When it comes to creating a successful meeting or event, it’s no longer enough to simply pick a great destination, invite people to attend and present compelling content. Today, more than ever before, aggressive and effective marketing is required. And nothing can be taken for granted.
Ryan Rutan, developer evangelist at Austin, Texas-based Jive Software, is well aware of the requirements for effective marketing in today’s world.
“When you’re running an event, you know you have to have a good story, you have to have a lot of preparation, you have to have entertainment,” says Rutan, who plans Jive Software’s “Jive World” annual user conference that draws 1,500 attendees. “So there’s a lot of work that goes into that, just to prepare to be able to do the event.”
However, he points out, planning the event is only half the battle. The other half is marketing.
“It’s about ever-present talking and communicating all the time,” Rutan says. “So if your event isn’t clearly part of your larger annual marketing strategy, if it isn’t an integrated story that goes along with your overall marketing message as a company, then you’re going to have a lot of money invested — and you might get some interest in it and accolades out of it — but you won’t get the full return on investment you want. You have to understand that the experience the attendee has might not be the same experience you want from a business perspective, in terms of ROI. Sometimes those are two distinct and different things.”
And since the recession, Rutan says, the specter of ROI has cast an increasingly larger shadow over events and their budgets.
“I think event marketing is suffering a little bit, from what I call an ‘ROI perspective,’ ” he says.
“In other words, today it’s about being able to actually quantify the impact and business value of a multiday event that keeps customers engaged the entire time and invested in the conference.”
Because of the ROI challenge, one of the key issues Rutan and his management focus on is “turning a three-day event into a six-month activity and being able to justify the ROI you get from that. The other thing is that now most companies say they do more with less. They want everything to be more efficient, including their meetings.”
And increasingly, ROI — however it might be measured — is a critical factor in the efficiency equation.
And that is not simply as result of the recession, Rutan says. “I think it’s more about the fact that people have been talking about ROI from meetings for so long that we’ve actually gotten mature in the way we measure it.”
At the same time, however, Rutan believes that sometimes ROI leads to what he calls “nickel and diming” the event — to its detriment. In turn, that makes a powerful marketing effort even more important.
And that requires investment. “And if you’re going to make an investment, do it right,” he says.
“ Go big. Don’t cut corners.”
In the Internet age, where communication is instantaneous and constant — and competition for the attention of attendees is more acute than ever before — the process of launching and promoting a meeting or event starts long before attendees show up onsite.
And how well technology is used is often the deciding factor between whether your meeting is a resounding success — or a flop.
In addition, modern technology — and especially social media — has shifted the emphasis from an informational message to an experiential message. That means using all available means to leverage an attendee’s goals, imagination and enthusiasm.
“As an example of what progressive meeting hosts do today, we had a client that was taking an incentive trip to Fiji,” says Gregorio Palomino, CDMP, CEP, CWP, CM, CSEP, principal of San Antonio, Texas-based CRE8AD8. “And we were able to hype that trip not just with text, but also with pictures.”
Palomino and his client created a closed-access private website where only people going on the trip could see it and interact. “And we posted new content every day to really get people excited about the trip and the experience they were going to have,” Palomino says. “For example, a skydiving outing was on the itinerary, so we posted photos of people skydiving and asked our attendees, ‘How excited are you to soon be jumping out of a plane over Fiji?’ ”
As a result of its ability to generate collective interest and enthusiasm, social media also is a major factor in event marketing today. In fact, no weapon is more powerful than social media when it comes to building awareness of and excitement about an upcoming meeting or event.
Over the last few years, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn reigned as the big guns. But more recently, newer tools such as YouTube and Vine have gained in popularity. Vine is a video-sharing platform that allows users to post mini-videos that are no longer than six seconds.
No matter what tool is being used, the essential consideration is that all messaging be focused on the self-interests of attendees, rather than the interests of the meeting sponsor.
“Your message can’t just be, ‘Register for the event,’ ” says Traci Browne, owner of Philadelphia-based Red Cedar Marketing and author of The Social Trade Show (Que Publishing, June 2012). “It has to be about creating something that will show that you as the event organizer are the source for the most up-to-date information in your industry.”
In other words, Browne says, the meeting or event must be perceived and understood by attendees in a larger context of “What’s in it for me? Why is this important?”
It can’t just be about asking people — or directing them if they’re internal employees — to come to the meeting. The most effective information is always attendee-focused and not event-focused, Browne stresses.
“Their real concerns are what am I going to learn at the meeting? What kinds of people am I going to meet? Why is the event worth my time and attention? So that’s the kind of information you should be using in your day-to-day promotion of the event.” — Traci Browne
“And that’s where so many meetings and events fall down,” she says. “All they do when they start out is say, ‘Register now for an early bird discount.’ It’s all about ‘register, register, register.’ But if people don’t care about your event, if you don’t explain to them why they should care and what’s in it for them, why would they register? Their real concerns are what am I going to learn at the meeting? What kinds of people am I going to meet? Why is the event worth my time and attention? So that’s the kind of information you should be using in your day-to-day promotion of the event. Otherwise, no matter how much time people spend on your website, they’re not going to have any idea why they should come to the meeting.”
Another factor to bear in mind is that each social media tool has a singular and inherent advantage. Therefore, each brings a different capability into the promotional process.
“The biggest advantage of Twitter is that it’s concise and to the point.” Palomino says. “And people can retweet things they get excited about, which is another way to build buzz for a meeting or event.”
A current best practice, Browne says, is the pre-event creation of “Twitter chats,” which create a community of communication and shared interests around the event.
“Before the event, you can start twitter chats between speakers and attendees,” Browne says.
“And that way, attendees get a taste of what will be presented at the event. They also get to meet, via Twitter, other people who have the same interests they do. And all of that builds buzz for the meeting.”
By the same token, YouTube allows private broadcasts to a targeted audience. And that means an opportunity to give attendees a taste of what they’ll see at the meeting, such as speakers or new products.
“And,” Palomino says, “if your videos are really cool, they will go viral within your universe.”
Even more important, Browne says, is the fact that “video is the most underutilized tool out there for event promotion. And I don’t understand that, because events are all about visuals. And so much of the Internet is moving to video instead of just providing text content. But almost every piece of information meeting and event planners produce is text instead of video.”
Although it has been done for years, another time-tested tool is an event-specific website. Large companies typically create it within their intranet system, while smaller companies create a simple, standalone website.
“I’d like to be able to say that every company does that now,” Palomino says. “But not everybody has the budget to be able to do that. But I definitely think it’s important now to have a custom website for every meeting.”
A key reality is that a smaller company can typically get that done more quickly and less expensively than a large company, Palomino says. “A small company doesn’t have all the red tape that a large company does, so it’s just simpler for them to get it done. And instead of relying on an IT department, they can just farm the project out to a local freelance Web designer that can get a website up and running in a few days.”
However, says Browne, the critical consideration today is the surge in mobile technology and the increasing ubiquitous use of mobile devices by attendees.
Therefore, she says, all event websites today must be optimized for mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads.
“And with the younger generation, you don’t even have to ask them to share information,” Browne says. “They just do it. They literally share what they’re doing, every minute of the day.”
Just as there are new things that work, such as YouTube or Vine — or even Twitter — there are old things that have lost their ability to deliver.
One of them is the once-popular e-mail blast.
It is increasingly difficult to reach people via a traditional e-mail campaign, Palomino says. For example, most bulk e-mails now go to spam folders. “That’s why mass BCC mailings don’t work anymore,” Palomino says. “They get blocked.”
The key to success today is a subscription-based e-mail program that people opt into in order to receive ongoing information and updates about the meeting or event. “But even doing it that way, the average open-and-read ratio today is under 30 percent,” Palomino says. “So you can’t really rely on e-mail as a primary tool.”
And if e-mail is going to be used most effectively, it must be used in its most modern incarnation in the era of mobile technology. Instead of sending e-mails to a Yahoo or gmail address, the state-of-the-art is to use the various text platforms created by cell phone providers, such as @sprinttext from Sprint. “The thing to do now is use text e-mail addresses, so when you send it out, it goes as a text message to their smartphones or iPads,” Palomino says.
One of the new kids on the technology block, especially for deployment to mobile devices, is gamification.
Like a growing number of planners, Rutan is an enthusiastic proponent of the cutting-edge technology that allows the motivation and direction of specific behaviors before, during and after a meeting by using games that deliver rewards. Rutan uses the industry-leading gamification platform from QuickMobile.
“The reason gamification works for us is that we have a very passionate user base,” he says.
“That means a user base we can tap into. So I started working on gamification right away as soon as I got this job. The first time we did it, it was just sort of OK. It was like a lot of work for just a little bit of return. But we didn’t have it on a mobile app. That meant we didn’t have an opportunity to gamify the actual conference.”
As a result, his deployment of the innovative technology quickly evolved. “We started focusing on creating games that would engage people and give them the experience we wanted them to have,” he says, “versus having people go out and have their own experience and then possibly dial into something that we weren’t necessarily that interested in from our perspective.”
Jive Software now perceives the proper use of gamification as “a way to influence the right outcomes,” Rutan says.
For example, last year they directed people to particularly important sessions by using gamification and giving away rewards such as iPad Minis. “The goal was to really reinforce the things we wanted people to be focused on at the conference,” Rutan says. “And from their point of view, it was about what they could do to have the best possible experience at the conference. And for us, that means making sure they know what it means to be a successful attendee.”
Jive Software now uses gamification and its own technological capabilities to heavily leverage its customer community. “And we try to make sure that everything is actionable,” Rutan says. “And that gives us a deeper level of engagement with our customers.”
Unfortunately, from what he observes and hears anecdotally, Rutan believes that not that many companies pursue attendee engagement to the extent Jive does. “There are a lot of companies that gather a lot of information about their attendees and events,” he says. “But I don’t think there are many that know how to use that information or get the right kind of information to leverage engagement the way they should be doing.”
Meanwhile, he notes, meetings and events are constantly becoming more democratic and attendee-controlled — a direct result of the initial impact of social media empowerment.
“And that’s something we practice,” Rutan says. “At JiveWorld now, 90 percent of the content being presented is being presented by customers.”
But most companies still lag behind in that kind of effort, Rutan says.
“I think the biggest element that is missing from the modern conference is the part that the community, or attendees collectively, should play,” he says. “And for us, being able to achieve that has been a matter of a trifecta between gamification, mobile apps and a focus on community. And then beyond that, there is the issue of treating all this as a year-long exercise in engagement, not as just a conference that lasts for three days. It’s really about re-living the experience over and over again and keeps them engaged.”
Palomino says that another important consideration is that rather than relying on a particular technology or a set of tools, the most important secret to success is to focus on the old adage that “knowledge is power.”
“Do your homework on your attendees,” he says. “And know your attendee demographics. Know what you excel in, in terms of technology and social media, and focus on your strengths. Be open to new ideas and new technology tools. And be creative. But it’s all about your attendees and their experience — the value they get from your meeting. If you always think that way, your meetings and events will be successful.” C&IT