In good fiscal years, as well as bad, the topic on every event planner’s mind is: How do we get people to sign up and attend our conference? Of course, in down economic times, that question takes on an even bigger urgency.
Although there is no secret sure-fire trick, experienced planners say there are actions that will prompt wavering attendees to sign up. In general, the tips revolve around marketing, programming and the ‘wow’ factor. Not every suggestion will work for every organization, the key — as with most things — is to figure out what works best for your group.
Perhaps the biggest suggestion is to understand the meeting’s purpose and benefits and then brand it with an all-out multimedia campaign. Sales management guru Lee Salz says that in order to attract an audience, planners must: highlight the issue; explain its impact or urgency (why does the event matter); describe how the event will help address the issue; call out the key takeaways; and establish the credibility of the speaker and content.
Dianne Budion Devitt, president of New York City’s DND Group, says the first question to ask is: “‘Why are we having this meeting?’ Is it for education, training, networking, recruitment, celebration [or] acknowledgement? How do retail stores lure customers in? The answer is in the form of an incentive and addresses the simplest human need — what’s in it for me?”
Chris Brown, exhibit manager for Association Headquarters in Mt. Laurel, N.J., suggests marketing as soon as the basics are finalized — date, place and keynote speakers. “No longer can you market the traditional 90 days before an event and expect attendance,” he says.
Michael Faye, president of AssociaDirect Inc., a Chicago-based firm that creates campaigns that address member recruitment, retention and conference support, advises looking beyond traditional marketing. “E-mailing as a marketing tool is fairly dead,” he asserts. “[Mobile phone] apps are the new marketing channel, and they offer the greatest benefit because they can be monetized.” he says. “You can communicate in real time with updates about the meeting. You can register them and engage them in the meeting right up to the time it takes place [and] during, and then follow-up.” (Eventmeasurement411.com has a great post on what you need to consider when developing a custom app. — Ed.)
Creative marketing tactics now rule, says a white paper by Denver-based Fathom Business Events. Consider shooting a humorous event video that can be used in several ways, including as an event invitation. Share it via e-mail and social networks, or post it to the organization’s website and e-newsletters. Produce a short event trailer that gives a sneak preview of the event and takeaways that can be posted on websites and social networks.
Fathom also recommends providing a promotional toolkit to raise awareness and create viral marketing opportunities for audiences and influencers. Some ideas could be developing a dedicated microsite or webpage for shareable digital assets such as: an event badge for attendees to post on their personal sites, showing they are attending; event posters or postcards that can be downloaded; sample Web, newsletter, blog and e-mail blast copy; and widgets for event countdowns and updates.
Dawn Hopkins, director of creative outreach marketing for Minneapolis, Minn.-based Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater, has seen a recent increase in customized video invites and an emphasis on building incredibly detailed event-specific websites. “Give your meeting a personality,” she says. “Create a character-based, event-specific presence within a social media community to build pre-meeting, behind the scenes excitement.”
Taking a different tack is Patti D. Hill of Austin, Texas-based Penman Public Relations, who uses the power of the press. She looks at the event’s programs and gleans potential story ideas or writes byline pieces that are (hopefully) picked up in trade publications. “We believe that if you educate your target audience — and that includes people not on your e-mail lists — more about what’s going on at the event and they read about it in the media, they’ll get excited and sign up.”
Besides marketing the event itself, the two other biggest draws are the speakers and the location. Meeting planners say both are important in swaying an indecisive audience. Fathom believes in bringing in expert opinion leaders and inspirational speakers — or “big guns,” who are highly relevant to their target audience. But just as important, their report says, is to “make the most of presenters, top employees and other influencers’ resources by encouraging them to evangelize the event.” Ask presenters to mention the event on their blogs, update their Facebook pages or LinkedIn statuses, or tweet about the event. Reach out to relevant online influencers such as bloggers and Twitter users, inviting them to attend and share information with their networks.
As with real estate, location as an incentive is important — to a degree. There are some cities, such as Las Vegas, New York and Miami that are attendee magnets. Another suggestion is to book a new “hot” hotel rather than the usual convention venues. Activities during the convention also help, especially if they support attendees’ goals and objectives. For example, if networking is important, then create structured opportunities around networking. “Are these extras reasons why people sign up?” Brown asks. “No. But it helps.”
Helping a potential attendee convince the boss of the worthiness of the meeting is an important tool that also boosts attendance. Lisa E. Burton, vice president of Atlanta-based Meeting Expectations Inc., helps meeting planners produce “justification letters.” “It talks about the benefits from the meeting and what they will get out of it,” she says. “It gives the reasons why that person should go.” She also provides a follow-up paper so attendees can take notes on whether the objectives were met, key contacts and how to apply what was learned back at the home office. “Budgets are tight, and if you can’t justify the expense to the supervisor, no amount of marketing will help.”
Brown believes that being transparent about expenses actually helps sell the meeting. “Create a website page that helps calculate the expenses — everything from the hotel to the $20 taxi ride. People can take that to their superior and justify the cost right on the spot. It works.”
So do all these tips work? The experts swear they help, but maybe Brown is right when he gets back to the basics of why a meeting is held in the first place. “Honestly,” he says, “I think if the individual topic of the meeting is worthy and meets personal and professional goals, people will come if you held it in a garage.”