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As you build the marketing plan for a conference, you have two considerations: what to communicate, and when to communicate it. Because of the ease of creating and sending email, deciding when to communicate does not require a lot of lead time. But in order to communicate as powerfully as possible, deciding what you are going to promote at each stage in the pre-conference plan does require some lead time. The reason is that not all of the content you will want to promote in your emails and other conference marketing communications is ready at the moment you’d like to promote it. Rather than hold up your communications plan while you are waiting for a keynote speaker to make up her mind about whether or not she’ll participate or what she’ll call her presentation, better to have a plan that doesn’t rely solely on the event program for its content. To do that, you’ll need to find other aspects of the show to promote, and even create some yourself. This takes a little time up front, but saves you from scrambling or – worse – radio silence as you get closer to the show.
Here is a recommended timeline for building the communication plan for your next big event:
13 months out: Or rather, 1 month before this year’s edition of the conference you’re going to run again next year. One of the best ways to promote your conference is to use content – particularly photos and videos – from the same show last year. A month before the big event, spend some time determining what types of media you’d like to capture to promote the show next year. If it’s photos, hire a photographer or enlist a staffer with an enthusiast photog’s skills and equipment. Videos can be immensely popular as well, such as interviews or testimonials with attendees, exhibitors or speakers. In-close personal videos work much better for creating engagement with a show than a 30-minute movie of a presentation, shot from so far back that you can only see the screen and not the speaker. By deciding in advance what in particular you want to use to promote the show next year, you can be sure to get exactly what you want and not have to sort through scraps on the cutting room floor six months later.
9-12 months out: As soon as you catch your breath from this year’s event (which sometimes takes a week, and sometimes takes 3 months), get together with the marketing team and de-brief over what marketing messages worked well, and what content you wish you had more of this past year. Your objective for this stage is not to actually start marketing, but to begin lining up all the types of content your marketing messages will rely on. Much of this is not up to the marketing team, so you will need to plan into your marketing calendar when you can reasonably expect to have enough information to go to market on registration deadlines, the venue, conference themes, speaker rosters, confirmed keynotes, exhibitor lists, networking events and a completed agenda. As you build that into your calendar, you’ll see that registration deadlines and venue information shows up really early, and then there’s a huge gap in the calendar before you can expect to have the rest of it locked down. That huge gap is why you’re having this meeting at 9-12 months out: time to figure out what you can market for the next 3 or 6 or 9 months while the conferences t’s and i’s are being dotted and crossed.
6-9 months out: It is still early to promote any specific conference details, so focus on the big picture items of when, where and – in particular – what. Start with your save-the-date messaging so that when you are ready to ask for the registration you’ve got a clear shot at your prospect’s calendar. Many conferences open registration this early which is fine, but there is almost no reason to ask people to register this far in advance if you do not yet have the full agenda and most of your confirmed keynotes and other speakers. Instead, use this period to focus on the show’s brand. The video testimonials you shot a few months earlier are ideal here, as they show enthusiasm for the show and help you promote the conference’s positioning. If your networking is superb, make sure you trot out some exhibitors and attendees who say so. If you lead with your educational content, use testimonials from attendees who fawn over the speakers and glow about how much they’ve learned. Or use interviews of the speakers themselves – not about what they said (which won’t matter as much half a year later), but about the approach they took to figuring out what to talk about. If a speaker says, “This audience is always really thoughtful and inquisitive, so I wanted to come up with a topic that they’d find unique and provocative,” he’s done more to position your show in 5 seconds than you could do in 4 weeks.
3-6 months out: These are the conference marketing doldrums. You really want some momentum, but if you haven’t prepared content for this period you could find yourself still in the water. During this period, the need for more specific information starts to emerge. Focus on a conference theme and some of the most relevant topics to your audience. Even if you do not yet have a specific agenda, you can always begin to promote the questions the conference aims to answer (if it’s a good question for your industry, chances are someone will address it on stage). Talk about the show structure – whether it has concurrent sessions in breakout rooms, tracks, or a single session everyone attends. Whatever the structure, there is a decision for it – communicate the Why behind the What do create deeper engagement with your show. If your videos from last year’s show were successful, supplement them with interviews with your program director and sponsorship director about how this year’s agenda and expo hall are shaping up. Think also of the other criteria that influences decision-making, like the major networking opportunities and social activities. If your show is at a resort destination, now is the time to communicate the family-friendly features so attendees can begin planning a mini-vacation around the show with their whole clan. And finally, turn up the volume on registration. Most shows have some regulars who attend every year – this is the period to sign those people up and start building some registration momentum.
2-3 months out: Now we’re getting narrower. You should have enough agenda information to do the big reveal there. Focus on communicating the show’s content, who it is for, and how they will benefit from it. This is the period when attendees lobby their bosses and weigh their budgets, so arm them with the information they need to facilitate a decision.
1-2 months out: People who have not yet registered fall into four categories: 1) Intend to but haven’t gotten around to it yet, 2) Are considering it but are not yet convinced, 3) Do not yet know about it, 4) Will not register no matter what you tell them. Of these, the group to aim at squarely in this period is #2, the people who are still on the fence. Group 1 is in the bag so don’t worry about them; Group 4 you can write off so no need to beg; and when you do finally reach Group 3 they’ll fall into group 1, 2 or 4 anyway. So aim for Group 2. Knowing that you are talking with an audience that already knows about the show and is interested allows you to really focus your communications into narrow little bands. Whereas you talked broadly about the agenda and who would benefit from it during the last period, here you can dig very deeply into individual sessions on the agenda. Talk about the key issues with authenticity and authority, demonstrating that the show is uniquely qualified to help the audience gain a better understanding of the key issues facing the industry. Instead of selling the show, sell a single session at a time. Many attendees gauge their ROI for a show based on what they learn in a 40-minute presentation or roundtable. Even if the one you focus on is not the one they’d choose to attend, you are at least demonstrating the show’s expertise. For people deciding to attend based on content and education, the perception of expertise is often the tipping point.
0-1 month out: By now you should have promoted every single speaker and session and track and exhibitor at the show. What’s left? Your pre-registered attendees. While you’ve been focusing on who is on stage for the past few months, they have steadily been filling in the seats. Some people attend a show expressly for the networking, so the list of pre-registered attendees, or their titles, or their companies, goes a long way towards convincing them that the show is worth their while. And the closer you get to the show, the more impressive that list is. Now is the time to blow it out in your communications, along with a reminder of all the networking events and opportunities available to take full advantage of the show’s assembled brainpower.