How This Woman United Bloggers and Created The Blog Connect Conference
By day, Chrystina Cappello works as a construction consultant. With a degree in architectural engineering, the 29-year-old Philadelphia resident helps companies determine why construction projects went over budget or over schedule.
On the side of her demanding career, Cappello runs a successful blog, hosts two podcasts, founded PHLbloggers, a blogger community in Philadelphia, and masterminds an annual conference called The Blog Connect.
This is how Cappello grew a thriving blog community from a simple email and launched a profitable blog conference — plus, the four must-have qualities Cappello says you need to run a successful event.
Finding Her Blogging Stride
Within three months of starting her full-time job in construction in 2011, Cappello launched her blog, Chrystina Noel. “I knew I’d need a right-brained hobby to balance out my very left-brained day job to keep the peace in my head,” Cappello explains.
The Chrystina Noel blog focuses on the logistics of hosting parties, handmade greeting cards and staying in touch with people. Nearly eight years after launching Chrystina Noel, Cappello says, she blogs weekly and recently reached a new blogging milestone, earning 20,000 monthly pageviews.
“Blogging has always been about building community for me,” Cappello says.
Filling a Gap
With a blog about keeping in touch, naturally Cappello sought out opportunities to connect with fellow bloggers IRL (in real life). After attending a blog conference in 2012 and noticing most of the attendees were mom bloggers, Cappello shrugged her shoulders and thought to herself, “I guess this is the Philly blogging scene.”
Then in 2013, she traveled to Texas to see one of her favorite bloggers speak at the Texas Style Council, a blog conference and social-media retreat for female lifestyle bloggers, small business owners, and creatives. The room was filled with 200 female bloggers close in age to Cappello who run all sorts of blogs: lifestyle, fashion, DIY and more.
“My mind was blown,” Cappello remembers. “Where were all of these people in Philadelphia?”
Cappello took matters into her own hands. She sent out an email to 13 fellow bloggers in the Philadelphia area asking if anyone would be interested in getting together to talk shop. Cappello was shocked when every single person responded “yes.” The first unofficial PHLbloggers meeting took place in August 2014.
“From there, it kept growing,” Cappello says. “It started as an email chain, and all of a sudden we were 40 people strong, so I created a Google+ group. We later moved to Facebook and a MailChimp email list.” Cappello says the original PHLbloggers website lived on her blog, though it was eventually moved to its own domain.
Now, PHLbloggers hosts quarterly educational events on topics including pitching brands, SEO and using social media to grow blog traffic. The group offers monthly work sessions at Philadelphia cafes. And in between events, an email newsletter and the active Facebook group help bloggers stay in touch.
Today, the group has grown to 350 members, became an LLC in 2016 and is run by a small team, including Cappello and three other Philadelphia bloggers, Melissa Funtanilla, Sarah Ramirez and Priyanka Setti.
True to Cappello’s desire to create connections, the purpose of PHLbloggers has never been to attract new members. In fact, Cappello doesn’t even publicize the group. Instead, bloggers looking to meet fellow bloggers typically find the group on their own.
“The purpose is to provide an in-real-life opportunity for bloggers to meet up. Our goal is to get people in the same room,” Cappello says. “We don’t try to recruit members. If you are seeking community, you will find us.”
Masterminding a Blog Conference
After attending the Texas Style Council back in 2013, Cappello knew she wanted to bring a similar experience to bloggers in Philadelphia.
Cappello used the same grass-roots approach to planning the first Philadelphia blog conference as she did when PHLbloggers was formed. She turned to her trusty PHLbloggers email list and asked a simple question: Who might be interested in attending a blog conference in Philly, and would anyone like to speak? Cappello says almost the entire speaker lineup for the 2016 conference came directly from that initial email.
The first The Blog Connect conference came together in just four months in a flurry of finding an appropriate venue, curating a conference schedule and finding sponsors to help fund the day.
Forty-five bloggers attended the inaugural conference.
Now, The Blog Connect runs like a well-oiled machine. The planning process begins as soon as the last conference ends.
The Financial Nitty-Gritty of Running a Conference
There has been a definite financial learning curve for Cappello since starting PHLbloggers and The Blog Connect.
“I’ve learned about cash flow, tracking expenses and putting aside money for taxes,” Cappello says.
There are a lot of expenses to consider when planning a conference, including the obvious, such as paying for a venue, food and website domain. But there are hidden costs too, like renting chairs, purchasing name tags and, perhaps most surprisingly, giving away free tickets to speakers and those providing significant resources, including a volunteer and two photographers.
That’s why sponsors and ticket sales are key to planning a successful event. This year, Cappello and The Blog Connect team introduced three tiers of sponsorships, giving businesses the opportunity to connect with bloggers and influencers in the Philadelphia area.
Cappello says her day job in construction management has helped her in planning and executing a successful conference. “Building relationships is enforced at the day job, and that’s been helpful in building relationships with sponsors,” she says.
Cappello says the entire conference cost about $2,000 in its first year. PHLbloggers wasn’t yet an LLC, and Cappello fronted her own money to help pay for the event. In 2017, the conference grew to nearly 80 attendees and cost about $6,000. It broke even.
The 2018 conference, at the end of April, was the first to turn a profit. It cost about $5,700 and generated $7,800 in revenue, Cappello says. About 65 people attended.
To Profit or Not to Profit
“The purpose of PHLbloggers and The Blog Connect has never been to make a profit. The purpose is connection,” Cappello says.
Currently, Cappello and The Blog Connect/PHLbloggers team don’t earn money for their roles in planning the event and managing the group.
Cappello says she is grateful for her dedicated team. The reason they do it for free is because they use strengths that they don’t get to use in their day jobs. “It’s incredible to work on a project with no red tape,” Cappello says. “It’s great to be innovative because there’s not anything tying us down.”
But still, in the future, Cappello hopes to be able to pay the team members for their passion and hard work.
“It’s an interesting balance,” Cappello says. “Moving forward, the goal is to earn money from sponsors so we can keep costs low to attend our events for the bloggers.”
Do You Have What it Takes to Plan an Event?
Cappello says there are four skills required to plan a successful event like The Blog Connect.
- Project management. “Parties and construction are exactly the same. Whether you’re planning an event or a building, they both have a schedule and a budget,” Cappello says. Strong project-management skills and attention to detail are important when it comes to planning an event.
- Personnel management. Over the past several years, PHLbloggers transitioned from a one-woman show to a team effort. Cappello says that personnel management — finding the right team members with different skills and making sure everyone’s ideas are heard — is key.
- Foresight. The ability to think ahead is crucial when planning an event. “It’s about vision,” she says. “Think about what someone is going to see when they walk into the room for the first time.”
- Communication. No doubt, communication plays a role in planning an event. Cappello says her team focuses on creating beautiful branding for the conference and communicating clearly with speakers and attendees to make sure everyone understands the flow of the day.
Oh, and Cappello also advises would-be conference planners to never let their attendees go hungry. “It’s the worst to be hungry at a conference,” she says.
For those interested in planning a conference or event of their own, Cappello’s best piece of advice is to just get started.
“It doesn’t need to be complicated. I used the network of people I already knew to see if there was even interest or a possibility of making a conference happen,” Cappello says.
When challenges arise or Cappello feels exhausted from her day job, plus the demands of running a blog community and conference, she returns to her original mission.
“When I introduce people to each other and I see connections being made, I feel giddy. I love seeing the relationships that have come out of PHLbloggers and the conference,” she says. “I get so much genuine joy out of watching people be able to dream bigger.”
Jessica Lawlor is the president and CEO of Jessica Lawlor & Company (JL&Co), a specialty communications agency. She’s a proud member of PHLbloggers and spoke on a panel at the 2018 event.