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A great conference is no longer enough to keep people coming back. You need year-round engagement. Here are a few ideas on how to streamline your efforts.
Before budget cuts and travel limitations, a successful event planner needn’t worry about returning attendees for a popular conference. The annual conference was something association members committed to without thinking, especially if it was held at a swanky resort in a fun or exotic locale.
Today, a great event and a great location are not enough to guarantee return attendance. You must remain top-of-mind, or more importantly, top of budget to keep attracting attendees to your conference.
Customize Your Communications for More Return Attendees
Your marketing communications for your conference should not be the same for people who have never attended and people who attend every year. Nor should you assume that because someone has attended for the past two decades, that you needn’t contact them with specialized communications.
While return attendees are a “surer” thing than people who never attended your conference, there are still line items in budgets to justify. They still need to be courted with interesting learning opportunities, and feel there is still someone new to connect with and/or old friends who will be attending.
Your communications to returning attendees should be ongoing through a drip marketing campaign but it shouldn’t be the SAME campaign that you use for non-attendees. For return attendees you’ll want to create a campaign of targeted emails with themes and reasons people return every year. These themes may include:
- Nostalgia: conference time is a great time to check in with old friends and connections
- Networking: meet new friends
- Innovation: while the conference retains a sentiment of familiarity, never give return attendees the feeling that you’re stuck and not offering anything new
- Learning opportunities: stress the freshness and need for continuing education
- Things to do: just because they’ve attended before doesn’t mean they know or remember the operations, provide them with reminders
- Activities in the host city: return attendees need to get excited about the host city too. Don’t leave this crucial marketing component out.
- Sign-up reminders: these should be written with a nod towards the attendees’ past experiences
The Content Marketing Institute sends out reminders to past attendees when early bird registration opens up and a follow-up a week or so later for those who haven’t registered. Often past attendees know whether they plan on attending the next conference by the time early-bird registration opens. If you don’t hear from them immediately, reach out. It may have slipped their mind or they may be on the fence. Hearing from you may sway them into sending in their money.
Not everyone sees every social media post or reads every one of your newsletters. While they may remember your conference is in June, they may not remember early-bird starts in March. Reminding them may be the difference between them attending or deciding to spend their time and money elsewhere.
Create an Online Community for Year-round Interaction
Sometimes at conferences you’re unable to say good-bye and exchange information with all the attendees you would like to. People’s travel schedules or work demands sometimes get in the way of attending the final session. At times, they can find their “lost” colleagues in a conference directory, but not always.
One of the top reasons people return to conferences each year is the relationships they forge or rekindle while attending. An online community through your association, or dedicated to your event, can help attendees stay connected.
Another reason people come to your conference or annual meeting is because of the continuing education sessions and the keynotes. An online community can provide a forum for more in-depth discussion about the topics presented (post conference) or build excitement about what they’ll learn at the next conference.
Incorporating Social Media for Greater Engagement
Auto posting to social media isn’t enough to increase returning attendee numbers. You want to increase engagement. This means using posts and pro files that appeal to your past attendees. Ideas for posts that (generally) receive the greatest shares:
- Pictures from last year’s event inviting people to tag themselves.
- Polls about favorite foods or favorite aspects of last year’s conference.
- Encouraging members to share their pictures of the host city or suggestions of where to eat or tour. Yes, you will be handling a lot of that yourself but make sure you ask people who have been there for referrals too. It will mean more to your members.
- Any post that encourages answering or sharing that can be done easily and without embarrassment.
In order to retain past attendees you must engage them year round. You can accomplish this through interactive posts on social media, consistent marketing communications, and an online community. Use these tools to keep them talking to one another and to your association. When they do, make sure you’re there to continue the conversation and stir excitement. Electronic resources like social media, websites, email, and online communities are some of the best tools to happen to event planners since voicemail.