Forward Thinking

4 Ways to Engage (and Create Loyal) First-Time Attendees

One of the most effective ways to improve attendance loyalty is by integrating a strategic on-boarding effort into your attendance-marketing plan.

Our industry is experiencing I an interesting trend with the increase of first-timers at annual conferences. According to Exhibit Surveys Inc., the all-show average for first-time attendees has crept up to 38 percent. This means nearly four out of 10 attendees are experiencing your meeting for the first time, and while they’ve taken the first step, they’re not fully committed. You have the opportunity to convert a higher percentage of them into regulars, starting with a strong focus in your on-boarding process. You have to engage them at Hello! If you’re waiting until the conference kick-off to introduce yourself, you’re too late. Here’s how to make them feel welcome:

Make a positive first impression.

Take a look at your auto-respond email for conference registrants. Are you making it personal? Take a page from the playbook of the new, free iPad app Haiku Deck, which sends out a personalized email from its CEO within hours after you’ve downloaded the app. This welcoming message invites you to join Haiku Deck’s community and offers to connect you to other like-minded users. Internet radio Pandora asks listeners how it can meet their musical interests in its welcome letter. This personal touch is critical and should be part of your attendance-marketing plan. Chances are most of your leadership team has never seen what counts as registrants’ first impression. Make sure email responses go directly to someone’s personal email box and not into a folder that gets checked once a week.

Enlist an army of hosts.

Your loyal attendees and members are your best allies in converting first-timers into raving regulars — if only you enlist their support. When first-timers experience true connexity (community and connecting), they will be hooked. Come up with a covert way to identify newcomers without making them feel called out or self-conscious (no ribbons, please). Then educate your loyal attendees to be on the lookout for anyone with this discreet identification so they can actively engage them with the community.

Educate everyone on how to get the most out of the conference experience.

Consider how summer camps engage everyone, no matter how many times they’ve been there before. Each camper goes through an orientation on the first day to learn what’s new and how things have changed. Consider offering an early-morning facilitated session on “how to get the most out of today,” to help your attendees navigate the learning and networking options. These daily participant-centric sessions also provide for serendipitous connections to occur, giving you another opportunity to deliver on your networking promise. This strategy will also help you gather intelligence on the education and networking interests of all your attendees and allow you to make some course corrections to better meet their needs. Nothing builds loyalty more than when attendees feel welcomed and cared for.

Partner first-time attendees with conference veterans.

An increasing number of attendees work virtually. They’re relying on face-to-face encounters to grow their professional network and build strategic alliances that continue well beyond the conference. This is why partnering first-timers with a loyal attendee — someone who has come at least two out of the past three years — is a good idea for helping them to connect to the people, resources, and information they need.

Facilitate the connection through your registration process and create meet-up areas. Consider designating the first 10 to 12 rows of your general-session seating only for mentors and mentees. Don’t force all the first-timers to sit together so they feel ostracized, but instead integrate them into your existing community.

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.