Conferences Have Changed: Has Your Marketing Strategy Changed Accordingly?

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As someone who has extensive experience with all “five dimensions of conferences”, things have really changed!  I’ve been an invited speaker including keynoting a few, attended well over 100, exhibited at somewhere close to that number (I’ve lost track) plus personally organized several conferences from concept inception to production and execution. Also, I served a few years in facilities management so I have a handle on the behind-the-scenes bits, too. Conferences have indeed changed, but has your marketing strategy changed accordingly?

How Have Conferences Changed?

Oh, let me count the ways … ! Sure, there have been some obvious changes like pricing. And, of course we’ve witnessed a natural ebb and flow of conference providers and with respect to the events themselves. Lunches and dinners, for the most part, have gone the way of the dodo bird – along with them, some of the best opportunities for meaningful networking.

It’s safe to bet that your conference of choice will be hosted in Boston or San Francisco. I understand the rationale – bring the conference to the people. Given how corporate budgets are getting smaller, it makes the most sense to host conferences at the epicenters for biopharma. One downside is that “locals” tend to pop in and out versus stay so it becomes a bit more challenging to serendipitously meet with prospective new clients.

Now, conference organizers are “stacking” their events, adding on pre-conf and post-conf workshops, actually planning the dates of their event so that it butts up to a major, annual industry event. Often “multi-plexing” their events so that there are five or six or even seven parallel tracks! I personally don’t do well with that much choice …

Technology has forever changed the game. Wonderful partner meeting tools (like those offered by Inova Software) help with scheduling and give you a chance to meet with your prospects. Last minute agenda changes are immediately broadcast with live updates. Content is uploaded, accessible and searchable on demand before and after the conference. Today, there are even virtual conferences so that you never have to leave the comfort of your home office. Or jammies. These technology advances, and others, are truly having a positive impact.

Insider Tips You Really Need to Read

These days, there are numerous things that you need to consider regarding conference production, exhibition and attendance. Increased awareness and attention to these details can guide your marketing strategy and signal when it’s time to change it.

Are there other tips that should be included here?

  • Venue contracts are typically for 3 years: did the venue change? How far is the expo hall from the session hall(s)? Upstairs / downstairs multi-floor layouts do NOT work.

  • Have they clustered the expo spaces by sub-field or product theme? This is actually an advantage as you can “draft” on your competitors’ followers.

  • How many parallel tracks are there? Are they running concurrently to the expo hours?

  • Is the event leveraging partnering scheduling technology? Get organized, early. Draft a tight invitation with three bullet points highlighting how you are going to solve THEIR problem.

  • What are the conference dates? Do they butt up against a major, annual event or holiday? If yes, that adds cost, complexity and reduces the chance of meeting your prospects.

  • Is the event during the winter months? Travel is nearly always impacted which cuts into the number of attendees and ups the risk of key speakers missing their slots.

  • Are you being bombarded with promotional emails? Lots of registration discounts and incentives? It might be a sign that the event is waning and below attendee target counts.

  • How long is the opening reception? Is it within the expo hall? Is there a reception each night or are there a zillion other social events running concurrently each night?

  • If the event has been running for more than 5 years, have a look for a new, specialized event that focuses on the sub-field (or track) that you usually attend that conference for.

  • Are the usual suspects headlining the event? And have they been “on the circuit”? Consider giving it a miss. More time is needed between conferences to have any meaningful updates to research efforts.

  • Take a look at the headliners’ page: are there still a lot of gaps or grey silhouettes with TBD stamped on them 60 days out? It might be a sign that the event is struggling.

  • Given most budget cycles, event planning decisions for the upcoming year ahead are typically baked before September. Plan wisely!

  • What’s the “right number” of conferences? As a vendor, no less than two and probably one per quarter is the minimum. As a sales person, one event per month, skipping the summer months, and budgeting to attend at least 6-8 per year is about right. As an attendee, plan to attend two per year but recognize your company may only allow you to attend one. This forces due diligence and careful planning to maximize each opportunity.

So what’s the net-net? Conferences are a valuable sales and marketing channel for both attendees and vendors. In fact, all of our clients say that they get the highest quality leads from the show floor.

Here, the adage, “The early bird gets the worm” holds true. You need to plan early to secure an “ideal” booth location, a “whisper suite” or affordable lodging for your staff. Is there a formalized partnering aspect to the event? If yes, all the better but get your meeting requests out early with carefully crafted invitations.

Not sure which event to place your big bet on? ASK! Ask your customers, your prospects, a marketing agency, or post your question on Reddit™ or Quora®. Is conference marketing strategy planning not in your wheelhouse? Get some help with it. Go into the event informed and ready to change your conference marketing strategy accordingly.