Event promotion techniques that really work

A well-executed promotional campaign will help your event pay off.

“If you build it, they will come.” That’s the now-famous phrase that Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears in his corn field in the 1989 hit movie Field of Dreams, and it has entered the popular lexicon as a metaphor for having faith in one’s vision. But if you want a Hollywood ending for your prospect or customer event, you’re going to have to rely on a lot more than faith. Even the most well-conceived events need a powerful promotion campaign to fill seats.

How will you reach your target audience and communicate the benefits of attending?


No matter how you choose to promote your event-e-mail, phone calls, direct mail, and so on-you’ll be competing against literally hundreds of other demands on an executive’s attention at any given moment. Your challenge is to break through the clutter and earn a spot on that executive’s agenda.

We’ll talk more in a minute about how to get your message across, but first let’s talk about how not to. Pay close attention: if you’re currently using any of these promotional methods, you’re throwing your money down a black hole.

Wedding-style invitations: Many event planners, in an effort to seem classy and elegant, spend vast sums on engraved invitations that list little more than the time, date, and place of the event. That’s fine-your attendees certainly need that info. But they also need much more than that to decide whether your function offers enough benefit to warrant taking time from their busy schedules.

Postcards: Same as above. It’s tempting to want to hit your targets with just the facts. But you’ll need much more space to hammer home how your target audience will profit from attending. And the odds are against you if you expect prospective attendees to visit a Webpage for more details. Few do.

Ads: Occasionally you’ll see ads in trade magazines, inviting readers to visit a company’s booth at a trade show or attend a seminar. These can be enormously expensive on a cost-per-attendee basis.

Now that we’ve talked about what doesn’t work, here’s what does work-if used judiciously.

PR: Send press releases about your event to local business publications that publish event calendars. Or for a bigger bang, enlist the business publication as a cosponsor. That will likely give you more coverage, both pre- and postevent.

Direct mail: Here’s a pop quiz: which works better in direct mail-long copy or short? You might think that short copy outpulls long, since most executives are so time-pressed. In fact, research shows that long copy, separated into readable chunks with bullet points and subheads, is almost always more effective. The more information you can give a prospect about your offer, the more likely he or she is to bite.

Pass every piece of communication through this filter: will my target audience care? It’s great if you want to hold a demo of your new software release. But what tangible benefits will attending this event offer your customer? In all your communication, stress your value proposition. For example, “Five Things Every Manager Needs To Know About Hiring And Firing” is a powerful title for an event. “Announcing The New HireFirePro Software Pack Version 2.0” Is Not.

And slant your message toward your intended audience. If you want to attract CEOs, frame your copy in terms of profits, shareholder gains, and the like. Managers, users and techies, on the other hand, will respond better to copy that talks about information and tools you’ll give them that will help them do their jobs quicker and better. For an extra dose of credibility, include testimonials from previous attendees.

E-mail: E-mail is a popular way to promote many types of events, especially webinars. But can you be sure you’re getting through? With today’s corporate spam filtering, as little as 30 percent of e-mail from outside addresses actually lands in the recipient’s in-box (that’s especially true for mail sent to multiple addresses). Be sure that the addresses are valid. And consider following up through some other method such as phone or letter.

Telemarketing: I always recommend including telemarketing in your pre-event promotion. After you’ve sent out letters and e-mails, call VIPs who haven’t responded. Also confirm with key people the day before the event, and let them know you’re looking forward to seeing them.

You may be wondering why I’ve left “gimmicks and giveaways” off this list. In my opinion, these are used far too often. If you’ve created an event with a compelling benefit, you won’t need a clever theme or a bribe, such as a drawing for a cruise, to fill seats.

However, there is one exception: when the audience is so select and hard to reach that you can’t get their attention any other way. One company I know needed to reach the top 10 hedge fund managers in Manhattan. So, for its event, the company promised either an Xbox or a personal digital assistant to every attendee and asked each person to check off in the RSVP which item he or she would like.

Another clever company mailed a violin bow to each member of a select group of executives and promised that if they came to a seminar, each of them would receive a violin that they could give to their kids, play themselves, or display on a shelf. But again, because the cost of such promotions is so high, they should be used only to reach a small, sought-after audience.

Now that we’ve covered the “how,” let’s talk about the “when.” It’s vitally important that you hit your target audience repeatedly with your message. Once or twice doesn’t cut it-you risk being buried in the “in” box or falling beneath a busy executive’s radar. The following timetable is a good basic template to use.

Two months out: Send a “mark your calendar” message that urges invitees to save the date.

One month out: Send a second communication listing all the reasons they should attend and urging them to reserve space. If you’re sending e-mail, include a link they can click on to enroll online. In all cases, send an immediate confirmation that gives directions to the event and encourages guests to invite their colleagues.

You might also include a pre-event questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn at the event. This can help you customize the content, and guests are more likely to show up if they feel their critical concerns will be addressed.

Two weeks before: send another communication, similar to the one above, to people who haven’t yet signed up. The content needn’t be radically different-all you need to say is, “We haven’t heard from you yet,” and to repeat your information.

One week out: If you haven’t filled all available seats or are waiting to hear from VIPs, start using telemarketing.

The day before: Call and send out an e-mail reminder with the date, time, and directions.

After the event: Thank each attendee, by mail or by phone, for coming. Also let no-shows know that you’re sorry they missed your event, and send them relevant presentation materials (or let them know where they can find materials online).

Remember: recurring communication is the key. No matter what your objectives for the event-moving customers further along in the buying decision, educating them about new products, or simply introducing them to your company-you’ve got to fill seats. A well-executed promotional campaign will help your event pay off.

Mac McIntosh

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M. H. "Mac" McIntosh is described by many as one of America's leading business-to-business sales and marketing consultants and marketing speakers. He is president of Mac McIntosh Incorporated, a marketing consulting firm specializing in helping companies get more high-quality sales leads and turn them into sales. More about Mac...

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