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New Metrics for New Meetings

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Conference attendance is getting closer to pre-pandemic levels, but much has changed. New approaches to data are essential for maintaining growth and promoting a meeting’s value.

As associations return to a regular rhythm of meetings, they have more attendee data to work with. But some aspects of attendees’ lives have changed substantially since the pandemic, which means marketing professionals have had to adjust how they connect with potential attendees, and what data they use to do so.

For instance, consider this new data point: “Registered, did not attend.”

Rich Vallaster, DES, CEM, director of marketing, trade shows & events at A2Z Events, notes that associations did a necessary thing during the heart of the pandemic by making it easier for attendees to cancel their registration if they caught a late-breaking case of COVID or another issue arose. But associations that have maintained those policies will need to keep working to draw an attendee’s interest in an event even after they’ve registered.

“We used to consider success as registration—you signed up for the event, we’re done,” he said. “But there’s a shift post-pandemic in that I’ll sign up for events and may not go. As marketers, we have to think about messages like, ‘You should come,’ even if we know you’re signed up. You need to stay front and center to make sure they see the event’s value.”

This level of uncertainty is a prompt for marketers to think more about personalization, segmentation, and overall data hygiene. The Plastics Industry Association, for instance, is preparing for its first tradeshow since 2018, which has required a lot of data cleanup.

“We can’t rely on people from 2018 still being in the industry in 2024,” said Damaris Piraino, director of trade show marketing at PIA.

For example, while PIA is preserving some of its demographic breakdowns for marketing, particularly by industry, it’s also taking a closer look at those who have been committed attendees in the past and those who are newer members who might attend for the first time to determine how to better support both groups.

This level of uncertainty is a prompt for marketers to think more about personalization, segmentation, and overall data hygiene.

“When we opened registration, we segmented by whether someone was an executive at the C-suite level, a manager, or earlier in their career,” she said. “We included a justification letter in the version that went to individuals who were younger. A CEO may not have to justify why they’re going to a tradeshow, but someone younger will have to explain why it makes sense. We got a lot of great feedback from that.”

Marketers should also take advantage of the rise of low-cost survey tools when sorting out images and messaging around their event.

“Free software allows us to test campaign creative—which image best conveys the idea you’re going for,” said Bill Zimmer, VP of strategy at 360 Live Media. “You can get a gut check on which way to go without wasting time internally debating it. You can ask messaging and visual questions in easy surveys to get some direction.”

According to Vallaster, associations should pay attention to who hasn’t shown up for a few years and make more direct plays to those attendees. “I look at lapsed attendees who have not attended in recent years, along with those who’ve attended every year,” he said. “Their perspective is going to be different.”

In addition, Zimmer says groups should survey attendees to get a read on their appetite for the variety of meeting methodologies. Associations have tried to be all things to all people when it comes to access to an event—in person, virtual, asynchronous, and other hybrid forms.

Zimmer suggests that leaders gauge attendees’ feelings on those options, since they may feel more confused than enchanted. “Time and again, the feedback we get from organizations is that we have too many registration types,” he said.

Similarly, IPA has tried to simplify its attendance tiers at its forthcoming tradeshow. Rather than piling on a host of a la carte options, it’s developed three theirs, each with different levels of access to industry briefings. That simplifies the registration process and gives the association meaningful information about what attendees are attracted to, so PIA can improve its marketing in the future.

“It’s all brand-new for us, but right out of the gate, people were purchasing all the different passes,” Piraino said. “I think there was a lot of hesitation about switching the registration structure, but we’ve all breathed a big sigh of relief.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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