5 tips for successful event marketing - with no ad budget

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Attracting and retaining audience is a known challenge for any events business. Over the years, Fierce has cultivated a successful formula for driving qualified attendees to our portfolio of live and virtual events using both paid and free registration models. 

We produce an average of 10 events each year – a mix of one-day executive summits, virtual tradeshows, executive breakfasts and networking events. In an economic climate where many shows are suffering from attendee attrition, Fierce has maintained, and in some cases grown, the audience for its portfolio of events. 

Regardless of what type of event we’re marketing, we do not rent lists, engage in direct mail, or maintain an advertising budget. So how do we meet our attendance goals? We follow five basic principles. 

1) Don’t underestimate the importance of audience segmentation and targeted messaging. 

This may seem like an oversimplification – and in fact it’s a bit of Marketing 101. But in talking to industry colleagues, I’m constantly surprised how many people don’t do this – or only do it at a cursory level. 

Fierce has a unique advantage in that our 900,000+ newsletter subscribers are already segmented to some degree by virtue of the topic of the publication to which they’ve subscribed. For instance, we can target our FierceDeveloper publication, which has an audience comprised of mobile developers and programmers, if the intended audience is folks interested in selling mobile applications to telecom carriers. 

Our marketing language is also modified depending on which audience we’re hitting. More importantly, we take a straightforward approach to marketing copy. We avoid over-wrought industry jargon. We rarely employ registration gimmicks. We pose the question, “Why should you attend?” and then provide a bulleted list that outlines the value proposition in no uncertain terms. And again, we make sure that we’re setting it up as a “must-attend” function.

Regardless of the size or source of your list, it’s imperative to use your resources wisely. Even if you are renting a list, you can and should take advantage of the filters offered by your list broker. For example, split a list the first time you rent it and run an A/B test of a subject line.

If you are working from a small house list, pull out a specific demographic and craft a message specifically for them. For example, send a promotion outlining why CIOs specifically should attend this event. 

2) Think outside the box (a.k.a., direct mail isn’t all it’s cracked up to be).

From day one, we took our expertise in email newsletters and online publishing – open rates, click-through rates, etc. – and applied it to event marketing. Ninety-nine percent of the marketing we do is online. We won’t engage in a promotion if we can’t track and measure the results to a narrow degree of specificity.

As a result, we don’t use direct mail to promote our events. 

Sure, we dabbled in it at the outset because it’s a traditional marketing vehicle – and it can certainly be successful. If we’re working with a partner that is producing a print piece and they offer to feature our program, we won’t say no. But I can count on one hand the amount of registrants I can directly track to those pieces. 

In comparison with a static direct mail piece, our e-newsletters feature dynamic content that hits our readers in their inbox daily or weekly, depending on the publication. Our websites are constantly updated. We can control, change, segment and update the messaging on a daily basis if needed. This has proven to be a far more powerful tool than direct mail. 

This isn’t to suggest that direct mail isn’t a viable tool for promoting events. But when examining your marketing portfolio, consider vehicles with a more measurable ROI and a more dynamic user interface before signing up to rent another direct mail list. 

Bottom line: Examine the effectiveness of a tactic before you employ it. Don’t play “me too” games and assume what works for others will work for your campaign. 

3) Play to your strengths. 

Providing our advertisers with tools to achieve their marketing goals is at the heart of Fierce’s business model. Our events business exists because we believe events are just another vehicle to help our clients drive leads, build brand awareness, and establish thought leadership. 

Because online advertising is our core business, we use the following in-house channels to execute our event-marketing campaigns:

  • Fierce publications. Within our 29 e-newsletters we use:
    • Banner ads
    • Marketplace listings (classified ads)
    • Editor’s notes
    • Linked content
  • Email blasts. Be careful here – it’s easy to get carried away and hit your audience too often. You’ll get better results if you send out email blasts sparingly and take the time to ensure they are well crafted and the messaging is on point. 

At Fierce, it’s our corporate policy to send only one promotional blast to each list per week. We’re also mindful of crossover between our lists. For example, if we’re hitting our FierceWireless publication this week, we won’t hit FierceBroadbandWireless because of the heavy crossover in subscribers. If we feel we really need to hit the full subscribership of both publications, we’ll suppress one list against the other to avoid duplication. 

For our upcoming telecom executive summit, we’ll hit any one of our telecom publications an average of three times over the course of 8-10 weeks prior to an executive summit. 

We also don’t blast our attendees heavily after they sign up. They receive a confirmation email after registering and a reminder before the event. After the event, they receive a single email thanking them for their participation that also directs them to upcoming content they may find interesting. 

  • Personalized emails. A personalized email to last year’s attendees has a fantastic response rate. Notes from our editors often result in more conversions than a traditional email blast. 

For our executive breakfast events, we exclusively use personalized emails to market the event. We hand-select a list of targets based on the topic and their level of seniority, and they receive a text email (nothing fancy, no HTML) from an editor inviting them to our event. Our executive breakfasts average 100 attendees and we don’t run a single banner ad or blast an entire list.  

  • Webinars. We often leverage our existing webinar business to promote our live events. A pre-show Webinar on the event topic not only gets the conversation started – it also generates a list of potential attendees who have identified interested in the topic. 

4) Don’t be afraid to ask for help! 

Despite our abundant internal resources, one of our biggest marketing secrets is that, more often than not, we have help marketing our events.

The business model for our in-person executive summits involves examining an industry vertical in which we already have a presence and identifying a niche area that isn’t getting adequate exposure. We then work to find a trade-show partner to offer a one-day, co-located executive summit that provides a deep dive into this area. One of the advantages of doing this is that our trade show partner has a built-in marketing plan and resources of their own – and we take maximum advantage of those opportunities.

Fierce often brings on research partners or non-competitive media partners to our events. We offer them branding and visibility to our audience as an event partner in exchange for the opportunity to put our messaging in front of their audience. We’ve also been known to barter our inventory with other associations or publications if we’re trying to target a specific demographic where our reach isn’t as strong. 

5) Don’t get stuck in a rut.

This is the hardest advice for us to follow. Once a marketing campaign has been researched and developed and you have approval on artwork and copy from key stakeholders, it’s difficult to make changes. But those changes often have to happen. Event campaigns need to be dynamic and evolve based on the response you receive from your audience.

If your first email blast doesn’t perform up to expectations, don’t just resend it. Re-evaluate the messaging, look at the layout, compare it to the last promotion you sent to the list that did perform well. Conduct an A/B test on the subject line. In short, don’t be afraid to make changes once a campaign has started. 

By following these tips, publishers can comfortably develop and methodically grow an events business without investing heavily in expensive advertising campaigns. We know this works – because we’ve done it. 


Heather Martin is vice president of events for FierceMarkets, a digital media company whose B2B portfolio includes email newsletters, websites, webinars and live events focusing on the telecom, life sciences, healthcare, IT and finance industries. 

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