Friday, 10 August 2012

Understanding Successful Conference Marketing

Written by the Association Laboratory


Many associations are beginning to implement marketing concepts into the daily activities of their programming. For many of us, the primary program is our conference or annual meeting. At this event, we have the opportunity to demonstrate to many of our members and prospects the value of participation with the association. The following article describes key concepts surrounding conference marketing.
At the completion of this analysis your should be able to do the following:
  1. Specifically articulate your primary audience and their demographic make-up, buying patterns, professional and business needs and most effective communication strategies.
  2. You should have assessed and understand how to execute a dynamic process for program development that maximizes program content consistent with the needs of your target audience.
  3. You should understand the key trends facing your target audience and how they affect their buying decision as it relates to your conference.
  4. You should understand the size and nature of the competition standing in the way of a successful conference.

What is marketing?

Many people are confused about the difference between marketing and selling. The difference between the two is vital to understanding if you have a marketing problem and if you are to develop workable solutions.
When most people say marketing they usually mean promotion. For example, when conference attendance decreases, we frequently ask how the promotional material needs to be changed or the timing of mailings altered.
Rarely do we ask if the fundamental value of this conference in terms of meeting the needs of our membership continues to exist. To focus on the entire organization's fundamental ability to help solve member problems or a specific program's ability to meet member needs is the basis of marketing.
Marketing focuses on the system not the task . . . on the member, not the association.

How is Marketing different from Selling?

Marketing is a member driven approach to creating a package of products and services that solve member problems. Selling is an organization driven approach designed to convince your audience to purchase what you have to sell.
Marketing is externally focused. Selling is internally focused. The marketing mix is traditionally defined as made up of the familiar four p's: Products (or service), Price, Promotion, and Place (delivery channel). A fifth "p" is sometimes added to account for the politics involved in developing marketing decisions and focus.
The following are definitions of the four p's for purposes of this article.

In many associations, the conference is mistakenly considered the product. This is incorrect. You don't plan a conference to have a conference. You plan a conference in order to impart information. The product in this case is the information or knowledge you are trying to communicate. Examples include educational programs, scientific papers or the networking and sales of the exhibit.
The price is the distinct price in dollars as well as the perceived value to attend and participate in your conference. Every potential member compares the total dollars and time commitment to their perceived value of attendance. If your conference attendance or exhibitors are dropping, these are signs that people no longer consider their attendance a value for the time and/or money.
Promotion is the means by which you educate your target audience on the features and benefits of your product/service package and its overall value through attendance. Traditionally, this is the component mislabeled as "marketing."
The "place" or delivery channel is the means by which you provide your product or service. The educational conference or exhibition is one of the primary delivery channels used by associations.

How can marketing help my organization?

Marketing provides you with the tools, processes and insight to fundamentally solve your members' problems through accurately produced programs/services provided through the desired channels at a price equal to perceived value and reinforced through successful communications. How do I know I need marketing help?
There are several indicators of marketing problems. They include the following:
  • Declining membership ?
    This indicates that current members no longer feel their problems are being solved by your organization.
  • Declining volunteers or difficulties in recruiting volunteers ?
    This indicates that your most capable actual or potential leaders no longer see their commitment of time and energy in your organization as valuable.
  • Declining conference registration
    This indicates that your conference is no longer providing needed information to your members or is not worth the time or effort to attend.
  • Lack of Board commitment to new or existing programs ?
    This indicates a fundamental lack of consensus that these programs are of value. If your leadership is ambivalent about your programs and services your normal member has probably written them off entirely.
  • Declining subscriptions ?
    Similar to conferences, this indicates that the information contained is no longer worthwhile or no longer worthwhile at the present price or location.
This indicates a fundamental lack of a consensus that these programs are of value. If your leadership is ambivalent about your conferences, your normal member has probably written them off entirely.

What do I do now that I recognize I have a problem?


The first step in crafting a plan for change is to truly understand to whom you are trying to market.
  • Identify your true market. ?
    Most associations want everyone and anyone to attend. But the more broad-based your target audience, the more difficult it becomes to provide a program that satisfies all attendees. It is vital that you make every attempt to focus on one or two primary markets. This focus guides all of your other efforts including promotional strategies, price, timing, location, and programming. ?If you don't know whom you are attempting to serve, how do you know what they want? ?
  • Determine decision-making criteria ?
    To the extent that you are able, try to determine some of the following:
    • How can your potential attendees be segmented? Potential options include title; geographic location; income, education, gender . . . almost anything that allows you to focus your efforts.
    • What is the primary means by which your target audience receives information?
    • What primary benefits does your target audience seek?
    • What are the buying habits and purchasing cycle of your target audience?
    • How sensitive is your target audience to price or location?
    • What are the anticipated needs or wants of your target audience?
    • What variations in needs exist between different segments of your target audience?
    • What are the primary messages most effective with your target audience?
  • Analyze your program development process. ?
    Now that you understand to whom you are trying to market, and what their needs are, you are prepared to develop your program.

First ask yourself, what is the process for program development? How does this process ensure that your members' professional and business needs are being satisfied? ?Many associations get bogged down in the politics of program development or the personal agendas of specific volunteers. Your program committee should focus on satisfying the needs of your target audience and no one else.

In establishing your program committee consider the following:
Your committee must contain the expertise necessary to select a program for your target audience.
To the extent possible, outline your marketing objectives to the committee so that they understand what types of programs and speakers are attractive to the target audience.
Develop an objective system of evaluating and ranking potential program topics or speakers. Try to remove the politics.
Rotate new members onto your program committee to assure a supply of fresh ideas.


  • Analyze the environment ?It is vital to look beyond your association and make efforts at assessing the external environment. Your potential attendees don't act in a vacuum. Areas of consideration include the following:
    • What are dominant trends impacting the industry?
    • What are the dominant trends impacting the association?
    •  What are emerging trends?
    • How will these emerging trends impact your potential attendees or your association?
  • Analyze the competition ?
    Too many associations feel they do not have competition because no other association is targeting the same potential attendees. This is a flawed assumption.
Your target audience is bombarded daily by requests for their time, attention and money. You must overcome these attacks and demonstrate your conference is worthy. Before you make decisions consider the following: ?
Who are the most active competitive entities and how do they differ from your own organization?
What products and services do they offer that compete with your conference and how are they similar or different to your own?
How will your competitors and their product/service offering change over the next three years?
The steps needed to appropriately market a successful conference in today's aggressive business climate are very challenging. But with the stakes so high, it is becoming more of an imperative that association executives focus on this challenge.
Association Laboratory is a national consulting firm that specializes in the research and development of marketing and organizational strategy, including professional development, for associations.

No comments:

Post a Comment