The Conference Starts Before Anyone Shows Up

Since this issue comes out during the annual Buying & Selling eContent show, I’ve been thinking about conferences and how they’re marketed. In November, I keynoted the MeetingTechOnline (MTO) Summit. Since my topic was How Exhibition and Events are Impacted by the New Rules of Marketing and PR and the organizers were game, we did a little experiment. About a month prior to the gig, I sent an update to my Twitter followers (I’m "dmscott" if you’re on Twitter) and said that I would be speaking at the event, and then I offered a discount for anyone who registered using the discount code I provided. The result was 53 people linking to the MTO site and seven registrations, all in less than a day. Wow—it’s the new rules of marketing at work.

Sadly, very few organizers leverage their speakers as a promotional resource, and fewer still use social media to tap a fan base. For the past 2 years, my main business has been keynoting dozens of conferences a year all over the world. Since organizers usually book me many months in advance, I have some visibility into how they promote the events. It tends to be the same old methods: Send an email and a postal direct mail to everyone who attended last year, send to the in-house lists, partner for some lists, and buy even more email and postal mailing lists. It’s all about pushing the idea of the event out there. To be fair, most shows build good websites and most have decent SEO. But that’s usually it for marketing.

But what if you’re charged with promoting a brand-new show? Because there are no previous attendees to draw from, the work would seem to be much more difficult.

Or is it? When a show is new, the "old rules" of promotion don’t apply. There’s no dusty, old lists to fall back on. You have permission do something new and untested.

The 1st Singapore Tattoo Show, held Jan. 9–11, 2009, was endorsed and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board and included show ambassador Chris Garver of Miami Ink. The goal was to get 5,000 visitors to the show, where more than 120 artists from around the globe representing all the various modern tattoo styles ticked away with their machines and all sorts of fun and funky exhibitors showed their wares.

Promotions leading up to the Singapore Tattoo Show were anything but ordinary, and what I find particularly impressive as a show promotional tool was the Facebook Group called Tattoo Artistry that was started by organizers 3 months prior to the event. Facebook turned out to be a terrific way for people to connect well before the physical event, and the Tattoo Artistry Facebook Group quickly gained 3,000 members, securing a place as the center of this artwork for the region. The physical show started with a virtual group.

The passion of the members of the Tattoo Artistry Facebook Group for "their event" meant thousands of people promoting to their Facebook friends. The online community aggregated people eager to attend the live event. Instead of relying on buying expensive advertising, a community of passionate fans built anticipation and buzz.

With more than 15,000 people attending, the Singapore Tattoo Show brought three times the expected number of attendees! Just as interesting, The Tattoo Artistry Facebook group is now Asia’s largest social network for the tattoo industry, tattoo enthusiasts, and fans. The group will continue to grow as an online destination to connect, and plans are already underway for the 2nd Singapore Tattoo Show in 2010 with the Facebook group as the center of the (free) promotions for the event.

Of course, social media is not just used as a promotional tool. Many of the best events bring people together in virtual groups to share during the event and to continue the discussions after the event. For example, at EMC World 2008, a photo-sharing site was set up on Flickr, a Twitter feed created for real-time updates, and YouTube was used so people could watch remotely. So important were the social media aspects of EMC World that EMC Corp. CEO Joe Tucci talked about it in his opening keynote. Of course, these resources lived on long after the conference ended.

This is a conversation that continues to resonate, and I’ll continue it a bit more next month and take a closer look at the impact of Twittering events.