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…Mike Markkula
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.
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