Compelling Conference Content: Where Do You Find It?

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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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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How Tribalism Can Work for Your Event

We hear “tribalism” blamed for much of the political and cultural dysfunction in the world today – and probably rightly so.

By tribalism, I mean the attitude or behavior exhibited when loyalty to a certain social group represents a higher value than other values, i.e., truth, facts, what’s right for the country.

There are many explanations for why this drive toward tribalism is sweeping, not just the United States, but the entire world. Among them are the advent of social media and, with it, the accompanying ability to only receive messages that affirm your views and ignore those that contradict what you already believe.

However, a Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report indicates a few truths associated with tribalism that could work to the event organizers’ advantage as they compete against other forms of marketing – if they are willing to change.

After surveying 28,000 Internet users in 56 countries, the report found that consumers trust recommendations from families and friends above all other forms of advertising. And 70 percent trust consumer opinions posted online by people they don’t know.

That is in contrast to the 29 percent who trust text ads on mobile phones, the 33 percent who trust online banner ads and the 40 percent who trust ads served in search engine results.

So, who would be the best person to promote your event – the blogger with a small but avid audience who has been to, trusts and loves your show, or the high-profile speaker you try so hard to get but for whom your show is just one of many he or she will speak at this year? The Nielsen report indicates it might be the former rather than the latter.

The Nielsen report, I think, has one more lesson for event organizers, this one dealing with conference content. I have been working with one fairly young – albeit so far successful – conference that adopted and stuck with a philosophy that conference speakers should be practitioners in the field itself rather than high-priced third-party experts, consultants or, heaven forbid, motivational speakers.

The attendees at the conference have spoken with their registration fees: They want to hear from people like themselves – whose experience they trust – as opposed to advice or sage wisdom from somebody with celebrity status but who is disconnected from their own profession.

Yes, it could be the world is becoming more tribal, but that might offer new opportunities to event organizers who have the courage to adopt new ways of doing things.

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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So You Want to Be Gary Shapiro

If you are not the president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Assn., now is the hour of your discontent.

You are looking at all the media attention driven by International CES last week, watching the news reports telling you that the show drew 180,000 people and wishing that was you and your show everybody was talking about.

You’ll keep wishing that until July, when International Comic Con will capture the public’s imagination. Then you’ll be asking yourself why you couldn’t have been the one who thought of that.

Why do we wish it was us running those mega-shows?

If your show was as big as CES or drew as many celebrities as Comic Con, would you be accomplishing the goals your stakeholders have set for you?

And, while we’re talking here, what are the goals your stakeholders have set for your event? Do you even have any?

Certainly, you’re looking to the metrics: How can you make more money with this year’s show than last? What can you do to grow attendance? To get all of last year’s exhibitors to re-sign?

Other than revenue and profit goals, do you have any other clear idea of your event’s purpose, its reason for existing?

Here’s what I see too often in the association event world: After the event, the staff member charged with running it gives a report to the association board, which feels it has more important things to worry about and really doesn’t want to devote too much time to the annual show that took place last month.

If the report is rosy, they say, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” If it’s a little less than rosy, they say, “Try harder next time,” and move on with their agenda.

But do they ever ask themselves what the purpose of their event really is?

Is it to get as many of those associated with an industry together at one time? If so, are you doing everything you can to make it both attractive and easy for as many people as possible?

Or is it your idea to reach the influencers and thought leaders who will then spread the messages you and your exhibitors offer them? If so, what are you doing to achieve that goal?

Or do you want to be – as is the case with CES and Comic Con – a venue for your speakers, sponsors and exhibitors to reach the larger public? And, if that is the case, what are you doing to make sure that happens?

By the way, these are not questions for the event organizer alone, unless that happens to be the person who actually owns the show. They are fundamental questions that your organization’s governing authority – be it a board or a single individual – must seriously consider and then answer.

Once you do figure out what your event’s real purpose is, and then execute a strategy to fulfill it, you’ll feel just like Gary Shapiro does right now.

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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Events Done the Nordstrom Way

For years, consultants have asked organizers about their events, “Do exhibitors buy space at your show because they want to take orders from customers, or because they feel “they have to be there”?

Today, many perceptive organizers would say, “Neither.”

Now, the booth on the showfloor is rarely the first point of contact between a buyer and seller. It has never been the last, and that is even more the case recently because of the habits we are picking up as consumers.

Why, attendees are asking, should the experience I have when I buy something for myself be that different from the experience I have when I make a purchase for my company? Consumer retailing is leading the way when it comes to how marketers use events.

Look at what Nordstrom – legendary for its customer service, known as the Nordstrom Way – is doing with the store it opened Oct. 3 in West Hollywood, Calif. Called Nordstrom Local, it takes up about 3,000 square feet, much smaller than more traditional Nordstrom department stores that span closer to 140,000 sq. ft.

It has plenty of dressing rooms, but very little inventory on display. Personal stylists are onsite to help shoppers digitally create their own unique “look.” Orders are delivered to customers’ homes later in the day. They can return them any time to the brick-and-mortar store, or they can come back to meet with tailors who will be available to make alterations.

While at Nordstrom Local, shoppers can enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of espresso at the in-store bar.

A recent study on brand experience by Freeman demonstrates that, just as retailers are changing the ways they connect with customers, companies are looking to events to accomplish different goals as well.

Freeman’s report concludes the events that can offer sponsors and exhibitors brand experiences are more valuable than traditional buyer-meets-seller events.

After interviewing more than 1,000 marketing executives around the world, the study found that 58 percent of chief marketing officers look to events to increase their advocacy. In other words, they’re looking to meet influencers who can spread the word on their brand. Just under half of CMOs (48 percent) said they want to use events to demonstrate thought leadership.

Selling products on a showfloor, it would seem, is so very 1995-ish.

This is not to suggest that the conventional trade show turn itself into the equivalent of a trendy Southern California boutique. But it is clear that exhibitors and attendees expect more than they did 20 years ago.

How much are you prepared to disrupt your event to accommodate them?

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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What If Your Show Dates Coincided With Hurricane Irma?

As events unfolded ever so slowly in the Caribbean and Florida, who among event organizers didn’t think, “There, but for the grace of God, go…”?

The organizers of the Miami International Auto Show postponed their event. Surf Expo in Orlando closed a day early.

Shortly before Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, I was headed to a long-planned event in New York, only to be stopped just minutes before I was to get on the plane. Most attendees for this particular show were traveling from the Northeast and had not yet left their homes when the decision was made to cancel, but a few dozen who didn’t get the message in time spent several days cooped up in a mid-Manhattan hotel.

What would you do if your show had the unfortunate pleasure of sitting right in the eye of a potential major natural disaster?

First off, don’t pretend — at least to yourself and your team — that it’s not about the money, because it is.

The better angel hovering just beyond your right shoulder is worried about people’s safety. But the realistic business person hovers over your left shoulder fretting about refunds, cancellation fees and busted budgets.

Even though you don’t want to, think about this ahead of time. Have a plan that, if you’re fortunate, you never have to execute regarding what you’ll do if you find yourself a few days out from the event and you — along with your sponsors and attendees — are learning about an impending disaster.

What would or could you do about rescheduling if necessary? What does the fine print in your contracts with vendors say about the financial implications of a sudden cancellation or an “act of God”? How far are the bulk of your attendees traveling and what does that tell you about how much time you have to make a final decision to go forward or cancel?

Thinking about all this in advance means you can save time changing plans on the spot at the last tension-filled minute.

Do your best during the registration process to assure you have reliable contact information for attendees and exhibitors if and when you need to get in touch with them immediately. Start communicating with them even before you’ve made your final decision about what to do.

Then be available when they start calling, texting and e-mailing you in those days when you’ve got a million other things to think about at the same time.

Do these simple things and when you make your decision about which path to take in the face of a potential disaster — cancel, reschedule, fly blind — you’ll do so with the confidence that will compel your event participants to trust you did the right thing for them.

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 a Total Eclipse May Have Helped Make Total Store Expo a Success

The National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores shares a few major challenges with other trade associations serving consumer-facing industries: technologies disrupting the traditional brick-and-mortar store model, consolidation and fast-changing consumer preferences.

To say the least, as one trade association executive told me recently, “Our members are grouchy.”

And, when it comes to NACDS’s annual event, apparently getting grouchier. I compared attendance figures reported last year to TSNN on the Total Store Expo with similar figures reported by NACSD to Tradeshow Week eight years earlier: Attendance has declined by two-thirds, from a reported 4,129 in 2008 to 1,336 last year.

Attendance totals for this year’s Total Store Expo, of course, are still to be announced.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the poor Total Store Expo is suffering the same fate as other association events: The perception it is less and less relevant in meeting the needs of its attendees and members.

One saving grace this year though: NACDS got lucky when it came to the idea that a productive event should create the all-important opportunity for attendees to engage with one another. An unintended (I think) addition to the conference schedule was a total eclipse of the sun, at least some of which could be viewed from San Diego.

Bright and early on the third morning of the annual event, attendees poured out of the San Diego Convention Center in their eclipse-friendly sunglasses to watch the once-in-a-lifetime event unfold in front of them over San Diego Bay.

My guess is there was as much chatter there on the sidewalk by the bay for a few minutes as there had been during all the hours the show floor was opened.

Who knows? Maybe a few new business partnerships were started amidst the chatter.

In a world in which creating opportunities for event attendees to engage with one another is the most important priority, sometimes an event organizer just gets lucky.

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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