Conference Marketing in 2013: The Space You Don’t See

Conference Marketing in 2013: The Space You Don't See

From the time I started school, I knew something wasn’t right with the blackboard. Or books. Or spelling words. What my eyes were seeing and what I knew they were supposed to see weren’t the same thing. And it was a big problem. In middle school, I actually had a teacher who wouldn’t let me go out to recess until I finished correctly copying word-for-word what was on the board.

But I never got it right, and I often missed recess altogether. Because the a’s and the e’s were always backwards, and the words constantly jumped around. There was a name for it, even back then: dyslexia. To cope, I just discovered ways to see differently.

That’s why I got into typography. Typography is basically the way “type” is arranged so that you can read language. We think about fonts and size, but the key to typography is space. Specifically, the space between the letters themselves (called “kerning”) and the space between lines (called “leading”).

My eye could immediately pick out those spaces in between, and I intuitively got it. In this way, my “inability” to see what everyone else was seeing became one of the great blessings of my life. Because it allowed me to see that the space in between is the space of possibility. This is the key message we at Rottman Creative need to share with you in 2013, because all of the other space has been swallowed up by tight budgets and competition from the virtual world. The space in between is all that’s left for your conference. And it’s in that space where we see something that you probably don’t. We see that you are in the business of changing people’s lives.

You’re Not Just a Marketer; You’re a Life-Changer

Joining an association is a very conscious decision. People join to connect, and to better themselves in some way: to be better leaders, better employees, better business owners, better advocates, better service providers, better parents, better friends. Better humans. This is one of the coolest messages in the world. But not all organizations are actively thinking it, saying it, or showing it.

It’s not that you’re not marketing. According to the 2012 Meetings Marketing Benchmarking Report, 97 percent of you say you come up with your own marketing plan and have your own marketing people. What the survey didn’t reveal—but what we know—is that those marketing plans are rinsed and repeated every year, with updated dates, locations, and themes.

We also know that for most organizations, email is the primary way you communicate with your base. But instead of gems of inspiration, these emails are usually just more noise in the world, stocked with facts: this keynote, that session, this workshop… All of this adds up to only 20 percent of members attending your events. That’s one-fifth. A small bite. Much less than it could be. Too many lives not getting changed. So, what’s stopping you from getting 50 percent or more? In relying on facts rather than emotional connection, you are missing the opportunity to inspire the base.

What’s really stopping you from greatness is that you’re not telling the story of how your conference changes lives. And there is a pretty good chance that you’re not even seeing this. Not yet, that is.

We are going to tackle inspiring organizations this year in a way we never have before. Because we literally can’t take it anymore: What your association is doing is too important. The lives you are changing matter too much. Twenty percent isn’t good enough.

The Stepping Stones to Inspiration

Let’s start with the idea that you are in charge of changing the bulk of your members’ lives. Not 20 percent. But the bulk. Instead of an idea lost in the cracks, let’s make it the only thing you see. Your members need your conference more than anything. They want it. They must have it.

In fact, let’s make that idea the first stepping stone.

Stepping Stone #1

How do you get from where you are now (20 percent) to changing the bulk of your members’ lives?

The first answer is a marketing plan. A real one. (As in, not the one from last year.)

You need to develop an integrated marketing plan that will close the gap between the excitement of what really goes on at the conference, and the way you market it.

Your emails are excellent at informing people of WHAT the conference is. But what’s lacking is WHY (“because this will change your life!”). As we’ve said, ultimately, it’s about inspiring your base, and telling them the verbal and visual stories they will connect with.

But first, you need to know who your members are and how they behave. Which leads us to the second step:

Stepping Stone #2

Think of this as looking under the hood. Gather the most up-to-date facts about your membership base (keeping in mind that it’s probably changed in the past few years). That means looking at surveys, demographics, member feedback, and open rates for emails (including which ones get the highest and lowest).

Get a clear picture of who your typical member is and how they behave. Once you know that, you can start to plot their story along the continuum of stories that have been with humanity since the beginning of time.

Stepping Stone #3

Archetypes are personality types or stories that show up over and over again, across all cultures. Think about the stories of humanity: the hero who triumphs, the rebel who challenges, the lover who casts a spell, the trickster who teaches a lesson. We connect to and intuitively get these and other stories, because we live them over and over again. Your association actually evokes an archetype: your brand is linked to one or more of the archetypes—and so are your members.

To really inspire your base—and to know how to market specifically to the different segments of members—you need to know your brand archetype, as well as the archetypes of your people. We’ve done a lot of work in this area (one great resource is Archetypes in Branding), and we’ve seen how when an association takes time to discern their archetypes, they connect to their members in a new way. They connect because they have a much clearer picture of what they’re about, and what their people are about. Figuring out your archetype map helps take the mystery out of this storytelling you need to do that we keep talking about— because (maybe for the first time) you know what stories will resonate.

In short, archetypes help you know how to talk to your people. That’s where the next step comes in.

Stepping Stone #4

People don’t know that you’re talking to them if you don’t actually talk to them. And the way your people recognize that you’re talking to them is through voice. If your logo or conference brandmark is your visual signature, your voice is your verbal signature—and without it, there is no compelling reason to listen to your message, to take action, or to share it with others. We see far too many voiceless marketing campaigns: generic information, lacking context, personality, or specificity.

A strong brand voice demands attention. It creates instant recognition, and—most importantly—inspires your people by talking authentically and directly to them about the stuff they care about. The visual and the voice—your graphics and your copy—have to work together. They have to both come from the same place of inspiration, and archetype-driven messaging.

Nothing about how you communicate to your members should be haphazard. That includes what you offer them. Which leads us to the fifth stepping stone.

Stepping Stone #5

So, what do you have to offer members? Literally, what is the stuff you’ve got? Remember, the first stepping stone is that your job is to change lives. You can’t do that if people don’t register. But they’re not going to register until they see a piece of what you have. Stop looking at this as a catch-22, and just start sharing what you have.

Be generous, and be strategic. What events/promotions/discounts can you tie to registration? We’re not just talking about hotel discounts and room blocks. But giveaways. Information sharing. Community-building activities. What thought leaders in your industry can you tap to provide value-added things for your members?

However, your offers won’t be effective if you don’t understand (and account for) registration timing. And that’s the final building step.

Stepping Stone #6:

Knowing when and how to make your offers is an art to itself. Registration occurs along a bell curve, peaking around the early bird deadline. Increasingly, we’re seeing higher rates of late registration, and we believe that early bird registration numbers will begin to drop off. The next generation moves faster, and often decides last minute. You have to know their patterns, and what will move them at any given time.

You also need to understand how to integrate all of your marketing, so that one is reinforcing the other: social media posts highlighting the key points of emails, emails reinforcing the direct mail pieces, and direct mail pieces dropping at strategic times.

In fact, your marketing plan should be a comprehensive picture of how Email Marketing, Direct Mail Marketing, and Social Media Marketing will work together to tell the same story. Fear not, those are the topics for our next three newsletters. But it’s no use moving forward until you’ve walked the path along your stepping stones: belief that you change lives, diagnostics, archetypes, voice, offers, and timing.

You can think of this focus on stepping stones as stepping back. Or stepping up. We think of it as stepping in-between, to see what you do and how you do it in a totally new way.

Because the space in between is rich. You just have to start looking.

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