The goal of most corporate meeting departments is to plan programs that get high marks from attendees and save money in the process. David Rich would like to upgrade that goal by adding a bigger purpose for what you do, a purpose that already guides your company’s marketing events: growing the business.

“It’s a new way for meeting professionals to see the value of events, and to play a role within that greater value,” says Rich, senior vice president, strategy and planning worldwide, at George P. Johnson Experience Marketing in Boston, one of GPJ’s 30 offices worldwide. “Your stakeholders are looking to influence and persuade audiences in order to create business results, which means your meetings should be looked at as marketing.”

The shift in perspective could rewrite the meetings industry story. “We are not just putting on a meeting,” says Mark Shearon, managing director at Proscenium in New York. “We are driving a communications program that has an effect, and you can measure that effect. The meetings industry needs to think about things in that way. We need a mindset change. We are driving performance for our clients’ businesses and brands through a live event strategy. It’s just as important as advertising.”

In fact, those who now manage event marketing at your company—PR, marketing, communications, or perhaps the trade show division—are engaged in “portfolio planning,” explains Rich, which is the events equivalent of “media planning” in buying advertising. They’re choosing to invest in events that move people to action. So why isn’t your annual sales meeting or your recognition conference part of that portfolio?

Traditionally, it’s because their audiences are “internal” (employees). Marketing is considered “external”: It’s events are public-facing, such as user conferences or sports sponsorships, or  “business-to-business,” such as a trade show exhibits or channel partner events. But Rich sees event marketing broadening to encompass the “b-to-e” category, too. “Companies are realizing they need to treat their communication with employees with as much purpose and discipline as they treat communication with their customers.”
  

When Marketing Meets Events

1. Reconsider your role

When internal and external event strategy converges, there’s an opportunity for meeting planners to lead the charge—especially for those seeking that “seat at the table.”

“If you want to make yourself more valuable to your organization, see the world as more than ‘meetings,’ and methodically work to make your purview the whole range of events,” Rich says. “Meetings can be too narrow, and may disqualify you from impacting trade shows, product launches, sports and entertainment sponsorships, road shows, and more.” Having broadened your scope, and become the person who ensures all events are developed from a strategic orientation, know that you won’t also be planning events—not even your highest-profile one. After all, Rich says, “the head of advertising doesn’t write TV commercials.” 

2. Create better objectives

Stakeholders must be pressed to figure out what they want an event to do. Event marketers talk about this in terms of influencing attendees’ attitudes and feelings, and changing their behaviors, and they are accustomed to being in a room with planners and meeting owners and probing until they get to the core of the task at hand.

With the continued scrutiny of meetings, this is the time to launch such stakeholder meetings if they aren’t already part of your process. “People always knew meetings were necessary, but they didn’t know how necessary until they stopped and then people weren’t engaged,” says Jeff Kalpak, president of Barkley Kalpak Agency in New York. “When meetings found their legs again, there was more involvement of stakeholders across the board. Now you have a creative team that will sit down with the agency and really hash it out. Meetings are definitely better today because of it.”

And agencies bring techniques for designing the right experience, such as looking at objectives from an attendee’s point of view. This could mean having a representative of your audience in the room with you, Rich says, or putting yourselves in their shoes by creating a persona and asking questions like: What activates her? What is his relationship with our brand?

3. Extend your events

Meetings must be part of a long-term communication plan. “Events are moments in time,” says Rich. “In the context of experience marketing, though, they start well before opening day, and they continue well after the closing night. A big enabler of this is the broad range of digital technologies that help drive social engagement pre-, during, and post-event.”

Event marketers, says Kalpak, “think about a meeting as part of an overall experience to elicit change.” That could be a change in perception of a company or a brand, or reinforcement of training. “One client wanted to remind everyone of the experience of being together at a leadership conference, so every month she sent a photo or video from the event, along with a single relevant message.”

4. Explore new partners

What can event marketing agencies, who increasingly are working with “internal” meetings, bring to the table? It starts with what David Rich calls the “right insight”; that is, “knowing the levers to pull to reach, engage, and activate audiences toward an objective. It requires knowing the organization and its place in the market, and more important, the target audience and their relationship with the brand.”

Would you work with an agency on every meeting? No. Policy meetings, brainstorming, or other strictly work-focused meetings don’t need the full process. But they should be part of the branding conversation, and presented with a consistent look and feel.

At GPJ, client partnerships take a variety of forms, Rich says. Some clients have large meeting departments and hire GPJ for strategic and creative work and production on their highest-profile programs while in-house planners do other meetings; others may have small departments and work with GPJ to do strategy, design, production, and logistics for one or more events; and still others have a core group of managers partnering with agencies on all events.

As for pricing, some clients hire the agency for a project or series of projects, while others have GPJ on retainer (the term is “agency of record”) for strategizing and planning year-round. GPJ has staff members who are 100 percent dedicated to some corporate clients. “Part of our responsibility with those clients is to help them transform their event marketing so it is as powerful as possible and aligned with the way people consume information today,” Rich explains.

The point is that event marketing must change all the time because the world is changing all the time. An agency brings knowledge of those changes—and how other companies are adapting to them—to the design discussion for all clients. “We do 10,000 events worldwide,” says Rich. “We go to school every day on the volume of events we do.”

Agencies also spot trends. Jeff Kalpak sees companies today rethinking the agenda flow. “The impulse when meetings first came back [after rampant cancellations] was to cram the agenda with content,” he says. “It’s loosening up now as companies are realizing that shorter presentations are a better way to go. They are adding longer networking breaks, because they’re realizing that’s still business.” Besides, he adds, some are finding that if they plan shorter sessions and longer breaks, it’s more likely that attendees will turn off their devices during the sessions.

That’s not to say that content is less important because it gets delivered in smaller chunks—quite the opposite. “We are seeing a lot more emphasis on content,” Kalpak says.

5. Find new measurement

Post-meeting surveys are a given; it’s what they measure that could be improved. “The event management industry has been focused on attendee satisfaction,” says Rich. In event marketing, ‘satisfaction’ is the price of entry, and the real stakes are how effectively the experience moves the audience to act on the event’s objectives.”

If you can show that effectiveness, you’re a hero. “It’s hard to prove ROI, and everyone’s searching for the secret,” says Mark Shearon. “It’s easy if it’s a consumer program: ‘Before, we used to sell this much, now we sell this much. Okay, it worked.’ There’s a whole industry that just measures effectiveness of consumer programs. But even in this case, an event that contributes to sales growth is just part of a larger program.”

For b-to-b and b-to-e programs, he adds, “let’s fix on what we want behavior of people to be after the event, and let’s survey and see if their behavior changed the way we wanted it to.”

Jeff Kalpak sees less discussion if ROI as a financial measure and more attention paid to the engagement offered by interactive tools on site, from polling to surveys to apps: “It’s an immediate pulse check.”