Hug Your Haters, and Other Digital Ways to Grow Attendance

Ten things to keep in mind in your efforts to attract participants to your events.

ITS America's Regina Hopper was an ECEF presenter.
ITS America’s Regina Hopper was an ECEF presenter.

How much are show organizers willing to invest in attendee acquisition? And how are they trying to reach potential audiences? Those were two questions Sam Lippman, who organizes ECEF (Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum) annually, addressed in a survey he took prior to ECEF 2017. Top-line results of the survey kicked off this year’s program, which I attended along with 200 senior-level event professionals in Washington, D.C., on May 31.

Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) said they’re investing more in attendee acquisition in 2017 than last year. Not only are they increasing how much they spend, they also are changing what they spend it on. Twenty-four percent said they’re diverting their event-marketing funds to digital/online efforts — a 10-percent jump from last year.

But as presenter Koley Corte, senior vice president for digital at Reed Exhibitions, pointed out during a presentation later that morning, digital isn’t the solution — it’s just a means to an end. “You need a customer strategy, not a digital strategy,” she told the audience. “Digital is just a platform.”

The emphasis on digital efforts to grow attendance was foreshadowed by a pre-ECEF panel, “The Future of Attendee Acquisition,” which I also attended, on May 30 in D.C. Hosted by mdg (Marketing Design Group), the trade-show marketing and advertising agency behind ECEF, and moderated by mdg President Kimberly Hardcastle, the panel included Corte; Santana Inniss, mdg’s director of social and digital; and Aleksander Levental, co-founder and CEO of Feathr.

Pre-ECEF session panelists.
Pre-ECEF session panelists.

I took my own notes, but Kasey Connors, CAE, mdg account director, did me one better. She exemplified how to extend the educational value of a session beyond the event by capturing the panel discussion’s top 10 takeaways in a PDF, which was emailed to attendees. Connors’ takeaways, which I’ve excerpted here, all focus on digital-acquisition efforts:

1. Use the right platform for the right audience. Snapchat might be a good platform for Millennial and social-savvy audiences, but not for others. Use the platforms where your audiences are — start with Facebook if you know your audience is there daily. Don’t forget to look beyond your current audience and understand where your attendees will be coming from in the future. 

2. Hug your haters rather than running away at the first sign of negativity posted about your organization or event. This is an opportunity to show you are responsive and to make a human connection by breaking down the fourth wall. For more on this, read the book Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, by Jay Baer.

3. Use humor in your digital strategy if it is on brand. For example, Webster’s Dictionary uses Twitter to define words or phrases being used by politicians and political spinsters.

4. If you have a small budget, just start small. Make sure you’re analyzing what’s working by testing, tracking, and adjusting where needed. 

5. Define digital broadly and strategically integrate online and offline efforts.

6. Hire digital staff members who have a growth mindset. The most important skill in today’s economy is the ability to learn new skills. Ask the right questions and test candidates to hire wisely.

7. Develop current staff for the digital age by providing them with the training and tools necessary to succeed.

8. Data is live, searchable, and connected — something you can add to and subtract from, and an asset you can build. Use data about customers’ behaviors rather than assumptions to make decisions.

9. Customers and attendees are conducting more online research before committing to a product or event. Reaching your audience at the right moment with the right messaging will maximize your success.

10. Don’t get creeped out by ad retargeting! Businesses are continually trying to stand out from the competition, and by serving up relevant ads they can serve your potential audience better.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.