Setting Your Sites High

When trade-show consultant Rich Westerfield was hired to improve the marketing program for the Coverings Show, the largest annual event in the ceramic tile and natural stone industry in North America, one of his first moves was to revamp the event's Web site. "The original site had a few features on it, but overall it was a lot of static content. There were no interactive features other than registration," says Pittsburgh-based Westerfield. The rest of the site contained what he calls "standard stuff"—fact sheets, exhibitor lists, and an exhibition floor plan. So Westerfield set out to build a comprehensive Internet presence for the trade show. "The idea is, essentially, to make the site and its content as relevant as possible to your audiences," he says. "We've got to take that experience [of visiting the Web site] and personalize it the best we can."

The evolution of the Coverings Show site from a listing of relevant facts to an interactive information clearinghouse demonstrates what it takes to build a successful event-specific Web site. Of all the marketing tools involved in promoting an event, the role of the Web site has developed the most. Once considered little more than an optional virtual billboard, Web sites are now de rigeur for nearly all events. "I don't know of a single event-related product more impacted lately than the event Web site," says Leanne Frank, user interface architect for Frederick, MD-based ExpoExchange. "Five years ago, it was not a given that a show would have one. Now, every show needs one, regardless of show size." Indeed, the event-specific site has grown from simply another means of promoting an event to a strategic business development tool and key driver of revenue. "The conference Web site is no longer an electronic brochure, but is truly an interactive mechanism for more easily generating registration," says Jeffrey Rasco, president of Wimberly, TX-based Attendee Manage-ment, Inc. Here are six central areas on which meeting planners should focus to maximize the impact of an event-specific Web site.

Planning Ahead

The first step in revamping a Web site is to identify the goal of the site, and determine exactly how the site will accomplish that goal. "The most important step, and the one that's frequently overlooked, is building a site map," says Frank. "By that I mean you take the time to map out exactly what sections will be there and how people will get to them. It's just like outlining a term paper." A clearly devised organizational strategy leads to an easily navigable site structure, which ultimately enables users to get more from site visits. "Every page of the site should have a strategy," says Philippa Gamse, a Santa Cruz, CA-based Web site strategist. "You should know what you want from [the user], and every page should have a clear call to action, as in 'click here to sign up,' 'click here to register,' and so on." With these calls to action, the site can be gradually personalized to each individual user. "We try to get people to think in terms of a linear flowchart," says Rasco. "If you say yes to X, you go to one page. If you say no, you go to another." In other words, Rasco explains, if an attendee selects the golf option at a given event, the next page that person sees will ask for his or her handicap, shirt size, etc. If he selects whitewater rafting, the next page will contain an insurance waiver.

This type of linear planning forces organizers to determine exactly who their audiences are and what information is most relevant to them—and this is the underpinning of any successful site. "Too many people just throw up a Web site because they know they have to, but they haven't thought through the different markets they are trying to reach, and all the possible outcomes," says Gamse. "There is a much wider potential reach online, and there may be audiences you can access that you haven't thought of before."

For the Coverings site, Westerfield found seven core audience constituencies—distributors, dealers, architects, installers, and so on—that he wanted the site to reach. So, he assigned each of the seven groups an icon across the top of the show's homepage, and assigned each icon a drop-down menu with content specific to that particular audience. "The menus show different networking events and sessions that apply to that group, and they can even get an exhibitor list customized to that group's interests," he says.

Considering Size and Scope

Generally speaking, the larger the show, the more significant the Web site. "The size of the site does depend on the show itself," Westerfield says. "If I've got lots of sessions, precons, dinners, golf tournaments, networking events, and so on, I'm going to need a lot of pages and I'll want to have some interactive features. But if I'm doing the Pittsburgh Baby Show, for example, I could probably get away with something like a five-page site." The Coverings Show is the 30th largest trade show in the U.S.; its site needed many more than five pages.

Bringing People Together

The more directly relevant information that a site provides, the more convincing its argument for show participation. "We build the sites to serve as a one-stop shop, and that's become the staple for us in terms of promotion," says Jennifer D. Collins, president of Laurel, MD-based The Event Planning Group. Site architects emphasize not only an exhaustive approach to providing information but also facilitating show participants' access to one another. This is done with so-called "matchmaking" software. "Attendees can say they're looking for XYZ from exhibitors, and exhibitors say they're selling XYZ," explains Westerfield. "It's like a business application based on dating.com," he says. This can go a long way in convincing potential attendees of the show's utility. These tools can search through lists of attendee profiles, enabling people to schedule appointments throughout the events. And that's just the beginning: "These scheduling tools then can become a personal agenda builder as well so that people should be able to go in, search by keyword, find people, set appointments, and build their own agenda," says Corbin Ball, a Bellingham, WA-based meetings technology consultant. "That's a great way for building interest in the event—helping people get the things they want."

Demonstrating ROI

It's equally helpful to demonstrate that potential attendees will get what they need. "There's always a push toward helping people justify their presence at the trade show, especially when companies are cutting travel budgets," says Frank. Web sites play a critical role in the distribution of such information. "The other thing that we're doing that really worked out well is adding a part of the site called 'special offers' so that someone who is interested in attending the show can find all of the deals exhibitors are offering that don't exist outside of the show," says Westerfield. "This is one more reason for attendees not to stay at home. If you offer these types of things, it helps with registration and it definitely helps in getting registrants to attend."

Maintaining Site Value

Increasingly, an event-specific site represents part of a year-round promotional strategy. "More and more of our clients keep their event sites up year-round," says Frank. "It's a great way to keep in touch with people after the show. For people who've just attended, it builds on the excitement of their experience, and they can find follow-up information on the site after the show." This is a strategy that Westerfield also employed when building the Coverings Show site. "We really want to have value beyond the show dates," he says. Others are using their event sites as community gathering spots during the months outside the event. "Although the site was developed for a particular event, we've also coupled that with general information about our topic area," says Collins. "So it's more of a community that we encourage [attendees] to return to and use as a resource."

Encouraging Press Coverage

Savvy meeting planners also use event-specific sites to maximize media coverage of their event. "Reporters are constantly online," says Gamse. "Give them the information they need to cover your event." Gamse says catering to the press enhances event marketing by controlling what information is released. "The easier you make it for the press to get everything they need in once place, not only is it more likely that you'll get coverage, but it's more likely that you'll be able to spin that coverage to a certain extent."

In the end, meeting planners must use the Internet to their advantage, despite any obstacles, real or perceived. "The main thing is not to be held hostage by the Web," says Rasco. "It's been a new, scary thing for some. But ultimately, it's like someone who's not used to traveling and their first chance is a trip to a completely foreign country where they don't speak the language. You could opt to not go, sit at home where you're comfortable, and miss out on new culture, new friends, and new foods. The same applies here, if you've been reluctant to jump in with both feet to the Web. There are tools out there that make it significantly easier to do than you probably think. And the benefits are phenomenal compared to the old way."