By Dave Bushnell and Jacqui Olkin
A quick Google search shows pundits making dire predictions about the end of trade shows and annual conferences every year. But even in the face of challenges such as down economies, professionals have continually found value in attending face-to-face industry meetings. In fact, attendees have taken the utility of annual conferences into their own hands and left the sponsoring organizations with a unique branding challenge: to ensure that the organization stays at the center of the attendee’s conference experience and that the value they create at the conference accrues to the organization for the rest of the year.
Like rock stars and other celebrities with brands to keep in the public eye, organizations need to keep their biggest fans–conference attendees–involved year round. In order to ensure that the energy and positive experience of the conference isn’t gone as soon as attendees board their planes home, it’s critical to take explicit steps before, during, and after the event to convert attendees’ good feelings about the conference into brand equity for the organization.
Before the Conference
It’s easy to get so caught up in promoting the conference that you forget this also is a key period to promote your entire organization’s value to your attendees and exhibitors and strengthen their affiliation. Here are some ideas to get it done:
Turn themes into a conversation. Solicit ideas and feedback on next year’s theme through all your communications channels. This will be a lively conversation that gives people a sense of involvement and a feeling of anticipation. Plus, it gives you valuable insights into what your constituents and customers are thinking.
Define the conference voice in a way that’s consistent with your organization. Excitement is important but continuity is king. Make sure you’re speaking about the event in a way that can continue after it ends.
Extend your branding for the conference; don’t replace it. Don’t let the urge to make an impact carry you too far from the brand equity you’ve already earned. The early mailers, emails, and conference website should start with a graphical look and feel familiar to your attendees.
Get constituents involved in conference preparations. If you provide recommendations on restaurants in the conference city, have local attendees provide reviews. Encourage attendees to organize ad hoc meet-ups at the conference, such as an organized run around the host city. Provide them with tools to organize these activities and stay in touch afterward, such as a group in your online community. While most conferences have a marketing calendar, by adding a participation calendar, you’ll create real brand value.
At the Conference
Be bold and spend on your own booth. How many times have you walked through a show floor full of impressive booths and brand ambassadors only to find the sponsoring organization at a folding table with a pile of membership forms? Your exhibitors see the value in investing in a professional presence. You should too.
Set your marketing priorities for the year. Create sessions, programs, and onsite campaigns to get your attendees moving toward those goals. Have research products? Design a breakout on making the best of them. Online learning tools? Kick them off with a live seminar that concludes online.
Boost conference app value. Conference apps give you a unique opportunity to begin forming a picture of your attendees that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Beacon data integrated with your mobile app can tell you the actual booths and breakouts they’re attending, while analytics and app participation can identify the early adopters and enthusiasts.
Create content. Experiential technologies are often used as ways to give attendees a fun activity and something to take home with them, but they’re a big opportunity for organizations to create content to extend the conference experience. Photo booths, video booths, and prompted storytelling all get your attendees talking. Plus, they give you footage you can use in marketing material year-round.
After the Conference
Make your follow-up mailings and websites full of faces and stories. After the conference, remember that attendees come for a variety of practical reasons, but what’s fun and exciting about the event are the people. Your best chance for extending the value of the conference is keeping the people up front.
Use the momentum and goodwill of the conference to keep people engaged. Publish content and start discussions (via a blog or online community) on the topics that caused the most buzz at the conference. Provide forums for attendees to continue to communicate with the people they met at the conference.
Relate the learning from the conference with year-round products from your organization. Host follow-up webinars with presenters whose sessions were exceptional. Continue to mine popular conference topics and follow up with speakers for new content. Make the connections for them between the excitement of the conference and the excitement of their relationship with the organization.
Remember that your constituents create your brand with you, but they need to be explicitly led from the conference’s value to your organization’s value. Involve them, make the conference relevant to the year-round relationship, and capitalize on the substance and emotion of the conference throughout the year to deepen your relationship with attendees and strengthen your brand.
Dave Bushnell is the former executive creative director of Lady Gaga’s digital team and is now CEO of the Washington, DC, agency activate.digital.
Jacqui Olkin is principal of Olkin Communications Consulting, a user-experience consultancy specializing in digital communications for associations.
[Adapted from an article written for the American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) website, August 24, 2015. Image by Ruth Hartnup. Flickr CC.]