Why Can’t Event Organizers Be More Like Publishers?


Does it seem to you like every publication you can think of now has its own event that competes with an organizer who once had the only conference in their space?

From the icons of the mainstream media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to the smallest niche digital trade publication, they seem determined to steal the sponsors away from the nearest association annual tradeshow.

Why would they do that? After all, you’re not getting into their business.

The best answer to that may be, why aren’t you?

Publishers are getting into events because they figured out what you’ve known for a while: That’s where the money is.

Why aren’t association shows doing a better job of competing with sharp-elbowed publishers who are branching out into events? This is not the only arena in which trade associations have been slow to adjust to a disrupted marketplace.

Consumers – who, by the way, are also B-to-B customers and partners – have quickly gotten used to the online marketplace that’s available to them 24/7. They know that there is not only a place that’s always open for them to buy products, it’s also open for them to obtain information all day and night.

I’m certainly not suggesting that event organizers go into the magazine business. (Publishers don’t even want to do that anymore.)

I am suggesting, however, that you think about going into the community-building business, which is exactly the business publishers have been in for a while.

Publishers have done this, first, by providing a news report to their community members. Why can’t you stay in contact with your community on a regular basis as a news source?

They do it by acknowledging the members of its community who do outstanding things. Why can’t you do that? Why do you wait until the annual awards banquet to recognize achievement in the industry you serve? Especially given all the digital tools you now have available to you?

Why can’t you use those same digital tools to become the 24/7 arena where your community members meet?

Why can’t you be more like a publisher?

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How to Personalize Even the Smallest of Events

When HIMSS19 opens in Orlando next February. It will be with a new twist…one that event innovators are constantly telling you to add to your own shows. 

The massive event focused on the healthcare information world will have nine distinct communities, each with its own programming, pre-event marketing, networking activities and even exhibit areas.

The initiative speaks to the trend toward personalization, the realization that the one-size-fits-all annual industry convention-slash-tradeshow is quickly losing its relevance. 

Fine, you say. HIMSS is a massive trade association serving a red-hot industry with an annual event that attracts 18,000 attendees with more than 300 various workshops, conference sessions, panels and plenary speakers. Its exhibit hall sprawls out over nearly 600,000 square feet, providing it a budget in the tens of millions of dollars to work with.

How could those of you who manage your own modest niche event and struggle to attract a few hundred attendees at most do anything close to this?

By remembering the keyword here is personalization. By reminding yourself the goal is to make sure every attendee walks away having accomplished the one or two specific goals they came to your event with.

HIMMS’ “communities” are defined roughly by job titles (not exactly a groundbreaking concept): IT executives, security executives, physicians, investors….whatever.

How many ways can you slice and dice the job titles you have in your database? Even if it’s just two or three, that’s a start.

And, when it comes to personalizing your event, you should start small because delivering on the promise you make your first year out is the most important thing you will accomplish.

Once you’ve decided how to segment your potential audience, what are the two or three changes you can successfully make in the first year to focus on them?

Start with segmented pre-event marketing. Maybe add a few pre-conference webinars targeting the different opportunities available at the event for each group.

Think of a small handful of distinct conference tracks, networking events or roundtable discussion opportunities. 

No matter what, remember the whole point is, first, to make it easy for people with similar interests to meet each other and, second, to allow every single attendee to accomplish their own personal goals for the event.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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A Profile in Courage: Detroit’s Iconic Auto Show

It would have been so easy for the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. to say of the North American International Auto Show that it owns, “We’re the big dogs here, you meet our terms.”

But they didn’t. Instead, last month they announced major changes to what is arguably the best known car show in the world

  • The show will move its dates from late January, when it has been held for decades, to June.
  • It will expand beyond the confines of Cobo Center to a number of venues, both inside and outside, throughout Detroit.
  • The show will now include a number of interactive and immersive activities intended to engage the public, moving away from a traditional show where attendees simply walk around and look at cars.
  • It will reduce costs to exhibitors by eliminating overtime labor charges during a move-in that now stretches from November through January and by simplifying exhibit builds.

Some organizers of the country’s handful of most iconic events occasionally look up and ask themselves, “How could we ever turn this ship around?”

The Detroit Auto Show has done it and there are four important lessons any event organizer – big or small – can learn from their experience.

First, do what the industry you serve wants, not what makes you the most money.

It’s no secret that the auto industry is in transition with consumer demands changing faster than it can keep up with and economic realities bearing down on it: Just days after the announcement of changes to the event, all the Big 3 Detroit carmakers issued statements pointing out their financial forecasts for the year would be worse than previously indicated.

The exhibitors are more than happy to stop spending millions of dollars on ultra-customized booths that they then shoehorn into a relatively small Cobo Center, and only Cobo Center.

Second, the car show acknowledges that the industry’s marketing calendar has changed and nobody waits for the late January event to introduce their newest models. There is nothing sacrosanct about late January in Detroit.

Third, they recognize there have been drastic and swift changes in how companies – all companies – communicate with their consumers and they now need to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Finally, they don’t fall for their own hype. Iconic as it may have been for so many years, the Detroit Auto Show is there to serve the automotive industry, not the other way around.

How Do You Manage Unrealistic Event Sponsor Expectations?

Here’s a quandary for many conference organizers: How do you manage sponsors when you’re trying to put together a credible, authentic conference program that doesn’t leave attendees rolling their eyes at the thinly disguised sales pitches?

It’s a never-ending struggle and, of all the things that keep me awake in the nights leading up to an event, my most extreme anxieties are over any potential outlaw sponsor who has paid for a keynote spot and may decide to ignore everything they promised me they’d do to keep their content sales pitch-free.

We’ve all dealt with this dilemma. A company is willing to buy a hefty sponsorship package that includes some combination of opportunities to interface with your attendees: a keynote speaker position, roles as session moderators or speakers, maybe even an entire session or track that they take responsibility for themselves – and they have different ideas than you have about the definition of unbiased, neutral content.

Your first line of defense is always your own sales force. You have to make it clear to your salespeople that “no sales pitches” means “no sales pitches.” 

They have to communicate to the potential sponsor that it is in their best interest to have attendees walk away from the event with the idea that they just got some sound information from a smart speaker representing a credible company, that they did not pay their registration fee to sit through a canned presentation. You do not want your own salesperson making promises you aren’t willing to keep.

Next, as early in the planning process as possible, you must develop a rapport with the sponsor’s speakers and marketing staff. Schedule routine phone calls and meetings well in advance of the event during which you reiterate your event’s policies on conference content, get a better idea of what their goals-slash-motives are, and learn as much as you can about what they want to communicate.

Then you set some simple ground rules to make it clear that you’re serious. You insist on the opportunity to review their slide presentations in advance. You establish a limit on how many references they can make or slides they can use to hawk their own products and services. And you enforce these rules.

Creating quality conference content is as much an art as a science, but nowhere is that more true than in the care and handling of sponsors.

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Where Do You Find the Best Speakers?

Happily, I had a large number of responses to my last blog post regarding the challenge of coming up with a conference program that would be so exciting potential attendees would sign up early for your event.

I left off with this question: Where do you find that scintillating only-available-at-your-conference content?

It’s both easier and harder than you think.

I spent much of my working life as a newspaper reporter, so I know what it’s like to start out with the least bit of information (often wrong) about something that has happened or might happen and then work methodically to create a breaking news article that thousands of people will read.

You start with a list of names of people who “might” know something about what you’re writing. You call them and simply say, “Talk to me.”

Along the way, you’ll get advice like “You should call so-and-so and ask her.” So your list of potential sources grows and, eventually, you have enough people telling you enough facts to weave together a credible, true story.

The same thing with creating a conference program. You start with a short list. If you’re fortunate and smart enough to think of it, you’ve got a conference advisory committee who you can ask what’s going to be important to their community by the time the event rolls around and who else you should talk to.

But you also talk to last year’s speakers, names you come across in the media, attendees at previous conferences, strangers you overhear and, before you know it, you’ve got some good ideas.

That’s the easy part: You talk to people.

The hard part is doing it. We have all lived long enough now with digital technologies to have the impulse to reach for ways that will automate processes. But this is one case where you must spend the time to talk to people on the phone and in person if you are going to get a sense of what’s important to the community they are part of and what they will care about 10 months or a year down the road.

And you must do it with a sense of urgency that others will not be sharing, since it is not their responsibility to create a marketing calendar – filled with timely news about exciting conference speakers and sessions – far enough in advance to be successful.

But that’s not all you have to do. While you’re doing your job of putting a relevant conference program together, somebody on your team is also selling sponsorship packages to companies who have their own ideas about how your event should be programmed – and are willing to pay for the opportunity.

How does the conference content professional manage that wasp nest?

Once more, I’ll be back.

Creating Compelling Conference Content: How Hard Could It Be?

It doesn’t have to be, of course. The problem is that event organizers don’t always put the programming they will offer attendees at the top of their earliest to-do lists.

The challenge of successful attendance marketing seems to grow more serious all the time. If you’re one of the many event organizers who are concerned, you’ve been diving into all the blog posts and articles popping up about applying data analysis to attendee marketing and starting to feel your way around the concept of using machine learning.

Of course, none of these new ideas will work if you don’t have something compelling to market. 

Here’s the conundrum: Two forces in conference content creation are colliding with one another; most of us already know this, even if we don’t act on it; and it’s possible only the swiftest and smartest among us will survive.

First, we know that the traditional slate of conference sessions, each with its own set of panelists and a clicker to manage their slides, does not get it. There are new ways to engage attendees, new formats, new ways to deliver information – and many of us are responding to that.

Second, we know people do not need to go to an event to get topical information any more. There are plenty of channels to get much of the content the slowest-changing organizers among us are still trying to peddle to their potential attendees. 

And if you don’t believe me, just Google a handful of the speakers at your next conference and see if you can’t find most of what they’re going to tell your attendees already available from them somewhere online.

That is not to say your attendees don’t want content and to hear from live human speakers. But what they want – and what they’ll pay for – is cutting-edge insight that they can’t get anywhere else but your event.

Where do you find that scintillating only-available-at-your-conference content?

I’ll be back.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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How Hard Could It Be to Build an Event Brand?

It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet I know that many of you have spent thousands of dollars going to conferences and workshops to learn what you think is the secret.

In fact, the secret equation is simple: The promise + delivery on the promise = an event brand.

The promise is whatever you tell the community you serve that you’re going to deliver to them with your event. 

What have you promised? Is it to deliver to sponsors and exhibitors the people they may want to do business with? Is it the information potential attendees can’t find anywhere else? Is it the chance to meet people with similar interests?

Whatever the promise is, deliver on it. Do what you said you would.

This is uppermost in my mind because of circumstances I have become aware of with two completely different event organizers in which they recently made a decision to not deliver on their promises at virtually the last minute. One of these cases could be considered unethical.

In the first case, an organizer decided a couple weeks out to cancel an off-site networking event that had been mentioned in marketing materials for months. Perhaps more egregiously, another organizer canceled the order for a branded lanyard when it was learned the sponsor would not be present and would not learn about it.

It may be these two different organizers get away with what they consider strategies to save some money on event expenses at the last minute, but what if they don’t?

What do their event brands become then?

The promise + delivery on the promise = an event brand.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

How Big Do You Want Your Show to Be?

How big is big enough? How much larger do you want your showfloor to be? How many attendees would be optimum?

If your answer is, “Nothing is ever enough,” you might still be living in a previous Golden Age of the Tradeshow Industry.

Does size matter in the events industry anymore? Is it really important to have more square feet of exhibit space or more attendees than any other tradeshow in your industry sector?

I think about these questions every time I read a slightly reworded, albeit breathless, press release in the tradeshow press about yet ANOTHER show that broke a record for attendance and showfloor size.

The question of whether size matters has bugged me ever since I first became editor-in-chief of Tradeshow Week more than 15 years ago and was suddenly responsible for the TSW 200 and the TSW Fastest 50, lists of shows that measured success by the number of square feet and registered attendees they had.

The question bugs me even more now since the events industry has changed so drastically. Those metrics, still taken seriously by many, were significant in an age when the value of a product was directly proportional to its size. Trade shows were where people went to buy big things – machines, equipment, giant servers, furniture, etc. – and the more space you took up, the better you were.

Things of value today…not so big. In fact, there are products of great value that have almost no physical presence at all. At best, those trying to pitch them can use their tradeshow booth to demonstrate something that nobody can see or hold in their hands.

Those old metrics also stem from a time when the tradeshow floor was – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – “the best place for buyers and sellers to connect.”

That is no longer the case either. People with stories to tell and products to sell have many, many ways to communicate with potential audiences. The event is just one of many marketing channels available to them.

Stop me one more time if you’ve heard this one too: The opportunities for engagement and community are what makes an event valuable today, not the size of its exhibit hall or the number of people in those tired aisles.

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What Publishers and Event Organizers Can Learn From the PennWell Acquisition

In a recent Forbes article, Tony Silber notes how the recent acquisition of PennWell by Blackstone, via Clarion Events, is unlike other recent event-related acquisitions over the last few years

First, of course, is the reported price. While it has not been confirmed, sources say it is in the area of $300 million.

More importantly, PennWell is not just an event company, as has been the case with other major acquisitions lately, like that of Informa acquiring UBM in January.

PennWell, a family-owned business, has a number of events, but most are linked to strong decades-old digital and print products that serve a number of industries – and, in my experience, it is one of the few that has been able to effectively use events, magazines and websites in a collaborative way.

And that has always been the dream of digital and print publishers, hasn’t it? To capitalize on its relationship with an audience with event brand extensions, and vice versa.

Yet it never seems to really work quite right. Too often I see publishers with digital and print products come up with the brilliant idea of launching an event for their primary audience – and then act as if they have forgotten they even owned a newsletter or a magazine.

The justification often is that there is so much work to do that the harried event organizer can’t be bothered with coordinating with editors and publishers, and vice versa.

But if the editors and publishers could be engaged in the event business, a community that is created by either an event or a publication could be enhanced and the event-slash-publication brand could be extended.

Here are a few mistakes I see event organizers with deep connections to publications making:

  • Not involving editors in content creation for their conferences. Who knows the topics the audience cares about most and the big players in the industry better than the editors?
  • Not showcasing editors and publishers at the event. This is a great opportunity to turn the faceless worker bees behind a publication into human beings that an audience can identify with.
  • Not engaging the community that it aspires to serve beyond the event and the publication. Here is where PennWell has done well for decades with strong links to trade associations in the industries in which it has events.
  • Not keeping the event uppermost in the audience’s mind once it’s over by repackaging content from the conference for the publication with interviews, podcasts and streaming video.

Certainly, deriving a profit from every facet of a b2b business is the ultimate goal, but often money is left on the table when the business does not take advantage of every access point it has to a community.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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Show Managers, Be Honest

A few days ago I was speaking with a potential attendee to an event I’m helping with, describing some of the people planning to speak at the conference.

The potential attendee asked, “But how do we know they’ll really show up?”

That’s the point where I realized that the growing obsession with “fake news” in the media, which has already drawn into question the public’s confidence in some of its most trusted institutions, may have reached the point where nobody fully trusts anything anybody says to them anymore.

You will find plenty of bloggers to lament what this atmosphere has done to civil discourse. 

I worry about what this overwhelming mistrust of everything is doing to undermine the social contract that is the backbone of every single business community.

If somebody is suspicious I’m lying to them about whether a certain speaker will appear at a conference, what does that tell us about the confidence we can have in the simplest business transactions?

I worry that the impact on the events industry will be that people simply decide not to go anywhere.

Perhaps the best deterrent here is the same simple advice being given to responsible journalists whose reputations are under threat: Redouble your efforts to be honest.

Now is the time to focus on the fact that your events are community builders, venues where people of like interest – be it business or otherwise – come together. If that is the promise you make to your stakeholders, deliver on it.

This moment in history, this too will pass. Meanwhile, now is the time to follow through on every single promise you make to your sponsors, exhibitors and attendees.

 

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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