Meetingon the Web Use of Web sites to promote meetings has skyrocketed among associations in recent years. One association that has capitalized on this trend particularly well is the National School Boards Association, Alexandria, Va.
NSBA saw convention attendance drop during the recession of the early 1990s. But even when the economy began surging, the group's attendance continued to sag. In the mid-1980s, 10,000 attendees had come to the NSBA gatherings. But only 5,700 paid registrants trekked to Anaheim for the association's 1997 conference. Marketing director Marilee Rist knew something had to be done to sell the event to the country's school board members. She hired MDB Communications, a Washington, DC-based advertising agency with a specialty in direct marketing.
Charged with building attendance and working within a fixed budget, MDB decided to "do a lot of specialized marketing to subgroups," says MDB vice president Gary Duke. NSBA subgroups include, for example, board members from large and small school districts, and board members who attended the convention every year and those who never have.
"We sent out small pieces with efficient formats that would lead people to the Web site," Duke explains. "The NSBA had had a conference Web site before but hadn't relied on it much. We made it a focal point of information." Information, it seems, was the key. The school board members, who either foot their own bill or are funded by wary taxpayers, were not looking to have a big time in the Big Easy (New Orleans was the site of the 1998 convention.)
"We had to convince them they would be going to a strong educational program that would improve their skills," says Rist. "Our attendees are very serious about getting as much value out of the programs as they can. The location was barely mentioned." As far as the Web site design, Duke notes that MDB had "to walk a fine line between creating something that would be interesting to use, but that could also download very quickly, so we limited the razzle dazzle."
Paid registration at the NSBA's April 1998 convention was 7,800. Rist attributes much of the more than 2,000-attendee gain to MDB's redesign and better use of the conference's Web site [www.nsba.org/conference].
"People today want information immediately. They're not willing to wait for a brochure," she says. Rist and Duke are now creating a site that will debut in September to promote the NSBA's April 1999 San Francisco convention.
"The challenge now," says Duke, "is keeping people engaged between conventions."