Digital Marketing Gains Dominance

The dawn of digital marketing of meetings has reached a brilliant high noon. Email, websites, e-newsletters and other forms of digital meetings marketing are no longer the "coming thing."

They've come.

According to a new MeetingNews survey that gauged the ways meeting planners market their meetings, all forms of email — plain text, plus those with embedded video and audio messages —are considered useful by roughly four out of five planners.

"Email has proven to be the workhorse of retention marketing because of its low cost and speed of results," noted Ruth P. Stevens, president of eMarketing Strategies, a marketing consulting firm based in New York.

"While email has proven unproductive over time for cold prospecting, if you're trying to attract people with whom you already have a business relationship — for example, association members or previous attendees — email is far and away the preferred medium," Stevens said.

Respondents to the MeetingNews survey were asked to choose up to three of their most effective marketing methods from a list. They also were allowed to mention other marketing tools not on the list.

Second to email as a favored marketing tool is the complementary use of websites, to which emails, direct mail (the third most-useful tool) and newsletters drive attendees for more information.

Newsletters landed in fourth place in the survey. But an inspection of comments to an open-ended survey question revealed that a large number of planners are using electronic newsletters — a long form of email — rather than the ink-on-paper variety.

"It's absolutely right on, electronic tools have taken over," said Dax Callner, vice president, communications strategist, for the big events production company Jack Morton Worldwide in its Austin, Texas, office.

"But also because so many meeting planners are relying on electronic communications, I'm seeing a moderate trend to doing print and direct mail to break through all the email clutter," Callner said.

The fact is, planners today have a variety of marketing tools at their disposal, many of which work well together.

"What you're finding now is that there are many more marketing options," said David Berkowitz, director of marketing at iCrossing, a New York-based search engine marketing firm. He said he's not surprised that traditional forms of marketing, such as direct mail and even "teaser" promotions and gifts, are still significant parts of the marketing mix.

"The website address presumably will be on all email messages, but it also may be that the website is on a direct-mail piece, or published in other events newsletters," he said. "And if you establish your website as a resource, people will keep coming to it."

Does Trouble Loom?

While digital marketing, led by email, has emerged as the meeting planner's dominant marketing tool, its usefulness has limits, experts say.

The good news is, over the last two-and-a-half years, delivery rates — the incidence at which emails actually land in inboxes — have inched up to an all-time high of 90.6 percent, according to industry research firm DoubleClick, as marketers manage their lists better and become adept at maneuvering their messages through spam filters.

However, the rate at which recipients actually open these emails continues to decline steadily, down to just 32.6 percent of all delivered email in the last quarter of 2004. The rate of click-through to the senders' websites also is down, to just 8 percent.

"It's a troubled future," said Callner. "And when email does get through, it becomes about the message, the subject line. Your email will be opened only if you send it to the right people, and it has information they find interesting."

Callner said his company invariably uses direct "snail mail" along with email to reinforce each other — direct mail to drive brand awareness, and email to prompt action —with special care given to verifying lists and crafting subject lines.

He also noted that telemarketing, in particular to well-selected audiences with whom the organization already has a relationship, has produced good results. In the survey, telephone marketing was deemed useful to about 4 percent of respondents.

Third-Party Woes

The survey also took the pulse of the use of third-party marketing firms. A significant number of respondents, 17.9 percent of corporate planners and 15.2 percent of association planners, said they had used outside firms to handle their meetings marketing needs over the past year.

However, when asked if they'd use a third-party marketing firm in the future, the response was thoroughly negative —a paltry 7.4 percent indicated it was quite or somewhat likely.

"Third-party marketing firms are expensive, let's face it," said Callner. "And I think companies are getting more sophisticated in managing their customer information. They might say, 'I own this list of customers. I can send emails out to them. I don't need a marketing firm for that.' That's certainly a trend."

But it may be a short-sighted one.

"First, in-house marketing costs may be disguised," said Stevens. "It may be more expensive that people think. Also, with direct-response marketing, which is what we're talking about here, the best practitioners tend to be outside, where the creative people are."

By and large, there was little difference in the responses of corporate versus association planners in their use of email marketing. However, association planners cited their use of websites and newsletters to a much greater extent than corporate planners, presumably because of the larger numbers of prospective attendees they have to appeal to.

Also, and predictably, corporate planners tend to favor "teaser" promotional gifts more than do associations, 25.2 percent to 13.9 percent.

Strikingly, the fax machine has lost all traction as a useful marketing option. Out of 227 respondents, just one planner cited the fax among his top three marketing tools.

If the issues of spam and email overload ultimately can be addressed, digital forms of meetings marketing should stay robust, the experts say.

Among other issues addressed by the MeetingNews survey, the reluctance of potential attendees to leave work and come to a meeting was cited as the hardest marketing challenge to overcome. Other obstacles included reduced discretionary income of attendees, competing family obligations, and too many previous events.

As for potential new marketing tools, iCrossing's Berkowitz foresees the Internet increasingly being used to feed meetings information to search engines, a function he calls "local search." Thus, if key words and destinations can be hyperlinked well by organizations, it may prompt prospective meeting-goers to "stumble" on meetings information based on their search preferences.

He also suggested that planners may increasingly use RSS feeds to get meetings information out to their prospective audiences. Through RSS, computer users opt to receive specified updated information automatically from favorite websites. For planners, it's a sort of distributable "what's new."

Its strength, Berkowitz noted, is that recipients welcome its updates; there are no spam-filter concerns with RSS.

Contact Christopher Hosford at [email protected]