Every year, marketing departments across our industry invest a great deal of time and money on maximizing their company’s presence at conferences. In fact, exhibiting can account for 41% of a firm’s total marketing spend across all channels, according to EXHIBITOR. It’s an important part of the marketing mix, yet it is frequently the one tactic that is “slapped together,” rather than being strategically well thought out. The result—booth traffic isn’t what you’d like it to be, or your overall presence at the conference(s) is dwarfed by competitors—a conference experience that feels like a waste of valuable resources.
Whether you are the industry leader or a small startup, there are a few best practices to ensure your next conference generates significant ROI from your investment.
Have a Solid Strategic and Tactical Plan
Companies are bombarded with exhibitor requests from numerous conferences, and just when you think there are too many conferences already, a new one pops up. Because of this, it is vital that organizations take a very strategic approach to identifying the meetings in which to invest. Once the conferences have been determined, companies will need to determine whether it makes sense to “go all out” with a large booth and a high degree of support, or merely send a few local reps to support a pop-up booth.
Here are four key questions to ask when developing a strategic plan:
1. What meetings are most valuable to the brands that you are promoting?
Determine whether it would be more advantageous for your brand(s) to attend a broadly targeted conference, such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology Annual Meeting or a very targeted conference like the Annual Macula Society Meeting.
2. Which conferences do you “have to be a part of” to ensure that you remain competitive in your target market?
Identify which conferences your customers and competitors regularly attend, and create opportunities to network with these groups.
3. Which meetings enable you to maximize exposure to your target audience while minimizing your budget dollars?
Frequently, smaller, more local meetings or targeted disease state meetings offer higher exposure to opinion leaders. These meetings are great if you are trying to identify participants for an advisory board, or if you are looking to develop deeper relationships with highly influential customers through one-on-one connections.
4. Which meetings are the most “industry friendly” in that organizers go out of their way to partner with industry to ensure that ROI is maximized?
Some conference organizers will roll out the red carpet because they understand that they cannot exist without industry. Others fall far short and often make you feel like you should be honored to be a part of their conference. While you will probably need to participate in both types of meetings, modifying your support and spend in favor of the first group may be a way to maximize ROI.
Maximize Your Conference Sponsorship(s)
Once you’ve identified which conferences would be most beneficial for promoting your brand(s), it’s time to contact the conference organizers. This should be done as early as possible, especially for the most important conferences. This is when the organizers have the most flexibility and will be most receptive to accommodating your business needs.
Be proactive in communicating with the conference organizers to understand the various sponsorship opportunities available, and the benefits associated with different sponsorship levels. When possible, negotiate with the organizers to ensure that your needs match the benefits of the various levels. For example, a startup company with a pre-clinical molecule, looking to drive corporate awareness through a Gold-level sponsorship, might ask for alternatives to a booth as a way to increase their overall corporate exposure during the conference.
Say you have a creative idea that you’d like to execute, but you don’t see it described in the sponsorship prospectus. Ask the conference organizers whether it can be done. If the idea doesn’t violate CME rules, and you’ve started the conversation early enough to accommodate any necessary planning, the organizers will be more likely to honor your request.
Driving Booth Traffic
One of the key performance indicators (KPIs) for conference marketing is booth traffic, and ensuring high volume of traffic is the result of early planning. For the most competitive conferences, start the conversation as soon as possible to determine what your options are for booth placement, size, etc. Be sure to inquire as to what marketing options, including pre-meeting communications such as mailings, eBlasts, and social media opportunities, are available through the organizers to drive booth traffic. Floor/window clings and room drops are additional effective tactics to drive booth traffic. Meeting app push notifications are a great way to drive messaging and attendance.
Identify the key messages you want to convey and then work with your agency(s) and vendors to create the booth graphics and innovative tactics that will reinforce messaging and encourage attendees to visit your booth. Keep in mind that attendees will decide in one tenth of a second if they want to visit your booth. Beyond making sure your booth is inviting, look for ways to increase activity in your booth. Seeing other people engaging with your brand(s) (i.e., long lines of attendees waiting to speak with reps) will encourage even more attendees to visit your booth.
Create a “Hook”
What “hook” will you use to drive traffic to your booth? In-booth speakers are one effective way to drive attendees to a booth. Develop a schedule of mini speaker programs to take place during breaks and meals to drive attendance and encourage peer-to-peer interactions. Interactive educational games have become quite popular booth drivers since they allow attendees to interact with your brand(s) or the disease state and learn while being entertained. Well-executed games displayed on touch screens will generate interest, cause attendees to stay in your booth, and a crowd will form—which encourages even more attendees to visit and interact with your reps.
Have your booth well-staffed during these times, and make sure reps are engaging visitors before and after each program or activity. You will need to have a solid communication plan pre-conference to maximize awareness of in-booth programs. In addition, you will need to ensure that reps are well trained before they enter the booth. Reps should understand what the company’s conference marketing strategy is and how to best utilize the resources provided.
Lead Generation is Critical to Booth Success
It becomes a lost opportunity if there is no follow-up from a local rep after the conference. The cost of each lead generated from conference marketing is another important KPI. Successful lead generation and post-conference follow-up must be mapped out during initial planning.
While scanning an attendee’s badge is important, if the system offers note-taking ability, that’s even better. It will be vital to train your booth staff to record as much detail as possible. Capturing information such as reason(s) that attendee visited your booth, what questions did he/she ask, and what was level of awareness of your company or brand(s) will help the local rep effectively continue the conversation post conference and truly maximize the booth interaction.
Booth staff should provide “next step” opportunities at the end of every interaction. This can be particularly challenging during busy booth times, but the conversations can provide additional insights for the brand team, and gives the local rep another avenue for follow-up.
Develop a strategy that enables reps to follow up with leads soon after the conference. The longer it takes for a rep to contact attendees, the greater the likelihood that attendees will forget your key messages.