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Live Event Marketing - Content Strategy's New Star... and the Most Underutilized Content Marketing Tool!

08/29/2013 05:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

What would make you remember something--seeing it in an ad, reading about it online or experiencing it in-person? The truth is, real-life experiences shape our preferences and memories much more profoundly than what we read or see via any media.

The same holds true for selling your products and services. Customers remember experiences--from what they saw or heard to whom they met--far longer than they'll recall what they read in social media, a blog, an eNewsletter or a case study. Live events are potentially much more powerful than any other marketing strategy, especially if you know how to engage your customers with the content they generate long after the event is over.

Marketers are finally beginning to understand this, which is why the Content Marketing Institute's (CMI) most recent report, B2B Content Marketing: 2012 Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends, shows that 60 percent of B2B companies use them, and 78 percent feel they are the most effective content marketing tool period. By comparison, only 50 percent think social media is effective; 58 percent find blogs effective; and 60 or 70 percent trust eNewsletters or case studies, respectively.

Yet in reality, many companies are remiss to use them because they cost more than any other tactic; organizations spent on average 24 percent of their marketing budget on meetings and events in 2012, notes Cvent. And in fact, companies are still using social media, blogging and eNewsletters more frequently than live events, according to CMI's report. They are seen, almost universally, as a stand-alone tactic 'loosely' tied to an overall content plan simply because they are backed by the sales force and promise of 'hands on' customer interaction.

Smart marketers will re-prioritize their strategies because in reality, a live customer event offers you the biggest opportunity to showcase your brand and your content platform. How? With some simple strategic thought and planning, you can catapult a live event to an even higher level of efficacy and build your audience--as well as sustain and engage it long after they return to their offices.

The wild popularity of TED Talks proves my point. The brand grasped the power of content from the start, as evidenced by its mantra: "ideas worth spreading." After hosting over 4300 events at near and far-flung locales in dozens of countries, and posting thousands of easily accessible videos and blogs, TED has what is probably the largest army of disciples in the world--at least 150 million, in fact, according to this infographic. They have developed and executed one of the most highly integrated content platforms out there, and it not only showcases their brand, it establishes its equity and promise. TED clearly understood that live events were the most underutilized content marketing tool.

Apple is another disciple of face-to-face events, and understands that the tactic showcases their content. In fact, live events are seen as the lynchpin of their marketing efforts and eagerly anticipated by management and excitedly experienced in a packed-to-the-gills cafeteria by every employee. Steve Jobs got that it was not just an event, but also a golden marketing opportunity to engage and sustain his target audience. He got that the live event was an underutilized content marketing tool. So he personally oversaw the content strategy, content creation and integrated marketing efforts to forge deeper audiences, sustained audiences and engaged audiences of consumers and even employees.

The truth is that all content can be strategically harnessed and integrated in this way. Strategically executed events "house" and integrate your content to deepen engagement. But the content must be marketed long before the event, and in a sustained manner post the event, to clearly integrate, support and extend your overall content platform. When this is done well, it represents integrated marketing at its best.

Many marketers mistakenly think the event is just a product launch, a sales tool or a public relations event--and it can indeed be just that. However, this simplistic approach misses a huge marketing opportunity. Live events are content marketing tools that showcase your content platform. So what you do before, during and after the event will have a powerful and sustained marketing impact if executed properly. Look at GE's Ecoimagination commitment to build innovative environmental platform while driving economic growth, or the World Economic Forum's effort to improve the state of the world through engaging global leaders in business, politics and academia. One is a major corporation, and the other an NGO, yet both have mastered the art of creating and curating interesting content that use live events to further deep, rich and newsworthy content platforms, and explode them on a broad--and global--multimedia stage.

And you can do the same. Here are five common-sense stages you should use to plan and integrate your content into events, and maximize both:

  1. Develop a content platform.

This strategy is about the content, not the event, and a marketer's ability to reach a small yet material target of decision-makers is reason enough to consider any event to be an extension of a company's content marketing effort. Yet most events that feature high-touch engagement efforts are not carefully orchestrated to showcase a content platform, topics and all. And it requires a multiyear effort with an integrated content platform at its core. Stop thinking about the live event as something that occurs at one point in time, and start integrating your content strategy into the mix holistically.

This thread starts with a content strategy that considers your target, the message and its hierarchy, and adopts an appropriate tone and voice. These parameters focus content into a platform of integrated topics, or content platform, which can then be used to make a live event a content aggregator as relevant messages are communicated before, during and after the event. GE's Ecoimagination platform is an example of this, as they shape their product strategy, content and events to support their goal for sustainable economic growth.

  1. Start communicating that platform early.

Create stories around the topics early and seed the marketplace with them!

PR releases are only one part of the process; each carefully refined topic is fodder for stories in all media, be it print, electronic, online or social. You can seed all channels with this content and gain followers. Prior to the event, the content stays in the news building authority and voice for the event. The World Economic Forum does this early and often, a strategy that has paid off since it is now one of the most prestigious events in the world.

  1. Acquire attendees.

Attendees are looking for substance!

Decision-makers are the targets for every live event, but the demand for their time is high. So your content has to be substantive, and promoted in a way that emphasizes its significance. This takes skill and focus, regardless of the event's size. Just look at the relentless and strategic packaged concert tours developed by Live Nation's Michael Cohl, pegged "the Howard Hughes of rock 'n' roll" by Fortune magazine. Though a business event is on a significantly smaller scale, promotion is key. Be persistent and get the attendees that will make a difference to your business, using ads, PR, social media and even personal calls and executive visits to draw the right crowd.

  1. Engage them with solid content in an authentic environment.

The content for your event should reflect your content platform!

Think carefully about an event's theme, and the content you use to seed it. In 2005, GE launched its "Ecomagination" initiative in an attempt to position itself as a "green" company. It was both a content and product strategy. All events around this initiative were direct extensions of this strategy--from its awards programs and advocacy events to education seminars and local meet-ups. The content platform was masterfully integrated into their business purpose and quickly drove deep understanding of, and engagement in, their efforts. GE built momentum a year in advance of the launch (rule number 1, start early), and then deepened engagement with multiple and sustained events in combination with press.

GE also made sure that their initial live event was authentic. "Guests nibbled organic canapés and sipped wine produced by a solar-powered California vineyard (equipped with GE's own photovoltaic panels)," recounted the press. In other words, they understood that where they held the event, who attended it, what they spoke about and even what they ate related to the content platform they were trying to build.

All businesses have the same opportunity to create both content platform clarity, and use events to extend and deepen customer engagement. This is the real value and ROI on events-- and why they are the most underutilized content marketing tool.

  1. Keep them interested.

Events deepen engagement, so you have to sustain it!

First, make sure you have done the easy and economical stuff during and immediately after the event--from creating and presenting unique content to cataloguing it via video and transcripts for future use. Then make sure you mine the event itself to learn what interested the audience most, what they want more of and what their unique pain points are--unofficially or formally.

The key in the aftermath is to really sustain the dialogue with blogs, emails, e-seminars, relevant social media using video (not all social media is effective for each event or demographic), and track response.

Like Apple, do you have a groundbreaking product introduction that will fundamentally change usage dynamics? Or like GE, do you need to reposition your company in an important way? Or are you looking for thought-followers and want to become a thought leader in some specific area? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then that planned event in your portfolio needs to be revisited and reimagined with your crack team. And if they can't do it, engage a professional that understands all the stages and can do the logistics. Events have the potential to be your strongest content anchor. Live events build, sustain and engage those audiences you have spent so much time trying to acquire. And without a doubt, they are your most underutilized content marketing tool because they both anchor and engage that audience in the most relevant way. How is your team using them?