The death of a show usually is a long time in coming. Often important things have been neglected and the signs of difficulties are there, but they’ve been ignored for a long time. Or the market served by an event disappears or diminishes in value, thus prompting attendees and exhibitors to go in new directions. But a well-managed event – with proactive leadership – typically can foresee market shifts and anticipate the needed course correction. So, if an event fails outright, it’s likely to be the first reason: neglect.
Changing the direction of a failing show is a tough task, one requiring total commitment and resources. If you have that commitment, you’ll need to look in the mirror, own up to and fix some lazy practices. Sit down and buckle up for what is to follow. These are the key indicators of a show that is fading; your show may have one or more of them:
- You neither care or know– You’ve treated the event as a cash cow, not making the investments needed to keep it up to date. Maybe your conference has many of the same speakers year over year and you’d rather do what’s worked in the past than try new things. Perhaps your event format is old and tired. Or you no longer know what’s happening in the marketplace, and as a result, are adrift…
- The content isn’t right– Whoever is assembling the content no longer knows what’s new and exciting in the market. There’s no understanding of what’s interesting enough to encourage someone to part with both a couple of grand and a week out of the office. You haven’t invested the time to nourish key stakeholders. Their departure has left you without the knowledge needed to create a content/educational experience for which someone will pay
- The marketing is lazy and non-specific- You are not segmenting your lists and have no idea as to the characteristics of the persona of your best attendee/visitor. Perhaps you have mountains of data but never have taken the time to do the analytics. Your database is dirty; you lack full contact information for many of the records in your database
- The money isn’t there- For whatever reason, exhibitors aren’t getting the leads they once did and are looking elsewhere at your competition. The need for the products and technology exhibited at your show has evaporated. You are forced to resort to extreme discounting to get exhibitors to return. Your attendees and visitors are finding all kinds of excuses not to show up.
If you are committed to turning things around, here’s my prescription. Events naturally have short life cycles, so the decision to pull the plug may be the right one. But assuming you want to save the show, do the following:
- Find someone to help you who knows and cares- Make sure that every one of the staff working on the show cares enough to make it successful again. Reassign – or get rid of – the ‘wagon riders’ on the team. Nurture the relationships that you have allowed to go fallow and get people outside the company excited to re-engage with you and who can share the promise of a re-energized show.
- Get plugged into the market- Take some time to find out where the market is going. Recapture the excitement needed to build a market and how your event can become one of its leaders (perhaps helping the market recapture its past glories.) Make sure this enthusiasm is visible in your new show content.
- Wake up your marketing- Assuming you have assembled the content, test drive a new ‘event resume’ with focus groups to get their feedback. Get to know your best customers and figure out how to attract more of them by both cleaning up and segmenting your lists. Create target personas as if the people were sitting in front of you. Find out what’s exciting and ensure your messaging reflects this. Get your marketing staff trained on the latest tools and copywriting in order to attract the kind of attention that gets people to take action and register.
- Change the pricing- Look at what you’re charging exhibitors and attendees. Is it too much? Too little? Make sure that what you are producing is worth 10x more than what they are paying. Create new revenue streams by adding programs that are worth additional fees, whether they be workshops, certification programs, golf outings, etc. Sharpen your pencil and get creative. If you’re not making enough profit for your efforts, why bother?
- Get rid of what’s not working and streamline your processes-Some things can kill an event; others are just not worth doing or can be done more efficiently. Make sure you redeploy valuable resources to those tasks that are contributing to the bottom line.
- Build a membership club with a supporting rewards program–Much like the airlines, develop special perks for your loyal customers. Consider things like attendee lounges, first peeks at the exhibits, exhibitor/attendee matching programs, one-on-one receptions with key speakers, or special premium content. Give the club an exclusive name, that you have to qualify for to become a member.
- Build an awards program that showcases the best in your industry– Make your event the venue at which market leaders are recognized, thus making your event attractive to the leaders, as well as those who will want to meet them at your event.
Turning around a dying event is not for the faint of heart. Make the commitment and roll up your sleeves; you might be surprised as to what you can accomplish.
I know of a company which wanted to launch an event in a crowded market. Now of course to have a successful show you need to have attendees and visitors. For a profitable show however, you also need to have enough sponsor and exhibitor revenue, ie exhibitors on the floor. This is because the revenue you get from an exhibitor is many times more than a single attendee. So therefore to make money on a show, you need to be able to sell exhibitors.
In launching a show, you need to have a good idea which of the companies in the market will sign up for your show and for roughly how much they will pay, so that you can make an educated guess as to whether will at least break even in year one, given your expected costs.
In a crowded market, no exhibitor is looking for another show to do just because one pops up. They don’t have extra budget just because you came along. Therefore, in launching a show you have to take exhibitors from your current competition, and enough of them not to ‘take a bath’ on the show and lose money.
How do you do this? Well if you have done your research before you launch and you can get the major companies in the market to take your call, then you might find out which of your competitors have good exhibitor relationships and which competitors are weak in this area, in addition to how all of the competitive events are faring.
It’s my opinion that if you want to launch a new show, you have to do what it takes to kill a competitor (of course take actions which are legal, moral and ethical). This usually means you need to know you can get the audience (read decision makers) and that you can make the money after all the bills are paid. I like to make at least a 25% margin in the first year of a show, so it means that I need to sharpen my pencil to make sure a client really has the grit the resources and knowledge to kill a competitor.
The reaction to your new event entry by your market competitors is to try and kill you before you can get traction. The battle is therefore where the money is, so you have to make every effort to get enough of the top companies on your side as quickly as possible.
Back to the company I mentioned, although they did some amount of pre-launch homework and successfully started the show and made a 21% margin in year one. However, their interest, attention and care of their main sponsors waned as years went by-in other words they took the customers for granted. The exhibitor revenue sank in year four leading to a loss and end of the show. A huge waste, considering the effort expended.
The lesson? Make sure you know your exhibitors intimately and establish a solid bond with all of your major ones (listen and act upon their feedback!), so you don’t have your own show killed by a competitor, new or old.
One of the things that really has helped me in life is keeping calm when all around is going wrong. This is especially helpful at events where I must solve problems in real time and it’s not always evident that there’s a solution readily available. I have seen a real difference between those times when my response has reflected panic versus those when I remained calm. A panicked reaction is not conducive to a positive result. Frequently your clients depend on you, as the expert, to be the one who is calm and provide the assurance that “Everything will be fine!”
I just attended a six-day show (i.e. one with lots of moving parts) where the staff was calm and collected on the outside. But on the inside? Probably not so much. Though it’s likely that there were lots of minor things going wrong, you couldn’t tell from either their actions or their demeanor.
One way I have found to master this kind of situation is eliminate the extraneous elements and focus on the goal. In a crisis, you need to be able to appraise the circumstances, receive input from others, and determine an immediate path of action. Periphery details are distractions; I believe that keeping your focus depends on ridding your mind of the stuff that doesn’t matter.
From Rudyard Kipling’s “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
I’ve given you the beginning and ending lines, but you can find the entire poem at the link below:
To keep your head is just another skill that will help you rise above your competition.
Here are some examples of what I consider to be idiot marketing messages:
- Last chance to sign up is Friday!
- Hours left to save – register today!
- Early bird pricing extended!
- High-level content at ABC Conference!
- Elite Expertise at XYZ Summit!
- Breaking News: XYZ to keynote Acme Conference
You may ask why I characterize them as idiotic. Perhaps you’re thinking “I use that approach in my email subject lines all the time!” However, I’d argue that these messages are for situations where you know that people are interested in attending your event. In those circumstances a price reduction, some kind of promotion, or additional information on an event’s content may be what’s going to get them to register. But otherwise this kind of marketing is clueless.
The thing that always gets me about poor marketing tactics is when the presumed ‘buyer path’ is based on faulty assumptions, the biggest of which is that the recipient of your messaging actually cares about what you’re writing or already is a raving fan.
Given that most events are not considered to be indispensable, to assume a prior year’s attendee is predisposed to return, if given the right incentive or information, could be a mistake. Was the event valuable for them or memorable in some way? Or was it just an interruption of their daily business and a waste of time and money? How do you know?
If someone hasn’t been convinced of the value of your event – or worse, doesn’t pay attention to your marketing and therefore doesn’t know what you are talking about – do you think they’ll care that the early bird discount ends on Friday or some other marketing offer or further meaningless information? If you are not segmenting your lists and tailoring your message for your key personas, then I’d argue you are guilty of lazy marketing. You haven’t put in the time to know whether a price incentive is the right offer to the right person at the right time then you’re just guessing. I am also suggesting that an early bird deadline be based on the time that you have found to be the right time for the prospect, not necessarily the date you’ve arbitrarily picked.
You should be able to segment your past attendees into 4-5 main categories. Then you should ensure you have a buyer path for each category, a path that is not based on assumptions but rather is grounded in data, like past history, surveys, conversations with prospects, etc..
Assuming you have the metrics to indicate that the members of a segment are at a point in the buyer path when they’re ready to sign up, the messages I referenced as idiotic might have an impact. If you are crafting the same message for everyone- get ready for the marketing panic I referenced in my last article though……
Prospects are getting smarter. They’ll avoid you and your messages unless you also are smart about them and know how to build value and trust so they covert into attendees.
Can your events marketing staff pivot away from disaster toward success?
For most event companies, the answer is mostly no. They have staffs that were trained by ‘the book’ and struggle with the proper and timely response to negative results, often persisting with plans that are not working. Or, as the event looms ever closer, they become paralyzed with fear.
What happens then? Senior staff must get involved and marshal greater resources to salvage the situation. Near-term urgencies consume assets that would be better invested in longer term, strategic activities.
How can you avoid this? Here are my six keys:
- Make sure that you hire people who can pivot – or are capable of learning how to do so. If it’s the latter, ensure you have a plan to train them.
- Have at least one marketing staff member who can be creative and/or have the courage to change course as needed.
- Ensure that your entire marketing staff is “plugged into” the market having the right connections with whom they can brainstorm new marketing approaches or adjust tactics when needed.
- Make sure the entire marketing staff is up to date on the latest tools and techniques, and make the necessary investment in training and conferences for them.
- Have a marketing plan with milestones and metrics so you can periodically appraise results and take action if the targets are not hit (e.g. page views, email opens and click-through)
- Ensure that every event’s marketing budget has a ‘Plan B’ allocation, comprised of money that you spend only if things are going wrong.
The failure to hit interim marketing targets can be the early indication of an event’s risk of failing. Don’t ignore those signs, nor miss the opportunity to pivot and change course. The end is not preordained. Proactive analysis and action – supported by the right investments – can mean that great results are yours….
One of my touchstone books is “Looking Out for Number One” Sounds like a selfish idea right? Wrong. Knowing what your needs are and ‘delivering’ them to yourself is a critical first step to making sound transactions and building lasting relationships. Of course, you need to meet the expectations of partners, customers and friends for it all to work, so you need to understand the wants and needs of others for it all to work. I urge you to check Robert Ringer’s book, as it has provided some of the guidance I’ve followed in running my own business since 2005.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from Robert:
“Enjoy life, but be flexible in your planning. It’s dangerous to base your decisions on the assumption that everything is going to continue as it now is. It won’t. Worse, because circumstances have a habit of changing with little warning, you are often caught off guard.”
“Unfortunately, most people live in a totally unreal world. They create a world in their own minds based on the way they would like the world to be rather than the way it actually is. They would much rather delude themselves by ignoring the facts, even if their self-delusion only prolongs the inevitable.”
“When it comes to custom and tradition, people tend to spend a great deal of time and energy doing things for which they hope to be appreciated. It’s nice when it happens, but it’s a big mistake to base your actions on the desire to gain the gratitude of others.”
“Never do anything with the expectation of being appreciated. The most valid reason for taking an action is that you sincerely want to do it.”
“People who use bad breaks as excuses are often victims of the World-Owes-Me-a-Living Theory, which states: Anyone who believes that others—or, worse, ‘the world’—owes them something are destined for failure and disappointment. Until a person cleanses this poisonous notion from his mind, he is unlikely to leave the starting gate, much less win the race.”
“People who see themselves as victims of bad luck have a difficult time understanding that the surest road to success is to create one’s own breaks. Sadly, most of them are victims of the Waiting-to-Be-Discovered Theory, which states: If you’re waiting for something to happen, you’re not in control of your destiny. Don’t wait for something to happen; make it happen!”
“Remember: People will bother you until you no longer allow them to.”
“Remember, everything worthwhile has a price. The price of friendship varies in amount and form, but, make no mistake about it, there is always a payment involved. The payment may require your investing a certain number of hours per week in conversation, it may mean that you are counted on for continual inspiration, or it may translate into your having to forego a facet of your life that is important to you. Whatever it may be, just be aware that there is a payment.”
Enjoy and prosper!
I have a few event launches under my belt, having been in the business for the past 28 years. Many elements of a launch are the same, regardless of the event, and there’s a proven formula for success. But first-time events are a different story. What is unique there is the need to get enough knowledge and ‘control’ over the prospective attendance. Oddly enough, the plan to get these future, first-time attendees is often the weakest part of a launch, with decisions based on gut feelings rather than a systematic approach. The irony is that quality attendance is one of the most important outcomes of an event, but actions often bely that importance. Frequently the philosophy is ‘if we build it, people will come.’
For me, that’s not good enough. So, I sought out one of the best event-marketing minds in Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes of mdg for comment on how the marketing of a launch should be done. She and her mdg Partner, Vinnie Polito, recently spent some time with me to discuss event launches in general, and their event marketing strategies more specifically.
Warwick Davies (WD): What’s your strategy in launching an event and what steps on the marketing side are necessary?
Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes (KHG): The first step in launching a new event is writing a detailed, comprehensive strategic marketing plan. And I’m not talking about how many emails will go out or when your website will go live. That’s the tactical execution. I’m talking about identifying and quantifying the market opportunity that you perceive and how you plan to seize it. This is where you take a deep dive into the competition to see what needs aren’t being met. It’s where you’ll define and segment the target market. It’s where you’ll study the industry in terms of its size, growth, makeup, as well as the trends driving it, etc. You’ll talk to key suppliers, buyers, media, influencers, and ask a lot of questions. If you end up uncovering a solid opportunity, this plan will then serve as the foundation upon which the event will be built.
WD: How do you go about creating the attendee revenue and volume goals that will be necessary to have a successful launch?
KHG: We will usually get this from the clients with whom we work. They are usually familiar enough with the budgetary limits and revenue necessities to be able to calculate those. Actually, Warwick, that’s an area you are pretty well versed in. What would you say?
WD: You’re right about the budget and revenue side. I would say that giving a thumbs up on the quantity metric would depend on doing some testing of your database to see whether the concept you developed, at the date and time you picked, is compelling enough to calculate educated guesses on the number of paid/non-paid attendees and, therefore, your revenue and likely attendance numbers. There are various ways of doing that, and until you ‘know’ and feel confident about these numbers, it’s hard to get sufficient confidence to know whether the event will be well received. Best to do this before you spend lots of time, effort, and non-cancellable contracts with facilities, hotels, etc.
WD: What constitutes ‘research’ from other perspectives that can give the team a ‘thumbs up’ that the stated revenue and attendance goals will be met?
KHG: Let me bring in Vinnie to answer that.
WD: OK Vinnie, what do you think?
Vinnie Polito (VP): I think, as you well know, you can answer this a variety of ways.
For me, the key drivers are an ability to clearly answer ‘who is this for’? And what are the options for your target audience to garner this elusive “x”, whatever it might be, that represents the show’s focus? There obviously can’t be an easy alternative.
We counsel those managing these projects to achieve certain milestones prior to launching. These would be in the area of exhibitor participation, partners (media/association) willing to ‘actively’ support, and influencers/speakers demonstrating a desire to speak/actively promote to their networks. For each of those groups, a willingness to have their name attached to an event in some fashion is as strong or stronger indication than would be financial commitment during the pre-launch Although I wouldn’t refuse any pre-launch financial commitments either. Depending on the risk tolerance and size of the proposed event, the level of necessary commitment will vary.
Personally, I like a mildly crowded and fragmented marketplace. That tells me that the interest is there on both the attendee and exhibitor/sponsor side, but that no one has yet sorted out how to address the opportunity successfully.
VP: Other questions I’d like to know:
Why hasn’t someone else seized this opportunity – what’s the competitive landscape?
Does this event have a life span worthy of the risk? I’d say if you don’t comfortably feel this has at least a 5-year run to it, other opportunities might be better.What likelihood is there that a category killer might change the game in ways that are to your disadvantage? Examples are plenty if you need them.What’s the likelihood of an economic incident changing the landscape? For example, cheap natural gas cost me $$$ when I was in the energy space.
WD: Great stuff, Vinnie. Now Kimberly, once the plan is set and you’ve made a decision to move forward, what’s next when launching an event?
KHG: Next comes the development of the brand or identity of the event – including the name, the event logo, the creative platform on which the campaign will be based, the messaging planks, etc. This step is essential in ensuring that attendee and exhibitor prospects receive the right messages, those that create the perceived value needed to drive their decision to participate. The importance of this step is often underestimated by event organizers, but it’s not easy building a compelling case to attend a brand-new event. Why take a chance on a new event when it’s so much easier not to? It’s easier to stay home, not travel, and not book a room, not leave the office that day, or not drive into the city, etc. Despite these hurdles, many organizers still don’t allocate enough budget and effort on attendee acquisition as compared with speaker acquisition, picking the right venue, and managing every other detail. And those details are HUGELY important, don’t get me wrong, because if the experience isn’t right, then we won’t get attendees to come back. But if we haven’t made the necessary investment in marketing, it’s unlikely we’re going to get them there in the first place.
WD: What do you believe are the required deliverables from the non-marketing team members to assure a successful launch?
KHG: Clearly, the roles of sales, content, operations, etc. are all vitally important to a launch. What’s even more important, though, is that the launch team takes a truly holistic approach to event planning and promotion. This means that if the sales team is selling a lot of space to exhibitors that want to see a certain kind of attendee, the marketing team should ensure they are making a concerted effort to attract those buyers. And the content team should be developing educational programming that will attract them. Teams need to be communicative, collaborative, and agile – as plans may change and several pivots may be required based on actual versus perceived performance.
WD: Are there any other tips to get outside support?
KHG: In addition to your internal team, it’s important to look to industry partners, too. We’ve learned that you can’t go it alone when launching new events. The more that groups out there – associations, industry suppliers, media brands, etc. – feel some sense of ownership in the new event, the more success you’re going to have in achieving critical mass. That’s why identifying strategic partners is an essential step in launching an event.
WD: I mentioned earlier about testing your database. In your opinion, how big should your database be for success?
KHG: It depends. mdg launched a successful conference aimed at brand marketers a few years ago with a tiny database. Instead of working to build a comprehensive network of prospects, we instead identified influencers who would be willing to serve as event evangelists. Once identified, we offered non-paid admission to the top 10% and variable admission rates based on influencer scores to the next 30%. We also used sophisticated digital tools that allowed us to provide the influencers with financial incentives for signing up members of their networks. The event was small (about 1,000 attendees) and the admission price was high, so this strategy ended up working well. For other events, I would assume a .5 to 1% rate of return on your database. So, you should expect one attendee for every two hundred in your database to show up, provided your list is of high quality.
WD: What is the optimal time frame from launch to the event?
KHG: In our history of marketing new events, I can assure you that we’ve never complained about having too much time to launch. Ideally, planning will start at least 18 months out. An awareness-generating campaign should begin about 12 months out, with a strong conversion campaign starting at about 4 months out.
WD: Any other items that I have missed?
KHG: I would just add that event launches aren’t for the faint of heart, the unimaginative, or the ‘traditional’ direct marketer. Launches require teams with special skills who can make fast-on-their-feet course corrections, who can craft messages that overcome objections and convince prospects to take a chance on attending an unproven, unknown entity. Being able to pivot when things need changing make all the difference.
WD: Great stuff! Thanks, Kimberly and Vinnie!
KHG: You are welcome. Good luck to those would-be launchers out there!