Time to wake up and smell the coffee chaps…

While rummaging through my email inbox this morning I stopped and read the one from the professional institute of which I am a member.

It’s compelling, and beautifully written, as it ought to be and it was asking me very nicely to attend the annual conference.  And offering me a discount.  What’s not to like about that?

What caught my eye though was that the early booking discount was £200 + vat.  If that’s the discount I thought, how much is the conference?  A mighty £445 + vat no less.  Which means that if I don’t book before the early bird discount runs out I’ll have to fork at a eye-watering £645 + vat to attend a conference run by the association I pay to be a member of.  Wow.

Possibly not for the right reasons, the organisation now had my full attention.  Surely this must be a two day event I thought… but no, this was for a one day 09:00 to 17:30 affair (with an hour and forty minutes of break time; you’ll be relieved to hear that lunch was provided) where I could attend ten sessions (if I had the fortitude to get through it all) of which there were some of only marginal interest.

The marketing line what smaller companies can learn from the “big boys” illicited a wry chortle. Because at that price how many small businesses are actually likely to attend.  The HMRC definition of a small company is if your turnover is £5.6million or less or have fewer than 50 employees.  In reality many small, and very dynamic, businesses fall well below these thresholds.  In the Marketing Week/Ball & Hoolahan marketing salary survey for 2012 the salary for a marketing manager is somewhere in the region of £36,000.  If you extrapolate down from this you can work out that this conference organiser is potentially asking a company to pay a quarter of an employee’s monthly take home pay to attend a one day conference from which there is marginal company-wide return on investment.

You don’t need to absorb much media in the UK to work out that these are straitened economic times.  There is many a managing director trying to work out whether they should pay the wage bill or the suppliers, and telling their employees that “we’re very sorry but there will be no wage increases this year”.  Training budgets may survive, just, but spending on expensive conference days out (we haven’t factored in travel and accommodation/lost productivity costs in all of this have we?) isn’t a priority for many.  And what about those who have embraced redundancy and become freelance marketers… if you take the cost of the conference and the loss of a day’s earnings why on earth would you even consider booking a place.

And conference organisers wonder why their attendance rates are down… Discriminating against large sectors of the audience by virtue of price isn’t going to help much is it? And membership organisations are more at risk than ever because we’re not even sure we need you any more guys.

It is in times like these that great innovation often occurs. Exhibition and live event organisers have recognised for years the need to add more and more value to their offerings, creating environments where visitors can get information or experiences that they just can’t get elsewhere.  It’s time that conference organisers did the same. There is no point telling a potential attendee that they will learn new things and network with their peers, because they can do this via LinkedIn without spending a bean or having to get up at 6:15am to get to the venue, and a day full of plenary sessions with tiny comfort breaks (because the programme is crammed to make it look like it is value for money) doesn’t deliver for many people.

So dear conference organisers I challenge you to do three things differently this year:

  1. Start your pricing strategy from how much you think your conference is worth and how much your delegate is willing to pay rather than from how much money you need to cover your venue costs.  If the answer is £99+vat then find a solution that fits.
  2. Stop trying to cram too much into a programme to justify the huge sum of money you are asking for.  Remember how exhausting it was to sit in a lecture theatre for a couple of hours as a student and ask yourself why you think people can endure it for eight hours or more now that they are older.
  3. Embrace some new technology to deliver to your audiences and members in a different, more inclusive and accessible way.  Get out of that traditionalist box right now.

At present most conference organisers (associations included) attract on average less than 5% of their target audiences to their events.  Which means that for every delegate you get there could be another 19 waiting to engage with your organisation. Time to go get them.

hellen @missioncontrol

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Turning the 5% into 95%

It doesn’t seem to matter how hard the marketing department tries; how creative the executive committee is; how innovative the programme; or how necessary the information; getting people to come to events is hard.

So what’s stopping them?  Lots of things, but essentially it boils down to convenience, time and money.

But just because your potential audience won’t travel to your meeting or book onto your training course doesn’t mean to say that they don’t want to engage with you as an organisation. What you need to do is get creative with your content.

Flexibility is the key.  If you provide training, deliver some of it online, in bite-sized chunks that can be accessed in a lunch-hour or after work; in fact why not create a meeting that takes place while your audience is eating their lunch, by the time they have finished their sandwich they will be ready and able to participate in a discussion.  Give them the opportunity to access a whole library of past presentations that you have already tagged and classified to make it easy for them to find.  Create a secure network where sharing is the norm and collaboration the powerhouse for change.

And guess what. Now that you are engaging with the disenfranchised 95% you could well see a rise in attendance at your live events as well.

Bye-bye Mr Association – we don’t need you any more…

Wow that’s scary.

According to the ASAE – American Society of Association Executives, in 2009 they had 90,908 Trade and Professional association members and 1,238,201 philanthropic or charitable association members.  That’s an awful lot of people.

But hang on a minute.  Let’s examine the individual’s motivation for joining an association.  For tradespeople and professionals it may well be that they are unable to practice without membership or affiliation; or that the letters they receive after their name are the kudos they need to get the job.  Within philanthropical or charitable associations the incentive is clear, an individual may be driven by personal circumstances or a desire to affect change in a certain area.

What we must examine is just what proportion of the membership actually participates in the activities of the Association and therefore has a real relationship with the organisation it gives its annual fees to.  At a recent conference we asked a roomful of event managers from Associations what proportion of their membership came to their conferences, meetings and other events.  There was an audible gasp when one individual said 50%.  Not in horror, but in awe.  Because no one else in the room was able to quote a figure above 5%.

Which means that for most Associations, the events, educational seminars and other niceties they spend the membership’s money and their time on creating are failing to engage 95% of their target audience.  If you have 5000 members therefore you can only really rely on 250 people when the chips are down.

Why bring this up?  Because if you are an Association you need to understand that unless you offer something that your members absolutely can’t do without, then they can go elsewhere, for free.  Social networking enables the creation of special interest groups, the ability to get expert advice from verifiable experts and be able to create meetings in venues that are convenient to all.  If you want to make sure that you are delivering something different, tangible and valuable then you need to embrace the new virtual technologies, like 6Connex, to create ongoing content, events, comment and advice that puts you right at the heart of your membership.

Otherwise, quite frankly, they are just going to go someplace else.