Marketing A Conference – The Pitch That Worked

I’ve been to a lot of conferences over the years, as a speaker and as an attendee. I know a lot of people who go to them, I’ve talked about them as a “thing” (i.e. are they worthwhile or not) and I’ve been the subject of many marketing pitches to either cover them or attend.

To begin with, there are two schools of thought when it comes to conferences generally.

  • Some people love them, and see all sorts of opportunity lurking nearby, what with all the networking and all.
  • Others think they are a waste of time, suitable mainly for people who don’t have jobs or who are trying to change out the lousy one they’ve got.

Let’s zero in on those who “love” them or at least are open to attending. Because when you market a thing, you want to “go with the flow” (as Wayne Dyer would say) rather than fight the river. The latter gets you very little in return, versus leveraging a natural source of energy means you expend less effort and gain exponentially more reward.

Let’s also take into account all the factors associated with conference marketing, with a focus on the subconscious drivers that people might prefer not to talk about. For a couple of reasons.

  • The subconscious drives behavior as much as, if not more than conscious or rational motivators. In particular, the less aware a person is of their subconscious drives, the more reliably you can tap into them as a source of motivation, because the subject is less able to confront and control their own desires.
  • Emotional motivators are a greater wellspring of brand equity because they’re more difficult to duplicate than rational ones. E.g., you can get the same education from a website as from a live conference, but the emotional experience is impossible to duplicate.

All that said, here’s a roundup of the top 10 reasons I think people choose to attend a conference:

  1. Status: They think it will make them look good to go there. E.g., this is an event where the “right” people go, people who have relevance in their professional world. Or, it’s an “exclusive” event and they’ve been invited.
  2. Connections: Similar to status but not the same, they believe they will meet the “right” kind of people, who will then serve as a gateway to future opportunities.
  3. Sustenance: They think they will find a job or an opportunity to do business.
  4. Inspiration: They believe they will gain motivation to pursue their goals.
  5. Education: They see renowned, reputable, or qualified people on the roster and actually believe they will learn something.
  6. Vacation: They see it as a legitimate chance to get away, e.g. one that can be justified.
  7. Sex/Romance: They think they will find someone to partner with, albeit temporarily.
  8. Cost-Neutral: They don’t experience the cost as an expense, because it’s deductible, or the company pays, or it seems like a drop in the bucket compared with the potential returns, or the money simply doesn’t matter; OR
  9. Cost-Prohibitive: They believe the cost is so high that only a very few, very worthy people can attend, themselves among that group.
  10. Schedule-Neutral: They have the time, or believe they have the time to go.

If the above represents the total potential universe of key drivers, e.g. the factors that appeal to the target audience generally, there are going to be ones that appeal to particular subsets. We could characterize these as:

  • Speakers who do their talk and then leave – influential, celebrity, high-powered types
  • Speakers who also attend – moderately successful types (I would fall into this group)
  • Attendees who prefer the audience role, though some may in the future be speakers

As a subset of the target audience, here are the particular factors that speak to me out of the “top 10” list above, in priority order and with some explanation:

  1. Status – attendance enhances my professional brand.
  2. Schedule-Neutral – unless it’s absolutely essential, I don’t travel overnight unless my husband and I are going together.
  3. Cost-Neutral – as a government employee, it’s extremely important to me that the cost be as low as possible, or free, because I am very mindful of the taxpayer’s investment in my time.
  4. Inspiration – Often I find presentations boring, but I am energized by the passion of the speaker, and it gives me the strength to manage my own professional challenges.
  5. Education – There is always some gold within the drek, and it’s normally worth my time to hear it directly and live.
  6. Sustenance – promote my organization, do outreach on its behalf, either by presenting or by talking to people about it.
  7. Connections – I’m not the most extroverted person in a conference setting, but I do believe it’s important to be around other people who are in the same “space” because it’s the quality of your connections that matters, not only the quantity

A couple of recent pitches to attend came close to hitting the mark with me; one succeeded and the other did not.

The one that was successful:

  • Involved a personal invitation from someone I knew professionally for many years, someone involved in the professional branding space in a very forward-thinking way, someone who has the same thought-style as me. I knew that any event she organized would be the right one to attend.
  • Was exclusive, and the invitation list was limited, and somewhat mysterious in terms of its agenda, which told me that the organizers were savvy and would not let me down in terms of the content.
  • Was forward-leaning in terms of the workshop process, meaning highly interactive, a customized agenda, and small-group-oriented.
  • Was offered to attendees at no charge (other than covering one’s own travel) and I could fly in and out on the same day.
  • Was beneficial to my organization in terms of being an audience I want to reach and whose interests align closely with what we’re doing.

The one that was not successful involved an offer to live-blog the event in my personal capacity, and although the presenters didn’t seem the most amazing in the world, the subject matter was sufficiently advanced and the organizer sufficiently forward-thinking that I seriously considered attending. However, it involved expensive flights, overnight travel and it was very far away.

I share all this to reflect back how involved conferences are from a marketing and organizational perspective. Events have huge potential for productive engagement and profit. It’s worth it to hire the right person to do the job.

All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. No endorsement expressed or implied. Photo by Diana Robinson via Flickr.

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