How long is the "Who Should Attend" list in your meeting's brochure? Long and diffuse lists of who should attend adorn the majority of the 298 continuing professional education brochures that crossed my desk during a recent 31 day period. (I will save you the calculations: 9.6 brochures per day). While such broad-based lists may be compiled in an effort to be inclusive--and certainly as a key recruitment strategy--they often have the opposite effect: marketing campaigns are diluted while entire segments of your targeted markets become suspicious or not interested.
Everyone Is No One in Particular As part of an initiative to increase participation in one organization's healthcare management conferences, I conducted a competitive profile of a year's worth of U.S.-based healthcare management conferences. (See my last column on competitive profiling in the March/April issue, page 68.) This analysis uncovered, among other things, that there was an association between attendance and segmentation. That is, programs meant to appeal to a broad audience tended to either maintain or lose market share, while those with a more specific purpose and targeted audience were more likely to flourish.
Focus groups and interviews with members of the targeted audiences revealed a perception that long lists of who should attend suggest that the purpose of a program is not specific--and thus is less appealing. Moreover, my research has suggested that professionals want to attend educational sessions and in general interact with like professionals, that is, peers and colleagues who have similar responsibilities and similar challenges.
The simple fact is that in meeting marketing, as in instructional design, one size does not fit all. Rather, broad-based marketing creates an ambivalence in the minds of the targeted prospects, who must look at the program and the offer, determine what percentage of it is most relevant to them, and then assess the risks of investing time and money in a meeting that they perceive may provide a less-than-complete return on their investment. Participants in my focus groups consistently identified only 20 to 35 percent of the typical CPE program as being "very relevant" to them. This suggests that our programs suffer from an identity crisis that is caused in part by not heeding one of Shore's Ten Commandments of Marketing Continuing Professional Education which can be represented by the equation E2=0. If you highlight everything, you highlight nothing.
Who Should Not Attend We all feel pressure to "fill the seats." However, if you do not feel you can reach your seat capacity with a highly defined program and marketing campaign, perhaps you should reconsider that particular activity, and review your needs assessment and market research efforts. Last time I checked there were ample numbers of surgeons and psychiatrists.
There are effective ways to describe your target audience. Consider the "Who should attend" from a conference sponsored by Forbes and the American Stock Exchange: "Participation is limited (emphasis added) to Chairmen, Presidents and CEOs of emerging and middle market companies with revenues up to $350 million"; or the defining title of an executive education program at the Harvard School of Public Health: "Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers." In both cases it is clear for whom the program has been developed.
Perhaps instead of listing who should attend, we should concentrate on who should not attend. An example might read: "Due to the importance of peer interaction and the level of material presented, it would be unusual for someone with less responsibility and experience than a CME director to be admitted to the program." Or alternatively we could simply list the program's benefits under the heading "Why you should attend" and let the reader decide. There are many creative ways to assist professionals in determining if your offering is for them.
One of CPE's most sacred promotional elements, the "open-house" approach to who should attend, has clear drawbacks. Whenever our programs and promotions employ the E2=0 philosophy, we might as well stamp our brochures Caveat Emptor: "Buyer Beware."