Marketing is the proverbial “name of the game” within the association conference and meeting arena. Just ask Ushma Suvarnakar, MTA, CMP, director of meetings and conferences at the American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Virginia. Suvarnakar recognizes that with the evolving economy, growth of social media and diminishing travel budgets, there is a lot of pressure on association planners to showcase their meeting as THE meeting to attend over others.
And Suvarnakar is not alone. More and more association planners are working to highlight all the new elements of their meeting or convention that differ from the experience of previous years. The result? Using unique marketing tactics has kept planners on their toes and kept them from producing the same and sometimes stagnant meetings year after year.
In the marketing management game, it’s all about getting people to remember your association, your convention, your products, your services and your brand. It’s the philosophy and core behind all business development. Marketing is the arena that puts the “big picture” perspective into focus and determines where an association makes (or breaks) its future. More and more event marketers and planners are realizing the important role marketing plays in making both immediate and lasting impressions on association members.
As Kelly Ricker, executive vice president, events and education at Downers Grove, Illinois-based Computer Technology Industry Association-CompTIA, explains, five to 10 years ago, it was much more acceptable to go to the same meetings year in and year out. The trips were routine and unmeasured. But today, attendees are under pressure to show a return on their investment, which includes both the hard travel and expense costs as well as the time out of office.
“While I never think meetings are going away, there is a great opportunity for more hybrid meetings that includes virtual conferencing. This is especially the case if there’s a high level of interaction between the in-person and the virtual audience.”
— Ushma Suvarnakar, MTA, CMP
“As a result, we’ve worked with our research team to build an arsenal of important stats proving our meetings are must-attend activities,” Ricker says. “For example, using the attendee survey for our largest conference, we were able to calculate ROI and actively promote that attendees could expect a return of $3 in value for every dollar spent to attend. We also know that nine out of 10 attendees realize a positive impact on their business when they participate in that conference. Data points like these are woven into all of our promotions and reinforce the value of attending.”
So how have the marketing initiatives of associations and their planners changed in recent years? Suvarnakar says there is most certainly a higher level of social media presence now versus even just five years ago.
“Most, if not all, industries are multigenerational and, there’s no one-size-fits-all marketing approach to attracting everyone,” Suvarnakar says.
The American Anthropological Association uses teaser promotional materials that have worked well.
“Withholding just a little bit of information piques the interest of attendees,” Suvarnakar says.
CompTIA has some tried-and-true activities they know are effective. These include email, at least one direct mail piece, and a telesales campaign using member engagement staff with whom attendees have a relationship.
“These are the workhorses of our plan, but we also inject a few new tactics every year to keep things fresh and increase our chances of gaining attention,” Ricker says. “We’ve done things like peer-to-peer email campaigns, running a pre-event video contest for exhibitors — encouraging participants to lobby for votes and therefore build awareness of our event with prospective attendees, and posting testimonial video clips from key executives to show we attract the who’s who of the industry.”
They also have conducted an exhibitor recruitment challenge by which companies receive credit for every registration they secure — complete with a leaderboard on their website to foster friendly competition; they have embedded a video message into email; bartered with media properties for valuable ad space and blog placements; and built strategic partnerships with related organizations that wanted to co-locate.
“These special features keep our event in the ‘must go’ versus ‘might go’ column,” Ricker says.
Mazda Miles, CMM, chief event strategist and president of Philadelphia-based Perfection Events Inc., plans meetings and events for associations such as the Philadelphia Direct Marketing Association, the National Association of Women Business Owners of Greater Philadelphia and the Project Management Institute. Through her experience, Miles has learned associations have traditionally used cost-based incentive models for boosting attendance — significantly reduced introductory registration rates, volume discounting for groups, travel scholarships, etc.
“In recent years, I have seen a shift to more content-based incentives, such as changing the makeup of the meeting to provide more in-depth opportunities for networking, increasing opportunities for CEUs and offering more dynamic programming,” Miles says. “I’ve seen that a healthy mix of cost- and content-based incentives work to increase attendance.”
As Miles explains, price-driven tactics are helpful for attendees who are getting financial support from their employer because they can make a strong case for going to a meeting, especially during times when budgets are constrained. Content-based tactics are most successful when attendees are paying some or part of the fees and travel, or are personally responsible for the budget expenditure and need to feel good about making the investment or personal sacrifice.
“From a content perspective, some of the most interesting ideas we’ve seen work include allowing attendees to build their own schedules based on the mix of knowledge and networking that works for them, finding non-traditional ways to provide CEUs like open forums or un-conference formats with facilitated learning opportunities and mobile workshops, which bring case studies to life via live tours or visits,” Miles says. “Highlighting the new and notable components of the meetings also have been attendance drivers.”
The most noticeable changes another expert has seen in the past few years involve the nearly complete transition from print to digital marketing. Print tactics — notably direct mail and print advertising — have been replaced by email, content marketing via social media, and digital advertising using mobile, pay-per-click and limited banner advertising.
This marketing expert suggests that direct mail is still used for prospecting, since email is ineffective for communicating with people who don’t know the sender, but for the most part, the bulk of marketing dollars are spent on digital tactics.
As with most businesses today, the access to members and potential attendees is much more prevalent via the internet and social media.
“Potential attendees have many more choices on how to spend their time and their money, which means we, as conference organizers, have to be much clearer on the value proposition for each conference,” says Phelps R. Hope, CMP, senior vice president, meetings and expositions at Atlanta-based Kellen, an association management company. “No longer is it just about the fun destination or a headliner keynote. Potential attendees want to know how they will benefit directly from attending conferences.”
For the past two years at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting, the organization implemented a fun challenge for attendees to post to social media using their meeting hashtag for a chance to win a free registration for the meeting the following year.
According to Suvarnakar, the results were two-fold. Not only did it help with the association’s social media presence; it also acted as free promotion through the eyes of an attendee.
“We added a few social media walls throughout the venue that aggregated all the posts through various social media platforms,” Suvarnakar says. “We would be remiss to not use social media for marketing purposes. There is a social media platform out there for everyone, regardless of generation. Attendees want a customized experience. This can only be accomplished through promoting the meeting through all the various channels out there.”
Social media also is an important component of CompTIA’s attendee recruitment plan. Many of their tech-savvy constituency automate their inboxes, sending mass communications straight to their delete folder, including CompTIA’s standard promotions and event newsletters.
“Through social posts we’re able to distribute short updates, links to important details, and draw attention to event news and calls to action,” Ricker says.
The use of social media also depends on the association, the industries served and primary demographic. The associations that Miles serves that skew to a more age mature audience spend more effort on email and postal mail pieces. Alternatively, the associations that are skewing to millennial or middle-aged audiences are using social media quite a bit.
“Regardless of the demographics, social media is a key component to any marketing plan, at least on some level, and the association just has to decide who they are looking to engage through the social media,” Miles says. “If targeting the millennial or technology sector, they are going to be more successful on a platform like Instagram. If they are reaching a broader audience, Facebook comes into play. I have also seen them use key management and executive staff to post updates on LinkedIn. These posts have been surprisingly popular, since attendees do respect association leadership, and view a LinkedIn post as a personal endorsement.”
And while social media appears to work for many associations, Hope’s experience is that it is best used to enhance member engagement while at the show. When used with an official trade show hashtag, social media posts can help members “continue” the session, and can open new friendships while there. It is important to take the time to build an active social channel before depending on this form of communication for urgent announcements. And when it comes to announcements, while everyone might have their own go-to social media channel from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, email is ubiquitous and can be the best direct form of communication, especially for schedule changes where you need more assurance you are reaching them.
Social media aside, there are some other key marketing tactics association meeting planners can and should be using to market their conventions and events.
Hope says it’s important that association planners are very clear on the return on their investment withstatements such as, “By attending this conference you will have the opportunity to meet with 27 new exhibiting vendors, experience a hands-on-class in technical software, hear from the keynote about the next three years globally in our industry and how the global economy will affect us, etc.
“These should be specific benefits, not just broad statements. That is what we have found attendees want to hear today,” Hope says.
Testimonials from peers are still the strongest qualifier for new or potential attendees, but Hope says those testimonials also have to be specific, such as “I learned how to use the new module of technical software and have since saved two hours a week in my efficiency, plus I was able to source a new vendor that has saved me and my team over $10 a day.”
Of course, with those tactics that work, there also are several that association planners need to avoid. For example, discounting registration fees are too transactional for the sophisticated attendee of today.
“Other marketing mistakes are usually around loosely worded messaging that is misleading or is so ‘sales-y’ that it actually turns people away,” Hope says. “The other mistake is a deep discount, which is too widely used and ends up costing the organization money because the details of the discount were not defined well enough.”
CompTIA learned that it’s a bad idea to employ any tactic that makes it too easy to register without a real intention to attend.
“For example, one year we made a huge effort to generate registrations while working our booths at other industry events,” Ricker says. “We did generate a ton of registrations and saw our pre-reg numbers skyrocket, but our no-show rate on those registrations was huge.”
Hope adds that the marketing tactics for association meetings will not evolve very quickly as associations often lag behind adopters of any new technology and processes.
“The emerging generations will want more interaction through social media platforms, but unless the association has its own social media tool — app — and supports it with a rich stream of content and constant daily updating, the app will be too passive and just another reference tool,” Hope says. “The messaging certainly will need to continue to evolve and be more specific and pointedly value-driven for the individual as time and money continue to be diminishing resources for attendees.”
Ricker believes the biggest challenge facing association planners and marketers is how to rise above the influx of messages fighting for our attention all day, every day.
“Cutting through the noise is tough today and will only get tougher in the future,” Ricker says. “Savvy event producers will craft nimble marketing plans that can be supplemented or tweaked when numbers are lagging. It’s important to mix old-school tactics and more current social media tactics, and keep current on new communication tools, platforms and channels to get your message out to the right people.”
The biggest mistakes the marketing expert sees consistently is the use of outdated databases. Without a good database of past attendees and prospects, an association can’t reach its full potential in terms of attendance, yet many associations struggle with having accurate and reliable databases.
A rule to consider: Any data that is more than three years old is obsolete because of employment turnover, yet many organizations use the same mailing lists for five or more years. Keeping a database constantly current and accurate is the single most important thing a show organizer can do.
As Suvarnakar points out, the meetings industry is constantly evolving and once implementing change and improvement stops, attendees start losing interest in the meeting.
“While I never think meetings are going away, there is a great opportunity for more hybrid meetings that includes virtual conferencing,” Suvarnakar says. “This is especially the case if there’s a high level of interaction between the in-person and the virtual audience.”
Miles advises association planners to remember that attendees are more savvy nowadays and are well aware of how to get their hands on information. They also are able to attend sessions close to home, with minimal cost, to obtain CEUs.
“This means we have to give them what they really need from us, which is the opportunity to connect with their peers from all over the country — and world, and learn from one another,” Miles says. “We have to be very clear about the value of live meetings and give them the opportunity to contribute to the format and outcome of the knowledge sharing. The future of marketing meetings is directly connected to building programs that are relevant and deliver the appropriate mix of rich peer-to-peer interaction and traditional learning.” AC&F