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20 Attendee Retention Tactics to Keep Them Coming Back

By Julius Solaris
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How do you make sure that attendees will come back next year? This post shares some astute tactics to keep your guests loyal for life.

20 Attendee Retention Tactics to Keep Them Coming Back

While wandering on Twitter, I spotted an interesting tweet by an @EventMB follower:

"Less than 10% of attendees came back from last year at our annual conference... How can we increase our loyalty rate?? #frustrating"

Quite an interesting case to solve for the nerd in me.

Why Retention Is Key and Why We Get It Wrong

(Event) Marketing is often times a stellar display of self gratification by those who enact it. Big budgets spent to acquire customers, great attendance rates are fantastic reasons to pat ourselves on the back.

When next year's event approaches, we all start it all over again. We miss out on the HUGE opportunity to convert more of our existing customers. Hence why our follower is rightly disappointed about her 10% retention rate.

That means spending more to acquire new attendees. Picture a pipe with a leak as big as 90% of it. You have to keep pumping a lot of water to make it work.

Not retaining customers means spending more on marketing. The Harvard Business Review also mentions that increasing retention rate by 5% could mean increased profits in the region of 25% to 90% (yes, you read that right).

This is not news to our dear follower who raised the issue. In fact she knows how important retention is. Yet the fact she added #frustrating at the end of the tweet could only mean that the problem is not an easy one to tackle.

While researching this article I quickly realised that most of the advice out there focuses on universal reasons why customers do not come back. I don't believe this approach works for events.

Events are deeply intangible experiences, mostly co-created by planners, performers and attendees. Each event is unique. We can certainly draw similarities and extrapolate customer retention archetypes yet each event will have specific details driving retention rates.

Increasing your attendee retention rate involves collecting the clues, talking to witnesses and a great dose of flexibility.

Our quest for understanding why is split in 4 different stages of your event.

Note: This post gives you tactics to increase your retention rates, these are not strategies. You should review your wider business and event strategy if you are failing to deliver. There is no quick fix that will substitute an healthy long term strategy. Keep that in mind, dear reader.

OK, let's go.

Stage One: At The Event

The next set of tactics needs to be implemented during the event. If you don't have systems in place to cater for the following tactics, you are missing on the biggest opportunity to gather targeted feedback about your event.

In fact, low retention rates usually mean that you are ignoring the negative things happening during your event that inevitably affect the perception, opinion and engagement of your audience. While feedback can safely be collected also shortly after the event (See next section) technology has given us new tools to keep monitoring the heart rate of our event.

Ask to Rate Sessions on Event Mobile Apps

Ask to rate sessions on mobile apps

One of the reasons we usually don't come back is because we are disappointed with a product or a service. If you plan events with multiple performers you will not know which performer (or topic) let your audience down.

Mobile apps now allow to rate sessions in real time and to collect extra feedback at the time when you can get more strategic intelligence, during the event.

If attendees signed up to sessions or saved them on their mobile app or scanned their badge at entrance, you could quickly send a push notification asking to rate it. That is invaluable feedback to understand where your education or entertainment program failed.

Gamify

Gamification triggers very interesting behaviours. It also looks like there is a link between customer retention and gamification.

While we understand the quick benefit of, say, rewarding those who tweet the most or share more pics in terms of user generated content, there is more than that! Entering competition and challenges actually plays with the ego of our attendees.

It could drive them to show up next year to do better and 'beat the guy who won last year'. I've experienced this myself at a few events. While the correlation may be ephemeral, you could certainly experiment to see it for yourself.

Announce Next Year's Event At the Peak of the Show

Announce Next Year s Event At the Peak of the Show

Many events fail to convert an enthusiast and engaged audience by forgetting to announce the plans for next year.

If you are serious about what you do and run events annually, you may want to immediately catalyse the energy of the show floor by immediately show how confident you are about the success of the event.

While usually these announcements are made at the end of the current event, when probably half of the room has left, I believe the announcement should be made when the event peaks in terms of attendance and engagement (think right before the main keynote in a conference environment).

This move will immediately make your audience feel this is not a one off, but a brand they can trust.

Convert on the Spot

Following the previous point, it would just make sense to start selling tickets for your next event on the spot.

Creating attendee discounts that are 10% less than your current early bird rate will keep you reasonably safe and inject cash even before you start thinking about the next one.

The key here is to hook them on a feeling.

Think discounts but also think "invite your friends and peers and come for free" type deals. This will drive attendees to infect others with their enthusiasm. Capitalize on your planning effort.

Stimulate Live Feedback

Most of the advice out there assumes that our customers are all outspoken individuals who do not hesitate to share what they think. Yet the percentage of introverts who are afraid to speak up could impact your retention rates more than you think.

So how do you get introverts to speak up and share what they feel? If you work in events I am sure you can easily read body language and catch a perplexed look.

Get someone in your team to proactively reach out and ask if everything is ok. Make your attendees spit out the truth. Don't let them digest something that will negatively affect their perception. By doing so you'll achieve two objectives:

- you will immediately act upon a negative experience, hence influencing the evaluation of the incident. This is a key tactic of dealing with customer service on social media. Addressing the issue quickly makes people feel cared for.

- you will strongly influence the overall evaluation of the event and the likelihood to come back.

Check Your Real Time Analytics

Check Your Real Time Analytics

Event technology has evolved. You can keep an eye on virtually everything that goes on during an event.

I covered this as one of the most significant trends for 2014. While there are already established tools such as social media monitoring platforms, the biggest revolution here can be given by wireless technologies such as RFID, NFC and iBeacons.

Think how you can analyse footfall in certain areas of your show floor, how you can improve the performance in key perception influencers such as lines at registration.

Keeping an eye on your real time analytics will continuously give you feedback on the event hence making changes for next year a piece of cake.

Hire a Secret Shopper

This is a great idea Donna Kastner mentioned on the amazing Velvet Chainsaw blog.

The post is comprehensive, I can be lazy for once and just get you to read it.

After the Event - Short Term

This stage of the event is probably one of the most popular among event professionals. This is in fact when we usually concentrate on getting feedback. I believe that just concentrating on retention once the event is over is somewhat ineffective.

This is when most attendees expect post-event comms. Attention will be probably low. Using this stage in conjunction with stage one will give you a much better picture of what happened on the floor and what can be improved, ultimately increasing your retention rate.

Get Your Staff to Brain Dump Information

Get Your Staff to Brain Dump Information

The day after the event should be dedicated to debrief. You should get all your perm and temp staff to dump all the feedback they collected on the show floor.

Were people complaining about the wifi? Were they disappointed with a performer? It's highly likely your staff will know.

Give them a safe environment where they can freely talk about what attendees mentioned. Do not moralise the process and be open to very negative feedback.

Send a Questionnaire

You have to be smart about your post-event questionnaire. This is likely the biggest opportunity you have to capture vital feedback.

A dull form that takes ages to fill in will curb the enthusiasm of your strongest fan. If on the other hand, you thought strategically about your feedback form, you would have incorporated feedback from the previous stage.

You would know the areas that were a problem and you could use that information to investigate into what made things go wrong. This way you could substantially cut unnecessary questions by focussing on relevant performance indicators.

Also reward the submission in some form. The coolest one being donating an amount to charity for each survey completed.

Search Social Media

Search Social Media

Social media monitoring tools are becoming the standard for most mid to large sized events. While there is an immense potential in using them for real time customer service, it is a good practice to go back and look at them to further gather feedback once the event is over.

It is becoming the norm to share sum up updates when we attend events. Summary updates eloquently depict our perception of the experience and give you the information necessary to improve the areas that under-performed, thus securing better retention.

Moreover, some of the social media landscape is not real time at all. Your social media dashboard will quickly point out negative blog posts or videos that can immediately tell you why you lost a customer instead of gaining repeated business.

After the Event - Long Term

In 2009 I mentioned how social networks changed the way consume events forever. If you had to plot the interest and engagement levels of a common event it looked like a hockey stick. Growing interest, big peak then drop until next year.

Social media changed that forever. Mostly by giving the opportunity to event planners to engage all year long. The new graph would look more like a mountain with peaks. Where all the social interactions during the year represent small peaks of engagement that culminate in the yearly event.

This stage is all about keeping that relationship going, reinforcing the brand proposition of your event consistently between the end of the previous and the start of the next show.

Ask to Suggest Features

"If you'd plan the event, what would you change?". Ah the power of asking for someone's opinion. Using crowdsourcing portals such as those listed here, you can keep the community engaged while getting powerful insights about what attendees expect.

You can go as far as committing to implement the most voted. Such process makes attendees attached to your brand. That skyrockets the chance they will purchase a ticket for next year.

Your online suggestion box can also be implemented via email and cleverly combined with an email marketing campaign exclusively aimed at retention.

Use Content Strategically

If you've done your homework during phase one and two, you would know what went wrong but also what went well. Specially when it gets to content this is of utmost importance.

Identify the content that performed best and create a content plan that reinforces with your audience those concepts. Iterate the best performing content by means of video, tweets, reports, blog posts, etc.

Make the fantastic content that amazed your audience resonate as much as possible, find different angles. Also remember to close the sale. Always add a call to action to renew the ticket for the new event next to each piece of content. Smart, huh?

Know Your Web Analytics

Your long term, year round strategy should be to look after your web analytics and see how the content we mentioned above is performing.

What content helps existing attendees to buy again? A well structured analytics system will tell you if the visitor is a long time friend or a newly acquired customer.

That gives an indication of how content performs with repeat visitors. What content helped driving sales. You can get terrific insights that will shape your content offering at the event next year, increasing engagement levels through the roof.

Reward Them...

Your existing customers are your strongest weapon. Sometimes they don't come back simply because you did not give them enough importance.

I am talking about those attendees who tweeted the most, who were more engaged with your app, who sent 1000 Instagram pics. What did you do about them? Did you treat them as VIP? Did you offer them a super special discount? Or did you just recycle an early bird promotion and made it your CRM strategy?

Reward positive behaviour with special treatment. You need these people more than you realise and, most of all, you need them to come back.

...And Surprise Them

Surprise Your Attendees
Surprises are the vehicles of your rewards. Surprises are the sneakiest, most powerful hooks you can count on.

If you decided to reward your existing customers, do it with a surprise. If you want to give them a discount, do it with a surprise. Surprises defy the most logical marketing offering, helping you winning the hearts of your attendees.

When Planning Next Year’s Event

This last phase starts when you begin planning the actual event, after collecting the feedback from the previous edition.

The focus of this stage is to concentrate on existing customers, embrace the change suggested by feedback, adapt incrementally into delivering a more satisfying experience.

This is the most delicate phase where you need to demonstrate you've listened. Of course not everything will be implemented and you will need to prioritise tweaks.

Offer Online Alternative If You Change Venue

Offer Online Alternative If You Change Venue

A paper by CEIR as reported in Exhibitor Online highlights how location could negatively affect the decision to come back.

In fact if you change your venue every year, this could impact on the audience of your event. This is also the case if you select venues out of reach it could seriously test the motivation of your attendees.

Offering an online alternative could help not to lose the revenue coming from existing attendees who cannot be physically present. There are a number of platforms that offer pay per view or live attendance. Just make sure your live streaming or AV is of quality.

Do Not Market Always to New Customers

Your email database should be properly tagged. You should not talk to new and existing customers in the same way. Existing attendees need more customised communications.

Don't make existing attendees feel like strangers. They are your friends.

The focus here should be personal. You should make them relieve the joy of last year, by using careful wording and, why not, referencing to tweets or positive blog posts you collected in phase two.

Change Only What Was Clearly Unsuccessful

Not all feedback is created equal. Sometimes people are having a bad day, sometimes they pick on something completely irrelevant.

It is your task to understand the real pain points, those shared by the wisdom of the crowd. If one attendee is saying bad things about a speaker that 10 others praised, there is no need to axe that speaker.

Also the random comment about your hors d'oeuvre should not translate in changing your caterer altogether. Which brings us to the next point.

Embrace Incremental Change

Incremental change should be at the core of innovation processes. If you are trying to change something in your event, with the aim of increasing your retention rates and with the feedback you gathered in mind, do it gradually.

Do not revolutionise, adapt. It's great to listen and change but in moderation. In fact you would want to avoid creating a different concept than the original, solely on the basis of feedback. Think it through.

Use Media Wisely

Media have the incredible power of evoking feelings much better than words.

Use video and pics strategically to give your attendees the emotional hooks to purchase a ticket again. The 'video from last year' is becoming the protagonist of event websites for all these reasons.

In your personalised email strategy you should include a summary of the most evocative visual cues.

Recommend Similar Events

If you plan more than one event a year, your attendee could be interested in another event you plan. While you could lose them as attendees for the next year, you could win them for that other event you plan.

Make sure to recommend similar events to those they attended. Make recommendations and suggestions. This way you could actually increase the customer life time value of your attendee.

In Conclusion

I hope I answered the question of our Twitter follower. Would love to hear your input and if you have more tactics to share.

Understanding why people are not coming back is not a simple trick. You need to investigate, prioritise and then change accordingly.

Don't follow general advice and look into the specifics of your event. Know your areas of improvement and show your attendees how you've listened and adapted.

Now go and enjoy your 95% increase in profits, I am sure you'll do a great job.

about the author

Julius Solaris
Julius Solaris is the editor of EventManagerBlog.com, he is an international speaker, author and consultant.
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