If you’re starting to plan your next annual conference, we have a story you really need to hear. It’s about a marketing director just like you—a guy working for an association in Anywhere Town, USA. He saw from the very beginning that events like the ones he was helping market had the power to change people’s lives.
But when recession hit and new technology gave rise to more virtual events, that idea started to get lost—along with any hope of inspiring people. As a result, a small rogue band of Empty Chairs—led by the Evil Dr. Void—started organizing themselves. As the Empty Chairs Gang started mounting more and more attacks, our marketing director watched budgets shrink and attendance numbers nosedive. There were meetings (and more meetings), spreadsheets, and new logos: but none of it was enough to keep Evil Dr. Void and the Empty Chairs Gang from ruthlessly devouring more space on convention center floors. Hopes were dashed, and mediocrity became the new status quo.
But he had figured out a secret.
He learned Dr. Void’s Achilles’ heel: purpose-driven design that inspires.
When his bosses wouldn’t listen, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He left his cubicle behind and assumed the role of The Lone Marketer. Now, he travels the country, saving organizations everywhere from doom. He always carries with him his arsenal of marketing weapons—all built from 100 percent pure inspiration. You and our hero have a lot in common. Follow his adventures on our blog. And if you are ready to start making those marketing weapons work for you, give me a call at 301-753-4226.
Take a moment and picture your favorite group of members in your head. You know, the “go-to” group. The ones who are are involved and highly engaged. The ones who always give you feedback and come to your annual conference without even being asked. You love this group—as well you should. Be grateful for them. But here’s the un-pretty reality: they represent a huge hurdle for your association. Their eagerness and tendency to show up no matter what is keeping you too comfortable in your marketing.
Because in the new frontier of association event marketing, there is no norm. It’s not about assuming like-mindedness. It’s about embracing and understanding the dis-similarity of your membership. It’s about understanding the fact that your members are disparate people, with lives and problems and jobs and Saturday morning sporting events and bills to pay and arguments with significant others and dreams they’re trying to chase. It’s about getting that what holds them together is they are looking for a life-changing moment. An event that will be a game changer. Your association has that power. It’s why you exist.
But you aren’t reaching them because you’re focused on the eager 30 percent who always show up. It’s time to start talking to the other 70 percent who desperately need you, and design visually-based marketing campaigns that inspire them to want to come to your event.
Do You Sense a Theme Here?
Marketing a conference is almost exactly like launching a product. So, the first thing you need to enlist for a product launch is empathy, or being intimately connected to what your customers need (in the case of associations, your members). And then it’s a matter of focusing on what they need. Most associations do a good job with these first two things. It’s the part where you show people what you’ve come up with for them where it’s falling short. Early Apple investor and former CEO Mike Markkula said:
“People DO judge a book by its cover… We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software, etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod.”
Just as with a product launch, marketing your event is all about “packaging”—which is the story you’re wrapping your promotions in. Associations have this tendency to believe that their audience is so “niche,” that they forget to care about story. It’s easy to start thinking it just has to be “professional” and inform the unaware. But that’s where the empathy falters a bit. Because your members DO need to be inspired. They’re not just a niche. They are people with imaginations. People whose lives are waiting to be changed. And your conference can do that. But you have to present in that way.
You have to start by being clear on the difference the event makes for people. And then, you need a way to communicate it and visually portray that belief. You need a clear “HOW.” For a conference, that HOW is the conference theme.
But hold on, because this is where the disconnect happens. A theme isn’t just a nice-sounding phrase, recycled and repurposed year after year. Rather, it’s a verbal and visual statement about possibility, about what can happen at the event, and about the ways in which lives can be changed.
Your theme and the brandmark you design around it MUST inspire wonder and excitement and anticipation. Sounds lofty, right? Well, it better be. It better be absolutely fantastic! And it better look fantastic on the page and screen. Because if your theme isn’t right, the whole thing falls apart. From what we’ve seen, a majority of the themes out there aren’t right.
Products aren’t just thrown out there, with the assumption that the right people will buy it. They are given careful thought, unveiled in a strategic way, around a central theme that’s been carefully chosen. You have to do the same for your event.
For example, for their 2013 event, we created the theme for the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), “From Ordinary to Extraordinary.” We built a strong photographic and graphic treatment around it, used it to craft a targeted direct mail campaign, dripped an email campaign around it, and let it inform every single visual we used (including the short video we created for the event). We incorporated it in the campaign messaging and content strategy. Their attendance wound up with a 15 percent bump when all was said and done. Of course, the campaign was more than just a great theme. But the theme is what the campaign was built around. It was the glue that held it together. The thing that continually inspired their base. The clear HOW.
Good Design is Good Business
Our roots are in design, so we’re biased on this. But we’re also right. Good design is good business. It’s a promise of quality. It builds trust, amplifies your brand, impacts members’ experiences (and the way they remember the experiences), and changes members’ behavior (by inspiring them to act). You can create the best programming in the world and bring in a roster of top-notch speakers. But if your visuals don’t support content, don’t resonate with people, and aren’t powerful, nobody is going to think the event is powerful. In other words, bad design is bad business.
Too often we see associations forsaking design for the method of communication. They choose the way they are going to communicate and engage (email, social media, etc.) without taking time to create a design strategy that supports their message. Platforms alone don’t create emotional connection. Even Pinterest—one of the most visual platforms—doesn’t create connection on its own. The visions of life, via the Pinboards people pull together to inspire themselves and others, are what make emotional connections happen: you could do this; you could travel here; you can learn this; you can have this in your life.
So, how do you tap into this visual world to promote your event?
As we said above,
Step one is to have a killer theme that you can build a visual world around.
Step two, you need to think about how to balance your content with your visuals.
We believe in visual email campaigns. Of course the substance matters: you have important things to say. But if it’s too text heavy and the visuals are just an afterthought, we guarantee that for the majority of people (the 70 percent who don’t just automatically show up), your conference will also be an afterthought.
Third, harness the power of video.
But edited video.
Five-minute videos about why your association is great are just self-indulgent. And hardly anyone is going to watch them. Why do you think TV commercials are 30 to 60 seconds? The first thing people do with a You Tube video is look to see the time: they are looking for videos three minutes and under (under two minutes is even better). For that same ASTRA event, we created a promotional video that was under two minutes short and graphic. It was the campaign’s biggest hit, and they got an increased number of registrations from it. There are plenty of examples of great video, based around a central theme. Two of our favorites are Back to the Start and The Scarecrow videos by Chipotle.
Fourth, think more critically about the content of your magazine.
We know from reading surveys that an association’s magazine is often one of main reasons a person joins. But to reiterate: that doesn’t mean you’re dealing with a like-minded bunch. Your members/readers are not just a herd of sheep that will follow blindly to your event. You have to woo them with powerful visuals. Your magazine absolutely has to have inspiring and visually-driven content that promotes the conference. We recommend a six- to eight-page spread that also has case studies wrapped in it. It should run at least one month before Early Bird.
Finally, think about ways you can “unveil” your conference.
What can you borrow from successful product launches? Find ways to highlight pieces of the event, by visually representing them. Use your theme in creative ways. And always, always, always wrap everything you do in strong visuals. If you’re not sure if your visuals are strong, we’ll be glad to take a look for you. We have no problem telling the truth.
That favorite group of yours? They’ll be there. They’ll keep coming. But they can’t sustain you, and you know it. It’s really the other battle that will make your numbers. And that fight is only going to get more difficult. The only way to win it is to design yourself to victory.
In the article, “Meeting Apps: Advice from the Trenches,” Sue Hatch details the account of Logan Fleck’s first attempt at creating a full-featured conference app and what she has learned from her experience. Fleck embraces the advance in technology by creating her own app with the help of QuickMobile for the Pharma Forum, a conference for pharmaceutical meeting planners.
She offers nine helpful points of advice:
By creating this app, attendees are able to view the conference schedule and key speakers, network with attendees, schedule appointments, join in on polling and surveys and connect with social media sites all on their smart phone.
Timing is necessary! It can take up to a couple of weeks to get approved by Apple and get approval for copy right information. It is important to plan it right, so that you will not only have it in time for your conference, but also have enough time to promote it.
Commitment to micro-managing the app on a daily basis. Accept the fact that changes will have to be made.
In order to access the app, you must be an attendee of the event. Their original thought was to use the first initial and the last name as the username. However, they ran into a problem because some people had the same first initial and last name. By running into this dilemma, they have already planned to use unique usernames and passwords for next year’s conference.
Attendees were able to poll right from their smart phones. They recommended having two different screens so that they didn’t have to flip back and forth; one screen for the polling and one screen for the presentation.
Promote the conference in advance! By having the attendees download the app ahead of time, they can become familiar with how it works and ask any questions they may have.
Have tech support at the conference who can answer any troubleshooting questions.
Get creative with the app; use sponsors to the best of your ability and enable push notifications to increase attendance.
The first attempt is always going to be a learning experience. However, for the 2014 conference they can enhance on what they found to be successful, and fix any issues that took place to create an app that was better than before.
Despite the road bumps they encountered, a lot of positive outcomes came about. According to the article, “71% of attendees downloaded the app, the average user opened the app 24 times, and the average user looked at 239 pages within the app” (Hatch 1). With the 2013 conference under their belt, they can take on the 2014 forum with greater knowledge, more experience and a willingness to improve their app.
Let’s face it; design matters. Marty Neumeier, the Director of Transformation for Liquid Agency states that “the most innovative designers consciously reject the standard option box” which is what Michaela O’Connor Abrams emphasizes in her speech at the 2013 Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum. In years past, events typically followed the standard norm; a big show room filled with vendors that had attendees walking up and down the rows. How is this appealing to your audience? How does your event stand out from others? To put it simply, it doesn’t. In the article, “Why Event Design Matters” the author sums up why design is a critical aspect in making your attendee’s overall experience worthwhile.
Imagine walking down the street and stopping into a restaurant or store you’ve never been to before. The atmosphere is your first impression; despite the products you have or the food you serve, people aren’t going to embrace it if they aren’t impressed by the overall character of your place. Take this into consideration when planning an event for your association. Every little detail matters!
Where do you think your first impression is made? Your marketing. You need to design a strategies that will help engage members and prospects so that they will be inspired to act. Your customized strategy will need to include comprehensive plans for email marketing, direct mail marketing, and social media marketing. Your marketing pieces should contain innovative design and strong story-based copywriting.
So, when you sit down to plan your next event, remember to think about your attendees and the design that is going to make your event noteworthy.