Is your conference purpose-driven?

Is your conference purpose-driven?

A strategy to stand out and get noticed.

In the absence of a clear vision, association marketing staff members start second-guessing each other. The result is a cluttered mess of details about speakers, sessions, hotel accommodations, schedules and directions. It’s a hodgepodge of information that will go in one ear and out the other. So, in the “conference community” do you think your conference is purpose-driven? Then why do you still experience stress, lack of focus, complex decision-making processes and less-than-desired marketing results? You may already be focused in the language you use to describe and plan the event, but what really make a difference is being focused on what the conference has to offer.

A purpose-driven conference with a well-executed marketing plan will stand out among other events. Creating a purpose-driven conference will fill empty seats. It’s a journey—one that will allow you to see the big picture of what the conference means to attendees, then give you the ability to see how each detail fits together.

Keep reading for an example of one purpose-driven conference which sold out in 8 days, netting approximately $7 million.


The event community is overflowing with organizations competing in the same space with very similar messages. Potential attendees can’t determine (or even remember) the difference between the various events.

Differentiate or die.

Without proper positioning, your event will get lost in the crowd and simply disappear. Attendance will drop, money will be lost, sponsors will forget about you, the organization’s reputation will be damaged (maybe yours too) – in short, it will just fail as it becomes known as the conference not to attend.

Each year Apple holds a Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). They beautifully translate their purpose-driven operations to the world of conferencing, creating an experience that is known by web developers and geeks as the must-attend conference.

“So many companies are competing against each other with similar agendas. Being superficially different is the goal of so many … rather than trying to innovate and genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try to make something better.”

Jon Ives, Senior, VP of Apple

By accepting that there is competition in the event community and positioning themselves to stand out from the crowd based on the purpose of their event, Apple’s WWDC event grows to be more successful each year. The most recent WWDC event sold out in just 8 days. With 5,000 attendees at $1,600 per seat, this event brought in an estimated $7 million in just about a week.

Still think your conference is purpose-driven?

Or, are you ready to explore making it better and truly experience success? Discovering the intent will allow you to see the conference through the eyes of a potential attendee, positioning you in a better place to make decisions that will result in filling empty seats.

Focus Conference Positioning

Take a few moments to complete the following reassuring statement and you’ll be on the right track for conference marketing success.

“We help _______ [target audience] to _______ [benefit] and _______ [benefit].”

For example, an association hosting a conference for teachers could say:
“We help educators to learn effective classroom management strategies and get access to current curriculum.”

A statement such as the one above can keep an entire marketing team on the same page while preparing for and promoting the event. It’s the first step in differentiating your event from the other conferences your potential attendees may attend.

Nitty Gritty of Conference Positioning

Now that you have a solid conference positioning statement, use that message to reign in some of the event details and vital decisions.

  • What unique attributes of your products or services distinguish your conference from those of your competitors?
  • How does your conference fit into the overall brand strategy of the association?
  • How does your conference solve a problem or meet a need for your target audience?
  • Why is your conference the best solution for them?
  • What is non-negotiable about your conference and must happen at all costs?

Solve a problem.

Besides competing with other conferences in the event community, your event also competes against various books, training programs and other “problem solving” avenues. How do you know what problems your potential attendees are facing?

How do you find out what other solutions are they considering? How do you find out what they think about what your conference has to offer? Simple – you ask them. Ah, but not so simple is how to ask them in a way that gets you the answers you need (even if they are not what you want to hear).

To help us get to the bottom of effective research techniques for member-based organizations, we reached out to Melissa Marcello, President of the well-respected independent opinion and marketing research firm Pursuant Research.

The Big No-No

RCG: What is the biggest mistake you see associations make when conducting research among their members?

Melissa: “Creating closed-ended questions based on knowledge gained only from highly engaged members is a mistake I see member organizations make often and unknowingly. Member organizations feel like they are in touch with their members’ needs because they have regular contact with some members who are board members and leaders within the organization. However, these are all highly engaged members, not the garden variety. They assume that what they know about this group of highly engaged members is true for everyone, and wrongly attempt to use research to quantify those thoughts.”

It’s easy to ask questions, the challenge lies in asking the right questions.

RCG: Obviously, it is important to ask the right questions when gathering feedback. What makes a good question?

Melissa: “It’s important to find balance. If a question is too narrow, it will not provide helpful information. However, if it is too broad it will be difficult to answer and the respondent will become frustrated. It’s important to remember that the members are people first, and second a professional. It’s natural for them to want to feel like they are giving you the ‘right’ answer.

I like questions that get inside their world and connect with them. For example, picking up the phone and asking members questions about their work week:

‘What happened at work this week that was a challenge? What was most satisfying? What was your greatest frustration?’

It may not seem direct, but you’ll discover some gems in their responses. Also, it builds an emotional connection between you and the member.”

Use what you’ve got.

RCG: What is one tip organizations can implement today to make their research efforts more successful?

Melissa: “Use data you already have to capture new, more detailed information. For example, segment surveys by member engagement. Each group will have unique needs and values.”

During our talk Melissa shared more tips that will help you discover why members would want to attend your conference:

  • Don’t assume you know what the member needs or wants.
  • Start with the easy questions so the respondent does not get frustrated, and to build trust that will result in more honest and helpful answers.
  • Gathering research through phone calls and focus groups should feel like a conversation. Members should feel comfortable enough to bring up a topic that is not necessarily on the script.

Memories drive behavior.

Now that you have identified a problem your conference can solve for potential attendees, put that information to use and guide individuals to registration.

Learning creates an impression. Impressions empower the ability to remember. Remembering compels behavior.

Great marketers understand this and intentionally market with strategic stimuli or prompts to remind their target audience of a particular event, time or piece of information stored in their memory. In the event community, you can use this theory to drive members into the actions you desire – event registration, membership renewal and purchasing publications.

First, take the positioning statement, answers to the positioning questions and some member feedback, then use that information to create content for a purpose-driven conference. That is the right kind of information you want to teach to potential attendees about the conference. Next, you can begin the use of strategic prompts to trigger memories that will drive behavior.

Let’s start with some memory basics:

What will potential attendees remember?

After reading an email about the upcoming conference or skimming the event’s website, what will potential attendees remember? Will the content and value of the conference stick with them?

How will they remember you?

Identify how potential attendees will feel when they remember you, and what you want them to think about when they encounter a triggering event. What should they think about your organization and offerings?

When will they remember you?

What real-life experiences serve as good triggers for potential attendees to remember you? These triggers can include activities at work, conversations with colleagues or experiences in their community and home.

Once you’ve determined when you want attendees to remember your organization or event, and you know what you want them to think and feel — get out of the way and do not distract them!

If you want attendees to think of you when faced with a problem at work and you want them to remember your event as being something that helped them come up with solutions, then do not distract them from this memory by promoting your event as being at a “fabulous and fun destination!” You completely ruin the memory cycle and confuse the potential attendees when you promote the venue over the value.

Does it sound too good to be true – a conference marketing experience that reduces stress, focuses energy, simplifies the decision making process, gives meaning to your event, and prepares for successful competition in the conference community.

It does happen, as seen by Apple’s WWDC annual event. And, it can happen for your organization, as well, when following a successful strategy for positioning, research and marketing.

For those of you attending ASAE’s 2010 Marketing & Membership Conference next week in DC, be sure to check out Gary’s session – Rethinking Conference Marketing: From Web 2.0 and Beyond. He’ll be talking about how to develop a conference marketing plan based on positioning and how to differentiate yourself from the pack, including ways to implement social networking strategies into your conference marketing.

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