Don’t be so afraid to embrace cannibalism…

Here’s a scenario for you to consider:

Your organisation runs an annual conference and exhibition.  The attendance figures are steady and you are attracting on average between five and ten per cent of your calculated total universe.  Exhibitor and sponsor numbers are holding up and revenue is on target.

So far so good

Two years ago you introduced a specialist pavilion for one of the sectors of the industry you serve.  It’s been a huge success and now attracts 15% of your total audience and generates 20% of your sales.  But there is a problem.  The companies and visitors involved want their own event.  They want to be the focus rather than a sideshow and they are getting very vocal about it.

What are you going to do?

  1. Stick to your guns, but pacify them by giving them a bit more space and a couple more sessions in the conference programme.
  2. Create a ‘mini’ co-located event.
  3. Grasp the opportunity and develop a second event.
  4. Nothing.  Very happy with the status quo thank you very much.

Why would anyone answer yes to the last question?

One simple reason – they can’t get past the cannibalisation problem.

It seems like forever that this thorny old issue has been hanging around, with the publishing and events industries particularly sensitive.  From whether a successful supplement should become a publication in its own right; to investment in websites and social media that would take readers away from the printed page; and currently whether or not a virtual conference or meeting space will reduce footfall at a live exhibition.

The main argument against developing a pluralist strategy is that it causes a reduction in revenue or perceived market share.  But the truth is that when carefully planned and executed such a strategy can result in a larger share of an increased total market.  Examples within the retail industry abound: when Coca Cola introduced Diet Coke, sales of Coke fell, but ultimately led to an expanded market for diet soft drinks.  Forward thinking and successful FMCG companies positively embrace the idea as Apple CEO Tim Cook explains:

“iPad has cannibalised some Mac sales. The way that we view cannibalisation is that we prefer to do it to ourselves than let someone else do it. We don’t want to hold back one of our teams from doing the greatest thing, even if it takes some sales from another product area. Our high-order bid is, ‘We want to please customers and we want them buying Apple stuff.'”

Why then are B2B publishers and events organisers still struggling with the idea of creating virtual experiences in addition to their current physical and online activity?

Hybrid and standalone virtual conferences, training and meeting sessions may affect audiences but the truth is that they are likely to deliver more visitors, both from a wider geographic area and from a demographic that would normally be too time-poor to engage in a live event.  Detractors suggest that viewers online are not as engaged; but neither is every visitor at a conference (particularly at 2pm).

The bigger question is not how many visitors or delegates you are going to lose from your live event, but how many people from your total market universe are you failing to connect with?  Anecdotally we know that membership organisations attract on average 5% of their total membership to live events.  In commercial event organisations, marketers need to hit a target universe seven or eight times in order to pursuade between five and 10 per cent of them to attend.  Plus, if you only engage with this audience once a year you are putting up constant barriers to retaining and growing the audience and its levels of interaction, which in turn diminishes your opportunities to drive and grow your revenues and profit.

Tony Rossell from Marketing General, Inc. has done some excellent research on this subject in the context of Association Membership: his work shows that Associations which create multiple opportunities for engagement with their members, whether via annual meetings, professional development, webinars, social networking etc. are more likely to show increases in overall membership in both the long and the short term as well as an increase in new members and renewal rates.

It stands to reason that the more you engage with your audience, both exisiting and potential, then the more likely they are to engage with you.  Hybrid events don’t have to reproduce your live event verbatim and virtual events don’t have to be restricted to specific times and dates dictated by venue contraints.

Where virtual events are concerned, it’s time to put the issue of audience cannibalisation to bed once and for all and embrace the concept of market colonisation instead.

Hellen @missioncontrol

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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

So you think you own me?

The previous post You’ve got to deliver what the audience really  wants has provoked discussion in a number of forums and the responses have made for interesting reading, not least because of the seeming inability to move on from old arguments.

So let’s look at the topic from a different angle, by considering two industries closely related to producing live events; so closely related in fact that you would consider them siblings; i.e. publishing and broadcasting.

In both of these industries, the key players are referred to as Media Owners. Because they own the medium through which the content is broadcast. And for years this is exactly what they have done; decided when, where and what information and entertainment their audiences or readerships were going to consume.  They have made and broken many a star, politician or company profit, simply through the editorial decisions they have taken which have influenced the masses.

Conference and exhibition organisers, be they commercial operations, industry bodies or associations, continue to believe that they must operate in a similar way.  Developing programmes of content that they perceive the audience wants, choosing speakers and selecting participating exhibitors (via an economic filter it is true) and presenting a finished product to the visitors at a time, date and venue over which the latter has no control.

Then along came the Internet and social media and the shift in power from owner to audience was seismic.

Because the concept of expertise ownership by a few large corporations doesn’t fit any more.  You can’t tell me what I should be watching, what information I need, or who I should be networking with.  You can’t stop me finding organisations who can’t afford to exhibit at your event or who haven’t got a charismatic speaker, because if their Search and SM strategies are good I can do this on my own.  And, you can’t stop me telling people, a lot of people, about the experience your organisation offers me, within minutes if I so choose.

So let’s bin the argument about virtual not replacing face-to-face; because we all know it won’t.  Let’s stop finding fault with virtual technologies, because frankly some of them are pretty amazing.  And let’s stop pretending that we still own audiences and industries because of the events we produce because we don’t. Let’s embrace the new to enhance the old rather than dismissing it as a fad that has nothing to do with us.

What we need to be doing, with or without the help of virtual technologies, is to work out how we build and maintain relationships with our communities; how we facilitate communication and collaboration between individuals both through a single live day and an online presence; and how we use the unfettered enthusiasm of our audiences to create a profitable business model for the future.

hellen @missioncontrol

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.

Virtual set to become the norm rather than the exception

Six months ago, if you mentioned the word virtual event 5 out of 6 people would shrug, look sceptical or even splutter at your naïvety.  Like all new innovations, trying to explain the capabilities and opportunities created by this technology was easily lost in the objections.

Not any more.

While technology companies and those used to employing disparate, often home-based, workforces were eagerly embracing this new way of communicating, professional protectionism has held other sectors back in terms of both understanding and implementation.  Areas of business that could benefit hugely from the ability to disseminate large amounts of complex information, with the ability to receive live feedback and action plans were either unable to see the possibilities or quite frankly were singing with their hands pressed over their ears.

But the economic, business and learning opportunities offered by the very best virtual solutions platforms have been hard to ignore.  Recent research by e-learning consultant Jeff Cobb among associations in the US showed that nearly 20% had already held a virtual conference with a further 45% planning to do so.  Although it is the big organisations that have been the early adopters, this research showed that the smaller groups are also able to see the benefits that this could deliver to them and were looking to follow suit.

While virtual events can’t replace that impromptu chat, where they do win hands down is in their attendance figures.  Just as many exhibitions are currently struggling to convert more than 30% of their registrations into actual visitors, virtual events are seeing conversion somewhere in the region of 70%.  In fact we have one commercial event where 1300 registered and 1297 logged on to participate in the event.

But it is when you start to see organisations like the American Nurses Association adopting the technology to enable them to deliver one of their six-monthly meetings virtually and saving approximately $80K (and all those greenhouse gases) that you should understand how communicating this way removes cost directly from the bottom line, and yet affects service delivery not one iota.

Which is probably why no one is singing any more when virtual events are mentioned.