Strategic event marketing is about inspiring and connecting potential attendees. It goes beyond facts and “stuff”—all that networking, education, and certification you offer. People need to understand your event’s value on an emotional level. They must see a measurable return on the time, money, and effort they invest to attend. This is all within your grasp if you have a solid marketing strategy.
Use these four pillars as the foundation of a purposeful marketing strategy that drives event attendance and member engagement.
Product (your event)
Your event is a product, and it should be marketed as such. There is a buying cycle, and your marketing must support it. You need to inform the unaware, inspire the interested, and reassure the intent to guide prospects along a journey toward registration and membership.
Like any good product marketing, your messaging should focus not on the features (sessions, experts, certifications) but on the benefits your attendees will realize.
- How will their lives be better or easier by attending your event?
- What goals do they have that your event will enable?
- What pain points will it take away?
- What’s the ROI they can expect from attending?
These are emotional issues for your audience, so to be effective you need to have empathy for their situation—no matter where they are in the buying cycle. For example, someone who is brand new to the industry might be feeling in over their head. They lack experience and expertise. They’re hungry for resources and connections. To effectively reach this individual, you must first raise awareness that you exist. Next, demonstrate your offerings and value through compelling storytelling. Lastly, reassure them that they’ve come to the right place—a place where like-minded people collaborate to solve their most pressing issues.
If you host an annual event, it’s easy to keep churning out the same marketing year after year. To really inspire and connect people, you must take a fresh approach. Every year is a new product launch. Every year you must ask yourself how you can align your marketing with the buying cycle to address current audience needs and emotions.
Neuroscience tells us that stories have the power to inspire and connect your attendees. Storytelling goes beyond facts and logic to engage the limbic brain, where most of our decisions are made. To truly resonate with prospects, branded attendee stories must show new possibilities and enable goals. They must address pain points, challenges, and questions attendees might have. To find juicy story content, identify a handful of people willing to give you an hour or two of their time. Choose a mix of new members, veteran attendees, and maybe even a curmudgeon who wasn’t so quick to see your value. Come prepared with questions, but don’t be afraid to venture off the map. Sometimes your best stories come from unscripted conversations. Here are 10 Questions for Member Stories to get you started.
Once you have enough information, craft the entire story. You can always use shorter excerpts depending on your platform. For effective stories that inherently increase connection among readers, follow the universal story structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. (Read more about The Anatomy of a Story and see an example.) The best stories create a sense of urgency with the reader to incite the desired action.
For your event—and your organization itself—to be sustainable, you need to create pilgrims, not tourists. Pilgrims engage. They attend your event year after year because they are internally compelled to be there. Tourists, by contrast, come to look. They leave without contributing and do not return. Again thinking of your event as a product, it’s much easier to up-sell, cross sell, or get repeat business from an existing customer. If you can continually inspire your members and attendees, you’ll have a much easier time filling seats year after year. As a bonus, your devoted pilgrims will be more likely to engage.
Strategies for driving sustainability:
- Craft timely, emotionally engaging marketing communications aligned with the buying cycle. Use marketing automation to ensure you are most responsive to prospect/attendee needs based on actual behaviors.
- Provide exclusive event offerings people can’t get anywhere else (ex: face time with experts, hands-on learning, exclusive products, event-only specials).
- Create meaningful event activities that allow inspiration and creativity through in-person connection and collaboration (ex: social outings, informal networking spaces, roundtable discussions, business incubators).
- Provide unique promotional items with an engagement component (ex: Encourage attendees to share an image on social media wearing your association’s branded clothing).
Besides the cost to attend, fear is why people do not register for your event. Pre-event stressors and on-site stressors prevent people from registering altogether, or they prevent people from fully engaging while there. You must prove that the benefits of your event are greater than people’s fears. According to the Attendee Research Report, 1 in 4 attendees thought their last event was stressful. To address stressors and encourage people to overcome them, you need to be empathic in your communication efforts. To do that, you must first understand their fears.
Pre-event stressors include time away from work and family, cost and hassle of travel, and even what to wear. On-site stressors might be the crowds, not knowing anyone, or selecting which sessions to attend. General fear of the unknown can put a serious dent in your attendance numbers.
Focus on the fears most relevant to your audience, and take steps to address them.
A few suggestions for overcoming fears and proving value:
- First-time attendee breakfast or mentor program
- Early bird discounts, giveaways, or special drawings to offset costs
- Clear communications about how to get to the event and where to stay, including any travel promotions
- Detailed event schedule and layout to help attendees navigate your event and take full advantage of all offerings
- Online forum for people to connect ahead of time
- Pre-event social media conversations or webinars to break the ice between attendees and your organization
- Suggested dress code (ex: “Our attendees typically wear business casual attire.”)
- A mix of structured and informal networking events to cater to introverts and extroverts
- ROI toolkit to help attendees weigh the costs versus the benefits
It’s not enough to host a great event.
You need a comprehensive strategy to inspire and drive people to attend. Plus, you need them to come back next year. Use these four pillars as a guide to identify and close the gaps in your current marketing strategy.
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