Forward Thinking

Who is Your Conference Really Attracting

Attracting attendees is key to your conference's business model. But may be that most of your attendees don't have the buying influence to support your revenue machine.

If your conference is a significant contributor to your organization’s bottom line, of course you need to have a healthy attendee turnout. But you should be equally concerned about the quality of your participants. You need a process to help you determine who your attendees are and how they benefit your organization. Here are five attendee groups that are likely familiar to your meeting.

  1. Volunteers — Every conference has an attendee segment that feels obligated to attend — board members, retired or lifetime members, committee participants, and chapter leaders. Put these attendees in their own bucket. Your conference will continue to attract these professionals. Their attendance- justification story is primarily based on their volunteerism, passion, and status.
  • Industry presenters — If your conference has a boatload of speakers and poster presenters, create a segment just for them. Many medical, scientific, engineering, and education societies have a business model that is based on podium minutes, speaker slots, and available poster boards. Those conferences are primarily comprised of speakers, speaking to speakers. This model is especially common with academic professionals (subject-matter experts) who are seeking points for tenure or being published. Exhibitors and sponsors view these attendees as influencers — they are not the primary reason they invest in your conference. 
  • Young professionals — Attracting next-generation attendees is a big deal. Lifetime-value potential is extremely important to any organization with a long-term view. Yet, you must put them in their own segment. Exhibitors and sponsors are primarily interested in the here and now. While some suppliers will take a long-term view, there’s not enough ROI from this segment to justify their continued investment. 
  • Supplier professionals — This segment is mostly interested in networking and business development. They can be a significant contributor to your revenue and margin. However, if your conference is not attracting their existing or potential customers, you’ll probably see a lot of churn in this segment. The more churn, the more likely it is that you are not attracting the right core audience. 
  • Exhibit-only attendees — This is an important audience for aisle density and to nurture for potential full conference participation, but they are not your current economic buyers.

After you strip out the segments above (along with exhibitors and sponsors), what you should have left are your economic buyers — the attendees who are truly purchasing the education and networking experience that you’re creating. Having a deep understanding of who they are — and the problems that you can help them solve — is the starting point for winning their share of wallet and loyalty. Design your education and experience for them and them only.

Too many conferences attempt to be all things to all people and end up with a watered-down offering. If you are successful at identifying and attracting the right economic buyers, everything else takes care of itself. In order to get this right, you must segment your audience in ways beyond most organizations’ current processes. When you are able to draw and grow the decision-making and high-influence customers that your exhibitors and sponsors most want to see, you’ll have a sustainable conference business model. Attract and serve these people better than your competition, and other attendee segments will grow as a result.

More Resources

Liz Strauss is an expert on helping organizations be irresistible to their best customers. Read her blog post “Build a Narrow Niche Brand to Widen Your Opportunity” at

Dave Lutz, CMP

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