The more things change, the more things stay the same.
When we conducted our inaugural communication benchmarking study in 2011, we were surprised that association leaders rated live events No. 1 among two dozen association communication channels that we asked about. Young people don’t like face-to-face interaction, right? Everyone’s cutting back on travel budgets, right? With staff shortages everywhere, no one can afford to spend time out of the office, right? Not so fast.
The 700 association execs who took part in our early research effort gave live events an average rating of 4.39 out of a possible 5. To put that number in perspectives, member magazines and eNewsletter were the only other channels to weigh in close to a 4.
Fast forward to 2015. There have been incredible advances in webinar technology, virtual conferences and Skype. There’s now on-demand video coverage of most major professional conferences and trade shows in North America. And guess what? Live events remain No. 1 on the association communication channel food chain. In fact, events weighed in with an average score of 4.61 out of a possible 5 in 2015—up nearly 5 percent from 2011.
“I don’t believe we will ever get away from face-to-face marketing,” observed John Gallagher, group vice president, Naylor Event Solutions. “People still want to see the product work, shake your hand and look you in the eye.”
Makes sense. The word “association” comes from the Latin root associare, which means to connect or involve with a cause, group or partner. “It’s relationship selling, and it is powerful,” noted Gallagher. “Education is still key and business-to-business on the trade show floor is still important. But, it is the networking aspect of live events that really can’t be duplicated.”
At a time when associations large and small are pulling out the stops to remain the authoritative voice of their respective industries, hosting a high profile event can pay huge dividends. “Relevancy is about knowing what’s really going on in the marketplace,” said Skip Cox, CEO of Exhibit Surveys Inc., who will be co-hosting our upcoming webinar, 7 Ways to Improve Exhibitor ROI with Naylor’s John Gallagher. “What are the trends and issues? You really have to know what’s key for your attendees and the Top 25 exhibitors.”
Paul McLaughlin, president of Norwalk, CT-based App Technologies, LLC, exhibits at insurance and risk management shows throughout the year. “It’s all about the contacts we make—sales prospects, potential partners or other individuals who have the potential to connect us to new business. The quantifiable piece is direct sales prospects obtained from the booth and follow-up meetings where we can look at the potential sale size. The intangible piece of a show’s success is the new relationships we develop that may be valuable down the road.”
So why do so many studies show such a big gap between attendee satisfaction and exhibitor satisfaction?
According to Cox, the investment of time and money is much greater for an exhibitor than it is for an attendee. Also, many exhibitors do not come to shows as well prepared as they should. “You see booth staff reading the paper and ignoring customers. Meanwhile attendees are showing up better and better prepared. Our research shows 49 percent of attendees at any show are planning to buy. They’re already much further along the purchase consideration phase and exhibitors need to be ready when they show up at their booth,” added Cox.
But, exhibitor McLaughlin said, “I understand that to remain credible, associations have to focus on educational content and that’s a good thing. But the average exhibitor seems to be taken for granted in recent years. [Show organizers] give special treatment to their big exhibitors and take traffic out of the expo. They penalize our early access to booth selection if we don’t buy hotel rooms through their housing block. The ‘exclusive hall hours’ seem to occur only during mealtimes when everyone is interested in eating, not walking the floor. So putting some focus back on the exhibitors and helping to drive traffic and interest in the expo would be a great thing. The lack of interest in the expo by attendees is often reflected in the lack of interest by the exhibitors.”
The industry buzzword is exhibitor ROI, observed Gallagher. “No longer can companies participate in a trade show without demonstrating what they will receive for their participation. Many times it is a conflict of goals. What the association feels is important, may not be what the exhibitor or attendee is looking for.”
Just keep in mind, that if an exhibitor or attendee doesn’t return the following year, it’s not necessarily because they had a bad experience at your show. McLaughlin, whose six-person company develops claims and risk management software, said his firm has a few core shows at which they exhibit every year and then they attend others (typically as an attendee rather than an exhibitor) to “scout those events as possible exhibit venues in the future.”
Importance of pre-show marketing
Mark Migliore, director of business development for Naylor Association Solutions, said show organizers and event planners need to build pre-show momentum. Reaching out to the exhibitors prior to the show will allow for more meaningful and fulfilling interaction between exhibitors and attendees. “Consider offering exhibitor training webinars that cover such topics as how to be successful in a booth, how to save money at the event and how to follow up with attendees after the event. All of these tips share the ultimate goal of creating ROI for exhibitors.”
Beth Chitnis, vice president, Meeting Expectations, said it’s crucial to understand your attendee and exhibitor target markets. “What social networks are they on? How do they want to be communicated with? Do they still want that postcard flyer that they can tack on their corkboard as a reminder, or do they only want to receive that over email? Are they going to be on social networks where you need to be promoting the event? Create those online communities to engage the members before they get to that event, and then following the event, continue that conversation.”
Importance of customization and listening
Our research shows that only 53 percent of associations consistently ask their advertisers and sponsors if they’re getting their money’s worth. And when they do, only 60 percent take the feedback they’re given and incorporate it into their pricing and proposals. What’s more, our research reveals that only 10 percent of associations sell advertising and sponsorships on a fully customized basis, and less than half do any customization at all.
Chitnis acknowledged that it does require extra time to customize proposals, but in the end it’s worth the extra effort to fulfill those additional requests if they can lead to successful, long-term partnerships.
|Do you ask advertisers and sponsors if they’re getting their money’s worth?||52.6%|
|Fully customize our advertising and sponsorships||10.1%|
|Partially customize our advertising and sponsorhips||32.7%|
|Incorporate advertisers/sponsor feedback into pricing and proposals||59.9%|
Association Adviser & Naylor, LLC 2014-2015
As Naylor’s Tara Ericson explains in today’s issue many associations still work under the gold, silver and bronze tiered sponsorship model. But, if you’re in a competitive marketplace, you’ll need to be flexible, especially for your platinum sponsors.
Cox said associations should be willing to customize sponsorships for each exhibitor and sponsor. That includes creating off-floor opportunities for their most valued partners. For example, if you want to do business with HP, you should know they like to create their own pavilion off the main show floor.
Think outside the box
With travel and entertainment budgets still tight at many organizations, Chitnis said non-dues revenue for events increasingly comes from sponsorships. “A best practice is being creative, being flexible, and working with those sponsorship partners to identify what they need in order to be a strong contributor for that association’s event,” she dais. “It could be trivia night as a fundraising event for an association. You could sell a sponsorship for the right to ask those trivia questions. Sell a joke-a-round. If the team of trivia participants needs a second guess on a question, they can use that joke-a-round token. It’s like a mulligan in golf.”
According to Cox, the exhibit itself may be the least‐valued element of a sponsor’s participation. Some may be looking for speaking, even keynote opportunities, to enhance their thought leadership position. Others may want off‐floor meeting rooms for product demos or customer meetings. Others may want to co‐locate private customer events with the show.
Just don’t take your other exhibitors for granted, cautioned McLaughlin. “At the recent industry conference we attended, some of the large players literally had their own exhibit hall separate from the main expo. In the old days, when attendees were between sessions, they might pop down to the exhibit hall to chat with a few exhibitors. But with one-vendor halls separated from the expo, they encourage attendees to retreat there in their downtime rather than spend time in the main hall. These halls have completely separate entrances, so I think traffic on the show floor has suffered noticeably.”
Post show follow-up
Chitnis said, “Follow-up with sponsors after the show to see if they got [what they were hoping for]. If they didn’t, work with them to understand why.”
Migliore agreed that follow-up is critical and often neglected or done too lightly by the show organizers. “Engagement does not stop at the event’s conclusion. Make sure your exhibitors have the opportunity to provide feedback, such as meeting at the close of the show and providing focus groups throughout the year. Reports are a great way to highlight value through live events metrics, such as statistics on sponsorships and marketing and advertising impressions.”
Start the feedback loop while the show is still live
Our annual communication benchmarking study found that live events are one of the best forums available for obtaining feedback from your members and other stakeholders. Annette Homan, deputy executive director, Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS), agreed. “With face-to-face, you can ask a question and it’ll lead you to something else that you want to discuss,” she said. “We just find that we get more in-depth responses. Sometimes, when you’re talking to someone, you get more honest responses from them, versus putting it in writing, even though it’s all anonymous. If we’re not providing something that the member is looking for, I want to know about it. I want to know what they’re looking for.”
As Mahatma Gandhi famously said last century, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” And that’s not likely to change any time soon.