Want to boost attendance? Just ask.
Last week, Jeff De Cagna explained that in order to thrive, associations must think differently. Simply put: They should accept change rather than shun it. And it starts by asking questions, even if management doesn’t want to hear the answers. Self-reflection is never easy, but this week, Kevin Whorton, principal of Whorton Marketing and Research, will help make the process a bit less painful. As this week’s guest blogger, Whorton suggests questions associations should ask as they look at their bottom lines. Kevin Whorton writes: I wondered what to write for Event Garde, but then a client solved that for me. On a conference call recently, the marketing and meetings directors of a healthcare organization asked me a basic question: “How can we increase attendance for a meeting that has been stagnant for years?” This made me think about the marketing and programming of meetings, an area where I help just a few associations at best every year. Some of the questions I asked them on the call are the questions I'd ask myself in a new job and I think you should be asking too, if you're not already. “What are the profiles of attendees compared to non-attendees?” Do you actually understand who you attract, in terms of their age ranges, their practice specialties, from where in the country they come and their genders? This is the first step to finding out why people with under-represented characteristics don’t come and how you can change that. “How closely do you collaborate with state associations that also use the site you’ve chosen?” The answer to this says a lot about how well you’ve thought through your grassroots marketing. State (and/or local) associations hold meetings in your site’s area every year, so they could be your best friends and marketing partners. Or they could spread indifference or bad word of mouth from regional thought leaders. You can’t have too many friends. “When was the last time you spoke to an attendee about their experience?” Almost immediately I hear “we do surveys,” which isn’t what I asked. Do you reach out to random people through focus groups or phone discussions, unburdened by a script, to have a give-and-take conversation about what they expected, what they disliked and what they want, no matter how unrealistic? It’s an important conversation to have because every opinion you hear will stick in your head. In reality, those opinions represent the feelings of hundreds, even thousands, of people you’d like to attract. “What is your messaging?” How does your marketing copy sound when you read it aloud? What do you understand about how a certain kind of member valued the hall talk at your event? Can you share specific first-person examples of a killer idea from a podium presentation or from a cocktail party discussion that an attendee took home? “What is your programming mix and how well does it fit your overall audience?” One thing I’ve noticed from senior execs is that they like to hear themselves talk. And for good reason—their body of knowledge is bigger, their learning needs more nuanced and specific, so they want give-and-take experiences in which they can ask questions and hone in on the things they need to know. We’ve found that ego prevents some of these execs from attending meetings in which they would mostly sit and listen. Or if they do attend, ego can sometimes keep them in the hallway interacting with people they already know and trust. But how well you convey the importance of roundtables in which these execs are likely to find kindred spirits with similar experience levels and helpful knowledge will attract mid-career people who have done well without attending your events. “How well do you segment?” Most conferences offer tons of content: 20, 40, 200 programs and lots of exhibitors. Yet if you mapped them against the demographic and interest of attendees, they appeal to different kinds of individuals. Are you sending the same message to everyone, aiming for the median attendee and therefore missing the chance to make a deeper connection with everyone? It’s hard to do, but messages that outline the five programs that person is most likely to attend works because it saves them from spending time reading through your program or searching online. Segmentation has a good ROI if you also adjust your level of effort based on the individual’s history and future likelihood of attending. If someone is a regular and hasn’t registered a few weeks out, email or call personally to ask why. You may not like the answer but it will help to maintain a profitable relationship. “How do you help them visualize an experience they’ll have, if they’ve never attended before?” Believe it or not, attending an in-person event is not an instinct that comes to everyone. Some introverts may be terrified at the prospect. Many experienced people already “know it all” and need to be sold on the benefit of attending. Almost everyone needs hints on how to get the biggest bang for their buck. If you want them to take a leap of faith, change their habits and attend your conference, you must provide them with video, testimonials and even peer-to-peer contacts showing them how they would benefit. Of course, sometimes they need aggressive first-timer discounts or money-back guarantees. These approaches reflect confidence and a willingness on your part to put your money where your marketing is. These are just a grab bag of suggested questions. The key thing to remember is that changing market behaviors, such as getting first-timers to attend and therefore increasing your reach, requires creative thinking in marketing. Kevin Whorton is principal of Whorton Marketing and Research, a consulting firm that conducts industry and membership research and develops marketing campaigns for a wide variety of nonprofit organizations. Whorton has conducted more than 180 quantitative and qualitative research projects for 100 association and nonprofit clients, including needs assessments, compensation studies, public opinion polls, industry-wide analyses and product launch/market feasibility. For more information, you can contact him at (202) 258-9889 or firstname.lastname@example.org.