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Results-driven Event Marketing for the Discerning Attendee

Author's note: This post is coauthored by Aaron Wolowiec and Scott Oser. Scott is widely recognized for creating effective membership, marketing and sales programs, along with his ability to align resources and operations to consistently achieve and exceed goals. Scott brings the skills and knowledge he has gathered during more than 20 years in the association industry to every client engagement he takes on as president of Scott Oser Associates, Inc. ScottOserAssociates.com

According to the 2014 Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Report, commissioned by the Convention Industry Council (now the Events Industry Council) and researched by PwC, participant volume at meetings and events increased by 10 percent between the years of 2009 and 2012.

Likewise, during the 2012 calendar year, 1.83 million meetings were held in the U.S. and attended by 225 million participants. The majority of attendees (57 percent) traveled more than 50 miles to attend a meeting, followed by local participants (40 percent). 

That’s a lot of meetings – and a lot of revenue potential. Capturing your industry’s slice of this pie requires, among other tactics, results-driven event marketing. This type of marketing occurs in three distinct phases: pre-planning, implementation and post-activity. When intentionally designed, developed and implemented, the right event marketing can cause both attendance and revenue to soar.

Following is an overview of each phase of this three-part marketing plan, along with simple application ideas to immediately jumpstart your journey.

Phase 1: Pre-planning

During this phase, typically six months to one year in advance of your event, start by answering the following key questions:

  • What needs to be communicated? Consider developing key messages that are clear, concise and persuasive. Then, consistently weave these key messages into all promotional materials. Likewise, ask your meeting design dream team to summarize and share with you their respective communication needs so they may be trickled to participants over an extended period of time vs. saved for a single, overwhelming piece just before the event launch.
  • To whom does the content need to be communicated? This includes the identification of all target markets and segments, such as advertisers, exhibitors, speakers, sponsors, members, non-members and the like. This may also include further subdividing your target audience into segments by functional area or by career level (e.g., early, mid and senior) to ensure they are exposed to the content most relevant to them.
  • Who is responsible for delivering the content? The event planner, marketing manager or someone else altogether may take the lead for delivering content, but also consider utilizing other key stakeholders, such as presenters, as promotional vehicles. Any entity can help you spread the word about your event. The first step is to identify who these individuals are and to which audience segments they have access.
  • When and how often will the content be communicated? It is vital to use a shared calendar to ensure key messages are communicated timely and that similar calls to action are spaced out over time. Clearly understanding the tolerance of your target audience to receive communication by email, phone, text, social media and print, as well as how many touch points they’ll tolerate in a single day, week or month will help you find your marketing sweet spot.
  • How will the content be communicated? An omnichannel, multi-touch approach will be most effective, though it requires considerable human, financial and technical resources. Establishing a realistic budget early in the process will help you narrow the scope of your marketing plan. Additionally, it’s important to identify all of the possible communication channels available to the association (e.g., blog, e-newsletter, magazine, social media and website), and then find ways to seamlessly integrate each into the communication plan (i.e., aligning a key message with the channel most appropriate for delivery).
  • Why does this information need to be communicated? The goal is multi-faceted: to achieve and exceed attendance and revenue goals, as well as to ensure the engagement and satisfaction of key stakeholder groups. You’ll note that each will define success differently. Exhibitors may be interested in quality leads while sponsors may be interested in brand recognition and attendees may be interested in informal networking opportunities.

Phase 2: Implementation

Once the pre-planning phase is complete, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and set the plan in motion. Following are a number of considerations to keep in mind during implementation:

  • Attendees and prospective attendees expect to be approached based on what you know about them. They want to be treated, and spoken to, like the unique humans they are. Segmenting your audience and developing appropriate messaging for each is critical to your success. A few key segment opportunities include career level, functional area, geography, membership status and past attendance.
  • Marketing automation is becoming more prevalent and affordable. Marketing automation is a category of technology that allows associations to streamline, automate and measure marketing tasks and workflows, so they can increase operational efficiency and grow revenue faster. Having a system you can set and forget will help staff save time and energy, and should positively impact the event’s bottom line.
  • Tracking the effectiveness of each marketing channel is critical. Knowing how each marketing channel performs for a particular event will help determine which channels to leverage more or less of in the future. This helps to optimize limited resources and reduce waste. Moreover, campaigns can be better customized when we know, for example, that early professionals respond favorably to social media advertisements and senior professionals prefer print.
  • Response rates should drive mid-campaign modifications to improve results. A marketing campaign should never be set in stone. Regular tracking of response and click through rates will help you determine what changes may be needed to email subject lines or social media images should they be underperforming in comparison to other marketing assets. Likewise, a second print piece may be added or eliminated based on the performance of the first.
  • Marketing content should be modified in response to key performance indicators. Tracking of attendance, revenue, expenses and housing pick-up numbers on a weekly basis will help determine the most important messages for a given week. If attendance aligns with forecasted numbers, but housing numbers fall short of our attrition threshold, a housing call to action may be highlighted in that week’s email campaign to encourage reservations.
  • Positive experiences from past events are powerful marketing tools. Prospective attendees, especially past attendees, like to experience the event before making a purchase decision. Giving them this experience through vivid testimonials that leverage pictures and videos, as well as past attendee names, titles, organizations and value propositions, go a long way to closing the deal.

Phase 3: Post-activity

It is critical to regroup after the event to talk about what worked and what didn’t. Following are just some of the questions you might ask during an after action review:

  • Which established goals and metrics did we achieve?
  • What gaps exist when we compare performance to plan?
  • What have we done well?
  • What could we do better?
  • What should we not do next time?
  • Are there opportunities to improve communication/coordination in the future?
  • What changes are needed to the plan and/or expectations?
  • Were any action items/deliverables completely missed?
  • Did any roadblocks, barriers or challenges impede our success?

In addition to summarizing and sharing these key findings with your team, you might also convene a small focus group comprised of your target audience to gain their feedback. Furthermore, you should gather and review all back-end data and statistics, as well as distribute a post-event fulfillment report to all key stakeholders outlining the reach and performance of your marketing campaign.

The discerning attendee responds positively to results-drive event marketing, and each of these strategies is designed to drive interest for your next event. But event marketing is a year-round job that doesn’t end with the closing keynote session. The easier it is for prospective attendees to both access curated resources from your last event and identify the anticipated value proposition of your next event, no matter the time of year, the more likely they are to advertise, attend, exhibit or sponsor.

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