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More Marketing Isn’t the Answer

A strategic look at your marketing spend, as well as what you spend on your attendee experience, can be telling. According to Convene’s most recent Meetings Market Survey, on average 6 percent of a meeting’s direct expenses fall in the marketing/promotion category. After studying 100 or so meetings’ profit and loss (P&L) statements in great detail, I can confirm that this expense line item varies greatly. Some organizations spend as little as 2 percent and have a very healthy conference product, while others rack up spending in the 20- to 25-percent range and are on life support.

This variability begs the question: Why such a big difference? Here are four insights we’ve learned from analyzing the marketing-spend category:

  1. Marketing spend for conferences with an expo is usually closer to 6 percent. Expos with a conference are more likely to be in the 12-percent range.
  2. When a conference has a strong loyal attendance base, the marketing budget should be no higher than 6 percent.
  3. Organizations with marketing spend of 20 to 25 percent usually have a 132-page final program. They also spend a lot on list buys and ad placements. Leadership often thinks the answer to their attendance problems is to earmark even more spend for attendance marketing.
  4. Spend in this category doesn’t contribute to the attendee value proposition. Attendees value experiences like food and beverage, speakers/entertainment, and learning environments with good audiovisual.

If your conference loyalty is less than 30 percent (“loyal” meaning having attended two or more of the last three annual conferences), your problem is likely not marketing but rather learning and networking value. More or better marketing can’t fix this. Marketing tactics that are gaining favor for increased effectiveness and ROI include:

  • Alumni campaigns Targeted messaging and offers to attendees from the last year or two.
  • Group campaigns Special offers and/or experiences available to organizations that send five or more participants.
  • VIP invitations For those who qualify, special invitation-only offers that include upgraded experiences.
  • Content marketing As opposed to promotion, content marketing is more of a thought-leadership play in which you help your customers and prospects without expectation. In the long run, you earn their loyalty and preference.
  • List enhancement List buys or trades are rarely effective. Moving forward more associations will hire interns or contract DaaS (Data-as-a-Service) providers to improve customer and prospect intelligence and segmentation.
  • Retargeting Print and digital banner ads are losing effectiveness. Savvy marketers are testing retargeting based on your Web site’s visitors’ previous actions. While the effectiveness of retargeting likely might be low for a premium conference, it can be helpful for introductory freemium or lower-cost products and services.
  • Less print This one is a no-brainer. Some organizations have a tough time ripping off this Band-Aid due to ad revenue. The bigger issue is that they’re selling something that’s not moving the needle for advertisers nor embracing a digital-first strategy.

Shift Marketing Spend to Inbound Strategies

Marketing’s traditional four P’s are product, price, place, and promotion. Promotion is push, or outbound, marketing, where the goal is to convert a percentage of the number of impressions, or eyeballs, via an ad or campaign. For years this marketing tactic has been losing its effectiveness. Consumers are much better at fast-forwarding through commercials, deleting HTML emails, and ignoring ads both online and in print.

Smart conference organizers are shifting marketing spend to pull, or inbound, marketing strategies like thought leadership/content marketing. This strategy aligns with word-of-mouth marketing’s new three E’s: engage, equip, empower.

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2017

Which marketing tactics have shown increased effectiveness and ROI for your conference? What new channels are you using when shifting dollars from print?

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Jeff Hurt

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