Even at trade shows, where the exhibition component is the major draw, educational content remains a strong attendance-builder — but only if planners have a comprehensive — and strategic — marketing and promotional plan in place to keep the buzz going.
The American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) Global Pet Expo, which took place in March at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, includes an Academy with 29 sessions covering numerous topics of interest to the nearly 7,000 pet product retailers who attend. “The Academy has definitely grown,” remarks Andrew Darmohraj, executive vice president and COO of the APPA. “In 2015 we had more than double the sessions that we had in 2013. That’s (based on) a direct response from the retailers. They’re coming to the show not only to see product, but they’re also looking for ways to improve their business and the way they run their business.”
“In 2015 we had more than double the sessions that we had in 2013. That’s (based on) a direct response from the retailers. They’re coming to the show not only to see product, but they’re also looking for ways to improve their business.” — Andrew Darmohraj
Session topics at the 2015 Academy included The Ten Commandments of Merchandising, Pet Food Information, Going Green, and Surviving and Thriving in Retail. Why Competition Is Good For You was a particularly hot topic, “because it’s very easy to say that big-box retailers can be damaging to independent retailers, but if you run your business the right way, you can be just as competitive,” Darmohraj explains. Also very well attended was Marketing to Millennials Using Social Media, given the timeliness of the topic.
While a broad spectrum of relevant content is definitely a selling point to potential attendees, content marketing must be focused on the topics and speakers that are likely to most spark the interest of the core membership, or a particular segment. It is quite possible to overwhelm one’s audience with messages that promote too much of the upcoming convention’s content. “Lately we’ve been trying to focus on one topic at a time,” says Linda Jones, marketing director, educational events, American Society on Aging (ASA). “We have our weekly newsletter, and also around conference time we’ll do an extra promotion, and in those materials we’ll focus on one particular topic that we know is going to be a big draw. Then we note the sessions and events that are going to be addressing that topic, with links to more information.” Among the topics that are receiving strong attention in the field of aging are Medicare-related issues, elder abuse, preparing for an aging population at social and governmental levels, and Alzheimer’s. “Alzheimer’s is always a big topic at our conference, and I will do specific (marketing) messages (for sessions) on Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia,” says Jones. “I will also ask for help from our partners at the Alzheimer’s Association or send to lists of Alzheimer’s care facilities to segment (the messaging) to that particular audience, and that tends to work fairly well.”
Reflecting the content decision process of many associations, the ASA relies on a call for papers and peer review to determine the sessions at its Aging in America Conference. “Every once in a while we will override the peer reviewers’ decisions, but only if we see a really critical topic that needs to be addressed or if we happen to know a certain presenter is really good,” says Jones. Some associations also rely on member surveys for input on assembling highly relevant content.
The APPA, for example, supplements its call for speakers with a post-show attendee survey to determine topics for next year’s Academy. “We have about 6,000 buyers that come into the show, and we get a couple hundred survey responses. It’s not a huge number, but the people who take time to fill out the surveys really are interested in giving their feedback and helping us form the show, so we get some pretty strong ideas from them,” Darmohraj explains.
Keeping these questionnaires relatively brief is one key to maximizing participation. “We got to a point, seven or eight years ago, where our post-show survey was 40 questions, and we’re down to 20 now,” he says. “We found that we get a much better response when we drill down and ask the questions that we feel are the most important.” Some well-intentioned attendees may start to complete the survey, but if they don’t see the progress meter on the screen move fast enough, they may abandon their effort, Darmohraj observes. Surveys also send an implicit message to members that the organization values their opinions and is deeply interested in meeting their educational needs at future conventions.
Lisa Astorga, CMP, director of meetings at the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH), sees the survey as a “formal communication” from meeting presidents to the membership. About a year ago, the ISTH sent out its first survey, which received “a great response,” she says. “The meeting presidents are keen on being very inclusive, which means reaching out to all of those that are contributing to the field to see exactly where we should be trending.”
Achieving a balanced mix of topics is easier for some associations than others.
In general, the more professionally diverse the membership base, the more challenging it will be to answer to everyone’s interests. The Global Pet Expo, for example, focuses its content mainly on the independent retailers, who comprise the segment of the membership “most looking for education,” notes Darmohraj, “so pretty much all of our content is geared toward them. We have distributors, international buyers and mass-market retailers. We might do one or two sessions geared toward those attendees, but the majority are for the independents.”
In contrast, the ASA members looking for education are much more diverse. The Society’s 5,000 members include practitioners, educators, administrators, policymakers, businesspeople, researchers and students. The multidisciplinary audience is concerned with various aspects of aging: physical, emotional, social, economic and spiritual. “That’s my blessing and my challenge,” says Jones. “The multidisciplinary aspect is actually something that interests a lot of people because they do like to (engage) other points of view. So people really like that about our conference, but at the same time it is difficult to be everything to everyone. It definitely is challenging to make sure we get a good mix across the board of sessions that represent all of our members’ interests.”
From a marketing perspective, the ASA often faces the challenge of making a case for the value of education on aging to professionals in a variety of fields. “It’s about working with those core audiences, but it’s also about looking for new audiences, new markets that might be interested in our content,” says Jones. “We try to convince them that this is important information: Even though you don’t necessarily see yourself in the ‘aging field,’ this is something that’s probably going to impact you at some point in your career, and it’s good to know.” Among the types of professionals the ASA has reached out to are elder law attorneys, financial professionals and recreational professionals, as well as physicians and healthcare administrators. “It’s just a matter of seeing who would really benefit from this content, and in which cases are we just spinning our wheels. There is a lot of trial and error,” she says.
Invariably there also will be some trial and error in exploring marketing channels for educational content, as an association has to determine the best avenues to reach its members and potential members. Unlike many associations, for example, the APPA continues to use direct mail along with e-marketing. The independent retailers receive a brochure with educational session descriptions and speaker bios. Many are small-business owners, and the association has found that the physical pieces still resonate with them. “Obviously everyone has smartphones and computers now, but we’re never sure which touchpoint is going to be the one that gets them to pay attention,” says Darmohraj. “So we want to make sure that we take every opportunity to get our content in front of them. I’ve actually seen people come into the building with those seminar brochures in their hand, so they definitely use them.”
For some organizations, direct mail is eschewed for budgetary reasons, and digital marketing takes the spotlight. “We’re definitely doing more with social media,” says Jones. “We’re looking into LinkedIn advertising, for example, and we’re definitely increasing our presence on Twitter and Facebook as well. That’s something I continually research.” E-marketing has been honed into an art form by many associations, and like social media, it is an immediate way to get the conference content in view of potential attendees. “We’ll start to market the information as soon as we have it,” says Astorga. “Obviously the first components that are placed are the plenary session speakers, so as soon as they’re confirmed we start to promote them in our email as well as on our website.”
Louise Bannon, director of marketing and membership for ISTH, shares her top three tips for email marketing:
“These tips have allowed us to continue to build our program and increase the number of attendees at meetings, participation in educational opportunities and overall member engagement.”
E-communication is just one channel in the multipronged approach the ISTH uses to promote its conference content, along with a multitude of social media sites, websites (ISTH and meeting-specific), advertising, online calendar inclusions and collateral.
The importance of tip No. 3 in guiding the marketing strategy can’t be overemphasized. “We are able to evaluate the success of our tactics via online analytics and statistics from those who open our emails and click through to additional information, and evaluating where most of our traffic comes from to the meeting website,” says Bannon. “Based on those numbers, we make marketing discussions accordingly.” The ASA also tracks the success of promotions through discount codes, making use of them “as much as possible,” says Jones. “So we have special messages going out to particular groups, and then we’ll be able to track who actually registered based on that particular promotion.”
Promotional messaging from the association itself is, of course, indispensable, but some of the most impactful messages come from other sources, such as “evangelist” members and conference speakers. The ASA, for example, seeks to feature conference marketing messages from its board members and broader membership base. “We will ask each board member to send (a message) digitally to their contact list,” says Jones. “Sometimes they want to customize it and have it in their own words, saying ‘I went to the session and this is what I got out of it.’ But many times, especially in the case of members beyond the board, I’ll craft a message for them. And nine times out of 10 they send it out verbatim. I’ve learned that you’ve got to make it as easy as possible for them.”
To introduce members to conference speakers and whet their appetite for the content, the APPA sends out short video previews created by some of its speakers, discussing their upcoming session. “We also have some of the speakers blog so that the retailers can see what they’re going to be talking about, and then the blogs are very prominently located on our website once we have the full content in place,” says Darmohraj. It is not generally a challenge, he notes, to get speakers to contribute to the promotional effort in these ways. “Because a lot of them are already in the pet industry, they’re very excited to be part of the program, and they feel very strongly about their session. So (they’re very amenable) to doing a couple of hundred words for a blog post, or to record themselves for a minute or two. We’ve actually gotten a really good response.”
Post conference, sessions captured on video are a convenience to members, who can access sessions they missed or review the content. But they also serve a promotional function, allowing those who did not attend, including those who have never attended the convention, to become engaged with the kind of content offered. Care should be taken, however, in selecting the most engaging sessions for this purpose. Jones observes that “sometimes a speaker who is really dynamic in person is not always going to have that same (impact) in the online format. So we’ve had a few cases where we’ve tried to convert sessions, and sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s not.”
While associations work hard to develop and promote engaging content for their target audience, they need not work in silos. Forging partnerships with each other can certainly be advantageous, where such a partnerships would lead to improved content offerings for both memberships.
The APPA, for example, runs the Global Pet Expo along with the Pet Industry Distributors Association. “The content people on our side get together with the content people on their side, and we decide which sessions we’re going to do the following year,” Darmohraj explains.
The ISTH has partnership-building as an ongoing goal: “We place a huge importance on building relationships with related societies and those organizations in relevant specialties that would fit naturally with our mission and would offer opportunities for cross-educational offerings and more,” says Bannon. And the ultimate goal goes beyond education and content delivery: “Our primary focus is to build a collaborative community of clinicians, researchers and educators from around the world who are interested in exchanging ideas, insights and information in the quest to improve patients’ lives.” AC&F