Who Is Your Conference Really Attracting?

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Attracting first-class, first-rate, quality attendees is one of the most complex and important keys to your conference’s business model.

Too many conferences attempt to be all things to all people and end up with a watered-down offering.

You need a process to help you identify your various attendee segments and who your target market is. Once you peel back the layers to see who is really attending your event, you may not like what you see.

Attracting Low Quality Attendees Can Harm Your Conference

Often the majority of your attendees don’t have the buying influence to support the growth of the exhibit, sponsor, and/or grant components of your revenue machine. This can manifest in a variety of problems including declining exhibits and sponsors which results in declining revenue.

If your conference revenue is a significant contributor to your organization’s bottom line, of course you need to have a healthy attendance. You should also be equally concerned about the quality of those attendees.

You need a process to help you determine how to identify your attendees, how to rank them and how they benefit your organization.

Five Attendee Groups That Are Not Your Economic Buyers

Here are five attendee groups that are likely familiar to your meeting.

1. Volunteers

Every conference has an attendee segment who feels obligated to attend. These may include board members, retired or lifetime members, committee participants, chapter leaders, etc. Put these attendees in their own bucket. Your conference can and will continue to attract these professionals. Their attendance justification story is primarily based on their volunteerism, passion, and status.

2. Industry Presenters

If your conference has a boatload of speakers and poster presenters, create a segment just for them. Many medical, scientific, engineering, and education societies have a business model that is based on podium minutes, speaker slots and available poster boards. Those conferences are primarily comprised of speakers, speaking to speakers. Their attendance justification is a lay-up. “I’m on the program so I need to be there.” This model is especially common with academic professionals (subject matter experts) who are seeking points for tenure or being published. Many exhibitors and sponsors view these attendees as influencers — they are not the primary reason they invest in your conference.

3. Young Professionals

Attracting next-generation attendees is a big deal. Lifetime-value potential is extremely important to any organization with a long-term view. Yet, especially if you are charging a nominal fee for these participants, you must put them in their own segment. Exhibitors and sponsors are primarily interested in the here and now. While some suppliers will take a long-term view, there’s not enough ROI from this segment to justify their continued investment. And research shows that young professionals are extremely finicky when it comes to loyalty. They don’t belong to organizations the way their parents did. The thought of “Let’s get them early so they’ll stay with us,” doesn’t hold much value today.

4. Supplier Professionals

This segment is mostly interested in networking and business development. They can be a significant contributor to your revenue and margin. However, if your conference is not attracting their existing or potential customers (or people like them) you’ll probably see a lot of churn in this segment. The more churn you have here, the more likely it is that you are not attracting the right core audience.

5. Exhibit-Only Attendees

Normally these attendees pay little or nothing to walk the show floor. This is an important audience for aisle density and to nurture for potential full conference participation. However, they are not your current economic buyers! Repeat, they are not your current economic buyers!

Your Economic Buyers

After you strip out the segments above (along with exhibitors and sponsors), what you should have left are your economic buyers. These are the attendees who are truly purchasing the education and networking experience that you’re creating.

Having a deep understanding of who they are and the problems they face is the starting point for winning their share of wallet and loyalty. If you are successful in identifying and attracting the right economic buyers, everything else takes care of itself.

In order to get this right, you must segment your audience in ways beyond most organizations’ current processes. When you are able to draw and grow the decision-making and high-influence customers that your exhibitors and sponsors most want to see, you’ll have a sustainable conference business model. Attract and serve these people better than your competition and other attendee segments will grow as a result.

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2013.

What are some symptoms of a conference that does not focus on attracting economic buyers? What hinders us from properly identifying and segmenting our attendees?

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  1. Warwick says:

    Love it Dave! I’ve done some research on getting what you call economic buyers, difficult to do but well worth the effort!

  2. Dave Lutz says:

    Thanks for the comment, Warwick! No question attracting those key attendees or economic buyers is a tough but is also the most critical strategy for major conferences and trade shows.

  3. Greg Fuson says:

    To paraphrase Animal Farm, some attendees are more equal than others. Great article, vital message. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Bruce Cole says:

    Dave, excellent, concise and to the point. Greatly appreciated!

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