Case Study: The 'Secret' Wins of ReferralCandy's Failed Virtual Summit

ReferralCandy's virtual summit didn't go according to plan. Here's the story behind why it failed but how they managed to turn their failure into a success.


Note: This is a guest post by Si Quon Ong, content manager at ReferralCandy.

There’s a certain level of FOMO (fear of missing out) you feel when you read case studies of other successful marketers.

It usually involves them discovering and utilizing this one definitive tactic.

It makes you feel like a loser when you try the tactic and… well… don’t experience the same success.

The expert roundup post that generated 20,231 pageviews for another company only generated less than 300 when you replicated it.

The guest blogging strategy that got 100,000 users for Buffer didn’t move the needle at all for your traffic.

Why are your results so drastically different?

Was it because you didn’t replicate the tactic fully? Or was it because you’re just not cut out for digital marketing?

I’ll tell you the real reason:

Survivorship bias.

Of the hundreds of tactics the other company tried, this was the only one worth shouting about. The rest failed, and were quietly shuffled into the tactical archives, never to be talked about again.

But today, I’m going to talk about something different.

I reached out to our ex-Director of Growth, David Fallarme, and sat him down to talk about one of the biggest “failed” experiments we experienced here at ReferralCandy.

(Note: If you want an easy way to capture more leads or emails from your current website, try Fieldboom.)

ReferralCandy Marketing Team

The ReferralCandy Marketing Team

It didn’t hit any of our expected metrics.

Yet, this “failed” tactic has generated thousands of visitors for us—and will continue to generate even more in the coming years.


The story is below.

The Story Behind The “Failed” Experiment

If you belonged to the internet marketing world in 2016, you would have noticed a very popular tactic used by some of the biggest names in marketing.

The virtual summit.

From Neil Patel to digestive health to self-publishing, virtual summits were everywhere.

Advanced Content Marketing Summit

Of course, being part of the marketing world, we were intrigued.

ReferralCandy had reached a point where traffic acquisition via content marketing and paid media were sort of well optimized. It was time, David thought, to look at channels that could drive new traffic.

“Why did I do the virtual summit?” David asked. “Because we had reached a point in ReferralCandy where we were getting traffic via content and ads. But I wanted to make sure we were tapping into influencers as well.”

One of the channels he looked at was influencer marketing, a well-known tactic in the eCommerce world, where ReferralCandy got the bulk of its clients. David was wondering if he could apply the same idea in the SaaS world.

The virtual summit looked perfect for that use case.

Plus, it looked like a decent customer acquisition channel. Everyone who ran a virtual summit seemed to only have good things to say about it. Thousands of leads, hundreds of thousands generated in revenue, etc.

David decided to run it as an experiment.

Here’s the page we created to promote the event:

Ecommerce Experts Virtual Summit Advertisement

The virtual summit was a “failure”

By any quantitative measure, our virtual conference was a complete and total failure.

We set a lead generation goal of 5,000 people for the summit, which we believed was achievable.

Instead, the summit only generated 2,000+ new subscribers, total.

The reasons for our failure are clear in hindsight. For example:

  • Designing landing pages, writing email sequences and running webinars— setting up a virtual summit from scratch was more work than we expected.
  • We had none of the infrastructure in place and had to figure it all out, which took WAY longer than anyone thought.
  • Big name speakers in the industry didn’t draw nearly as well as we expected.

Keynote Speakers

It turns out… there are a lot of nuanced details in the case studies they don’t tell you. Such details don’t sell, so writers don’t include them in their articles.

As David described the experience, “I wanted to hit a goal of 5,000 email sign ups. I thought, based on the math at the time, we could easily get there. I was also trying to get A-listers to appear on the virtual summit. I assumed that if I did, that they would promote them to their audiences. They didn’t, which is one of the big reasons we came up so short.”

Quantitatively, the summit was a “failure”.


Qualitatively was where David and ReferralCandy won.


The Secret “Wins” of Our Failed Virtual Summit

Like the smartest entrepreneurs and investors, the smartest marketers find ways to turn failures into wins.

Before embarking on the virtual summit experiment, David had already prepared himself for the worst.

What if the virtual summit failed? What if we didn’t get the 5,000 subscribers we were looking for?

Would it still be worth it?

Yes, it would be, David reasoned.

By doing a virtual summit, even if it failed, ReferralCandy could still achieve a number of qualitative goals.

For example, even if we didn’t hit our attendance numbers, the summit was still a great excuse David could use to talk with 7-figure eCommerce store owners—who are our primary target market.

Talking to them would reveal insights into how they think. That was important, as David could then use that information to refine ReferralCandy’s marketing position and target channels.

The summit would also give him a chance to be in front of marketers and entrepreneurs at companies similar to ours, granting him an “in” he could use to build potential partnerships.

“The worst case scenario was that we would have 20 videos we could re-purpose into blog posts, email, social posts, etc.,” David said. “Even if it failed totally on the acquisition perspective, there was still a lot of gain and there was a lot of priceless insights from talking to people I never had access to. I thought the upside was interesting, so we went ahead.”

As it turned out, the virtual summit did not succeed in terms of attendance numbers.

It did, however, generate a series of insights that informed ReferralCandy’s marketing plan for the next year. The summit also eventually drove hundreds of sign-ups per month as a result of the videos we created during the event.

“Quantitatively, the summit was not successful, but qualitatively, it was very successful because it gave me a lot of insight. It taught me how those people think and I applied several things I learned into our marketing for the next few quarters, and from the numbers, you could see that we were growing much more consistently pre-summit.”

Beyond strategy insights, we also had four other outcomes we considered to be key wins for our team…


Win #1: Facebook Groups, Slack Groups, Podcasts

One of the biggest insights David discovered was that successful e-commerce store owners don’t google for solutions.

As entrepreneurs, most of the problems they face aren’t technical in nature. It’s usually more strategic, more long-term.

When they’re stuck, they don’t go around googling for solutions. Most of their problems don’t have an easy solution that an “Ultimate Guide” can fix. Plus, googling is a waste of time.

It’s inefficient, and they might have to go through a dozen or more blog posts before finding something even remotely similar to what they want.

Instead, they find solutions by asking other 7-figure e-commerce owners. It could be through directly asking, or even through Facebook or Slack groups. Whatever it is, they would only ask in places where it was vetted with reliable people and content.

eCommerce Mastermind Facebook Group

Not only that, they listened to podcasts that featured stories of successful founders, as they were trying to understand the strategy and tactics that other people had used.

These insights opened up entirely new channels for ReferralCandy. After the virtual summit, David decided to sponsor some eCommerce-related podcasts (like My Wife Quit Her Job). This drove a significant number of sign-ups.

David also joined a few Facebook Groups and started to participate and contribute — eventually hiring a new content marketer to handle these new community channels.

Win #2: A New-and-Improved Content Strategy

The insights from these eCommerce entrepreneurs also informed ReferralCandy’s new editorial calendar for the next year.

With the knowledge that eCommerce entrepreneurs weren’t looking for technical marketing tactics but growth stories of other entrepreneurs, ReferralCandy decided to move into higher-funnel (TOFU) content.

“They want to learn from other entrepreneurs,” David said. “They want to see the stories of how other businesses did whatever they did.”

Instead of writing more blog posts about referral marketing, ReferralCandy started producing content interviewing and analyzing how other companies succeeded.

We eventually compiled over 100 case studies of other companies’ marketing strategies.

Some of them have become so successful that it generates thousands of visitors every month from organic search traffic:

ReferralCandy Pageviews 

Win #3: Content Repurposing

One of the biggest challenges faced by content writers is creating content that is not fluff, or mirage content.

The way to get around it?

Interviewing influencers.

One of our top-performing blog posts, featuring tips from 8 different influencers

One of our top-performing blog posts, featuring tips from 8 different influencers

With interviews from some of the biggest influencers and eCommerce store owners, David had unique content that could be turned into blog posts, podcast episodes, social content and so on.

Win #4: Autopilot Marketing

The summit is not something done once and forgotten.

Placing a careful link at the footer of ReferralCandy’s website, the virtual summit now markets itself—and in turns markets ReferralCandy through the automatic sequences set up by David during the process.

The footer of ReferralCandy website

Even without any maintenance, the virtual summit generates a few hundred visitors a month, sending us leads that we can convert into paying customers.

Reflections, and How To Pull Off The Summit Better

Despite its qualitative success, looking back, if David were to set up another virtual summit, he thinks there is still a lot to improve on.

For example, he would have invited more B-list influencers, rather than look for A-list influencers. A-list influencers are people like Pat Flynn, who command large audiences and have huge authority in the industry.

B-list influencers, on the other hand, are influencers with a following, but are relatively new or do not have enough followers to consider significant.

Conventional theory suggests that A-list influencers will supercharge whatever you’re doing. Reality suggests otherwise.

Most big-name influencers attend such online events regularly, and as a result, it is not possible for them to promote every single event (if not, they would saturate their audience).

On the other hand, B-list influencers rarely appear in such events, and they will be more than happy to share their accomplishments with their followers.

David would have also added affiliate commissions to the summit. By adding affiliate commissions, he could have incentivized every influencer to promote the summit as they would get a cut of the profits.

This, in turn, would have made the summit more successful.

(Note: If you want an easy way to capture more leads or emails from your current website, try Fieldboom.)

Si Quan Ong is the Content Marketing Manager at ReferralCandy and Candy Bar.