How to Customize the Event ExperienceDecember 1, 2013

No More 'One Size Fits All' By
December 1, 2013

How to Customize the Event Experience

No More 'One Size Fits All'

Johnston,Andy-IdeaGroup-110x140Andy Johnston is president and creative director of The Idea Group and is a sought-after industry expert in developing ingenious ways to engage and motivate audiences. Andy has extensive expertise in strategic planning, messaging, creative direction, marketing and events. He can be reached at or 404-213-4416.

You have an association filled with engaged, involved members. It’s easy to assume that everyone has the same priorities and expectations, just because they belong. You want to please everyone, so your events end up being like those sweatshirts from airport gift shops, the ones labeled One Size Fits All. The problem is: They fit everyone and no one equally well. You can change that and develop agendas that capture more of your members’ attention and build their loyalty with this one key strategy — by making them feel unique.

It’s the Experience

Producing an association event takes budgeting and planning to come up with the right combination of location and venue. But as important as those elements are, the reality is that your attendees don’t come for the city, hotel, food, speeches or various parties and activities. They come for the personal experience. Your attendees are looking for diverse opportunities to select powerful content that’s relevant to their specific needs and to leave with practical ways to use the information immediately.

You can break away from one-way communication at one-size-fits-all events and give your members more reasons to attend this year — and every year.

To create a unique experience, reorganize your planning around: Audience Segmentation; Focus on Function; and Target Sessions.

Audience Segmentation

Start by developing a better understanding of your membership. Inside your anticipated event audience will be smaller sub-groups of individuals who share the same interests and requirements. Audience segmentation helps you understand the needs and desires of every person you rely upon for success. For example, a civil engineer, a process engineer and a structural engineer don’t want or need the same conference information or support.

An audience segment is a group of people who share enough common situations, goals, functions or challenges to cause them to have similar needs.

Your most recent meeting participants are the greatest salesforce you can have for increasing membership.

As the first step in planning your next event, take the time to gather some fresh intelligence. We aren’t talking about demographic pie charts, renewal rates and membership totals: The goal is to better understand the current needs of the individuals who are your members. Take a closer look at people, not statistics. It is simple to do with an electronic survey. There are several online tools available. The trick is to make the survey simple and easy. Don’t make it too formal or long.

You want to give your members and attendees a direct voice into the content and design of your upcoming event. They get the opportunity to customize the experience to better match their specific needs, and your association gets members who are already engaged in your next conference before the first session even kicks off. Some of the things you might explore are: job function or responsibility; type of business; critical needs; expectations; top challenges and emerging issues; experience level; skill level.

About six months before the event send the survey to everyone who has attended your association conference in the past three years. That way you are engaging people who attend every year as well as those who haven’t for a while. Be sure to give them an email address where they can send more detailed suggestions if they wish. Then really listen to the answers.

Look for patterns you can target and areas where people overlap. Your only goal is to identify common objectives, topics, interests and needs. A major caveat: Don’t rely on registration data for segmenting your audience. It’s too little, too late. You have to segment the audience early in the planning stages and tailor the agenda to the results.

Focus on Function

The main areas where people split into natural groups are your audience segments. That’s where you want to focus your content and messaging. The key is to focus on function, not semantics. People who do similar things have common interests and goals. It really doesn’t matter what their titles might be — they perform the same jobs or pursue the same goals. These are the areas where attendees will need, appreciate and value the resources your event provides the most.

Segmentation makes the rest of your planning much easier. With your attendees divided into groups based around common interests, needs and functions, you can design your agenda and content with greater confidence than with any one-size event. You will find it easier to identify: high-interest topics; major issues; people the attendees want to meet; personal interests; personal priorities.

Segmenting your audience doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. It is simple common sense. You are looking to create a manageable number of groups with key things in common. Then you develop content and experiences to serve them.

Target Sessions

One-size-fits-all events often end up being general fly-overs from 30,000 feet where speakers attempt to offer something for everyone. The downside is that participants have to sit through 45 minutes of content that doesn’t interest them in hopes of finding that two-minute nugget. That’s why they call them “general” sessions.

Instead, design your agenda around a series of timely, Target Sessions that address each group’s specific needs. Let’s use an education conference as an example. The survey showed that middle-school teachers in urban areas want to offer more culture-based class activities but don’t have many resources. You start with that insight and build target sessions around it. Based on that realization, you can:

Develop two to three target sessions that give this audience segment real-world insight and detailed information about free resources in their states and school districts, plus an opportunity to share ideas and tips.

Identify education experts and cultural speakers who can lead a discussion on the impact of cultural knowledge on student achievement.

Offer valuable content participants can use immediately in their own classrooms and that will build session attendance.

The best target sessions take dead aim at the specific interests of your major audience groups and challenge you to fine-tune your content and step up its quality. But it’s worth it. The teachers in the example above will recognize the value they receive that goes far beyond exchanging their attendance for a few continuing education credits. Plus, you are giving them compelling reasons to attend and to encourage their professional peers to participate.

Your most recent meeting participants are the greatest salesforce you can have for increasing membership.

A Winning Strategy

It’s a winning strategy. Provide each person with the information, ideas, solutions and motivations they need to accomplish both your goals and their own. Simple audience segmentation, prioritization and focused content can shift a one-size-fits-all event design from what the organization or sponsor wants to say to vivid personal experiences where people get what they need and value.

Make your attendees feel unique and not one of a crowd by focusing on the functions, needs, motivations and goals your individual members have in common. It will pay off in a huge meeting success — the kind of meeting they will remember. Talk about. And make plans to attend again.

Create an interesting experience that makes them feel their time was worth the effort, and you will see them all again — next year.  AC&F

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