Messaging tailored to certain kinds of potential conventioneers within an association’s membership sounds quite strategic. But in reality, segmented marketing is best thought of as an approach or practice that calls out for a strategy. What kinds of members will be targeted, and why? What method of outreach will be most appropriate to that segment? The decision to “get granular” with convention marketing is a good start to improving the initiative, but it’s merely where strategic thinking begins. After all, developing such a program takes added time and resources, and the ROI (i.e., improved attendance numbers and/or quality of attendees) cannot be left to chance.
Two extremes arguably should be avoided: not segmenting at all and segmenting excessively and indiscriminately. “We often find that clients aren’t doing any segmentation to begin with,” notes Barbara A. Myers, CAE, vice president, association services for Arlington, Virginia-based IMN Solutions, which launched IMN Event Solutions this year. “Associations have their databases, and when it comes conference time, they might be just marketing to past conference attendees in a very generic way.” Myers, who formerly served as vice president of professional development at the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE) and COO at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, has “gone through many exercises” in both these roles in trying to achieve good segmentation for marketing purposes. Without such legwork, one may fall prey to the other extreme: segmenting indiscriminately based on a slew of demographic information and other statistics about members.
“It can get crazy; you can have hundreds of marketing staff and still not segment enough,” observes Wendy Holliday, vice president, attendee acquisition and experience, with Twinsburg, Ohio-based Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.
As a first step, Holliday suggests streamlining the segmentation to certain kinds of desirable attendees. “Suppose we want landscape businesses to come to our event. Well, that’s a pretty broad category. So within that category you want to think about who are those top two segments that you want to see: For example, is it the CEOs of the companies, is it landscape businesses that have 10 or more employees?” she explains. “That’s not saying you don’t want to see other (kinds of attendees), but who are those top two groups that your sponsors or your exhibitors want to see?” That marketing focus can be complemented by some of the “standard segments,” such as members who live near the convention site or those who have only attended once. The idea is to select three to five meaningful segments and then do catch-all marketing for the rest of the membership. This becomes a manageable initiative for what may be a small in-house marketing and communications staff.
Pinpointing the desirable attendees may require some research, such as polls, interviews and focus groups with exhibitors and sponsors in order to find out who they want on the exhibit floor and why. The convention content that would attract those buyers can then be highlighted in the messaging, an initiative that itself may call for research. “You ask those attendees, what problems are you trying to solve? And then, for example, you can send a message to a CEO of this landscape group and point out two or three sessions that meet a problem that you know they have,” Holliday advises. At minimum, polling should be conducted after each annual convention, but interviews and focus groups with members and exhibitors can be held periodically throughout the year.
As member profiles in an association’s database become increasingly detailed, research into their content interests will be eased. “Just like every association, we’re working on how much we learn about each person, what their special interests are, what conferences they go to, which books they buy and so forth,” says Mary Mackay, marketing director of the Chicago, Illinois-based American Library Association. Ideally, the profiles that reflect these interests will not be compiled through surveys. “We want members to have control of their own profiles,” says Mackay, adding that ALA’s ITTS department is working to augment the fields in the profiles to allow members to include more detail. Messaging then can be tailored to the career levels, specializations and interests members identify in their profiles.
“We do enough different types of member e-blasts that we hope that each type of member or member interest is going to be touched by one of the e-blasts they get.” — Mary Mackay
“We do enough different types of member e-blasts that we hope that each type of member or member interest is going to be touched by one of the e-blasts they get,” says Mackay. While the ALA is working on enriching its member profiles, fortunately the organization is “already structured in ways that help us target and segment,” she adds, “because we have 11 divisions and several other units within the association, and we use those lists in targeted ways. So if we have content that is appropriate for academic librarians, for example, we can reach out just to that group and those who identify themselves as interested in that topic.”
APCO also takes a content-based approach to segmentation, Myers recalls. “In terms of helping to increase attendance at our annual conference, one of the ways that we tried to segment our target audience was by content. So instead of sending email blasts related to education to everyone on our list, we extracted specific tracks. For example, we created a CEO-level track, and we would send just the CEOs and other V.P.s the info on that track, (stating) why the event would help them specifically, and we would create marketing plans around the segments,” she explains. The content at the conference, and the messaging that advertises it, also can be geared toward hot areas in the field and the professionals working in those areas. “We were trying to identify the segments that had the largest growth potential,” Myers says. “We felt there would be more of an IT focus in public-safety communications, so we added a lot more IT content for the conference. And we looked at who in our database had IT-related titles, goals, etc. But we supplemented that with new lists because we were trying to break into a new market very focused on IT.”
A different breed of segmentation is based not on attendees’ content interests, but their level of engagement with the convention, as represented by frequency of attendance. Dave Martin, vice president, marketing and content for the Washington, DC-based Electronic Retailing Association, is responsible for registration revenue, and PR and marketing around the ERA’s D2C Convention, with attendance ranging from 3,400–4,000. The marketing push focuses heavily on the retailers (i.e., those who manufacture, produce and sell infomercial products) as opposed to the suppliers. “If they come, the suppliers come,” he says. Beginning with the smaller Great Ideas Summit held this year, that audience has been segmented into “paid loyalists,” i.e., those who have attended the event the last three years, and “one-timers,” those who have attended once over that period. “We measure very closely the percentage of total registrants who are loyalists. It’s one of our key performance indicators,” notes Martin. “So if we’re getting around 50 percent paid loyalists we’re in good shape. The other segment we’re focused on is one-timers, who we need to convert to loyalists.”
The messaging to loyalists is along the lines of: “You’ve attended often over the last few years, so you know how important this show is. You’re one of the leaders in the industry, a ‘mover and a shaker,’ and we want you back…” For a one-timer, the call to action would identify the loyalists as “dealmakers” and then urge that member to “join the dealmakers’ club. You attended once, and we want to convert you to become part of that elite group.” Both of these kinds of personalization are clearly more powerful than the generic “Registration is now open. Please register.”
Onsite at the convention, the ERA pursues a similar kind of segmentation, with first-time attendees receiving a first-timer’s ribbon to wear (voluntarily) and having the opportunity to attend special orientations, meetings with board members and so on. The ribbon enables more seasoned delegates to identify and engage with first-timers. “We’ll also have a ribbon for loyalists this year, in order to give them a little more visibility, with the idea of connecting them to the first-timers and converting them,” Martin explains.
Young professionals, who represent the future of a given field, are typically a key demographic to target in convention marketing. One issue that the ISPE faced with young pharmaceutical industry professionals, according to Myers, is that there was a “tendency for potential members to engage in their own online communities and not be part of a membership organization.” The association thus launched a marketing campaign targeted to that segment, featuring a track with topics specifically designed for young professionals. Gamification was also part of the approach. For example, if they correctly answered a question based on a case study, they were entered into a drawing to win a free registration. In addition, testimonials from young professionals who had enjoyed a rewarding time at previous conventions were included in the messaging. “We sent a letter from one of the young professionals on how the conference helped their career,” Myers adds.
While the campaign ultimately resulted in increased registration from that segment, the ROI was not immediate. “The first year you create the awareness, but in my experience, it does take a couple of years to really get a segment to understand the benefits of being in that group,” Myers comments. “Especially with young professionals, year one and two you’re creating the buzz and value proposition to that segment, and once you lay that foundation (the campaign) recruits a lot of young professional ‘evangelists.’ And then it takes on a life of its own and grows larger each year. So don’t expect to see 10–20 percent growth the first year.”
The portion of the membership that does not attend the convention can be the largest segment to target, and it’s an important one. “For most associations there’s a very small percentage of the overall membership that ends up going to your annual meeting,” Myers says. “For example, APCO had a membership of 15,000, and only 2,500–3,000 came to our annual meeting.” A non-attender survey can reveal some of the “barriers” to participation that then can be addressed in the marketing campaign, from travel expense to lack of time to a perceived low return on attending. One segment that often can attend with less travel expense is the membership that’s local to the convention site, and for that reason associations typically do a regional marketing push as the event draws near.
That kind of marketing will typically be what is described as outbound marketing, consisting of calls-to-action to potential attendees via email, direct mail, telemarketing, etc. But in general, many associations are putting more emphasis on inbound marketing, where content is developed that draws members to engage with the organization. These media can include blogs, e-newsletters, white papers, etc. The term “inbound marketing” was coined by HubSpot CEO and Co-founder Brian Halligan, and the ERA has recently begun managing its inbound marketing content via HubSpot’s platform, which also enables gathering analytics and search engine optimization. “Using HubSpot we can change the messaging, whether it’s in emails, on landing pages, etc., to essentially recognize loyalists and one-timers,” says Martin. “So we’re using smart content: If it’s a paid loyalist, use this message; if it’s a one-timer, use this other message. If we put out a blog post, we’re able to schedule messages (about the post) through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.” Overall, HubSpot has been “transformational in how we do our marketing. I’ve found it very easy to use,” he adds.
While HubSpot facilitates the execution of a segmented marketing strategy, a Message Map is a tool that helps define that strategy for all staff members involved. For the purpose of marketing a convention, the map would identify the different segments and the benefits of attending for each, as well as the messages or “speaking points” that apply in each case. Holliday also recommends that the messaging deploy images wherever possible. “You can change the photos based on the segments you’re targeting. So if you’re trying to get young professionals, use them in your photos,” she says. Conversely, marketing materials using photos depicting a certain demographic can have an exclusionary effect if they reach members who are not part of that demographic. “Many of our members have changed careers at a later age, so new members aren’t necessarily young members, and we’re careful not to make them feel excluded,” Mackay says.
A thoughtfully created segmented marketing campaign works for the simple reason that people are more apt to respond to personalized messaging. Members need to have a sense that the convention will help them meet their particular goals and will be welcoming to those of their age group, experience level, career specialty, and so on. The association itself, not just the convention, is promoted through such a campaign, which shows that the organization is attuned to its membership in a more fine-grained way. But no variety of marketing will ensure a well-attended convention year after year without the event itself delivering on the promotional promise, Holliday stresses. “You can get them there one year, but you’re never going to get them back without the right event strategy and execution,” she says. “Marketing alone is not a magic bullet; it can be if everything else is in place.” AC&F