DNA is the molecular-level instructions that guide the development and expression of a living thing. How that thing will engage. How it will respond. How it will interact with others. DNA guides how a unique life will unfold.
Meaningful, growing, sustainable events must also begin with the creation of their unique DNA, which is developed through open interaction with the very audience you wish to attract. Every component of this approach requires an open mind and the embrace of new technologies, such as social media, forums, database analytics, and a customer experience survey tool. Your audience is the key to unlocking your event’s DNA, and these tools can help better tap into audience sentiment and better engage them throughout the event process.
However, many media organizations ignore the crucial step of developing an event’s DNA, and instead launch events through a habitual process that drains them of creativity. This must be stopped. It is no different than throwing darts at a target while wearing a blindfold. Shoot. Miss. Modify. Shoot. Miss.
What’s even worse is that competitors, or even sponsors, can easily clone events that take a traditional approach to planning and execution. Rather, marketers and publishers should strive to produce conferences that are built for unique, targeted audiences, which are much more difficult to duplicate and replace.
The Cloneable Approach
Below is the typical event checklist. As you read each stage, please ask yourself, “Can our competitors duplicate this approach and commoditize our program?” and “Can one of our larger (sponsors) clients duplicate this approach by redirecting their spending to the facilitation of their own event?”
Here’s the cloneable approach:
- Theme: Selected based on A) sponsors’ generalized comments so marketers and publishers can manage down the risk of the sponsors not renewing, B) competitive offerings, and C) the team’s confidence in execution.
- Award Program: An award program anchor designed to deliver sponsors’ target customers into seats – current and potential – so the sponsor’s investment can be justified, and renewed.
- Marketing: Ad campaigns executed within unsold inventory – website, e-newsletters, and publication(s) that proclaim the call to actions of “REGISTER NOW!” and “DON’T MISS!” I will never understand why event marketers believe adding an exclamation point is a compelling call to action.
- Website: An event landing page that is essentially an interactive brochure with registration information and clickable sponsor logos. Some will have a countdown to the event clock running as a means to communicate, “You better register now before time runs out.”
- Keynote: Selection of a “keynote” speaker whose fees fit within the P&L performance of the previous year’s event.
- Program Speakers: Remaining dollars are spread out to acquire the rest of the speakers, whose presentations will represent more than 90% of the program. This leaves spots that can only be filled by consultants, job seekers, and the few wise, altruistic individuals who sincerely want to help others.
- Location: A hotel ballroom with a 150-room and associated food and beverage commitment, jerry-rigged into conference space via an awkwardly assembled stage, pore-revealing projection screens, apology warranted wifi, and a somewhat reliable sound system.
- Content Leader: Selection of an editorial lead who is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the program. If attendee registrations are down, it’s their role to call everyone in their network and strong-arm attendance followed by the words “if you come and bring someone else, then I’ll comp your attendance.”
- Sponsorships: Lots and lots of low-cost/revenue producing sponsorships that include name badge logos, registration desk banners, floor stickers, program naming rights with a sponsor introduction, logo’d room keys, breaks with tent cards, binders with profiles of each sponsor, and more.
- Millennial and Gen Z Friendly: To demonstrate your program isn’t just for the demographic that shows up every year, attendees are encouraged to actively Tweet with #BestEventEver.
- Golf: The mandatory golf afternoon providing sponsors uninterrupted access to critical attendees… for a few captive hours.
- Next Year Teaser: To demonstrate you are on top of your game, at the end of the program announce next year’s dates and location. No theme is mentioned, just a “mark your calendar.”
- Surveys: At the conclusion of each day’s programs, surveys are handed out with an in-app survey option. Most attendees fill out the paper versions, so team members stand at the exit doors, pushing, at times begging attendees to complete them. The pile of paper is then read on the trip home, compiled into a spreadsheet, and ultimately forgotten.
Embracing CX to Create a Stronger Event DNA
To conduct non-cloneable events, yours need to forever evolve, surprise, amplify, demonstrate long-term impact, and warrant attendee excitement. How do you achieve this? It seems impossible when you follow the above 14-step checklist. However it is simple: you only need to ask your audience. That means leveraging your subscriber, sponsor, and past attendee database as a starting point. Employ current marketing platforms and technologies, and a superior CX survey platform.
While you are knowledgeable of inbound marketing, and social listening, CX is new to publishing, though it has created monumental, positive changes in organizations’ relationship with their customers and membership. A great CX platform is a means for individual customers to share their sentiment easily, thus providing high response rates and actionable information.
With current technologies at the ready, the formation of a DNA-approach to events should begin with some foundational insights. A “tracking study” conducted on an annual or two-year basis serves as a deep-dive attendee study. To make this fully work, it needs to be combined with on-going “pulse” studies. While one may consist of many insightful answers, the other provides continual feedback.
Reporting on these studies should include a net promoter score (NPS), which indicates whether attendees would recommend the conference to others. It should include quadrants, which ask questions like “how important is this to you” or “how satisfied are you” about content needs, venue requirements, and expected benefits. Marketers and publishers can also employ text analytics to identify the most mentioned words and phrases and align them with individual attendee profiles. This eliminates the need to review hundreds of responses before making event assumptions.
Here’s what the event checklist looks like when you take an audience-focused, CX-centric approach:
- Attendees: Who is the event for? Use this information to start the process of involving and convincing your audience that if they don’t come, they will be at a competitive disadvantage.
- Define the Universe: Pull target subscriber, attendee, and sponsor databases. Prune them down for purity and model the personas within your overall target audience(s). Reject the thinking, “We had 150 attendees last year, we’ll have 5% more this year.” Replace it with targets based on today’s tools. How? Upload the target database(s) into a social media platform, like Facebook, that offers the ability to create a “Custom Audience.” This will provide aspirational target attendee numbers. How many matching individuals, on that platform, are within your opportunity landscape?
- Define the Personas: Use a research tool to understand this universe’s personas, defining them beyond company, title, location, and buying power. Get into their heads and try to understand what they aspire to, how they live, how they learn, and how they socialize. Use simple, easy response surveys that can be taken via email, social media, website pop-up, SMS, or whatever is their platform of choice, to ensure the highest participation rate.
- Identify Their Pain Points: Use “Crowdsourcing” to sculpt the event’s DNA. The same survey tool that enabled you to define the persona target groups can now be used to identify the theme, create the presentations, choose the location, determine the optimal number of days, the pricing, the food, networking events, and the type of relationship attendees want before-, during, and after the event. Establish forums on the event’s website, on article pages, and on social media for discussions to hash out event topics.
- Content Leader: The role in this scenario is conductor, project manager, and brand champion because the audience is defining the program. There is no need to beg for attendance when the audience collaboratively built an experience specific to their own needs and desires.
- Market to Personals And Their Paint Points: Once you have your target, now it’s time to build awareness and consideration. Gain content direction from the watched forums, article pages, and social media. Quote, expand on, and provide enhancements to hot topics. This fresh content should be posted on websites, incorporated in newsletters, edited for various social media platforms. Take a create once, spread in multiple ways approach. Create video content and use potential speakers to test how they will connect with the audience. Through analytics and involvement, you will quickly pare down to the most important speakers and content areas.
- Enter Off-Platform Conversations: Answer related questions on sites like Quora and demonstrate that your event, community, and brand has the inspiring answers not available elsewhere.
- Crowdsourcing: Now, conduct short-form research for each persona. Let them select the final topics, breakout sessions, room set up, and overall approach.
- Engagement: You are engaging your target attendees in the construction of their own event. They are buying into your program before you have even announced dates, location, and costs. Is there a better marketing approach than full engagement?
- Sponsor Opportunities: Conduct research on target attendee sentiment towards past, current, and potential sponsors. Not unlike Signet Research’s Ad Studies for print titles, provide sponsors insights that will enable you to work with them on messaging to their targets. For example. maybe a banquet sponsorship isn’t the best choice when a company is perceived as being the highest priced provider with serious customer support issues. Perhaps instead, host an invitation-only, C-suite dinner focusing on the importance of quality products and experiences, or a session on the benefits of investing in research and development.
The loyalty created by taking the listening step for sponsors will set your event above all others and ingrain your programs into their year-over-year marketing plans. Sure it requires more of the salespeople than selling from an a la carte menu, but let your competitors offer those selections.
Taking the time to cultivate your event’s unique DNA by collaborating with your audience will ensure it is not easily replicated, cannot be hijacked by a single customer event, and provides a plan for achieving ambitious growth.