Social media is a great tool for staying in touch with members, providing educational resources and building relationships with stakeholders. It’s also playing an increasingly important role in marketing conferences, trainings and other special events.
“It’s a key component of our clients’ campaigns for driving registration pre-event as well as creating buzz during the event,” says Julie Parsons, managing director of Fixation, a strategic marketing firm that focuses on associations. “It’s safe to assume most (if not all) of your prospective attendees are using social media, making it a great opportunity to communicate with them — through organic content and paid advertising — in addition to the other channels you’re utilizing as part of an integrated campaign.”
However, “if someone thinks you can put a post up and say ‘come to our conference’ and provide a link to register, they’re dreaming,” says Neil O’Keefe, senior vice president of content and marketing for the Data and Marketing Association. “I think those days are long gone. It has to be engaging content.”
As is true of any marketing effort, a social media campaign designed to boost event attendance must be well thought out and well executed. It starts with understanding your audience and looking at your existing event marketing strategy. From there, it’s important to understand what social media channels work best for different messages and what types of content is needed to create that necessary audience engagement.
Add a budget line item for social media advertising. Most experts agree that boosting or promoting posts is a good way to extend the reach of popular posts. Then get ready to dive in and have fun.
Facebook is still the largest social media site, which means it has the broadest audience. But from a business and event marketing perspective, Baker isn’t the biggest fan. “I think it’s really good for what it was made for socially,” she says. “But people end up rambling and doing paragraph-long stuff and people don’t read it.”
“From a paid perspective we find Facebook to be the most important platform,” says O’Keefe. However, the association gets a higher level of engagement on Twitter.
“I would say that Twitter is our primary channel for communicating information,” says Duke Fanelli, chief marketing officer for the Association of National Advertisers. “That’s how we share a lot of our news, whether it’s content or event-related.”
Instagram is becoming an increasingly important tool. “Using it as a means to promote our event is somewhat new in the last two years, but this year we’re doing it with earnest,” says O’Keefe. “We can show from the numbers that we’re getting better engagement through Instagram than the other sites.” He believes Instagram works best for events with a significant visual component.
“What got us doing it is we have an awards program that’s global in nature, and it attracts some of the greatest agencies and creatives in the world.”
— Neil O’Keefe
The ability to show their work and engage with them on Instagram made a lot of sense.
But any group that likes to take and share engaging photos can do well on the platform. “We use Instagram to have fun,” says Fanelli. “We share photos of what’s going on at events, what’s going on with the staff, and when we attend member meetings.”
Instagram has several features that make it challenging from a marketing perspective. “There’s not an ability, at least at our account level, to have a link directly to the event from the post,” says O’Keefe. “You can do a link in your bio.” There’s also no easy way for a person to share a photo and associated post with their followers. But at a time when visual content is so important, it’s often worth working around those quirks.
“One (social media site) I think people forget about is LinkedIn,” says Baker. “When people are doing business events and conferences that are education-based, LinkedIn is still a really good resource. They have these tools including InMail, where you can send things straight into someone’s inbox. They don’t have to follow you.”
Fanelli does some event promotion on LinkedIn, but he prefers to take a more social approach. “We encourage staff to post on their personal accounts to promote conferences and share what’s happening in the organization,” he says. “We’ve found that to be fairly successful. Not everyone does, but those that do, reach audiences that we as an organization wouldn’t be able to.”
In the end, though, what social media channels will work best for your association depends on the behavior of your audience. Their needs and interests can vary greatly from industry to industry, says Parsons. “We recommend auditing and testing all channels to determine where to focus your investment.”
When it comes to promoting conferences and other events, there’s widespread agreement that video is important. “This is probably no secret to anyone, but we’ve found video to be very valuable in terms of getting people to at least engage with us,” says Fanelli. “We go out of our way to create speaker interviews and sizzle reels we can use to demonstrate what people get if they attend.”
“I don’t think I can stress enough that video is important,” says O’Keefe. “In the last two years we’ve really stepped up the use of video.” They cut content into segments of between 30 seconds and 1 minute 20 seconds for use in social posts.
Beyond video, O’Keefe promotes DMA’s major conference by sharing information about major speakers. “A member is writing profiles on each of our key speakers, and we’re posting those as blogs and sharing them through social. We’re also working with influencers to spread those further. In every one of those instances we’re tagging the speaker’s handle and their company’s handle.
“This year there’s a lot of key issues that we’ll play off of,” he adds. Many of their event promotions will focus on what attendees can learn about pending regulatory issues, key public relations messages and other topics that are on people’s minds.
“I think paid is definitely required now,” says O’Keefe. “What I think is amazing about it is anyone can get involved. It’s incredibly simple. It’s also incredibly simple to spend a lot of money, but they do allow you to manage your posts and you can do it for as little as a few dollars a day.”
Social media sites regularly change their algorithms to reconfigure which posts subscribers see. There’s been a lot of concern that recent changes from Facebook in particular would result in a big decrease in organic or native traffic for many businesses, which would mean they’d have to pay if they wanted their posts to be seen at all.
However, Fanelli says he hasn’t found that to be the case. “We use the paid component really just to give us a boost,” he says. “I wouldn’t say the organic is dwindling, but we do try to energize the (promotional posts) with some paid behind them.”
That means associations are using boosted or promoted posts less to be seen by their loyal followers, and more to be seen repeatedly or ensure their message is landing in front of its target market. Kiki J. Fox, president of the Association for Women in Events (AWE), says her organization recently added a small budget for social media advertising. “A lot of our events, such as our webinars, are members only. But if we have something come up that everybody can attend, such as an AWE board member speaking at an event or a meet-and-greet in a particular city, we’ll give it a quick boost. It’s nice to have that reassurance that it’s hitting some of the audience you want to get.”
One of the best things about social media advertising is that you can get real-time results for any campaign. “You can find out quickly if the visual or the ad or the graphic works,” says Baker. Use that information to continue paying for the posts that are doing the best job of reaching your intended audience and inspiring them to take action.
When putting together a paid social media campaign, “make your message fun,” Fox says. “Because it’s on social media, you don’t want to make it your standard advertising. People are there for a social reason, so you want to make it lighter and a little exciting. Showcase something about your event that’s not on your website. Or highlight something fun about your show that makes people think.”
While paid advertising is a powerful and popular tool, it may become less important if you really invest in your audience and message development up front. “Someone I’m working with now, we have not done any paid posts,” Baker says. “We really honed in on the things I mentioned before — using good graphics, really honing the message, looking at the psychographics, using hashtags — then looking at platforms and where we’re interested in being seen.”
Another strategy for growing your organic or native reach is to plan virtual events. The Data and Marketing Association has had good luck promoting &THEN, its largest event, through regular Twitter chats with industry influencers. They typically take place in the summer, just as promotion for the October conference is ramping up. “We pull everyone together around three or four in the afternoon and have a conversation around key topics,” O’Keefe says. “We find that drives significant engagement with social. We tie that into some type of announcement or price change (such as a discount code) with the event, and that usually leads to a big spike in ticket sales.”
A Twitter chat or similar effort can be a good way to get yourself in front of your intended audience before you start promoting your conference, which is important, Baker says. She works with many brands that are frustrated because no one is responding to their event posts. Oftentimes the reason is people don’t know anything about them or what they have to offer. “People need to be used to you being part of the conversation. Posting when we have something to say instead of being part of the conversation continuously isn’t as effective.”
Another way to become known to your audience on Twitter and Instagram is to use industry hashtags or common hashtags for “days” such as Motivation Monday, Wednesday Wisdom and Throwback Thursday. Hashtags do a great job of getting your posts in front of more eyeballs. Liking or commenting on people’s posts also helps them connect with the users behind the handles and begin building knowledge and trust.
It’s also vitally important to tag speakers, companies, sponsors and any other relevant stakeholders when you’re posting about them on social media. When you tag someone in a post, they know you’re talking about them. It makes it much more likely they’ll share or retweet your message. Sponsors in particular love to be called out, O’Keefe notes.
Make sure you identify any unique hashtags used by the people or businesses you’re tagging and include them in your posts. “If you have someone who’s considered a celebrity in their industry, their fans may be looking them up via their hashtag and not their handle,” Baker says. And if you haven’t already, establish a hashtag for your event. In future years, potential attendees will be able to follow that thread and see how their peers benefited from what they learned.
Consistency in messaging is vital to the success of any marketing effort. That’s a big reason DMA’s event marketing efforts follow an omnichannel strategy rather than a multichannel one.
“In a multichannel effort, you’re attempting to be everywhere but not necessarily connected across all channels,” says O’Keefe. “We want to create an on-brand experience across all channels. That includes our printed catalogs and brochures, print ads in magazines, social media, search engine marketing, search engine optimization and remarketing.”
Parsons’ team took a similar approach when marketing the 2016 Summer Fancy Food Show for the Specialty Food Association. “We launched an advertising campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using creative that featured people eating specialty food. It was eye-catching and playful, with a punchy headline that made you want to learn more about the show. This was part of a successful integrated campaign — including direct mail, email, search engine marketing and traditional media — that increased their buyer registration from the previous year and resulted in one of their most successful shows.”
Following this model and ensuring an event’s social media campaign is consistent will all other marketing efforts will lead to the greatest success. But one important thing to note is that this doesn’t mean you should post identical content to every social media platform. Your audience is likely to be slightly different between the various sites, which means different things will appeal to them. Identify what types of posts generate the most engagement on your Facebook page, and see how that differs from what earns retweets or shares on Twitter or LinkedIn. Messages on the different sites can be adapted to audience needs as long as they’re consistent with your overall branding.
Social media isn’t just about pushing your message out to potential participants. It can also be a rich source of information that will make people feel they can’t miss your event. The Association for Women in Events hosts regular Twitter chats and discussions in their private Facebook group. When a question generates high interest or a passionate response, “we know those are good discussions to continue,” says Fox. “It can help you see the trends that are popular and help you shape what you’re going to talk about at your conferences.”
When it comes to talking about your gathering on social media, Baker encourages meeting organizers to get involved and not leave the campaign entirely to the marketing department. “Some planners are fearful of going into social media because they’re always in the planning mode. But I’m always an advocate of planners being part of the conversation. Nine times out of 10 they know the audience better than the marketers. They have really good insight into the audience because they’re the ones actually on the ground. And who knows better than the people on the ground? AC&F