There Has To Be More To Attendee Marketing Than The Status Quo

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By Michelle Bruno

Many aspects of trade shows haven’t changed in decades. Plenty of exhibition organizers are quite happy with the status quo—especially when it comes to attendee marketing. It may not be long, however, before the tried-and-true promotional tactics become too weak and worn to be effective. Now may be the best time to look at alternatives.

The 2014 report, “Cost to Attract Attendees,” from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), lists the top five attendee promotion tactics used and the average percentage of the budget that is allocated to them: 

•    Email: 26%
•    Direct mail: 30%
•    Print magazine ads: 10%
•    Social media: 5%
•    Online advertising: 6% 

But, the performance of the most popular audience promotion tactics is lackluster. For example, according to the Direct Marketing Association’s (based in the U.S.) 2015 Response Rate Report, the response rate for email (using house lists or prospect lists) is .1%, while the response rate for direct mail (using house lists vs. prospect lists) is about 3.7%.  Plus, response rate doesn’t mean conversion rate.

There are other drawbacks to email and direct mail. Email is subject to SPAM laws in many countries so that broadcasting to purchased lists is a delicate operation. Collecting valid email addresses for prospects is more difficult than in the past and email software filters out most promotional messages. Meanwhile, the cost of direct mail campaigns (postage) is increasing even though the response rates remain flat.

Even worse than the realization that the marketing channels used by over 90% of trade show organizers in North America (anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers in the UK are comparable) are only marginally effective is the understanding that event marketers aren’t doing much to change the situation.

Organizers continue to use primarily email and direct mail for a number of reasons. It’s widely accepted that event marketers are busy—even overworked. Most don’t have time to invest in new channels or new technology. Some don’t have the incentive to do so. Leading shows could send a single email and attendees would still come.

For those organizations that must innovate their marketing, either because attendance is dropping, the right audience is no longer coming, or the costs of acquisition are too high, there are other options.  Social registration—specialized software to leverage the social networks of stakeholders to reach new registrants and increase pre-registration conversions—is one alternative.

The metrics around the effectiveness of social registration are attractive. For example, Gleanin data shows that an average of 9 % of all registrants who register socially will send invitations to others within their social networks. 30% of these social invitees (on average) will become new registrants, and they convert to attendees at a higher rate than the event average. Using Gleanin on an event will generate an average of 4% of the total registrations for the event.

The response rates for email and direct mail campaigns on any given show could be higher than the averages reported by the Direct Marketing Association’s study. Some marketing teams simply have a better mastery of these mediums. But in a business climate that is anything but predictable, it’s critical that organizers examine the effectiveness and costs of existing marketing channels and keep an open mind to the alternatives.

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