For some, it's the location. For others, it's cost or time away from the office.
There are many reasons why people don't attend. But to pro Gary Rottman, one major, and perhaps overlooked, factor is the way the convention is marketed. Good marketing communicates value, which inspires people to register.
With associations facing shrinking budgets as well as declining attendance and revenues, these are challenging times for marketers. But it's no time to cut back. Given the economy and changes in the way people consume information, it's more important than ever to make a case for them to attend meetings, says Stacey Ruth, CEO at The Wow Factory, an Atlanta-based creative services agency.
Yet too many associations sit on the sidelines — and that's dangerous, says David Rich, senior vice president, strategy and planning, worldwide, at George P. Johnson Experience Marketing in Boston. “Waiting is a really bad business strategy in 2011,” he says. “If you are waiting, you are waiting to be put out of business.”
That's the message from the pros: Stop waiting and start marketing. Here are 10 ideas for shifting your strategy into high gear.
- Do Your Research
“To grow attendance, marketing has to be rooted in viable research,” says Dewey Blanton, director of strategic communications at the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C. AAM's research stems from post-show and member surveys that ask why people are — and are not — attending meetings. To help sift through the data, AAM hired Gary Rottman, principal, creative director, at Rottman Creative Group in La Plata, Md., to conduct a marketing audit. Rottman, who specializes in design and marketing for associations, looked at surveys, goals, branding, and old marketing campaigns, and made recommendations. “They found kernels in those surveys that we were perhaps overlooking,” says Blanton.
According to Rottman, attendees' short, pithy comments are a good place to find elements of a meeting that resonates with people. One client had several attendees comment that the conference was “recommended by a colleague,” so that was featured in marketing campaigns.
And polling nonattendees is essential, says Stacey Ruth. Her company does phone interviews, asking questions about budget, location, education, challenges, and more. “One client was amazed to find that 80 percent of nonattendees were unaware of the conference, and 50 percent of those who were aware of the conference were not attending because of the location,” she says.
- Speak to the Segments
“Effective marketing is about communicating what matters to the prospective attendee or group. You have to segment your message — that's the genie in the bottle right there,” says John Folks, president, Minding Your Business, Chicago, an agency that specializes in meeting management, marketing, and event production.
In general, he believes, associations have been slow to recognize the value of segmentation. Most just send out the same message to all members. “You have to speak to each of them in a different voice, about different issues, because they are there for completely different reasons,” he says. He sees six different segments of potential attendees:
- members who don't usually attend meetings
- new members
- members who often attend
- former members
- nonmember professionals near the meeting site
- nonmembers in overlapping industries
Then he develops a communication strategy for each segment. For those who often attend, the message might be what's new this year. For new members, presumably young professionals, the message might be delivered with a different voice and a focus on career advancement. Some associations might have a base that's more interested in networking than education.
- Go Retro
Associations love e-mail marketing because it's greener and cheaper than traditional outreach methods. But with attendees now being bombarded with e-mail, experts are seeing lower open rates — anywhere from 12 percent to 20 percent, and slightly higher for targeted e-blasts.
Consequently, the pendulum is swinging back to “old school” tactics such as direct mail and telemarketing. Direct mail has higher open or view rates than e-mail, and while it is more expensive, it is more effective than e-mail, experts say.
Dave Martin, vice president, marketing, at the Electronic Retailing Association in Arlington, Va., always sees a bump in registration after the telemarketing campaign he targets to executives.
Just as you segment the message, you also need to segment the communication method, says Folks. Some members may prefer brochures and direct mail, while others, perhaps young professionals, may favor e-communications.
Good marketing does three things, says Rottman — inform, reassure, and inspire. To inform is to let potential attendees know the conference is happening. To reassure is to provide content descriptions and other details about the conference. To inspire is … tricky. “There's a ton of great information that people put on their Web sites and in mailings, but does it inspire the people to take the next step?” Rottman asks. “Every message should answer the question, ‘Why should I attend?’”
Ruth suggests coming up with at least three key draws to the meeting and marketing each to the appropriate members.
And spend time thinking about your e-mail subject line: If it's too bland, it won't inspire anyone to open the e-mail.
- Video is Queen
“If content is king, video is queen,” says Rottman. Whether it's testimonials, interviews, or informational pieces, video is a compelling promotional tool. Showing, rather than telling, people what it's like to experience your event is very powerful, says Kevin Miller, president, Frost Miller Group, a Bethesda, Md.-based marketing and communications firm. Attendee testimonials in particular are very persuasive.
Ask your speakers to submit short videos previewing their presentations, suggests Rich of GPJ, and you can create a steady drumbeat of promotion leading up to the conference by posting a new video every week. Ask presenters to blog, create audio podcasts, or promote their appearance through their own marketing channels.
ERA posts interviews from the previous year's show at a section of its Web site called ERA TV, Martin says, and shows them throughout the year.
- Go Local
“The majority of people who attend a conference typically come from within a 500-mile radius of the destination,” says Miller. He advises clients to put extra marketing muscle into the regional markets. For some clients, he sends out multiple direct-mail pieces to the local market, because he finds it more effective, and he sends e-mail blasts to everyone else.
Using this targeted approach, with multiple mailings sent to fewer people, one of his clients saw a 30 percent spike in attendance — while cutting costs. “It's even more important now to be very strategic and very targeted,” says Miller.
Often, the location is played up in the direct-mail pieces, so recipients know the meeting is close to home, adds Elizabeth Johnson, director of public relations and content development at Frost Miller. They appreciate seeing their destination highlighted in the materials, she adds.
Planners can also reach out to local convention and visitor bureaus, as many have attendance-building tool kits and can help market in the region.
- Know How to Use
Social media is an inexpensive way to supplement conference marketing, but be wary. “Everyone gets excited that they are posting their event information on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, but are their attendees — and potential attendees — actually seeing it?” asks Ruth. Even within the most Web-savvy groups, not everyone is active on social media.
Most associations aren't seeing attendance numbers boosted by social media because the content being shared tends to be informational, says Rottman. “Social media is better received when it is in a conversational tone and connections are made,” he says.
Thus, association marketers should populate their social-media outlets with content that people can “actually have a conversation about,” says Ruth. You need to create conversations or buzz.
So follow the lead of AAM, which turns sound bites and quotes from meeting sessions into tweets and Facebook posts. And seek out places where members are already congregating and join the discussion, engage, and “cross-pollinate,” adds Rich. It's not always necessary to create your own online communities if strong ones already exist.
- Hit 'Em Everywhere
Surveys show that consumers rely on multiple marketing channels when making buying decisions. It's no wonder ERA's Martin is such a strong proponent of multimodal marketing. “You have to hit them across the board, anywhere that they can consume the information,” he says. It's good to see the same message in five different places. During his early-bird campaign, for example, Martin uses a print ad, e-blast, direct mail, blog post, social media, press release, and telemarketing. And then repeats.
And don't forget about press coverage, Elizabeth Johnson adds. Associations should send out regular press releases related to the convention and have a newsroom on their Web site. Good editorial coverage of your event adds a lot of credibility and generates interest.
- Connect the Dots
“Low attendance is a symptom of a larger problem — the disconnect between the strategic plan, brand, and conference,” says Rottman. When the strategic plan and the association brand are not incorporated into the largest touch point of the brand — the annual convention — attendees lose trust.
For example, if the strategic plan calls for reaching out to young professionals, but there is no forum for young professionals at the meeting, it rings hollow. If the brand is only reflected in the logo and not woven into the program, attendees will notice. If they don't have a positive experience at the conference, they won't have a positive view of the association — and they probably won't come back.
- Cross-Pollinate Your Content
Association execs should view themselves not just as planners or marketers, says Rich. They should see themselves as curators of multi-format experiences, publishers of content, catalysts of communities, and fierce “cross-pollinators” of all three activities.
They should look beyond physical events to virtual meetings, on-demand content, apps, and other ways to give people more channels to consume information, and thereby extend their marketing reach. “Who are all the people on the planet who would be passionate about the subjects you focus on?” he asks. “Create experiences to reach them.”