What’s New in Event Marketing? We Asked Three Experts

January 30, 2017

These days, incentivizing attendees to attend your trade show isn’t always a simple or easy feat. That’s why creative, customized attendee marketing efforts can be key in not only drawing your audience to the show but in also bringing them back year after year.

But, with all the “noise” multiple shows are making as they vie for attention, getting your voice heard among the fray can be a challenge. So, what are professional event marketers doing to separate themselves from the pack when it comes to attracting new and returning attendees to the shows they represent?  

To answer that million-dollar question, I sat down with three marketing experts: Elizabeth Johnson, director of content marketing for Frost Miller; Jean Whiddon, president and CEO of Fixation Marketing, and Caitlin Fox, vice president and account strategist at MDG, and had a chance to pick their brains about the new strategies, trends and platforms they’re leveraging to drive new and returning attendance to trade shows and events.   

Question: What new trends are you seeing in attendee marketing these days?

Elizabeth Johnson: We’re implementing a few new tactics for our clients, such as creating more mobile advertising campaigns and retargeting. For example, retargeting the attendee “register now” message to people who have visited the website and are familiar with the brand by sending them a secondary message encouraging them to register or offering them an incentive to do so.

There are many different tools in which to do this, depending on goals and budget, from using a third-party retargeting company to Facebook or Google. We often do it as part of our Facebook ad campaigns. 

Jean Whiddon: We’re investing a lot of time and resources in social media advertising for our tradeshow producer clients. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are constantly enhancing their audience-targeting capabilities, which helps us isolate and serve ads to the attendee prospects our clients want to reach. Further, the ability to target new prospects through digital ad networks and search engine marketing is becoming increasingly sophisticated.   

Caitlin Fox: We are in a “have it your way” world, and in attendee marketing, it’s no different. As fast as technology is evolving, improving and customizing, so too have our expectations.

It’s no surprise that personalization has infiltrated the world of attendee marketing, and many organizations have adopted this approach. But what’s next, trending, shiny and new in attendee marketing is translating the idea of personalization from “using segments” to individualizing audience insights and delivering usable content which resonates and benefits them.

Strategy around personalization is now the driving force around your entire attendee marketing campaign, and the secret sauce lies in your database. Attendee marketing has shifted away from simply touching your audience with your brand (to) delivering valuable material by analyzing your audiences’ behavior to set different personalization strategies through email, web and mobile.

Are there any marketing pieces that aren’t working as well as they used to? 

Johnson: I can’t think of anything specific, but some things that you would think are outdated, like telemarketing or direct mail, still work for specific audience segments.

People who are unfamiliar with your brand are wary of opening emails from sources they don’t know, so it’s best to reach new prospects with direct mail first, while telemarketing works well for organization members or past attendees and serves as a good reminder that the event is coming up again.

Whiddon: We are big believers that direct mail is still a “workhorse” of a tradeshow marketing campaign, but direct mail pieces have gotten smaller and more efficient, driving recipients to the show websites for the details.

We “spoon out” the show content in small bites as it becomes available. Consequently, the large 36- or 48-page (or larger) printed event programs have been mostly replaced with a robust, well-designed, well-written website and lots of other quick-read web drivers.  

Fox: Blind social strategies. I think it’s safe to say this is something that really never worked, but often there’s a desire to “have a social presence” without identifying the implications of not truly developing that presence.

As social platforms took marketing by storm, it was a no-brainer to throw your event name into a hashtag and continuously pump out deadline and housing reminders. If you're not setting a content strategy with social, don’t even bother having it. Giving a page for prospective and current attendees to go to that provides no real value can, in turn, devalue your show and your brand.

Anything that’s working better than you expected?

Whiddon: We’re seeing increased efforts from producers to promote onsite social media engagement during events – developing plans ahead of time to ensure there is a consistent level of activity. We anticipate Snapchat to gain popularity among tradeshow producers in the coming year.

The demise of email has been predicted for years but as a B2B marketing tool it still works well and can be quite effective. The key is not to overuse and fatigue your audience.

Fox: I think a strategy that can often be overlooked is the idea of VIP outreach. One-to-one marketing can have its time and place and can produce a big impact when approached creatively.

Touching your audience by strategically identifying key influencers, especially after your event through organic conversations, can create a relationship between an organization and/or show and attendee that can extend much further into a wealth of knowledge that gives them a positive association with your show and in turn an opportunity to glean information that extends beyond a survey.

How is personalized marketing changing the landscape?

Johnson: It’s important to acknowledge that people are looking for personalized experiences and to provide them with as much of a customized experience as you can. At this moment, we are mostly doing that through segmenting our audiences and posting or sending things that are of topical interest to those segments.

Whiddon: Personalized marketing – understanding how to break down “Big Data” and know more about the needs of the customer – allows large trade shows to sell the breadth and depth of the event (loads of bang for the travel buck) and also create micro-communities of products and information that is exactly right for each person.

It’s a powerful tool. We work with partner companies who will slice and dice the data in ways that help identify the audiences most likely to engage (and create economies by not targeting those least likely to engage). Personalization requires that your data is accurate and up to date – no small task.

Fox: It is my strong belief that personalization isn’t just something that’s changing the landscape, it already has.

If there's one you should do in your next attendee marketing campaign it should be to begin with your database, identifying the personas within and developing your entire marketing campaign mix around individual personalization strategies based on their consumption.

In the world we live in today, we expect to receive messaging that not only relate to us uniquely but also reach us on our preferred platforms.

What role is social media currently playing in attendee marketing? 

Johnson: Social media is a critical campaign component, not only to promote upcoming events but also to maintain a connection and build the year-round value of your event. We post a variety of content all year round, (such as) industry related stories or blog posts, past photos from the events, whatever the audience finds inspiring.

(For example), for MINExpo, the show happens every four years, so until 2020 we are not actively promoting registration, but we want to keep our constituents from around the world interested and we want the MINExpo brand to remain top of mind, so we post regularly in the years in between.

Whiddon: Nearly every one of our clients is now enhancing their pre-show and at-show marketing campaigns with Social Media Marketing (SMM) in addition to Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Fox: It plays an enormous role – when executed correctly. Social media is no longer perceived simply as a platform to get your event’s message out, but rather a vehicle that can be leveraged in a multitude of creative ways.

For example, as marketers, we can now leverage analytics to uniquely identify those influencers and ambassadors that closely align with our event’s personas. These influencers are the key to providing tangible social proof that not only complements your messaging but can also extend its reach.

What’s the most difficult part of attendee marketing?

Johnson: Budget dollars are tight. Attendees often pick and choose the events they attend because they have to. So the most difficult part of marketing is knowing your audience well and understanding their pain points and how other shows might meet their needs as well as where they “hang out” so that you can craft a message that resonates and deliver it to the right people to get them to choose your show over the other one. 

Whiddon: Proving what exactly the ROI was on a specific tactic. Prospective attendees are served up information in so many formats - direct mail, advertising, email, social media, newsletters, editorial, exhibitor promo - all of which contribute to a “story” and ultimately trigger an individual’s decision to buy. Which one pushed the decision over the edge? Difficult to know. We believe that it’s the cumulative effect of a multimedia mix, so therefore it’s difficult to drop one.

Fox: I find the biggest challenge to be getting the information needed in time to execute your plan strategically. Ultimately, attendees attend your event because of the value and benefit they will receive from the information they gain. That is our ammo that drives our sell. As attendee marketers, the biggest challenge is mastering agility, balance and timing in our plans.

Any tips you can provide to help show organizers drive new and repeat show attendance?

Johnson: You have to be nimble. Don’t use a tactic because it’s getting buzz, but at the same time be willing to test new things. Develop a well-thought-out strategy that identifies the goals first, select the tactics that will achieve those goals and then stick to the plan unless there’s a clear reason to change. Most importantly, make sure you’re providing value and communicating that value all year, not just when registration is open so that you can turn attendees into your event evangelists.

Whiddon: Stay apprised of industry research and keep asking your audience for feedback. Constantly refresh your event in response to what attendees ask for. Don’t be afraid to try new features, stretch yourself with “core creative,” assess audience reactions, make adjustments and try again.

Large industry events can be overwhelming to first-timers, so invest in ways to orient newcomers, make them feel successful, and turn them into repeat customers. For example, we recently created a series of animated “how to” videos that were placed strategically around a tradeshow that showed first-timers how to “consume” the show.

Creating good marketing with clear branded messaging that cuts through the clutter of peoples’ busy work lives will always work. Find ways to make your attendees feel appreciated. Let them know you heard them and responded.

Fox: What attendee marketing comes down to today is creating a personal experience. The idea of experiential marketing should not just be considered the “new” way, but the only way. And when I talk to this theme I don’t limit it to the onsite experience itself – experiential marketing includes everything we spoke about previously.

As show organizers and marketers, we need to be translating experience into our strategy from the start. Audiences want to be persuaded, they want to be excited and they want to know that their time will be spent wisely.

Every communication, every interaction with your show needs to be an experience. Rethink your website and the way a prospect can interact with it, push the boundaries in direct mail and drive useful content through social. It all needs to tell a cohesive story and be immersive. That’s what's going to pique and persuade new audiences and keep them coming back for more.

Interested in how show producers are driving high-quality, new and repeat attendees along with the most effective cutting-edge technology and social media practices? Check out our Attendee Marketing & Audience Development Trends & Best Practices Study here.

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