Want to boost attendance? Just ask.

Kevin Wharton

Kevin Whorton, principal of Whorton Marketing and Research

Last week, Jeff De Cagna explained that in order to thrive, associations must think differently. Simply put: They should accept change rather than shun it. And it starts by asking questions, even if management doesn’t want to hear the answers.

Self-reflection is never easy, but this week, Kevin Whorton, principal of Whorton Marketing and Research, will help make the process a bit less painful.

As this week’s guest blogger, Whorton suggests questions associations should ask as they look at their bottom lines.

Kevin Whorton writes:
I wondered what to write for Event Garde, but then a client solved that for me. On a conference call recently, the marketing and meetings directors of a healthcare organization asked me a basic question: “How can we increase attendance for a meeting that has been stagnant for years?”

This made me think about the marketing and programming of meetings, an area where I help just a few associations at best every year. Some of the questions I asked them on the call are the questions I’d ask myself in a new job and I think you should be asking too, if you’re not already.

“What are the profiles of attendees compared to non-attendees?”
Do you actually understand who you attract, in terms of their age ranges, their practice specialties, from where in the country they come and their genders? This is the first step to finding out why people with under-represented characteristics don’t come and how you can change that.

“How closely do you collaborate with state associations that also use the site you’ve chosen?”
The answer to this says a lot about how well you’ve thought through your grassroots marketing. State (and/or local) associations hold meetings in your site’s area every year, so they could be your best friends and marketing partners. Or they could spread indifference or bad word of mouth from regional thought leaders. You can’t have too many friends.

“When was the last time you spoke to an attendee about their experience?”
Almost immediately I hear “we do surveys,” which isn’t what I asked. Do you reach out to random people through focus groups or phone discussions, unburdened by a script, to have a give-and-take conversation about what they expected, what they disliked and what they want, no matter how unrealistic? It’s an important conversation to have because every opinion you hear will stick in your head. In reality, those opinions represent the feelings of hundreds, even thousands, of people you’d like to attract.

“What is your messaging?”
How does your marketing copy sound when you read it aloud? What do you understand about how a certain kind of member valued the hall talk at your event? Can you share specific first-person examples of a killer idea from a podium presentation or from a cocktail party discussion that an attendee took home?

“What is your programming mix and how well does it fit your overall audience?”
One thing I’ve noticed from senior execs is that they like to hear themselves talk. And for good reason—their body of knowledge is bigger, their learning needs more nuanced and specific, so they want give-and-take experiences in which they can ask questions and hone in on the things they need to know. We’ve found that ego prevents some of these execs from attending meetings in which they would mostly sit and listen. Or if they do attend, ego can sometimes keep them in the hallway interacting with people they already know and trust. But how well you convey the importance of roundtables in which these execs are likely to find kindred spirits with similar experience levels and helpful knowledge will attract mid-career people who have done well without attending your events.

“How well do you segment?”
Most conferences offer tons of content: 20, 40, 200 programs and lots of exhibitors. Yet if you mapped them against the demographic and interest of attendees, they appeal to different kinds of individuals. Are you sending the same message to everyone, aiming for the median attendee and therefore missing the chance to make a deeper connection with everyone? It’s hard to do, but messages that outline the five programs that person is most likely to attend works because it saves them from spending time reading through your program or searching online. Segmentation has a good ROI if you also adjust your level of effort based on the individual’s history and future likelihood of attending. If someone is a regular and hasn’t registered a few weeks out, email or call personally to ask why. You may not like the answer but it will help to maintain a profitable relationship.

“How do you help them visualize an experience they’ll have, if they’ve never attended before?”
Believe it or not, attending an in-person event is not an instinct that comes to everyone. Some introverts may be terrified at the prospect. Many experienced people already “know it all” and need to be sold on the benefit of attending. Almost everyone needs hints on how to get the biggest bang for their buck. If you want them to take a leap of faith, change their habits and attend your conference, you must provide them with video, testimonials and even peer-to-peer contacts showing them how they would benefit. Of course, sometimes they need aggressive first-timer discounts or money-back guarantees. These approaches reflect confidence and a willingness on your part to put your money where your marketing is.

These are just a grab bag of suggested questions. The key thing to remember is that changing market behaviors, such as getting first-timers to attend and therefore increasing your reach, requires creative thinking in marketing.

Kevin Whorton is principal of Whorton Marketing and Research, a consulting firm that conducts industry and membership research and develops marketing campaigns for a wide variety of nonprofit organizations. Whorton has conducted more than 180 quantitative and qualitative research projects for 100 association and nonprofit clients, including needs assessments, compensation studies, public opinion polls, industry-wide analyses and product launch/market feasibility.

 For more information, you can contact him at (202) 258-9889 or info@kwhorton.com.


3 Responses to “Want to boost attendance? Just ask.”

  1. 1 OP
    July 25, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Our two cents.

    Reaction to this prompts a much bigger question vis a vi the association or the group staging the event. (Full disclosure, we are on the side of getting people together, face to face. When that happens, things happen, for good). Ok, with that out of the way, back to the question posed.

    To be blunt about it, to boost attendance, you must always ask “why do they need you anymore”?

    Seriously. You have to realize the competition for people’s emotional capacity. It is finite. Face to face meetings and receptions and event producers must acknowledge in 2013 that people are now networked worldwide with people they will never meet yet those are their most powerful and “braggable” connections. They get what they need in various ways.

    It is all about “real-time” connection and the value placed on that connection, not the platform upon which they connect. Face to face is no longer the automatic winner. It is too fragmented now.

    If folks ain’t showing up, maybe consider the fact that you’re not offering up enough enticement or verifiable value for the “one-time” experience and the content each of your specific events provides.

    A work-around solution is to have a “tweet wall” via screen and lcd projector … to show everybody the live or real-time feed that is coming from the room, as a result of who is in the room ….

  2. July 26, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    This is an interesting perspective–points I agreed with to some extent, until the last comment. Meetings have long struck me personally as an archaic method of delivering much of anything–I know there are some great innovators out there, but frankly it’s hard to picture creating an alternative-world version of associations and services that would include such an emphasis on massive face-to-face gatherings (unless that world included fully-working transporter beams as well). Then I could just pop in and out for what I need and have a true cafeteria education & networking experience. Of course, it’s important to separate one’s own opinion from what the market and research tell us.

    I’ve personally seen relatively little empirical evidence to support the idea that people are substituting relationships based on alternative media. Rather, the broader, growing range of networking experiences and contacts seem to occur independent of the decision to attend or not to attend a meeting.

    Those who attend association events regularly also tend to be more likely to interact through other methods–and they say they intend to do so at an increasing rate in the future and generally do not indicate anticipating a downturn in their attendance decisions.

    Unfortunately, future behavior isn’t just dependent on one’s own intent, but it’s also highly influenced by travel budgets and employer support, so as those decline we see a cohort of past attendees dropping out. For the moment their preferences lean toward face-to-face, but they’ll get over it if travel restrictions and other budgetary limitations aren’t lifted and over time those members/former attendees will begin to report a preference to non-face to face, but the causal relationship is reversed, a plethora of media didn’t spawn the desire to stop attending, but rather it provided a substitute for when your employer no longer cared to send you and/or it suddenly became a personal expense, much as membership dues have become for many members over the past several years.

    This is probably way TMI, but the final point I think highlights the challenges we all face. Is having a “tweet wall” via screen and LCD projector really a “solution?” It might influence 5 people to change their behavior, but there are probably a good 25+ refinements to the overall meeting management function that are needed to chip away at market forces that conspire to make in-person attendance less likely. I don’t want to pick one good idea, but I also see a lot of associations employ (glacial) incremental change–making the one change they felt was worthwhile that year to try to catch up–instead of reinventing oneself over time to make a real leap and get ahead of the curve. Ain’t easy but it’s worth doing if 20%-50% of your budget depends on getting it right(er).

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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