Marketing Your Meetings

Meeting Planning

A riff on the hotelier’s “putting heads in beds,” in the event-planning world it’s sometimes known—none too delicately—as “putting butts in seats.”

   In today’s business environment, the task is more challenging than ever. Potential attendees are besieged with opportunities—some face-to-face, some online; their budgets for travel and conference spending may be reduced (just as yours may be to host and market); and their time may be more limited.

   All these considerations have a financial impact on your efforts and the success of your event, so it’s more critical than ever to design an effective marketing campaign to reach—and to lure—your target market. Here are five key elements to keep in mind.

WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) is the quintessential meeting-goer question. Is it networking opportunities? Education? Motivation? But equally important for planners is asking—and getting answered—the quintessential company question: What’s in it for us? Do we want to increase membership and attendance? To generate more revenue? To increase professionalism or knowledge in the field? To expand the number or type of trade-show exhibitors? The meeting’s goal is the foundation for your marketing efforts; it should be clear and concise. It also needs to be understood and agreed upon by all the stakeholders from the outset.

According to Ken Esthus, account director for Marketing General Inc., an association marketing agency in Alexandria, Va., research is always necessary to lay the groundwork. You need to know who your target audience is, how it’s best to reach them and when it’s best to reach them, as well as your desired goal.

If your audience is internal, say a sales team or a particular department, attendance is likely required. But your marketing efforts—how you promote the meeting to them—can help create a buzz that keeps everyone engaged prior to the event.

In planning these types of meetings, it helps to review a similar previous event, solicit feedback and make any necessary adjustments. It’s also a good idea to ask several well-regarded team members for help in developing an agenda, which you subsequently provide to attendees ahead of time to pique their interest, promote buy-in and ensure that everyone comes prepared.

External audiences require more work. Your starting point is to review last year’s results, analyzing who attended, which media or outreach worked and which didn’t, plus what geographic area drew the most attendees (would a regional event work better next year?).

If you’re outsourcing your marketing efforts, the company can help you fill in the gaps. If not, other options could include buying lists, but updating your in-house list of repeat customers, previous attendees or people who queried but never followed through is often the best approach.
Phil Goodman, president and CEO of Generation Transitional Marketing, has developed a unique marketing approach for reaching desired audiences. Dubbed “genergraphics” (a name he’s trademarked, by the way), it goes beyond demographics and psychographics, and targets audiences based on their generational influences. For example, if you’ve got an organization comprised mostly of Boomers and want to attract new Gen Ys, you might try alternative media—creating a Facebook page, for instance.

To be effective, your marketing efforts require a comprehensive program strategy. “Creating a marketing plan is like putting a puzzle together: all the pieces have to fit to complete a solid picture,” Esthus says. At its most basic, the plan begins with creating a calendar, knowing your budget and having a clear idea of the message you want to get across.

Timing is critical. “You should document out the event, make a calendar to figure out the timelines and make sure you’re not sending materials out over the holidays, so they don’t get lost,” advises Mouna Yamini, CMP, senior account manager with USA Hosts/Key Events. “And start as early as possible in the process.”

If you’re outsourcing the marketing to an independent agency, they “know the most cost-effective marketing channels and are less likely to waste money on channels that won’t work,” Esthus says. “Planners have a sense of what their budget is; we might find they can do the same with less money or do more and reach additional audiences for just a little more money.”

But try thinking of the plan as a full-blown campaign, an integrated approach that encompasses a variety of perspectives and materials, all—says Esthus—with a consistent message (see Marketing Makeover sidebar). “Define what your messages will be and stick with them,” he says. “Don’t say the same thing a dozen different ways. It’s not creative—it’s confusing.”

To make the most of your efforts, you should be leveraging multiple communication vehicles, both offline and online. “The more you hit your prospects, the more likely they are to respond,” Esthus says. Research shows it takes nine impressions to make someone buy.    

Offline are the traditional avenues: direct mail, such as save-the-date postcards; printed collateral like brochures; advertising; public relations and publicity efforts; faxes; and telemarketing. Interestingly, because of e-mail spam issues, he says, a telephone call or a fax is apt to get through the “clutter,” as they’ve become so infrequent.

Online includes now-standard technology like websites, banner ads and e-mail, plus new Internet options and ways to use them.

Utilizing the Internet is cost-effective; websites and e-mails can save money over print and advertising. According to Trevor Stuart-Hill, vice president of accounts and revenue management for SynXis, in Texas, rather than come up with a new website for a specific conference or event, it may be better to have a home landing page, then have a link to another page to tout the conference. The transition can appear seamless to the user, he says. (See sidebar, opposite, for additional tips.)

Sending an e-mail with a link to registration is an effective follow-up to a save-the-date postcard, Yamini says. E-mail is also cheap—and green—but at the same time, we’re being bombarded by e-mail. “In marketing, we’re all about breaking through clutter,” Esthus says.

Social networking—through vehicles like Facebook, blogging and Second Life—still triggers some skepticism, Stuart-Hill says. “People say, ‘How on earth do people have time to conduct business and still play in this?’” But “don’t be afraid to put your toe in the water,” he advises.

According to Esthus, “Most associations are moving in the social networking area, but I don’t know if anybody really has a handle on it…We’re moving in that direction; it’s a new channel to be exploited and leveraged.”

And don’t forget “viral” marketing—a hot new word for an old practice, otherwise known as “word of mouth”—which is not a new tool, Esthus says, although he doesn’t think people are using it as much as they could. “You reach out to constituents and give them the tools to help you: your speakers, your exhibitors, your chapters, your board. All these people have a huge influence over registration numbers,” he says. “If you give them the tools to reach out to their peers, you’re leveraging your constituent groups, which is cost-effective.

You give them pass- along e-mails, pass-along reminders, web ads they can download on their sites. For your chapters, give complimentary newsletter ads. You give them the tools they need to help you market. Your exhibitors and sponsors want critical mass as much as you do; they’re incented. They want more customers, it’s win-win.”

When you’ve built in measurement tools and milestones, you can track the effectiveness of your program as it progresses and at its conclusion.  It allows adjustments as you go along, and with a track record for this event, you can create a strategic program based on proven results for the next.

“Marketing helps you reach your markeplace in an effective, cost-effective and efficient way,” Esthus says. “Many planners are not trained in the science of marketing—and it is both a science and an art.” But, he says, you’re missing out on opportunities
if you don’t create a focused, strategic plan. “Start with the basics, then move up to more sophisticated techniques.”  

Generation Transitional Marketing

Marketing General Inc.


USA Hosts/Key Events

Online Tips
Trevor Stuart-Hill, vice president of accounts and revenue management with SynXis, is also chair of the HSMAI Travel Internet Marketing Special Interest Group. He offers some e-marketing tips for planners:

Balance online and offline spend. Try to get marketing dollars allocated to the Internet market (justify your online spend to ROI measurement).
Keep up with the ever-changing technology landscape: website optimization, social media options, Web 2.0, Travel 2.0. Determine which to pay attention to and which to forego.
Take advantage of some of the free Web tools, like site evaluations (how search engines view you).
Start promoting your meetings early: know what the topics are, what the key words and metatags are. These take time to be recognized by search engines, and it may take several months to benefit from natural or organic searches.

Link your website to related topics, other associations, vendors, etc.; links help to elevate you in natural searches.
Publish any relevant research, like white papers, on your site. They draw a lot of users to your home page on a regular basis.

If you have a subscriber base, add an RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed.

Marketing Makeover
Ken Esthus, account director for Marketing General Inc., a Virginia-based marketing agency, is a frequent speaker on marketing matters at industry events. We’ve excerpted a few of his tips here:

Follow the three most-important marketing principles:

  • Frequency: It takes nine impressions to move someone to buy; hit prospects often, with as many communication tools as are reasonable.
  • Consistency: Define what your messages will be and stick with them.
  • Urgency: People are conditioned to act on deadlines, so create a sense of urgency by offering registration and airfare savings, avoiding long lines at registration and getting your first choice of hotel.

Make sure your convention marketing materials include:

  • Logo and graphic design: Don’t forget your logo, your website address and make sure your design supports the overall goal of the meeting.  
  • Positioning statement: Include what makes your meeting or event unique (especially as compared to your competition). “Marry” your brand identity with your positioning.        Example: The premier gathering of legal professionals in the U.S.
  • Themes: Tie in themes like what’s hot, what’s next, what works, learn, connect.
  • Call to action: Make it clear and concise—tell your audience what you want them to do; how you want them to do it; and when you want them to do it.