Balance & Timing: The Athletics of Event Marketing

Balance & Timing: The Athletics of Event Marketing

You’re an athlete in the arena of event marketing. What skills will you see?

We admit it: we are raving sports fans.

Yeah, the rehashing of scores and bad plays and personalities on the field, court, and course is fun. But if you’re like us, that’s not the stuff that drives you to keep watching, week after week.

Sure, you might be jealous of athletes’ 7-figure contracts and endorsements, but what you truly admire is their talent and ability to flat out move—against the odds, and against Newton’s laws. Athletic movement captivates us with its raw flow of balance and timing. The way it comes together is symphonic: the guy who runs 90+ yards at full speed, dodging madmen with the instinct to kill all the way; the triple play that squashes the other team’s 9th inning rally; the series of flips and twists perfectly landed on a tiny strip of nothing.

We’re drawn to these physical expressions of balance and timing because we covet these two qualities in our lives—in all ways imaginable, from not falling on our rear ends in the snow, to knowing how to deliver a punch line, to juggling a career and a family. We’re all students of balance and timing. And we watch athletes because they show us what happens when it all comes together.

So, when we launch a marketing campaign that lacks both balance and timing, why are we so surprised when the fumble, fall, or foul derails our efforts? Why are we so in love with expressions of careful balance and good timing, yet we forget to translate them into the work we do that matters?

Eggs, a Basket, and a Bad Ending

What we’ve been noticing lately is that many associations have terrible balance. Specifically, when they have an over-reliance on one particular marketing mode—such as email marketing, social media, direct mail, or on-site apps—their attendance numbers become volatile. When all efforts are clustered around one thing, the event turnout is much more likely to fluctuate when something goes awry (because the state of everything is to go awry at some point).

On the other hand, when associations position the core of what they’re about solidly in the center, and then spread their marketing efforts across a balance of activities—each one built on the other—they are much more likely to get the attendance numbers they want (even through hitches, glitches, and twitches).

The kind of balance we’re talking about is born of abundance and proactivity. The running back with explosive legs and a single-minded determination who’s got five different strategies for plowing through. It’s about knowing exactly why your association exists and the difference you are making—and then skillfully guiding your people through the three stages of the buying cycle: (1) informing the unaware, (2) inspiring the interested, and (3) reassuring the intent.

We wish one basket were enough. But it’s so not. Not today.

Why Email Alone Isn’t Enough

How many emails do you get every day? We send you this one, in hopes that you’ll click through. But we’d never invest everything in that, because we’ve seen the industry numbers. Most professionals get more than 200 emails a day. Sure, it raises the odds of the email being opened when it comes from a trusted source (like your association), but it doesn’t buy you that much in the end. Maybe an extra second.

As for the open rate: this is only a measure of who has viewed your email. It doesn’t mean they’ve engaged with it. And it certainly doesn’t mean they’ve clicked-through. For most marketers, the click-through rate is a fraction of the open rate (think of the difference between “hits” and “unique viewers” on your web site). If only a small fraction of your people click through, your marketing breaks down around the very first stage of the buying cycle: informing the unaware. Unaware people aren’t inspired. Unaware and uninspired people don’t register for your event.

The first step is to create stronger emails. We have a few suggestions:
  • Create a story around networking, and lead with it in your content, since the majority of attendees come there for networking.
  • Spam-proof your subject lines, while still keeping them engaging and interesting.
  • If you do top 10 or top 5 lists, keeping NEC in mind: that’s networking, education, and certification. Any list of reasons to attend has to touch all three areas.
  • Remember that branding matters. Your event will be judged by its marketing, including the emails. That means creating branded, well-thought out emails with a recognizable look and feel. To be clear: a bunch of words on the page is a bunch of words on the page; it’s not a look and feel.
  • Include calls to action, but not too many (a confused brain shuts down). Include no more than three action steps in your email.
  • Consider the time of day your email gets delivered. Stay away from Mondays and Fridays, and choose either 10 a.m., noon, or 4 p.m., based on what you know of your membership base.
  • Consider using testimonials. Someone else touting the benefits of attending is more powerful than you touting them.
  • Remember that venue alone does not inspire. Ditch the cityscape photos and think a little more strategically about images and your brand.

The second step is to stop relying on email alone. In fact, to stop relying on any one thing to do everything you need.

Nothing Alone is Enough

We can look at social media and direct mail in much the same way: if a person isn’t engaged with that medium, you haven’t reached them. It’s not that you’ve failed to inspire them (yet). They haven’t even looked at you.

Oh, but wait, you say: we have an app! Hey, we love apps. We just wrote about them. We’ve got a killer one that drives registration in development. But that’s not the kind of app we’re talking about, and we know it’s not what you’re talking about. You’re thinking your onsite app is the ticket, right? Surely, that will inform the unaware?

Sadly, no. Because no one downloads the conference app until the plane ride or the morning of the event. It’s great for helping people steer their way through their day at the event. But not so much for getting them there.

In all of this business, hardly anyone is getting informed. Even fewer people are getting inspired. So your job becomes harder and harder, and making your numbers become harder and harder.

Striking a balance with your marketing is the smart way to navigate through the three stages of the buying cycle. So, here is what we want you to do: step back, and take a holistic view of what you’re doing in your event marketing. Put your WHY (the compelling reason to believe) in the center, and spin an interconnecting web, comprised of a strong email campaign backed up with some eye-catching direct mail, reinforced with a memorable and interesting social media presence, and paid off in a well-thought-out event app.

That’s your stuck dismount.

You’re in the Right League, Just the Wrong Year

Indulge us in one more sports metaphor. Did you know that no matter how good a quarterback is in college, there is virtually no correlation with how good a quarterback he’ll be in the NFL? There’s a long history of top draft picks winding up . . . well, nowhere. It’s because—from the quarterback’s prospective—college and professional football are two very different games. Professional is faster, vastly more complicated, and uses a totally different sense of timing. To be good in the NFL, a college quarterback has to throw out what he thought he knew about timing, and absorb a very different sense of it. If he doesn’t, he’ll fall to the bottom of the pack.

At least with football, there is only one big transition from NCAA to NFL. In marketing, we have to transition year after year, and our ideas about timing are always changing. But the one thing we can take from the quarterback conundrum is this: you will fall to the bottom of the pack if you insist on sticking to the old ideas about timing. For example, if you’re not capitalizing on the trend of late registration, you are missing a huge opportunity. In fact, whatever your idea from five years ago (even two years ago) about how to time your marketing was, it’s out of date now.

Let it go.

Drip, Drip, Drip

If balance is about mastering the first stage of the buying cycle (informing the unaware), timing is about navigating the second: inspiring the interested.

We believe that you create inspiration through nuggets and drips. It’s about the build. It’s about momentum and coyness and not giving away the milk for free. We never get tired of the way Apple introduces new products. They manage to build excitement for the same product, such as the iPhone, over and over again. What they actually change about the product is not the point (because it’s usually not much). It’s how they meter out the marketing, managing to build excitement and hoopla around release dates.

You can do the same thing, without Apple’s mega-million dollar marketing budget. It’s about building your WHY—your source of inspiration—through slices and teases. To be clear, your association better full-on know your WHY (every part of it, not just a nugget).

But stack it like Legos. Stagger it like bricks. Create a rallying cry around a date when something is announced: build it, offer it, and make it limited (going, going . . . gone!). Create both interest and urgency. Give people a reason to keep reading, to click through, to retweet, and ultimately, to register. Generate excitement over time—using a balance of marketing modes.

A great way to make use of timing in your marketing plan is to create interest around four key areas:
  • Money-driven stuff: early bird rates, hotel prices that go up after a certain day, and travel rates that increase the longer you wait.
  • Education stuff: paid workshops with cut-off dates, and sessions with limited seating.
  • Networking stuff: dinners, lunches, parties, outings, and other special events, paid or unpaid, with cut-off dates.
  • Certification: sessions with limited seating and/or limited time to react.

Half-time is over. You’ve got a game to win. Find your balance, maximize your timing, and we’ll see you in the end zone.

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