Disastrous events. We’ve all had them. I remember standing with my boss behind a pillar at an event in 1999, as he was unable to look at the room we had set for 700 with the 50 attendees. My attempts to promote the event as having a better–than–expected speaker–to–attendee ratio fell a little flat.
That’s why so much energy for every event is spent on thinking about how to get “butts in seats.”
A good place to start is with the trusty “4 P’s” of marketing, first espoused by Phillip Kottler (often called the father of modern marketing) in 1967. It’s funny to see how many lessons from his 4 P’s—product, price, promotion and place—still apply in the Internet and social media age. Particularly when you consider that this photo represents the state of the art in computing the year that Kottler wrote his seminal textbook “Marketing Management.”
So what would Kottler say about events today?
Product: Here’s the cold, hard reality. The market does a really good job of separating out good events from bad ones. And the event market is more competitive now than it has ever been. I look for four key elements in creating a client event:
- Content: Whether it’s the right speakers or the right opportunity for audience interaction, you can’t spend enough time thinking about the agenda for your event. As you do, remember that the approach to content over the years has shifted. For example, the days of ninety–minute keynotes have given way to shorter, punchier TED talks. I’ve blogged about this before.
- Packaging: I spend a lot of time at client events looking at staging and appearances. These items are far from superficial: they have a significant impact on people’s perception of an event. Walking into a room and saying “Wow!” helps attendees feel that an event is more than just an association meeting—it’s a happening.
- Networking: People come to events to meet people. Be sure you’re giving them that opportunity—not just by having the time on the agenda, but by facilitating it with tools like mobile apps.
- Fun: Whether it is an off–the–beaten path speaker, a theme at a networking reception, or a clever opening video, look for an opportunity to make your attendees smile. That’s where impressions are made.
Price: The pricing strategy on events is one that requires careful consideration, as it will often be a key consideration in people’s ability to attend.
Here are a few rules of thumb:
- Free is costly: A mistake I’ve made in the past is the “free registration/sponsor–supported” event. You need to remember that for attendees, price connotes value. I’d rather give someone a “courtesy registration” to an event priced at $595 than have an event be priced as free.
- Be competitive: People have nearly limitless opportunities to attend events. Be sure to do your market research to take a look at how comparable events are priced.
- Cover your costs: Being a “non-profit” doesn’t mean that you need to lose money. I typically look for a pricing model that enables sponsorship to cover the hard costs of the meeting with registrations serving as the profit margin.
Promotion: With a strong product at the right price, it’s now time to start promoting.
- Personal invitations: Tip O’Neill used to say you have to ask for every vote. And similarly, you have to ask for every registrant at a meeting. Be sure your promotion strategy includes personally inviting past event attendees to register—they should be a solid base from which you begin.
- Return to sender: When I have scores of emails to sort through, I typically start by seeing who sent them. That’s why it’s so important that your promotion strategy start with attention to the sender line. Who is the message from? If your message is from a generic “events” address or an unknown staffer, it won’t cut through the clutter.
- Go social: Of course, social media is a key part of your promotion strategy. Understanding what has worked and is working for other similar industry events and meetings, and applying it to promotional messaging testing is crucial. Don’t set one message up to one defined audience without providing variants of images and calls to action. This allows increasingly sophisticated delivery systems like Facebook Ads to more effectively target your message to not only your target audiences, but their specific tastes!
- Set goals: Remember, not every meeting has to break attendance records. Sometimes exclusivity is what you’re going for—and a big attendance goes against your goals. Be sure you have a set goal for attendance success.
Place: It’s not quite what Kottler meant by “place,” but when it comes to meeting success, location matters in driving attendees. Worry about the “ABC’s” of location.
- Access: Be sure you have solid access from airports and multiple airlines. I’m not always crazy about the Grand Hyatt DFW, but it sure is easy to get to.
- Budget: Consider the budgets of attendees. They’ll need to put the event on their expense accounts. Don’t book a Four Seasons for a group that is on a Ramada Inn budget, and be careful about locations that could be perceived as a “junket.”
- Cachet: Consider locations that have some perceived “cachet” that are still within your budget. Here in Boston, for example, colleges and universities are a great venue—unused classroom space is affordable and having a major university name as the location provides some cachet for the event.
So will doing all the strategies above guarantee solid attendance? Of course not. But some careful consideration of the “4 P’s” can save you from the dreaded “fifth P”—the pain of an event gone wrong.