Meeting Mentor Magazine

May 2024

It’s Time to Rethink Your Event Marketing Strategy

By Larry Hanson

With today’s unprecedented market disruptors — the pandemic, the economy, and the rise of digital and hybrid events — event organizers can’t afford to rely on the same old marketing tactics that worked in the past. How can you best reach your target market in this disrupted marketplace?

I’ll give the answer in two words: Digital marketing. While traditional marketing — ads on TV, radio, and magazines, for example — is still a cost-effective way to market, the annual growth rate for digital such as search, display ads, video and social marketing have rocketed over the past five years for good reason: it works.

What do event organizers need to clarify before they begin a digital marketing program?

It’s important to know who among your targets fall into each bucket before creating your digital marketing strategy to ensure you get the most bang for your digital dollars. Most event organizers have three main marketing targets:

• Growing registrations among new attendees

• Maintaining existing attendees

• Re-engaging “lost” attendees who used to come but have recently dropped out

What else do I need to know about my audience?

It’s also important to know whether your audience is mainly business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C), especially when it comes to paid social programs, because certain social media platforms are likely to be more effective for B2B — think LinkedIn — than B2C, where Facebook and Instagram may be the best options.

You also need to develop as detailed a persona as possible for your potential attendees, exhibitors and sponsors: Where do they work? How do they live? What do they like and dislike? The more you know, the better you can target them — and social media platforms are very, very good at collecting the detailed metrics that will help you find and connect with your identified digital attendee profiles.

Another good idea is to check out what the competition is doing — Completing a SWOT (Strength/Weakness/Opportunities/Threats) on your competing shows is essential.  if they are going after similar attendee personas, you may be able to learn a lot by seeing what is, and is not, working for them.

What types of digital marketing are currently available?

There are three main pillars of digital marketing:

Programmatic marketing — an automated bidding on advertising inventory in real time, for the opportunity to show an ad to a specific customer, in a specific context.

Paid social advertising — this helps your content get views without relying on organic platform algorithms and their ongoing changes. Social is now all about how you target your audience, build customer journeys and get people to your site to make a purchase.

Search engine marketing (SEM), also known as paid search — this involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising.

How does programmatic marketing work, and what are some of the key challenges and benefits?

There are a few different types of programmatic marketing.

• Buy an ad on a website. Each website that offers programmatic marketing — and most do — hold an auction with real-time bidding (RTB) to determine pricing. This is often based on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) ad impressions, which reflects only the number of people who are exposed to your ad, not the number who actually click on it. The goal is to create awareness of your event.

• Geofencing is another type of programmatic marketing where you target your ad to a specific group of people in a specific place over a defined time. Say you have a competing event happening at McCormick Place — you can place a geofence around that event so that every time someone in that place over those dates goes online, they will see your ad.

• Site retargeting: You know when you go to the Nike website to look at a pair of sneakers, and then ads for those sneakers show up at every other website you visit? That’s retargeting.

Other types of programmatic marketing include marketing to an email list, be it your membership or a competitor’s database. Your list does need to have at least 2,500 contacts to be effective, but it can be a great way to keep your members engaged and ultimately convert them to register. Lookalike marketing — where you target audiences that fit the personas you have developed — also can be very effective.

One of the main benefits of programmatic marketing is the sheer volume of people you can reach and, because the reach is so high and there are so many websites offering it, the cost is generally fairly low. Also, because the metrics generally are very detailed, it’s relatively easy to see what is returning the best ROI so you can refine your strategies. It’s best for finding new audiences to target and can be good for retaining existing audiences. It can be effective for reaching lost attendees if you know why they stopped attending and create ads that provide reasons that will compel them to return. One additional benefit: You can provide a value-add for sponsors and exhibitors by promoting them through your programmatic marketing without having to give them access to your database.

There are a few challenges, such as websites that put your ad “below the fold” so it’s hard to find, users that are using pop-up blockers to avoid ads altogether, and those who have developed “banner blindness” and have learned to ignore online ads.

How does social marketing work?

Social media marketing is a mix of organic — how you are already engaging people on your social media sites — and paid social. For paid, Facebook is the top platform due to its huge reach and detailed metrics. LinkedIn is excellent for reaching B2B audiences. All of the major platforms have detailed data on their users you can use to target very specific audiences. You can use your personas and email lists to target new, lost and returning audiences, as well as combine your data with what the platforms have on your target personas to find the right people to market to.

The advantages are that this form of marketing is highly engaging, with good click-through rates. The challenges are that it can be confusing to sort through the details of all the different social media platforms. Each platform also has to be dealt with separately (except for Facebook and Instagram), and they’re constantly changing. It also can be more expensive than programmatic.

What about search engine marketing (SEM)?

SEM is an excellent way to find and convert new registrants, and for engaging your existing community.

 This is when you pay per click for search results, with your text coming out on top of searches for specific keywords. You only pay when they click on your ad, unlike programmatic where the payment is structured on impressions.

The main benefit is that it enables you to reach someone you know is interested in what you offer because they specifically searched for your keywords. This is also the main challenge, because if they don’t search for those keywords, they won’t see your ad. That’s why it’s so important to know what keywords will be essential for your audience, including the organic keywords you use for your website, as well as those important to your industry. This also can be expensive, depending on the competitive demand for your keywords.

 SEM is a great way to find new attendees, though it’s not as effective for lost or existing registrants because they already have awareness of your event.

A few SEM tips: Always make your event website a part of your overall website, not as a standalone URL. Your organization already has a profile on the main search engines — why not piggyback on that for your event site? Also, the more you can keep the same domain URL for your event website from year to year, the more it will help with Google analytics.

Also, be sure to track where your registrations come from. Is it a web search? From Facebook or LinkedIn? An ad they saw on another website? You need to understand what is working in all your marketing channels to fine-tune your strategies.

While you don’t have to abandon your traditional marketing strategies, the benefits of digital marketing now are too extensive to ignore. Please feel free to contact me or ConferenceDirect’s digital marketing support services at to help you further develop and refine your event marketing strategies.

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About ConferenceDirect
ConferenceDirect is a global meetings solutions company offering site selection/contract negotiation, conference management, housing & registration services, mobile app technology and strategic meetings management solutions. It provides expertise to 4,400+ associations, corporations, and sporting authorities through our 400+ global associates.

About MeetingMentor
MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually.

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