We direct marketers are adept at trade show marketing. We know how to select the shows that our prospects are likely to attend. We set up plenty of meetings with customers and prospects. We conduct pre-show campaigns to drive booth traffic - although some of us still have problems getting the mail onto the prospect's desk before the show. We follow up religiously after the show, to keep the sales process moving.
But I am always surprised at how few direct marketers are taking advantage of one powerful tool in the business-to-business marketing toolkit: the proprietary event, where you have exclusive access to customers and prospects, and you can really get down to delivering your message in a way that cuts through the clutter. These events include opportunities like client conferences, user groups, executive briefings and road shows.
Let's look at some of the key advantages of the proprietary corporate event.
When creating a proprietary corporate event, the marketer has nearly complete control of the customer's experience with the company. You can shape the event to suit the needs of your audience - and meet your corporate sales and marketing objectives.
Corporate events are an excellent venue for relationship building with key customers, from end-users, to technical personnel, to purchasing officials, to senior executives. The relationship can be deepened on both sides: you get more focused selling time, and the customers provide you with more insights into their needs and business problems.
Corporate events are designed to allow higher level conversations than can be expected in the hustle and bustle of a trade show.
Customers and prospects can focus on your message, without distractions from competitors.
Corporate events tend to be applied to current customer marketing, versus prospecting, for the simple reason of efficiency. For one thing, it's easier to persuade a person with whom you already have a business relationship to come to your corporate event. For another, the future value of a current customer or inquirer is much higher than that of the average unwashed prospect, which justifies the expense of creating and running a dedicated event.
To get the most value from a corporate event, keep these principles in mind:
Consult with your target audience. In order to attract and influence them, you must first find out what works. Let their preferences and needs guide your planning.
Seek opportunities to defray your costs. You can ask your business partners to take sponsorships, or ask your clients to pay their own travel and hotel expenses. Some conferences even charge attendees a fee, which both qualifies their serious interest and supports the budget.
Corporate event management is complicated, and requires expertise and resources from multiple parties, inside and outside the company. So a focus on project management and team-building will enhance your likelihood of success.
Proprietary corporate events share many characteristics of trade shows, when it comes to marketing strategy, planning, and execution. The same rules apply about setting objectives, promotions, post-event follow up, and so forth. Treat the corporate event like a full-fledged marketing campaign, not a one-off.
It's not easy to categorize events, since there is so much overlap in function and activity, but here are some of the more common types. Most of these are focused on current customers, but the last one, road shows, is designed for prospecting.
The user group meeting has taken center stage in the information technology arena, but is also in wide use in other industries. Typically the company's objective with a user group is multi-fold:
Education about the current products in use at the account
Surfacing problems and trouble shooting solutions
Identifying customer needs for additional products or features
Deepening the relationship with the customer
Most companies find that the opportunity to network with other product users is one of the key benefits appreciated by attendees.
User groups target the engineer or middle manager who actually uses the product in day-to-day business, with primarily an educational and troubleshooting objective. A client conference, on the other hand, is designed to engage a more senior managerial level, addresses more strategic issues and is often, in some respects, more sales oriented. The typical client conference pursues the following objectives:
Deepen the customer relationship
Communicate company vision, culture, and strategies
Cross-sell and upsell
Encourage networking among peers
A client conference may have any of the following components:
Keynotes and breakout sessions
Meetings with sales reps and senior executives
Sports event, such as a golf outing
A client appreciation dinner
Events focusing on a single customer can be a useful element of the corporate event marketing mix. Limited to top customers, these events can be as simple as an expanded client meeting, where the business carries on into ancillary activities like dinners or outings. Or they can be workshops, or facilitated sessions - whatever meets the sales and marketing objective. One common type of single-customer event is also known as a "vendor day," when a large company arranges for suppliers to come in and show their wares.
An educational seminar can be an appealing way to deliver product information within a larger business context - which adds credibility and also increases access to hard-to-reach customers. Most common are daylong or half-day seminar programs taught by a credible third party on a subject of strong business interest to your customers. If you include speakers from your own company, it's important to keep the tone of the presentation more about solving problems or sharing ideas, and less a blatant sales pitch.
One of the secrets to success in seminar marketing is balancing good content with amenities. Consider this wisdom from Mark Amtower, a specialist in marketing to government buyers. Amtower conducts seminars all over the country for clients and prospects as part of his sales outreach. "The seminar content is important," says Amtower. "But the food is how they'll judge the seminar overall. I have learned to provide great food, and plenty of it, and I get rave reviews - and new business - from my seminars."
Executive seminars are intended to bring senior-level customers together for education, peer interaction, and face time with senior company representatives. Usually kept fairly small, repeated at regular intervals, and held in desirable locations, these events combine customer appreciation with sales opportunity. The primary hook to attract attendees is content, topics of strategic interest to senior managers. The events thus serve to position the hosting company as a partner as opposed to a vendor, a trusted resource who can be relied upon to help solve pressing business problems. Attendees appreciate the chance to learn about solutions and to network with their peers from other companies.
Events designed around social outings, or around food and drink, are most successful when linked to a specific sales objective. The attendees need to be carefully selected and qualified, since you don't want to be investing in entertaining the universe. Most companies find that entertainment events only work when they are driven by the sales team, and marketing assists in logistics and strategy.
Road shows consist of a multi-city series of meetings designed to deliver richer product information than is possible through mail or phone, but to be more efficient than solo sales calls. The road show takes the event to the market - sparing customers and prospects the need to travel. Typically, the marketer bears all the expense, and no fee is charged to attendees.
The road show venue is usually a hotel meeting room, with a half-day session that includes breakfast or lunch. Because the cost per contact is fairly high, ranging from $25 to $100 or more, road shows are typically reserved for clients or prospects who are fairly far along the buying cycle. Most road shows target a customer based within driving distance from the venue.
Case study: Structural Graphics uses educational seminars successfully
Structural Graphics, the paper promotions company in based in Essex, Connecticut, has made good use of educational seminars as part of its strategic account sales and marketing strategy. The idea is to use seminars for account penetration situations, where the company is looking to get larger jobs, or to cross-promote its services into other areas of the account. Their first seminar foray was with a large tobacco company, where Structural Graphics did quite a bit of magazine insert and direct mail work. Mike Maguire, the company president, felt that there was opportunity to grow the account. "Our primary contact for the magazine and mail work was the ad agencies, and we wanted to figure out ways to develop more direct contact with the client. We also wanted to make the company aware of the other areas where we could help them, especially with our expertise in point-of-purchase promotions."
So, while accompanying his sales rep on a call to the head of the tobacco company's production department, Maguire inquired about her needs and ways his company could add value. The department head said she was looking for new ideas, for ways to lower costs and to do things better. Maguire offered to come in and do a seminar for her team on project management, an area where his company excels. He put together the content, and on the appointed day, delivered a 1 hour seminar to 12 people in the department. The session got rave reviews. "While you usually expect to pick up a couple of ideas at a session like this, the attendees told their boss they had picked up five or six. The department head was very pleased, and we now have several pieces of point-of-purchase business with them," says Maguire.
Maguire believes that the cardinal rule of seminar marketing is credibility. "The fact that I was president helps. If I were too overtly involved in the selling process, they would never have reacted as they did."
The other key to success is relevant content. Maguire recommends that you probe carefully about the client needs, and shape the content very specifically to help them. "This is not about what you want to talk about," he says. "It's what is of real value to them."
Problems In Corporate Event Marketing
Compared with trade shows, corporate events sound like a dream. You can control the message, there's no competition, and you set the agenda and impress your customers to buy more and more often. But like any marketing opportunity, events can be problematic.
Here are some pitfalls to watch out for:
Can you attract the audience? As events have gained in popularity, the competition for customer and prospect time and attention has intensified. Much of the event cost structure is fixed, so if attendance falls, the cost advantages can disappear
Beware the dissatisfied customer. If customer gripes get out of control, the atmosphere at your event may be ruined. You need a plan for speedy, discreet resolution of complaints before they escalate
Customers may compare terms and conditions, another source of potential dissatisfaction. One way to counteract this is by assigning handlers, dedicated reps who will shepherd particular clients throughout the event
Sidebar: Consider some of these other ways you can keep in touch with your customers and prospects using proprietary events:
Company tours, which are particularly suitable if you have a manufacturing process, laboratories, or assembly plants that would appeal to visitors
Executive breakfast or luncheon, with a speech by the CEO or an outside expert or thought leader
Advisory councils, made up of key customers or business partners, who meet several times a year to air problems and provide insight into customer needs
Executive briefing centers, a dedicated space at your site where products are on display and key customers can visit for education and information
Mobile marketing, when a tractor-trailer is decked out with demo stations and exhibits, and driven to the parking lots of key customers and prospects - a targeted strategy that is increasingly used by business marketers
Very high-end hospitality, such as a trip to the Olympics, for senior executives at top accounts
Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention marketing and teaches marketing to grad students at Columbia Business School. She is author of Trade Show and Event Marketing and The DMA Lead Generation Handbook Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Courtesy of JEM Promotional Products ©2007)
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