with. They’re your thought partners, the people who can elevate your existing conversations. And if they’re relatable on a fundamental level — as in, attendees can see themselves in the speaker, all the more they will resonate.

Demonstrate value

All of your speakers will give value. But they won’t always convey the value in your product or brand. Speakers that do are the ones closest to your business: they’re often happy customers or the employees themselves.

These speakers represent an achievable gold standard. Often, they’re a future version of the listener or attendee.

For most companies that host events, these speakers will represent case studies. And from what I’ve seen, the more relatable the speaker is, the more successful the event’s outcome.

Years ago, when I led the editorial programming strategy for Fitbit’s largest B2B event, I lobbied to have leadership from Greater Dayton’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA) speak on the main stage. My bosses were worried this wasn’t a known brand name.

After all, who is the RTA?

They’re bus drivers. Who wore fitness trackers. Became physically active, lost weight, lowered their blood glucose levels. Whose better health resulted in RTA saving $2.3 million in healthcare costs.

Fortunately, my bosses trusted me. This case study went on to be the most successful one and was referred to for years.

Get story-struck, not starstruck 

The lesson in all of this? Don’t be blinded by the bright household names, or go scrounging around for a five or six-figure speaker fee you can’t afford. At best, you’ll struggle to attribute the return on investment. At worst, you won’t see that ROI at all. And at the end of the day, you’ll make yourself sick with the stress of properly managing that speaker’s five-star experience.

Regardless of brand name, the right speaker for your event is the one who can help you tell your story and tell your story well.