Marketing-wise, your potential attendees are a lot more sophisticated than they used to be — they've been trained by business-to-consumer companies to expect a high level of personalization, very targeted content, and, frankly, great design. Do your marketing messages live up to today's expectations, or are you still using that template from 10 years ago? When you want to increase attendance, do you just do more of what you have been doing and hope that it works, or do you define your ideal target audience among your membership base and craft a message they just can't resist?
Denise Paccione, president, The Marketing Design Group, San Diego, says that you have only three-quarters of a second to make an impact with your marketing materials. Here's how you can make those three-quarters of a second count.
Strategize and Segment
Paccione says that before you take even the first step in designing the tactical aspects of a campaign, take a look at your larger strategic issues. Particularly key, she says, is to look at who among your total potential audience you want to target specifically. “If you service a vertical marketplace, segment your message. It could be by type of attendee, by industry, by job title, by size of business, by geography — there are many ways to segment your database, and you have to decide up front what's the optimal segmentation for your market.” This can be one cure for the e-mail fatigue so many association event marketers are experiencing, she says. “Look at your frequency, and don't bombard your entire list with generic messages.”
And, while you're thinking about who you are trying to attract, she says, “Don't just preach to the choir, who have been coming year after year. Design your marketing plan for your prospects, not just your regulars.”
It's All About the Benefits
Theming your marketing message around benefits to potential attendees sounds like a no-brainer, but “it is an incredibly difficult thing for most people to do,” says Paccione. “The tendency is to rely on the ‘what’ message, the features of your event. ‘It's the industry show,’ ‘We have 100 top exhibitors,’ ‘There will be 50 sessions on everything you need to know.’ That's great if you just want to attract the people who already are coming to your event,” she says, because they already know how those features are beneficial for them.
But to attract new attendees, you have to show what's in it for them, something she says is “missed in just about every type of marketing I see. These people have seen your features message before and not responded because they don't see how those exhibitors and sessions translate into something for them. Instead of saying ‘It's the industry show,’ say, ‘Do a year's worth of business in three days.’ Figure out what exactly they'll get from those features, and tell them how they'll benefit.”
This is difficult to do because features are easier to quantify and guarantee. “We're used to thinking about the ‘what,’ not the ‘why,’” she says. The test is to see if you can put “you will” in front of your message. “If you can't put ‘You will…’ in front of a bullet point, it's not a benefit.” But don't just put a verb in front of a feature and think you've changed it to a benefit, she adds. “It's a step in the right direction, but it won't get you where you want to go just to say ‘See 100 exhibitors’ and ‘learn from 50 conference sessions.’ You have to outline the specific benefits those sessions can bring to your audience in general, and to your targeted audience segments, which likely each have their distinct needs. If you provide them with exhibitors who have solutions to their challenges and sessions designed to meet their needs, and weave a call to action throughout your message, that's a recipe for success.”
How much of a success? One association Paccione works with found some segments that were under-represented, changed to a benefits focus for each of these segments, and increased attendance by 33 percent in one year.
Appeal to Their Mind-set
Think about who your potential attendees are, and how to appeal to their mind-set. If, like so many these days, your potential attendees say they just don't have the time or money to attend, show them how that time and money spent will actually save them time and money in the future. If your attendees are hands-on and visual people, use lots of pictures of people interacting with your exhibitors.
And remember, Paccione says, to keep it lean and edit ruthlessly. “The only people who read through a whole densely packed brochure are the ones who find the typos.”
The environment is getting harsher, Paccione says. Consolidation is happening in many industries that associations serve, which means the pool of potential attendees is shrinking for many organizations. In addition, there are other associations — and for-profit shows — that are looking to take those profitable niche markets away from you. So it's more important than ever to attract more attendees, and better-qualified attendees. A benefits-focused campaign that targets specific segments of a market, backed with the right content, will help on both counts.
Limit your subject line to five words or less. The shorter the subject line, the more likely they are to open it.
Avoid list fatigue by targeting your message to different segments of your membership and paying attention to the frequency of your mailings.
Include the “Forward to a Friend” option
10 Ways to Hone Your Message
Use a theme based on the “why” message.
Create exciting covers — both front and back. (Recipients look at the mailing label first.)
Write headlines and subheads that are benefit-focused and creative.
Write concise copy — bulleted when possible. Remember: less is more.
The design should be dynamic, leading the reader through the copy.
Use color effectively. Strong primary colors have impact, but limit the number of colors used.
Find photos that your potential attendees can relate to, and add credibility and visual excitement. Photos of the show can make the event real to attendees, but they also tend to be static. Intersperse them with dynamic industry images.
Make the piece an unusual shape or size that stands out in the mail.
Include a clear call to action. Create urgency. Add an incentive (e.g., Save!, Free!, Win!).
Utilize consistency throughout the campaign to build recognition and awareness.