The Softer Sell

To say the art of marketing is sophisticated today is like saying that Michael Jackson is eccentric: It's a big understatement. The marketing function has been elevated to its lofty role because countless companies have realized that the notions of credibility, name recognition, and especially brand-building are ones they cannot afford to overlook these days.

If you think that this development won't have much effect on meeting planners, you're wrong. The reason: Marketing pros recognize that conferences, which are effective vehicles for delivering education and motivation to employees, can achieve similar goals when directed at customers and prospects. And the smartest marketers understand that "soft-sell" environments - in the form of educational programming - offer the greatest opportunity not only to attract attendees, but to impress them to the point that the sponsor's identity is ingrained into their consciousness.

Granted, this doesn't seem to be the ideal moment in the economic cycle to create a new conference for customers and prospects. A close look at this type of event, however, reveals that companies are often able to convince attendees to foot the costs, or at least share them with sponsors.

But before you consider persuading management to let you strengthen your company's repu-tation and brand through a conference, understand this: Because of the specific purpose of this kind of event, elements such as creating the proper content and tone, working with the right partners, inviting the right people, and measuring results are the ones most critical to success.

Here's advice on the most effective ways to create brand-enhancing conferences.

If you build it . . .

The key benefit of your event to customers and prospects is the value you provide them, which comes in the form of professional education. And when that's done well, your organization receives plenty of value in return. "Using education as a marketing tool allows you to win twice," says Andy Dolce, chairman and CEO of Dolce International Conference Destinations, in Montvale, New Jersey. "Your customers become better educated about the issues in your industry and about how your product or service makes sense in that environment. And they are more likely to become better prospects for you."

Brian Simons, vice president of sales and marketing for Pottersville, New Jersey-based event marketing firm EXM, puts it succinctly: "The products being sold through these conferences are name recognition and credibility."

That statement is important to remember, because in the desire to convert every last attendee into a customer (or a more lucrative customer), it can be difficult for a host company to balance the educational with the promotional. "You certainly don't want the material to come across as a transparent plug for your company," says Paul Albert, senior account director, events group, for marketing communications firm Nth Degree, in Atlanta, Georgia. "It's best to create a program addressing the factors in today's environment that make apparent the need for a product like yours, but stay away from promoting the particular features of your product. You should deliver a message to attendees that says, 'We know you have these issues regarding your business, and we are assembling knowledgeable people to help you address them.'"

To assemble formidable teams of educators - and boost the credibility of their events - many companies find that it's best to align themselves with a neutral organization that can help deliver relevant content. Kay Barker, executive vice president of MBK Associates, a medical communications company based in New York City, partners with aca-demic institutions with an authoritative presence in a particular field when creating content. For instance, MBK recently cemented a partnership between a pharmaceutical client developing a menopause-related drug and Duke University's OB/GYN department for the purpose of having Duke's research doctors speak to her physician attendees. By having respected industry authorities - often called "thought leaders" - on board, the event immediately becomes attractive.

"The researchers don't speak specifically about the product," says Barker. "They speak about the condition in general and about the possible treatments, including ours. In the area of women's health, their institution's name carries weight, which radiates to the host company as well. Ultimately, the client wants the thought leaders to impress attendees enough that they go home and talk to their colleagues, creating a trickle-down effect."

Beyond the university walls

Creative planners have found other entities with which to partner in order to build their company's credibility. For instance, Simons recently enlisted the Public Relations Society of America to assist his own firm, EXM, in delivering a program for corporate managers looking to improve their communications strategies.

And Dolce International has partnered with two well-known and respected meeting planners, who deliver the content of Dolce's "Step by Step" seminars for novice planners. Six to eight such programs are held at Dolce properties around the country each year, so attendees not only learn about topics such as contract negotiation, meetings-related technology, and conference dining, but they also experience Dolce properties firsthand.

The seminar leaders "present on a very objective basis regarding what planners need to do to run effective meetings, and which tasks a host property should be able to help you with," says Andy Dolce. "But with attendees touring our facility in the course of learning, it's also a soft sell that builds confidence in our product."

One entity that regularly acts as a content partner for companies hosting brand-enhancing events is the business magazine Fast Company. It has created Future Forums, which are "cobranded programs that allow a client to leverage our name and expertise," says Elizabeth Busch, a Future Forum content builder. "We can sharpen a topic for a client's target audience, bring in speakers who have been mentioned in the magazine, and use our editors as moderators."

For instance, the financial services firm Neuberger Berman enlisted Fast Company to help create content, provide speakers, and build attendance for an educational event on investment strategies for the future. The reputation of the magazine "conveys to the host company's marketplace a sense of its brand and thought leadership," Busch adds. "We're trying to create for each client a cross between a content event and a networking event, to prove to attendees the company wants to help them in more ways than by simply selling them a product."

And if the content is created well and promoted effectively, there should be little trouble convincing attendees to pay anywhere from $800 to $1,500 for a one- or two-day event, says Albert of Nth Degree. But Simons adds this caveat: "With such a commitment in time and money from attendees, you'd better have content that's tailored to the target audience. If you're seeking mid-level executives, then you can talk about concerns in today's business environment. But if you're going for CEOs, you can't address what's happening today - those people are visionaries, so they want to know about the issues they will face five years from now."

Even if you know exactly whom you want to attract and what you'll present to them, you must also determine the best avenues for luring them to an event. Industry associations, trade publications, and narrowly tailored "vertical" trade shows serving your target audience are rich sources for developing prospect lists. With the right names in hand, many firms rely heavily on direct mail solicitation. "It's still the most effective medium," says Albert, "but we supplement it with e-mail messages whenever we can. It's hard to get complete e-mail contacts on today's lists, but that'll change over time."

Did it hit the mark?

Naturally, as you design your event, good marketing sense tells you to think about how to measure the results, both tangible and intangible. Albert suggests a four-pronged approach: assessing attendees' satisfaction with specific aspects of the educational content, how the overall conference was perceived, how the host company is now perceived, and whether the event strengthened each attendee's relationship with the host company. "After that, the ROI measurement starts to fall to the salesforce," says Albert

Simons agrees. "It may be that you conduct a simple evaluation before attendees leave, or soon after they return to the office," he says. "But if the end goal is to sell a product, there needs to be follow-up contact by sales reps within a certain amount of time after the event." Capturing the right attendees in a stimulating, non-competitive atmosphere should demonstrate a noticeable enhancement of brand recognition and perception that, with good salesmanship, can translate into revenue.

Many times, though, a marketing event will have unexpected benefits, and even spinoffs. While the pharmaceutical company Barker worked with told her that their evaluations found "a dramatic improvement" in attendees' understanding about menopausal causes and symptoms, the company had additional notions of what constituted value from the educational content. "The company told us to repackage the content so that it would be able to address more than one audience," she says. "We reworked the program to address nurses and physician assistants, who spend a lot of time with patients. This way, they will remember the company's name, and hopefully reinforce the company's image when speaking with the doctors."

While image isn't everything, it is important enough to warrant your planning expertise.