Thinking Outside The Funnel: A new way to strategize attendee acquisition

The below article was published in the Attendee Acquisition Roundtable Resource Book produced by Sam Lippman, president, Lippman Connects.

The funnel has been a common metaphor for attracting and converting attendees for years. The notion that attendees enter the funnel at the top as prospects and exit at the bottom as registrants assumes that the process in between is linear and prescribed—Google ads to attract, case studies to interest, show comparisons to decide, and pricing proposals to convert. That’s not always the case. Because marketing channels are diverse and buyer behaviors are unpredictable, a funnel doesn’t serve every marketer as the best model for driving attendance.

Experts who agree that the funnel isn’t a one-size-fits-all metaphor have proposed replacing it with everything from a journey to an escalator. One company, inbound marketing pioneer Hubspot, has replaced its funnel with a flywheel. “Whereas funnels lose their momentum at the bottom, flywheels leverage their momentum to keep spinning. Also, because they preserve momentum so well, all of the additional energy you add to spin it faster adds to the capacity of the whole,” writes Hubspot’s Jon Dick.[1]

Recent research and analysis provided by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) and the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) supports the flywheel approach given that “Today’s attendee marketers operate in a fragmented media landscape.”[2] Taking into account the most common digital marketing tactics that event marketers use for attendee acquisition according to CEIR and IAEE, the most appropriate stages of an attendee acquisition flywheel are magnetize, personalize, and socialize.


 There is always an entry point to the flywheel. Perhaps a prospective attendee performs an Internet search using specific keywords or clicks through on a banner ad. This digital contact may not happen when the prospect is looking for general information (the awareness phase of a traditional marketing funnel). It could happen when he or she is only contemplating participation but hasn’t yet registered. Marketers who magnetize their outreach at this stage of the flywheel employ a number of tactics.

Because marketers don’t know when or how a person who hasn’t yet made contact with the event will do so, they have to place information in places that prospects are likely to find it and give it the most attractive, attention-grabbing, compelling sheen they possibly can. The goal is to grab the prospect’s attention and entice him or her to take further action. Tactics include inserting a catchy subject line in an email, designing a clever ad for a retargeting campaign, creating a rich media landing page attached to a Google paid ad, or skillfully optimizing website content for search engines.


Attendees are also consumers. They are conditioned to receive information that tailored to their specific preferences and buying behaviors. Contact with these types of prospects has to be carefully orchestrated, regardless of the channel used. Specifically, messaging has to reflect what the marketers know about the individual. Marketers who personalize their campaigns “leverage the digital space to create customized and personal experiences.”[4]

Personalization works best on returning attendees or those who have volunteered information in exchange for content or contact. The goal of personalization is to “show them you know them.” To do that, marketers need data, preferably more than a name or an email address. Details, such as past attendance, topics of interest, or registration behavior (early bird or just before online registration closes) can help marketers refine messaging. Email is one channel that can be easily personalized. Invitations sent via a social referral marketing platform like Gleanin is another.


Using social media platforms and influencers to acquire attendees is one of the most intriguing and also among the more challenging digital marketing tactics. However, in today’s communication landscape, social advocacy is one of the sharpest tools in the event-marketing toolbox. Marketers who socialize their marketing campaigns can reach audiences that are otherwise unreachable, and leverage one of the most powerful marketing channels available.

Because social media channels are so flexible, there are numerous ways to use them. “Social media, to be effective, entails serving up content that resonates with different audiences; use of social media influencers is also a practice engaged in by a majority of marketers,”[6] write CEIR researchers. Event marketers post regularly on social media channels to grow followers and friends organically. Many use paid ads on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as well. Social referral marketing is a standout tactic for marketers interested in leveraging the social networks of registrants.

Maybe the funnel has gone out of style, or it was a flawed model to begin with. Either way, the flywheel is an excellent way to organize attendee-acquisition efforts. Flywheels create their own momentum and as long as marketers are magnetizing (creating effective content, personalizing (giving prospects what they want), and socializing (turning prospects into instant advocates), they’ll be hitting all the digital channels and growing their attendee base.



[2] How To Grow Attendance Series. Report Two: Marketing Channel Mix and Other Tactics that Drive Growth. Center for Exhibition Industry Research. 2018.

[3] How To Grow Attendance Series. Report Two: Marketing Channel Mix and Other Tactics that Drive Growth. Center for Exhibition Industry Research. 2018

[4] A Tactical Guide to Digital Attendee Marketing. The Meeting Professional. September 2018.

[5] A Tactical Guide to Digital Attendee Marketing. The Meeting Professional. September 2018.

[6] How To Grow Attendance Series. Report Two: Marketing Channel Mix and Other Tactics that Drive Growth. Center for Exhibition Industry Research. 2018.


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