Should Your Meeting Have an Invitation-Only Strategy?

Instead of opening up a meeting to all of your members, would it ever make sense to invite only a select group? Some pros and cons for going that route.

Late last week I got a postcard in the mail inviting me to a small conference that would be taking place early next year. The front of the direct mail piece had only two words, “You’re invited.”

I thought nothing of those words, until I flipped the postcard over and realized that I had been targeted to attend based on a number of factors (location, job function, age, etc.). However, to secure my name on the final attendee roster, I would have to answer a few open-ended questions and apply to attend. Organizers would then look at what I submitted and get back to me in six weeks with a “yes” or “no.”

Being completely honest, my first thought as I was reading this was, “Geez, this seems like a lot of work.” But, as I thought about it more and read some more of the details, I could see that the organization was trying to curate an experience that would put a select group of people in a room who they thought would benefit from being there together.

For example, the well-known TED Conference has an application process. Prospective attendees are asked to answer some basic demographic questions, as well as share more about themselves and their story. In a 2013 blog post, TED put the reason the for the application process this way: “We think of it like a dinner party. It’s about curating a well-balanced group—people who work in different disciplines, who live in different parts of the world and who are of different ages. TED events are all about the audience. If the audience is amazing, the experience becomes so much richer and more interactive—a loop of digging deeper into ideas, inspiring each other in new directions and teaming up for unexpected collaborations.”

I was skeptical of the application process at first, but I will also admit that I was a bit flattered to be invited to apply, which I’m sure is one reason the organization decided to take this approach. A feeling of exclusivity is something that might appeal to your members too.

Another potential benefit to the invitation-only strategy is that you can ensure you have a good mix of people in the room who represent the diversity and inclusion elements that you’re association is striving for. Plus, a personal invitation could be a good way to get new members or those new to the industry to attend one of your events for the first time.

Of course, hosting an invitation-only meeting could come with some potential downsides to consider. One, how do you reassure people who may feel left out? While you may have the best intentions, you don’t want any member to feel like the elementary school kid who was not invited to his classmate’s birthday party. Also, if you are inviting members to apply to attend your meeting, as I was asked to do, how comfortable would you be with telling some of them that they didn’t make the cut? If you’re not willing to explain the reason behind the “no,” then it’s probably not the right strategy for you.

In my opinion, an invitation-only meeting probably works best when you are hosting a small event. For instance, if you want to get 35 female CEOs, 100 C-level execs, or 250 young professionals in a room, inviting them individually could work well. But imagine scaling this up to a 15,000-person association meeting. Of course, technology advancements will continue to make this easier, but I could still see it being a lot to manage.

What do you think makes an invitation-only strategy right—or wrong—for a meeting? Please share your ideas below.

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Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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