I’ve long-believed that one of the hardest things about marketing events is that you’re never done. You can always bring in a few more attendees, right up until the opening keynote takes the stage. For that reason, event marketers (or at least, the people who set the event marketers’ budgets and attendance targets) often focus on an event’s growth. Barring a macroeconomic or industry-wide meltdown, events should grow year over year. At their core, events are a community, and a vibrant and successful community naturally attracts more members.
You probably want – maybe even expect – your event to grow this year. What strategy are you employing to achieve your goal? Here are a few growth strategies to consider. Any could work, given the right combination of organization, industry, resources and commitment. Read through them all and see which one speaks to your company’s needs:
1. Rely on Industry Growth: If you’re in an industry on the rise, your event will get bigger just by being around another year. On the surface this is good news – you’ll have more attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and willing speakers, and your event staff and management will be comprised largely of shiny happy people. But if all you’ve done is follow the same email and event marketing schedule as in years past to let your event get bigger, chances are good that rival events are growing at the same clip or faster. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say. But they don’t say what happens when the tide goes out. So I will – someone gets sunk. When an industry is on the upswing, many people are able to attend 2, 3 or more competing shows per year. But when their budgets constrict again they have to choose only one. So if your show is growing along with the rest of them, make sure you are taking steps to differentiate so that when the choice comes to attend a single show, yours is the one to get the nod.
2. Market More: While this is an improvement over relying on industry growth (above), it is still more of a tactic than a strategy. By increasing marketing, an event marketer’s objective is to grow faster than the industry. It is a prudent approach while the industry is strong, like investing in an aggressive growth fund when you have some extra cash and no near-term need to turn it back into liquid assets. If you choose to market more, however, put some energy into marketing differentiation in addition to added reach or frequency. Instead of more email messages that say “Register today,” devote some messages towards highlighting a single session at the event, or a special networking function that sets your show apart. If you are going to reach more people with your message, it’s better to invest in a more powerful message that will have a greater impact when it hits, and also helps differentiate your event for when the market constricts again and your attendees have to make a choice. Put some added resources into competitive positioning and how to highlight your event’s meaningful points of differentiation.
3. Greater Functional Reach: The initiatives above allow you to grow your event by bringing in more of the same people. If your show attracts IT directors, relying on industry growth brings in more IT directors, as well as IT managers and IT assistant managers. Marketing more increases your conversion rate, so that instead of 40% of the IT directors on your list attending the show, you’re able to bring in 45%. Growing your show through greater functional reach, however, means you are deliberately appealing to new titles and areas of functional responsibility within an organization. For example, in addition to IT Directors you may decide your show’s growth strategy is to bring in COOs as well. To achieve this, the event marketer focuses on the programming intersection between IT Directors and this new function. But there is only so much communication can do with this strategy. Ultimately it begins with programming, and the person who creates the agenda needs to shift the show content accordingly. At organizations where marketing is detached from programming, this strategy is a challenge. It is not uncommon for event marketers to be charged with simply bringing in more people, even though the content of the show itself does not appeal to new segments. But in some cases growth in this direction makes strategic sense, and is worth the early strategic sessions with the programming team to determine months in advance if this is how the show will grow. From a communications standpoint, this growth strategy is one of the least expensive. Team pricing or bring-a-colleague promotions can be very effective, and are emailed directly to your existing contacts.
4. Greater Company Reach: This is the strategy to employ when you know you have a great show and want to move it towards industry dominance. If your show is uniquely appealing to an audience of, for example, Marketing Directors within your industry, and it has grown in size and stature over the past few years, one avenue to future growth is to expand beyond your house lists and begin marketing aggressively towards Marketing Managers, Directors and VPs at companies not already within your own organization’s fold. Direct mail and online advertising can be effective at reaching new prospects, and as an email marketer you have an advantage over competing event marketers because you know you don’t need to get a new prospect to register the first time they come across your event. Instead, make it easy for them to subscribe to your email list so that you can provide ongoing updates about the event content, other companies attending, networking opportunities in the EXPO, and other event features. Your objective with your prospecting marketing is not so much to get them to sign on right away, but to give you permission to keep them informed. That takes your prospecting dollars further, and by increasing your house list gives you greater visibility into the possible size of your event in future years as well.