Event Marketing: How to Build Engaged Communities for the Long-TermOctober 1, 2015

October 1, 2015

Event Marketing: How to Build Engaged Communities for the Long-Term

Over the last several years, event marketing has become more important than ever before. What began as a fairly rudimentary process based on rather obvious tactics such as the use of a dedicated website or a Facebook page to generate interest in a meeting or event has steadily evolved into a more complex discipline that increasingly demands precise knowledge of the tools available and how to use them in an integrated way to create excitement and enthusiastic attendance at a company’s most important meetings.

“We don’t talk so much anymore about ‘events.’ We talk now about building communities that can be engaged over the long term. …It’s about creating those communities and keeping them engaged and connected 365 days a year.” — Kati Quigley, CMP

“Event marketing has changed over the last year or two, and it continues to change,” says Kati Quigley, CMP, senior director, partner community marketing, at Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, whose Worldwide Partner Conference each July draws 15,000 attendees from 156 countries. “And there are a couple of things that I think stand out recently. One is around creating immersive experiences. Companies are getting better at thinking holistically about their meetings and events and how they get attendees to actually engage with them from start to finish — before, during and after the meeting. But the point is to have two-way conversations and not just the old one-way conversation.”

Another key requirement for successful event marketing today, Quigley says, is “thinking about every aspect of the event and how to ensure that all of them are connected in a way that immerses people in your brand and in the event. And it has only been fairly recently, maybe going back to last year, that more and more companies have really started to think that way.”

In a larger sense, that means not thinking of meetings and events as isolated incidents, but as part of the company’s ongoing annual and long-term marketing plans, she says. “We don’t talk so much anymore about ‘events.’ We talk now about building communities that can be engaged over the long term. And by engaging them over the longer term, you engage them with your brand and also with your overall marketing plans. It’s about more than whatever the next meeting is about. It’s about creating those communities and keeping them engaged and connected 365 days a year.”

Tactics and Tools

DG Garrity, CMP, corporate events manager at Chicago-based global business software provider Infor, thinks of cutting-edge event marketing in terms of technology. “For example, we now have pretty robust mobile apps for our meetings and events,” she says.

For their citywide user conference in New Orleans last year, which attracted more than 7,000 attendees, Infor created an event-specific, state-of-the-art website. “We built the buzz around our innovations as a company. We focused on our product innovations and the cutting-edge kinds of things we’re doing with the cloud. So we built our marketing plan around the idea of creating excitement about our products and the innovation that we bring to our products in a range of different industries.”

As primary marketing tools, Garrity and her team used the content-rich website, social media, blogs and email marketing.

Infor has been using an event-specific website for its annual user conference for nearly a decade, but has also worked steadily to improve upon it each year. The single most important evolution over the last year or two has been the increasing use of creative elements by Infor’s in-house design agency, Hook & Loop, which was launched in 2012. “They’ve continued to improve the website in terms of design and text and made it very easy to use,” Garrity says. “But it’s also beautiful. It just provides a great user experience. And that’s why it is so effective for us.”

In its social media platform, Infor used integrated event campaigns for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. “And we tied them all together with imagery and messaging,” Garrity says. “We promoted every aspect of the event, from registration to speakers to educational content and the entertainment that would be presented at the event. We also promoted New Orleans as the destination. So we really focused on promoting all of the reasons why people should want to come to the conference. We didn’t just focus on any one thing.”

One major key to the success of the social media campaign was to create an interactive experience with customers, not just push out information about the meeting, Garrity says. And that strategy worked well in creating various kinds of conversation and feedback — and excitement — prior to the conference.

Microsoft is also making increasingly aggressive and sophisticated use of social media in the marketing and promotion of its major events, Quigley says. “We have a new strategy now where every single day we put out new content, both externally and internally, through a variety of portals. And those portals include social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But it’s no longer enough just to say you have a Facebook page or a Twitter account. You have to be able to say you’re regularly sharing content that is actually important to people. And the frequency of that content is now more important than ever in terms of engaging people and keeping them engaged.”

The trick for a global behemoth like Microsoft is to create a sense of intimacy with the company and the brand, and not simply come off as an enterprise blasting out information to a massive worldwide audience, Quigley explains. “We have to get the message across to every single partner that they are part of our corporate ecosystem and that they matter to us. And that is not easy for a company the size of Microsoft to do. You have to really work at it. But we always strive for that personal connection with every partner. In our social media campaigns, we can’t just give the impression that we’re pushing out content. We also have to make it clear that when our partners are making comments that we are responding, that we are super-active in communicating with them every day. That’s why we have dedicated people that monitor and manage our social media channels. And they respond very quickly to make sure a conversation takes place. That’s what is required for real engagement. And that is a constant process that represents a lot of work.”

Another vital and highly effective weapon in Garrity’s Infor arsenal is blogging.

“In order to have consistent messaging, we used a lot of the same basic kinds of information we used on the website and for the social media campaign,” she says. “And we also focused the blogs on the same major milestones we did in the social media campaign — things like registration, education sessions, speakers, entertainment and the destination.”

Quigley is also finding that event-related blogging is now one of the most powerful ways to market an event. “The reason blogs work so well is that you’re hearing a personal voice, a personal message,” she says. “And we offer blogs from the executive perspective and the partner perspective. And a blog is yet another way to turn communication into a two-way conversation and allow people to respond.” And the steady trend, Quigley says, is now toward more and more response from and meaningful dialogue with partners.

Looking to the Future

As technology-based event marketing has matured over the last several years, many major companies have focused on being pioneers in the next generation of genuine innovation.

One of those companies is Cisco in San Jose, California. “What we have been doing over the course of the last 10 years is undertaking an evolution toward a more data-driven and strategic approach to our events,” says Mary Fehrnstron, Cisco’s director of global event strategy, global marketing and corporate communications. She oversees planning of about 110 meetings and events each year, both domestic and international.

“My job is to be the link between the integrated marketing organization and the global events planning team.”

Defining Success

Her team’s mission is to drive a portfolio of meetings that are most related to Cisco’s overall marketing plan. “And within that, we drive what we call the ‘experience design process’ for each of those individual events,” Fehrnstron says. “So we really focus on what events we want to invest our resources in, and then the next step is when it’s time to kick off the planning for that event, we focus on what we actually want to accomplish with that event. We define what success will look like. And then my counterpart on the planning side takes our blueprint and executes it.”

Fehrnstron believes that the most cutting-edge way to market meetings and events is to position them as a strategic marketing platform for the company as a whole. “We are the only discipline within marketing that actually has a very rich opportunity to engage directly with customers and partners, as well as the press and analysts,” she says. “Then we allow all of the other marketing disciplines within the company to take advantage of the foundational work that we do.”

She also believes that such a strategically focused meeting model is of extreme importance to the meeting industry at large, particularly since post-recession budgets are under more scrutiny and require more justification than ever before.

“That means that meetings need to be positioned as more of a strategic marketing asset and not just an event,” she says.

The key to future success, she says, is intense focus on key attendees such as major customers.

“I think the area where there is the greatest opportunity moving forward as an industry is much more of a targeted marketing approach for events,” she says. “For example, Cisco has identified about 526 companies that we care deeply about and which we consider ‘transformational accounts,’ or key accounts from a sales perspective. Those companies are the ones we focus on in terms of evolving our services and relationships over time. So what we try to do in the global events organization is to really figure out how to treat them differently and how to engage with them. We look at things like how we know when they show up at our booth and how we can engage with them when they do. We also look at what success will look like when they walk out the door after engaging with us.

“So based on the massive and growing amount of data we have been able to collect, we have a lot of important information before one of those customers ever shows up,” she says. “For example, we know what they care about, what is most important to them in terms of their relationship with Cisco. We also know what they worry about, what keeps them up at night in their business. We know the problems they are trying to solve. So we take the approach that marketing ourselves to them is about becoming a ‘matchmaker’ of solutions with challenges. That’s how we make sure we make their attendance at one of our events a really valuable experience for them.”

Laser-like Focus

That kind of laser-like focus on major customers is a fairly recent development, Fehrnstron says. “It takes time to be able to develop the resources to be able to do that in a way that is truly meaningful. But now, we’re able to get a lot of information during the registration process or from third-party trade show organizations so we are able to know who is showing up, who they are within their organization and what they care about. And then from there, we look at the best way to engage with them at the meeting in a way that is meaningful for them and successful for us. It’s almost like creating individualized little programs within the bigger picture of the meeting program.”

The bottom line result of such focus is more precisely targeted marketing based on a specific subpopulation of attendees. “Once the right customers have been targeted, then it’s a matter of creating the right content and having the right assets to delve even deeper into the customer-focused marketing strategy,” she says. “And those are the kinds of things we are working on now.”

That data-driven approach will continue to evolve over the next few years, with the clear objective being ever more granular data on customers and their needs, Fehrnstron says. “And in terms of my job and my team, the focus will be more and more on what are we doing for the targets rather than what are we doing for the masses? And that will represent a fundamental shift in the way we market our events.”

The innovative tactic will become increasingly dependent on the sophisticated use of data mining and analysis tools that are now being developed and brought to market under the banner of business intelligence.

“It’s sort of like creating a customer relationship management (CRM) system for our events,” Fehrnstron says. “And part of it is about deploying the latest marketing apps that determine who someone is before they even get to the company’s website. For example, you can now read from an IP address that the company is a health care provider. Then in turn, you see to it that the health care provider gets information and case studies and so on that are directly related to health care. And that makes their first landing experience on your website much more relevant and valuable to them. And from there, you just constantly look for ways to make your engagement with people more personalized and precise in terms of why they should come to your conference.”

Quigley agrees that the use of business intelligence technologies will ultimately become the most cutting-edge marketing tools of them all.

“In the future, that is the way more and more business at meetings will be driven,” she says. “And it will be about the fact that the more you know about people, the more likely you are to be able to do business with them at your events and maintain that relationship over time.” C&IT

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