Using social media to market events

Once upon a time it was all so simple…

Providing you owned, could access or buy, good data and had the budget to hit your target universe five times on average with your message you could more or less guarantee an audience for your event.  For exhibition marketers, preregistration was a very clear indicator of footfall on the day, with conversion rates of between 60 and 75 per cent.  In the conference market a twelve week cycle of marketing would, possibly with the input of some telemarketing, produce enough registrations to cover costs and deliver that all important margin.

And then life got a whole lot more complicated…

The advent of online and email marketing brought with it a more instantateous way to talk to audiences. Unfortunately though, like a child gorging on the pick-and-mix, many marketers have abused the latter, flooding their database’s inboxes with messages on a far too regular basis. Others have treated their web presence as an online brochure, asking visitors to sign up for updates and news when in reality there would be none because noone factored in the time or resource for either the marketing or the main event team to curate such things.

Into this already crowded, and rowdy, room marches social media…

It’s like a toddlers tea-party.  You want to make yourself heard above the cacophony: so you shout louder; you run hither and thither until it seems you are everywhere at once; you wear the gaudiest outfit because you think it will make you stand out; and you try everything, briefly. But when you leave you are hoarse, tired and, if the truth be told, you didn’t actually get very much done or make much of an impression because you were just one of a group of over-excited, slightly out of control children in inappropriate clothing.

For event marketers, the biggest problem is that the promotional cycle for an exhibition, conference, awards etc. is actually very short; very rarely does the campaign last for more than four months. This really doesn’t lend itself very well to social media because relationships in places such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and long lists of followers in Twitter aren’t built overnight, and if you want to establish a well-read blog then there is no point starting it ten weeks out from your show. And if you stop talking to your audience, they lose interest and go somewhere else.

Let’s look at two examples, both expos with conferences and seminar programmes attached and a technology bias, though not IT events as such, and with similar attendance figures at their live days:

Our first event takes place annually in February.  They have a LinkedIn group which was established in January 2008 – a month before that year’s event.  It’s growth profile looks like this:

While the group shows a steady growth in membership over the last four years, it is interesting to note that there are identifiable spikes in the number of new memberships in February of each year., i.e. when the event happens.  Just three weeks later both increase in membership and activity, as shown in the chart below have fallen dramatically.

In contrast, the second team have created a LinkedIn group which began life based around their event (which takes place in March) but has been nurtured and developed to deliver to the expo’s existing and potential audience all year around.  The group was established in December 2007, four months before the event was scheduled and their growth and activity profiles look like this:

As with all statistics you can look at these two sets of information in a number of different ways, but at face value the contrast is clear.  One team started earlier and kept the momentum going whereas another only focusses their effort in the final push towards the event.  The groups have been around for approximately the same amount of time, yet one has nearly six times the number of members as the other and is showing a positive growth pattern.  One team is clearly putting the time and effort into creating a community that isn’t abandoned as soon as the last speaker has left the building…

Utilities like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. aren’t just another medium into which information can be lobbed out to the target audience in the same old way.  Think about it: you strive for coverage in relevant magazines and industry journals because you want your product to appear in an environment that has kudos and stature.  This is delivered by the editorial content created by the teams that manage those media.  If you want to do the same thing via LinkedIn etc. then you have to create an editorial and community environment that makes your potential audience want to interact with you.

To deliver real ROI and marketing with impact for your event you can’t just dip in and out of social media, ignoring your audience for 11 months of the year and then shouting at them for four weeks before you want them to attend.  You need to spend time getting to know them, finding out how to work with the community you have created via your exhibition, conference or roadshow.  Remember, they sought you out and it is up to you to make them stay.

missioncontrol @purerocketscience

p.s. If you want to find out more about creating social media strategies that work for events, our colleague Hellen Beveridge will be teaching a series of courses over the next few months.  Visit www.gallusevents.co.uk/our-events/ for more information.

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Why ‘must’ I ‘attend’ your event?

Your brochure is finished.  The design is great (though you haven’t left a lot of white space because you’ve got to keep on giving those punters reasons to attend) and you think the copy covers all the bases.

Bet I can guess what phrase you have used to describe your conference/awards/expo?

… is the Must Attend Event for … professionals/lovers of jazz music etc. etc.

Oh how I wish I had a penny for every time that phrase is used.  Why not a pound? I hear you ask.  That’s because I am so confident of the number of times it has been used that I think I will still benefit financially.  And indeed I am proved correct: a Google search on the phrase ‘must attend event’ yields no fewer than 6,580,000 results! Even if I narrow the search criteria down to the last twelve months it yields 403,000 results.

It’s a facetious point well made.  Why do marketers describe their events in such hackneyed terms?

And is it marketing’s problem, or is it something more fundamental to do with the way we create events, particularly large scale exhibitions, multi-streamed conferences and awards ceremonies?

Probably a bit of both if the truth be told.

It’s easy(ish) to market a rock concert.  You know which band is playing, you tell their fans where and when and hopefully they will buy tickets.  Simple, single stage sell.   But how do you get 5,000 people to a medical device exhibition or 100 delegates to attend a conference on social networking? You could tell them what’s on offer, but you’ll need to present the message differently to each of your audience sectors, and that causes problems because you might not be able to offer them all the same super attractive package.  And then of course you might be the only marketer trying to cover off a number of events and your creative juices are spread too thinly.

So the easy option is to describe your product as the must attend event for ‘anyone involved in the medical device industry’ or ‘anyone who wants to use social networking to leverage their business’. Phew – got all the potential audience covered – can sign off on the copy.

Stop and look again though.  Instead of trying to find phrases that fit all, remember what motivates people to come to events.  There will be a core of people who attend because they come every year; the health services that buy medical devices perhaps, and they make up 40% of your audience.  You can clearly identify another 40%. So why not create copy that talks to these people?  Because I will miss the other 20% you reply.  But what makes that other 20% come along every year… they seek you out.  And it wasn’t because you kept harping on about the fact that you are the must attend event for…  it’s because they were looking for something and they found it in your copy/online content etc. and subsequently your event.

Be brave.  Stop trying to talk to everyone at once.  Create a series of miniture marketing pieces within your main message.  Create multiple calls to action (and if you are asking someone to spend £750 on a conference place please don’t use Book Now) that drive individuals to yet more compelling and targetted content.  Tell a small business in Irving why embracing Facebook could transform their sales performance; explain to a manufacturer what installing a clean-room could do to their business; encourage an advertising agency in Coventry to enter an industry award.

Then, and only then, will your event be truly must attend.

hellen @purerocketscience

Stop snacking… time to start eating properly again

Something unusual has been happening in the office over the last couple of months.  After years of seeing the volumes of free-circulation business press dwindle to almost nothing we have begun hearing the thud of magazines more frequently once again.

It started with Print Power, a publication produced by Lateral Group. The blurb at the front says that it is a European initiative dedicated to strengthening the position of print media in a multi-media world. That’s as may be, but what actually hit the desk was an extremely well thought out, beautifully designed and, most importantly, well written publication that not only made it out of the poly bag (got to open it to separate the recycling) but is still here for reference.

And then, starting the new year with a bang, along came the January issue of B2B marketing. I haven’t seen a hard copy of this magazine for a while, which is a pity because it’s a smasher.  Lots of varied content, once again well written, great layout and a tone which didn’t make the reader feel like they were on the periphary of a rather exclusive club, or reading something fresh out of the mouth of a PR assistant.

So, this got me thinking about two things: how important it is for B2B magazines that they are written properly; and secondly how we need to find time to sit, absorb and process information.

Many business magazine operations (and one of the above is not innocent of the offence) have embraced technology and decided that the way to keep their readers and consequently their circulations is to develop regular email newsletters. And then send them out to their database. Every Day.  Event magazine  went even further and sent out two email bulletins a day. Thank goodness they have stopped that.  It seemed like a great plan at the time, but it forgot something very fundamental about human behaviour: that if you give us snacks we will graze rather than engage; and that most people switch off when they feel they are being nagged.

What’s more, readers don’t even have to let on that they have stopped engaging.  While the email administrator always ensures that the unsubscribe information is included, all the recipient has to do is to classify the message as unwanted and it will forever be consigned to the junk folder.

In creating this constant stream of bitesize snippets we have created a culture of having to write something to a timetable rather than to an editorial plan.  In doing so, we resemble budgerigars: saying anything for the sake of it, not because we believe it is something that will interest the recipient or even that they will make time to read it.  So they lose interest, stop reading, and they are off to find someone who they think will give them what they want. Our marketing messages become bland, our products uninviting.

As consumers of information we are not without blame either.  This veritable cornucopia of new media has us flitting from place to place searching out the information we think we need.  But, time to ‘fess up: it’s exhausting isnt’ it? There’s a reason why hummingbirds drink pure sugar…

If we want to make good business/marketing/communications decisions, then we must pause to nourish ourselves with high quality information devoured slowly and with relish.  We must create time to sit down and consider what is in front of us without constant interruption from screen based applications, or the pressure of having to tell an audience of disinterested individuals streams  of minutiae. And noone is better placed to provide this michelin-starred content than the quality end of the B2B press.

So come on chaps… put the chips away and start cooking up some roasties.

hellen @missioncontrol

Do event companies need a new strategy?

feel the love hearts graphicAccording to Christophe Asselin, Head of UK at DMG :: events, what event companies (and by association their marketing teams) really need to do to attract visitors is to “feel the love”.

Christophe espoused this philosophy extensively at the Conference for Conference Professionals back in April.  What he was explaining, sprinkled heavily with his own particular brand of Gallic charm, was that if event organisers want to attract visitors, and keep them coming back then they have to be prepared to get up close and personal.

This approach won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah of Hubspot fame.  There are many organisations that, having set about making sure people could find them on Google, social media and blogs, also ensured that any incoming enquiries, orders or complaints could be handled swiftly and effectively by anyone in the business.  Other books such as Groundswell  and Socialnomics are littered with examples of companies getting it right, and in many cases wrong.

So why are so many event companies finding it hard to adopt this strategy themselves?

Economics has a lot to do with it and in particular the huge gamble that has to be taken at the start of the event planning process in terms of specifying and committing to a venue.  To minimise the risk the temptation is to run the team very lean in the beginning, keeping staff numbers and overhead as low as possible.  While this keeps the financial exposure down it invariably means that it also reduces the capacity to bring the event to the market.

It’s hard to be heard if you are a single lone voice and it takes time to gather enough others around you to start creating a really audible noise.

And, if we go back to Christophe’s original point, if the team is small and hard pressed, they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to listen and react to what potential visitors have to say, even though it could be the vital piece of information that could change an event from job done to runaway success.

Which could possibly explain why so many event companies want to embrace social media to deliver their louder voice but they can’t quite work out how, or if they have already dipped their toes into the water they are decidedly underwhelmed by the results.  It isn’t that social media isn’t or can’t work for events, but this is one medium where effort most definitely equals reward.  Rather than taking the usual“let’s add it to the bottom of the marketing department’s list of things to do” attitude, working out a cohesive social media strategy, of whatever size or complexity, in the launch proposal and budgetting adequately to deliver it on a long-term basis, will deliver much more satisfactory results.

For after all, it is only when you truly know your audience that you can really learn to love them.

More cake for the communications tea party?

In a question posed by Greg Hackett on a LinkedIn group that we follow he asked “Can we have our cake and eat it” in the context of whether ambience or content should be the key driver in creating a successful event or if indeed it was important to have both.

There are some examples of venues that are so magnificent or exclusive it isn’t hard to pursuade delegates to attend, even at strange times of the day: for example a breakfast briefing at the House of Lords,  London will draw in even the most hardened of industry hacks; and a conference on a hot-topic specialist scientific topic with an industry leading speaker could be held in a dusty lecture theatre with curly sandwiches and still attract a huge number of delegates.  So this doesn’t really answer the question either.

However, one thing the group has been able to agree upon is that it is important not to flog the delegates with so much content that it becomes impossible to absorb all, or indeed any, of the information being imparted from the lecturn.   This is one area where professional conference organisers and marketers can struggle.  In an effort to create an event that is so compelling, so packed full of benefits and so worth having one or more days out of the office to attend it is possible to end up with such a multi-streamed, PowerPoint-packed programme that it becomes a nightmare to navigate and almost impossible to promote.

Erin Handel from Bankerstuff reinforces the point.  She cites an example where promoting a five-session live-streaming event in a single mailing failed to deliver any results, but by breaking this down into five single streams, each of which could be marketed with their own specific messaging resulted in a significant number of bookings. 

What this illustrates most clearly is a need to get back to straight-forward marketing techniques.  In our eagerness (desperation?) to get individuals through the door we have got into the habit of bombarding potential delegates with as many benefits and features as possible.  This only serves to hide the real message and make our job harder rather than easier. And to be honest sometimes we just sound desperate.

Greg asked the original question in the context of virtual events, where the debate continues about the complexity (or not) of the technology used to deliver the digital content.  The very fact that the responses strayed so quickly back to comparisons with live conferences and the difficulties in marketing them only serves to illustrate that the disciplines driving both are very closely linked.  Could it be that digital platforms enable organisers to add all of that extra-value content, for longer giving them (and the delegates) the breathing space to engage more thoroughly in the content and face-to-face networking opportunities provided by a live event?

Most important of all is to ensure that in embracing a new virtual medium we learn from, rather than replicate our existing experience. After all, who wants to go to an event where they are always serving the same cake?

Success needs nothing more than great content and good data

Simplistic – maybe?

Whether you are an event company or a publisher, it is these two elements that define you.  You need content specifically aimed at an audience which has been clearly outlined both in terms of demographic profile and in their ability to attract a pool of organisations willing to pay to talk to them in the environment you are providing.

Well-kept and nurtured data is absolutely essential, even in these days of disintermediation when everyone believes they can talk to their clients direct through social networking and marketing channels.  But it seems that we have lost sight of the importance of keeping data clean, updated and useful.  So often now we see clients who consider their database to be something that can be pounded with email messages or inappropriate advertising, taking barely a moment’s notice of the attrition of individuals.

Harping on about the current economic situation no longer seems to be generating a reaction from many in the B2B sectors, it seems they are too busy holding onto whatever business they may have left to take any notice.  But the fact is that events companies who are able to produce great content and understand the power of their data will be able to use the new virtual business solutions to add a series of events to their portfolio; and similarly event companies will be able to use them to create year-round content based on the great efforts they make for a few days a year.

Together these two groups could forge secure new businesses for themselves – embracing content delivery without being reliant on another to supply it for them.  Pity the guys they leave out in the cold.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Social media has turned marketing on its head.  In every sense.

Marketing managers find themselves beleaguered by the number and complexity of media that they are expected to embrace and conquer even for what has always been the most straightforward sector – B2B.  As quickly as they understand the dynamics of one method of communication up pops another one – until the choice is both bewildering and extravagantly large.

Like children in a sweetshop, managers further up the chain, or stepped sideways from the marketing discipline, want it all.  They aren’t so worried if they are satifying a need, why just take the licorice when you can have the chocolate and the sherbert fountain, and the marshmallows and the sours, and the jelly beans…  But all this approach delivers is a stomach ache and no memory of the taste from each individual component.

Marketing for events has become a little like this.  Wanting email and direct mail and contra-deals and editorial and blogging and groups on LinkedIn…  but unless you stop to work out the strategy before you start all that happens is you have run around like a headless chicken for a few months and guess what?  You still don’t have any delegates for your event.

But this is where the smart organisations are getting their act together.  They have taken a long hard look at what email and random social marketing hasn’t got them, and they are embracing once again the old school of intelligent PR and great direct mail to form the backbone of their campaigns.  They aren’t spending as much money on these elements, but they are creating targetted shots that are really hitting home on their targets.

These same organisations are the ones who are also investing in specialist knowledge to help them build and maintain a social media campaign, managed and directed by a marketing manager who is not expected to be all things to all media.

Sounds like the way things were done 20 years ago – only better…