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Case Studies Don’t Work as Conference Programming – Unless….

When I started in the conference business it was a common recommendation that when putting together a program, get as many user stories or case studies as possible. The presumption was that attendees want to listen and learn from peers and high-profile companies in their industry. And so, I followed that advice and sought out those types of presenters. As a marketing tool, this approach often worked as a way to get people to come to an event. But almost as often, the attendees were disappointed in the sessions themselves.

 

Why was this the case, given that these presentations usually included:

  • The problems encountered by the attendee’s peers;
  • How the problems were solved;
  • And how the attendees could do it.

 

Though that sounds like the right formula, here’s why it does not necessarily work:

  • Frequently these sessions are funded by vendors and the presentations imply – or overtly state – that the primary reason for success is attributable to use of a particular product.
  • Or the presentations rely on YOU, the audience member, to distill the material in ways that can be applied to your specific situation. After all, the presentations were not customized for each attendee.

 

If attendees were paying attention, their best bet is to ask questions at the end of a session or try to meet with the presenter afterward. But all the attendees of a particular session can’t do this. For those that cannot, the session might be interesting, but offer no real payoff.

 

What can you do as the event’s manager to succeed with these sessions? Make sure the presenters:

  • Will not discuss a particular product and service in the presentation;
  • Are not funded by vendors or  have vendor speakers on stage ;
  • Have allocated enough time for a good Q&A period as part of the session;
  • Review the session in advance to ensure that the takeaways are clear and relevant.

 

Managed the right way, case studies can become a marketing tool while also delivering real value to attendees. So manage them properly!

 


Do You Live by Your Word?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been bombarded with lots of marketing offers, many of which make the wildest of claims. Possibly it’s something to help you lose 20 lbs in just two weeks or a promise to brighten your teeth in only two days. Or maybe there’s someone promoting a system that can magically solve your marketing problems, generate lots of leads, and fix your website’s SEO performance. And so on.
 
Riffing off a recent LinkedIn post by Michael Hart, it seems clear that keeping one’s word can now be a competitive advantage. Too many organizations will say anything they think is needed to drive sales, without any expectation of following through on their promises. Given that environment, my suggestion is to take a contrarian approach and ensure that you follow through and do whatever you’ve said you will – no matter how small that obligation might be.
 
This effort will build trust in your commitment, although getting to that trust may take time. In the prevailing environment, people are wary about what they’re told – and there’s often good reason to be skeptical. There’s ample evidence that many people feel no need to follow through on what they promise, whether it’s an outright effort to cheat or just the lack of sense of obligation to deliver. Perhaps it’s always been that way, but now there’s just more visibility to the gap between words and deeds.
 

My suggestion is to start small and be consistent. And deliver! It will be the best decision you’ve ever made.

In the end, your word and your reputation are the only things you’ve really got.

Given that situation, it’s best to use them wisely.


Should You Follow Directions or Choose a New Course?

As you move forward in your career, knowing when to take a chance and try something new and different can be difficult; particularly when it might be the proverbial “road less traveled.” It’s more comfortable to repeat what’s been done before. Following the crowd and doing exactly what you’re told – and nothing more – is certainly the safe way.

 

To take a different approach takes courage. And courage you’ll need in your career is a muscle that does not get exercised enough. It must be developed.

 

How do you know when to try something new?

  • When what you’re currently doing isn’t working.
  • When you’re tired of the same thing, year over year, and need a new challenge.
  • When you can’t look ahead two years and imagine doing the same thing.

 

What are the conditions that would be favorable to a successful endeavor?

  • When your boss is not a command and control person, so there’s freedom to try new things.
  • When trying a different approach will not negatively affect your current results.
  • When you hunger for something more.

 

Why bother? Survey after survey of workplace managers indicates that one of the most critical skills for future jobs will be the ability to execute critical and creative thinking. There will be less demand for drones and 9-to-5’ers, particularly for those who seek the roles that generate higher pay. What will be valued is the ability to analyze situations and act accordingly. If circumstances suggest that the proper course of action is a “road less traveled”, the confidence and courage to act on that thinking will be needed.

 

If you choose to branch out and try a different approach, it’s best to ensure that your decision is grounded in a solid foundation of how things were done in the past. Doing something new is not an excuse to ignore the basics. It’s an opportunity to apply those fundamentals in a new and hopefully successful way.

 

My advice? Try something new. Don’t be afraid.


Are Event Marketers About to Become Extinct?

 

Imagine that you’ve missed another attendee goal for an event. Or, possibly worse, your attendee revenue number is short of the target. Why?

Some questions to ask are:

  • Did you do the same things that you did the previous year?
  • Was that because your marketing staff chose the familiar route rather than changing things up?
  • Are they skilled enough to know how and when to change strategies or can they only work to the original plan?
  • Were they wary of new strategies because they were afraid to fail?
  • Are they attuned enough to what’s happening in marketing to explore the latest tactics?

 

I know many marketing people who were cutting edge ten years ago, but no longer are. Why? They’ve not done what’s needed to update their knowledge and skills or they’ve not worked at companies that offered such training and they have drifted.

Is it their fault?

 

I would estimate that 90% of all event marketing professionals have learned “by doing”, rather than having undergone specific training. In truth, there is no “formal” marketing training that is designed for event professionals. Nor is there the higher-level skills training for those who have some industry experience but need to update their capabilities as new tools and techniques and market trends have emerged. That means that over time your event staff is likely to become less and less proficient in executing the marketing tasks in ways that can deliver results. There’s a skills atrophy. This in a time where getting attendance is proving harder and harder every year.

 

Are our Trainers up to Scratch?

And, given the inverse correlation between “time in the industry” and “familiarity with the latest in marketing,” those with the most experience, who might be considered the likely source for knowledge and expertise – and could serve as trainers – are likely to be the least able to do it well for what’s needed now….

 

Given the importance of marketing – it’s the foundation to getting attendees to an event, and the gateway to attracting exhibitors – I find it difficult to reconcile myself to this situation people less well equipped to handle tougher circumstances. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that marketing staff has the most up-to-date skills?

 

In principle, I’d argue that it’s the individual who must take personal ownership of keeping their skills current rather than rely on the company for whom they work. But, if event marketers learn primarily by doing, then they need the opportunity to “do.” However, going to training or a learning experience ‘to learn’ is frequently seen as a reward and not considered something that all staff should have the chance to do.

 

Should you Outsource your Strategy to Technology?

Much of the marketing training that is available focuses on developing skills with specific marketing software packages that can, if you believe the claims, do everything for you. Readers can probably identify many examples of sales pitches that urge attendance at webinars or classes with suggestions that mastery of a certain product will make things right. The reality is that software can help execute decisions once they are made but less suited as a tool for determining what those decisions should be.

 

I would argue that we, as an industry, need to start figuring out how to train (and retrain) our marketing people so that they are self-sufficient, strategic assets within our companies, rather than just the staff we need to operate software programs. Otherwise, we will regress to the point where we hand decision-making and execution of critical attendance acquisition plans to technicians who operate analytics programs rather rely on smart, multi-resourced marketing teams.

 

If we proceed in the direction that ‘technology solves all marketing problems’, the question to ask is whether these marketing jobs will become extinct since you will just need to be an ‘operator’ to do the work…..

 

I see a business opportunity for someone….


Brace Yourself for the Analytics Nightmare

There’s considerable talk within the events industry about analytics and how it can be used to attract and convert prospects into attendees and exhibitors. Much of the discussion is quite enlightening. Creating content that is of interest to your targets can engage them in ways that can get them to register. The event becomes a logical extension of online interactions, a physical venue for learning about the topics that have been explored online. And seeing what people click on – tracking their web behavior – is a great way to identify the topics that matter to your audience. In short, it makes great sense to use analytics to attempt to build an audience and fill your exhibit hall. We’re all doing it now.

 

Beware! You Are Being Watched and Tracked

But those who seek to benefit from such analytics should recognize it in action. Your own experience should give you a sense of what it’s like to be tracked and segmented. Have you ever been called while you were in the middle of something, cornered at the wrong time by people who really have no idea who you are, but speak to you as if they do know you?

I recently attended a digital revenue conference during which I asked one of the speakers if they understood what it was like to be a ‘hunted’ prospect and whether such understanding affected how they conducted their marketing efforts. My intention was not to embarrass the speaker; I truly presumed that he would have thought this through. But all I got was a blank stare; he had no idea what I was talking about. The answer I received was pretty much equivalent to “this one goes to eleven.” (Check out this YouTube clip if you’re not a Spinal Tap fan and don’t know what I mean.) ie I never considered what you are describing and have no intention of understanding what you are talking about.

 

Technology Solves Everything?

Unfortunately, despite the technology that is available to connect with prospective customers, many event organizers still don’t get it. In their minds it’s all about transactions and getting people to hit the register button. It’s not about forming relationships at any level for the long term. It’s often a simplistic view of customers: if someone is spending big, we will pay attention. If not, then automate an email blast with the right message based on their past behavior and have someone who does this work do it without any innate understanding of the prospect.

As an event manager, are you defaulting to dashboards and spreadsheets, delegating action to technology tools and numbers? If so, consider your own behavior when, as a prospect, you are the recipient of such attacks. What actions do you take to repel the effort?

 

Build Your Wall and You Can’t Be Ensnared

If you’re like me, you erect barriers so that you can’t be reached: spam folders that are rarely checked, cold call voice mailboxes that are often ignored, and executive assistants who are trained to find and delete junk emails, filter incoming calls, and toss out direct mail. Quite often websites no longer provide phone numbers that encourage inbound calls; they offer forms to be completed as a mechanism to vet the contact requests(and ignore them).

 

Should There Be a Marketing Code of Conduct?

Why has this happened? Because we, as an industry, have abused email. Analytics is not a silver bullet unless you have sound customer practices behind it that reflect that you really care about – and know – your customer. Trying to use analytics to automate a company philosophy that’s poorly conceived or outdated will not succeed. Automating poor practices just means you are doing the wrong things more quickly and more often. And that’s a proven way to annoy those who you are trying to attract.

 

Do you like to be hunted? If not, don’t do it to your prospects….

 


Is Your Event Leaving Money On the Table?

When I launch an event, one of my goals is to ensure that, from the very beginning, we are doing everything possible to maximize profitability. Given that goal, I’ve become pretty savvy about identifying opportunities where an event could generate a greater gross margin. The trick, of course, is to go beyond that step and take the necessary actions that avoid leaving any money on the table.

There are a number of signs that an event’s not operating to its full profit potential. Often, it’s a matter of being attuned to situations where things might be going “fine”, but your experience and expertise suggest that there are opportunities to do better. Here are five scenarios:

 

1) You lack a crisp value proposition

If you can’t explain in a concise and compelling manner why exhibitors or attendees should come to your event, then you’re really operating with the hope that your prospects can figure it out for themselves and then act. And, as the saying goes: “hope is not a strategy.” Garbled, unclear messaging will leave some of your prospects confused and uncertain. Uncertainty is not a pathway to maximizing sponsorship and attendance fees. It’s the road to lost revenue.

 

2) Exhibitors and attendees are wildly enthusiastic

This might seem counter-intuitive. When your target prospects are clamoring to sign up for booth space and conference registrations – and not balking at the fees – that’s obviously a good sign. Consider it as validation of your value proposition in terms of why your event is worthy of the investment and different from – and better than – others.

But also consider whether it’s a signal that your fees might not be priced appropriately for the demand. Is there an opportunity to raise prices (how much is up to you) the next time? Consider this year’s event as an investment in knowledge that should inform next year’s plan. Otherwise, the money you don’t make is just lost forever.

 

3) There’s a lack of urgency in actions or communications

It’s difficult to imagine anyone who would take on the risk of running an event, but not figure out how to instill the necessary sense of urgency about getting the money needed to pay all those incoming bills. But that cavalier attitude about cash flow often exists! The maxim I followed at my first events job was that you wanted 80% of the exhibitor money collected at the time you announced the conference program. Admittedly, that is a high bar to meet but doable if it’s your discipline.

More typically, for an existing event, you should try to rebook as many previous exhibitors as possible and attempt to get attendees to commit to the next year (If you can). And the ideal time is while the event is happening or shortly thereafter. From this, it follows that you want to have incentives (e.g. money-back guarantees for attendees, free stuff they can’t get otherwise) that make it worthwhile for exhibitors/attendees to commit early.

 

4) You don’t reach out, either in person or on the phone, to your attendees

This indicates an ‘I don’t care to know my audience’ attitude and it’s an unforgivable flaw to be found in any event professional who doesn’t personally know at least 10 attendees. Engaging personally with your customers is the best way – the only way – to know what they care about. And what they care about is what drives where they will spend their money.

Perhaps this is illustrated by a recent argument I had with someone at an industry event where concerns were raised about where her industry was going. Yet, at the same time, she argued that she had no time to speak with 10 attendees a month. To me, that kind of time spent is an investment that will pay off in the future. Ask the right questions and you’ll know where your industry is going. And you’ll be well positioned with the right offer to take advantage.

 

5) Your event isn’t making enough money

This is the toughest situation because it’s real, tangible, and has an urgency that requires prompt action, especially when you have other choices to make money. It could be attributed to a variety of reasons, some of which I have already listed above. If this is your scenario, you should probably hire someone from outside who can give you a fresh perspective on the likely causes and the prospective remedies that may not be obvious to someone inside who works on the event daily.

 

Whatever the situation, leaving money on the table is a bad strategy. It leaves opportunities both for new and old competitors. So why would you do that?

 


What Drives You to Succeed?

What drives people to succeed?  What prompts people to do what they do – and try to do it better over time? And to compete and do it better than others? Try searching online and you’ll find that it’s the kind of question that prompts a lot of inquiries; depending on how you look, it could be in the tens of millions. Clearly, trying to understand what motivates people is one of those elemental questions. Some people look at successful people and try to figure it out that way. There are thousands of books to help.

 

Back in the middle of the last century, Abraham Maslow looked at things more fundamentally and proposed a “hierarchy of needs” – the things that motivate behavior. He suggested that people start with certain basic “physiological” motivations (basics like food, shelter, clothing, etc.) and they then proceed up the ladder to finally reach what he called “self-actualization” (spiritual/emotional motivations like values, faith, helping others, etc.) In the years that followed there’s been a lot of debate and criticism about the model. The reality is that it’s hard to find something that fits everyone.

 

Rather than try to establish some set of universal truths, perhaps it’s best to look inward. I am sure that each of you can point to things that keep you focused. For me, the types of projects in which I’m involved provide a clue. Event ‘firefighting’, launching events, and sales are all high pressure, time-sensitive, mentally taxing, and extremely stressful. There are times when circumstances reach the point at which I’d just like to give up.

 

Despite any difficulties I encounter, I never quit. Why not?

* Is it the challenge of pulling through when things are difficult? Yes.

* Is it the need to make money? Yes.

* Is it the need to expand my horizons and test myself? Yes.

 

But while all those incentives are true, they are not the biggest reason. The biggest reason is right next to me as I write this piece. It’s my daughter Annabelle.

 

I find that even when I find myself in the toughest situations, super stressed and beset with despair as to whether things can be worked out, picking up my daughter can make those difficulties fade away.

 

Who or what does it for you? As I have gotten older, it’s the people, not the things that make the tough things worth doing.

 

Is it the same for you?

 

 


Controlling the Tone = You Being Leader

A colleague from my past was a bit of a con man. By that, I mean he frequently pitched new schemes with little-to-no thought about what was needed to deliver on the promises he was making. The story was good, but the details on achieving the goal were lacking. Making promises that he couldn’t keep eventually proved to be his downfall in the business.

 

Besides being an excellent pitchman, this former colleague also had the great facility to be able to control the tone of whatever was going on. What do I mean? I’d describe him as someone who could be sitting in an office beset by flame and smoke, but you’d never know it from his attitude. His tone and mannerisms would lead you to conclude that all was serene and headed in the right direction. Additionally, he could transform the mood of a room from darkness to light, engaging with people in ways that got them excited about moving forward no matter the circumstances.

 

Enter the Firefighter

My memories of that colleague got me thinking about the ability of some to define the tone of a situation- even one which is potentially catastrophic. For leaders operating in challenging times, controlling the tone of a situation enables them to transcend the details – often obstacles – of the moment with a style that serves as a cue to your staff not to be worried. It’s a signal that the team should not surrender to the moment, but rather should muster the will to handle whatever challenges need to be faced.


Enter the Flight Attendant

You know what I mean. Most of us have seen this in action. We’ve all been on a plane that’s experienced unexpected turbulence. In that moment, what do we do? Look to the flight attendants and, from their expressions and actions, gauge whether the situation is serious or not. I actually believe that the airline’s onboard staff is trained to smile  and behave confidently when things are bad, thus helping to alleviate the sense of panic that passengers would otherwise have. Personally, I recall a flight from Boston to New Orleans that was forced to land at JFK in New York. In that situation, all the flight attendants were strapped in and somber, a clue to me that we might have been in for trouble-indeed I was right as they stopped all flights and had firetrucks at the end of the runway. I wonder if any stress would have been avoided if they had been instructed to act differently.

 

Enter the Leader = You

The ability to control the tone of a situation has huge benefits and I believe that it’s a litmus test for both identifying new leaders and affirming existing ones. If you can master this skill, you will engender loyalty and perseverance from your staff when the going gets tough, something that will pay for itself many times over.

Are you with me?


The Era of Pushback

People would prefer to engage in activity that preserves the status quo rather than pursue something new because the status quo is safer and proven. One can expend as little effort as is needed, and try to extract the biggest benefit from what’s been done previously, taking comfort and security in knowing there’s an established precedent for achieving success. Often people will do what’s been done and hope that no-one notices it’s the same. They prefer a proven path rather than blaze a new trail. The result is often an old product, packaged in a new box, with lots of time and effort spent on promotion.

 

Why is this considered the way to go? Because we’re in an “era of pushback.”

 

What’s that? It’s the scenario where your boss wants to maintain profits and do so without risking anything. That boss will push back on anything new that you might want to try because their focus is on next quarter’s and year’s numbers.

What explanations are given?

  • The opportunity cost of investing time and money on something new means you’re not investing in what’s already proven to work.
  • There’s a possibility that whatever new endeavor is being contemplated just won’t work.
  • You won’t make your numbers and anything that jeopardizes the numbers must be avoided.
  • This new idea that you’re proposing? Nobody but you, gets it.

Far worse than any of the above, is if you feel the company culture dictates that if you fail you’ll be punished somehow.

 

Attempting anything new is hard. Many will falter at the first obstacle. But the good news is that if you’re not stymied by the ‘barriers of no’ you will reap the rewards. Why? Because you’ll be exploring new opportunities when others won’t dare. Even if you ‘fail’, you’ll have developed the habits associated with creation, overcoming obstacles, and innovation. That predisposition is the prerequisite for exploiting new opportunities or, better yet, actually creating those opportunities.

 

Unlike your competition, who are selling last year’s product, perhaps with a new name….

 

Go get ‘em, Tiger!


An Open Letter From A Decision-Maker Attendee To A Show Organizer

To open the New Year, I am thrilled to get Michelle Bruno’s perspective on the experience of a decision-maker attendee. She’s a good friend and straight talker, so with pleasure, here’s her open letter to all of us:

 

Dear Show Organizer:

 

You’ve convinced me to register.

 

When I Googled your event website, it was great that you optimized your content to make it easy for me to find you.

 

But I had to read a lot of irrelevant information before finding out quickly what was in it for me and there was no phone number to call to speak with a human. Nevertheless, I figured it out for myself and signed up anyway.

 

When I registered, you made no attempt to understand who I was and what I wanted through surveys or session choices. But since you had already hooked me, I went with the flow.

 

I don’t have time for serendipity.

 

When I go to your event, I feel as if I’ve become one of the hundreds or thousands of other attendees who took the bait and suddenly I’m on my own.

 

I’m really busy. Taking time away from the office is difficult for me to justify. Yet, no one reaches out to answer my obvious questions—Who should I meet? What companies should I visit? What should I learn? There are no attempts to help me get the most out of the event in the least amount of time.

 

You track my every move with technology, but you don’t do anything with the information other than feed it into your marketing machine with the intent to lure me back next year.

 

If I’m really interested in a session, you make me work for the information—take notes, snap photos of slides with my smartphone, go to a website to get a copy of the presentation. Why don’t you capture the information for me and just send it to me automatically?

 

After the event, show me you know me.

 

I understand that maybe it’s hard to meet with me during the event—there are only so many of your staff and just three days. But after the event, you’ve got a whole year to continue our relationship.

 

Stop sending me information for the following year as if we’ve never interacted. You have data on me now. You know what I’m interested in. Let’s start there.

 

Change your relationship with me from transactional to (long term) relational. Pick up the phone and/or meet with me. I’ll know that you’re truly interested in addressing my needs and I’ll likely attend your event again.

 

Make it really easy for me to come back the following year with my team members. A good experience for me is worth sharing.

 

From this point on, don’t only contact me when you want to sell me.  Remember what I want and send me good ideas and information year round.

 

In case I haven’t made it clear, here’s what I’m trying to say.

 

I’m a human, not a data point. Get to know me and deliver a personalized experience to me all year round. Put yourself in my shoes and let’s get to know each other.

 

Sincerely,

 

Your Most Loyal Decision-Maker Attendee (maybe).

 

 

 

As a former supplier and conference planner/trade show manager, Michelle sees the technology and evolution of the live-event industry through a unique lens. She chronicles change through articles in event-industry publications, event-tech company blogs and at EventTechBrief.com. Reach Michelle at michelle@brunogroup.com