The way we decide to attend events is changing. This post helps you to understand how new technologies influence our prospective attendee decisions.
Note: Let me warn you, it's going to be a long and sometimes complex post. Bookmark it for future reference to better digest it.
Deciding whether to attend an event is usually the result of a very complex process that includes multiple steps that hopefully will lead to a ticket purchase.
Proper marketing accounts for all these courses of action. It helps customers at each stage of the process.
Effective marketing positions the event neatly in the consumer mind. It clarifies how it stacks up against our doubts or needs along the decision path.
Traditional Buyer Decision Making Process
The traditional decision making process appeared on consumer behavior books a while ago.
Here are the steps in this model as from Wikipedia (the only one I am allowed to cite due to copyright):
1. Problem/Need Recognition
2. Information Search
3. Evaluation of Alternatives
4. Purchase-After Behaviour
5. Post Purchase Behavior-After
So let's apply that to an event, should we?
1. We may recognize the need to network to develop our business. We may need to learn something. We may need to be entertained. We would possibly need to meet new friends.
Sometimes we don't even know that our need is there. Wise marketers highlight a potential recurrent need their event solves.
Some other times our need does not exist. Event marketers create it. This is when we feel urgency. This is when we spot an event so cool that attending is a no-brainer. This is often the case for innovative event concepts.
2. We start searching. Traditionally this has been one of the toughest steps for consumers before the Internet. This process helps us find all the relevant information we need about the event. The search usually includes benefits (how will the event satisfy my needs) and costs (price, travel, opportunity cost)
3. We evaluate alternatives. Are there other events that could potentially satisfy my need with higher benefits and lower costs? Usually the latter combination is the most sought after.
When evaluating events, higher costs are sometimes perceived as an indicator of hidden benefits. On the other end, lower costs or free events are perceived as lower quality. Mostly because of scarcity.
4. We made the decision to buy. At this stage only peer influence, opinions or unforeseen circumstances can get us to decide not to go for it.
5. After we've attended the event we may decide that our experience did or did not satisfied our original need. If it did, it usually means we'll attend next year, at least if our need is permanent. On the other hand, if the event did not keep its marketing promises, we experience cognitive dissonance. That usually means we will keep ourselves as distant as possible from the event and those who organized it.
So What's New?
If you've ever taken a marketing course you may have encountered the above concepts. They are still valid and recurrent.
The variable here is the Internet.
The latest developments in tech and specially in social media have deeply impacted the way we make decisions and the steps in our decision making process.
1. Our Problem or Need, Out Loud.
Our problem/need recognition mechanism has been coded and it is there for everyone to see. Sites like Meetup.com upon registration ask us the crucial question: "What are you looking for?".
Attendees can state their need out loud. In the past, marketers had to read minds, nowadays they need to read tags.
In the same perspective social advertising platforms like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn introduced interest-based targeting.
Social networks asked us lots of questions. They asked us to tell them what we liked, to describe ourselves, how much we earn. The astonishing element is that we agreed to release all this information. Which is now available for marketers to target. Other than the creepiness and privacy concerns of the above, not for this blog to comment, the opportunity is evident.
2. Search and Serendipity
Undoubtedly search is the strongest area where phenomena such as Google revolutionised marketing.
Yes we can optimize our event website to show up for particular keywords (or should we call them needs) but this was 2002/2003.
Nowadays search is being heavily influenced by the social graph. Therefore peer influence, one of the most intangible - yet powerful - mechanisms impacting our decisions, is directly impacting the way we gather information about events.
We tend to spend time with people with similar needs. When a peer decides to attend an event, that could solve also our need.
This could happen on many platforms or social networks.
We can surely search for an event that satisfies our needs on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. However what the future holds is not us searching for an event but the event automagically coming to us, via a friend that recommended it, liked it, shared it on Facebook or retweeted it on Twitter or decided to attend on LinkedIn.
We can check out a speaker Slideshare channel or Youtube videos to see if she can teach us something.
We can look at the list of attendees on most registration platforms to decide whether there is a tangible networking opportunity. In some instances we can Facebook Connect before registering to see who's attending in our circle of friends. We can login on websites such as Plancast or Lanyrd and get recommendations based on their social networks and location.
Blogs play also an important role in how we research previous editions' write ups or seek expert opinions on what to expect at the event.
YouTube and video sites such as Conferize help us to see what happened in the past, how many people were there (to ease our worry of being alone) and if they looked satisfied.
Information seeking is a whole new experience. We have extensively more context to properly evaluate an event. The Information Seeking step is being heavily influenced by Purchase-After dynamics, effectively merging the two steps.
As a result, our experiences with events feed either a positive or negative information seeking cycle (more on this later).
3. Smart Evaluation
They way we search and discover events has significantly advanced. Meaning that looking for alternatives is equally easier and more accessible.
The same websites previously mentioned feature related sections where a myriad of alternatives are available.
That translates into a tougher job for marketers, mostly due to fragmentation. Making sense of all the information available is sometimes a shortcoming rather than a benefit.
That's why expert opinions and peer influence are even more relevant to make your event stand out. Inviting bloggers to your event may in fact slash down any non-reviewed alternatives.
At the same time there is a growing (very cool) trend in startups that are trying to organize opinions and reviews. I covered a couple, Event Rater and Hubb.it.
These websites will help (or challenge) the event industry as much as Tripadvisor revolutionised hospitality.
Purchase-after used to be a part of the process where we made our mind up and only peer influence could have convinced us otherwise. I believe that peer influence is now an intrinsic element through the decision making process, strongly impacting the previous stages.
The meaning of this step is now confined to contingencies (i.e. unforeseen circumstances that make us decide otherwise).
When I think about how could we manage, for example, post-decision cancellations, Twitter is what comes to mind.
Twitter helps managing crisis in real time. It gives body to our PR message. It makes us connect with our audience in the open.
If, as an attendee, I heard something negative about an event I decided to attend, I would go on Twitter and ask for more information. The way the event manages my doubts will affect my final intent.
Post decision contingencies could also be positive.
We may be so proud of our decision to buy that we want to share it with the world. Allowing such behaviour is crucial to feed a positive information seeking cycle.
Empowering attendees to tweet they'll attend with the appropriate hashtag is an example practice that smart meeting planners and marketers adopt.
5. Twisted Post Purchase
Forget about event evaluation sheets that event management may or may not look at. Feedback happens in real time.
If an attendee is pi*$ed for any reason and she is bragging about it on Twitter without any intervention by the event social team, well, sales for next year may be compromised. Surely the angry attendee is not thinking about purchasing a ticket for next year, but let me reassure you that her followers are not going to be inclined about it either.
You are thus feeding a negative information seeking cycle.
Once again experts (bloggers), event review websites and social networks are the the ideal outlets to amplify our cognitive dissonance.
Stats say that one of the top reasons why we turn to social networks is to complain.
I've seen it first hand. Users signing up to Twitter just for ranting, nothing else. Sometimes they even state it in their profile.
Avoiding cognitive dissonance in a social world should be the no.1 imperative of a savvy event professional. Hence why you hear me bragging about coming up with smart concepts and avoiding event marketing lies.
If some event professionals think that their direct mail or fax campaign is going to influence what has become such a complex process, this post should help them realize that some changes are happening.
- Most of the changes are surely materializing thanks to the innovation brought about by some event startups and technology.
- The way we manage content (especially if user generated) will impact the success of our event business (more on this here).
- We are faced with new opportunities and fresh risks. Our awareness of where our attendees hang out, what their social and tech preferences are will turn most threats into competitive advantages.
- Some technology and platforms available exclusively to consumer products are now becoming available for the events industry. The shift is happening here and now.
This post is by no means comprehensive yet it could give you a good basis to start implementing a more aware marketing strategy.
Hope you'll enjoy it.