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Brand Building: Evolve Your Association Event into a Brand Experience

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Steve Coldiron
Steve Coldiron

Healthcare Strategy Director


Why thinking, talking, and walking like a brand creates stronger connections

Working with associations, I’ve seen common themes emerge over the past couple years: declining or stagnant attendance numbers, shrinking booth footprints, and dipping revenues. It’s not surprising considering our digital world, the constant click of information, and evolving membership demographics — these factors have forever changed how associations convene.

But all is not lost! There’s a new strategy blazing a positive trail for events: brand experience. These interactive, sensory experiences create meaningful relationships between brands and people — and they deliver explosive growth in attendance, sponsorships, and exhibitors. In fact, 59% of CMOs recognize this trailblazer for creating ongoing client relationships through branded environments, experiential interactions, communal gatherings, and more. Think SXSW, TED Talks, Dreamforce, and Comic Con. The result? Communities of wildly devoted and engaged attendees who feverishly await the next gathering.

So how can associations learn from (and model themselves after) these branded events? There’s no “magic formula” — that’s what makes the format so compelling. But there are key learnings associations should consider when blazing this new experience trail. Here are some ideas to prep you for the journey.

Build a brand

Associations don’t always think of themselves as brands. But it’s time to change that mindset. Associations want the same outcome brands do: loyal, engaged audiences. Both have a brand story, a value proposition, and unique services and benefits catered to target audiences. Think like a brand by telling your association’s story, creating value members and attendees can’t get anywhere else, and providing benefits personalized to those groups.

Remember that strong brands lead the way. Associations must take a similar path and convey leadership within their industries. Brands use marketing to convey their position as the best shoe/store/festival, so as an association you must convey that same leadership — brand your association as THE place for information in your sector. As that premier resource, you must also show how you add value — on your website, in your education, and at your event experiences. Provide value-added information and interactive experiences that leave audiences satisfied yet craving more. 

The Value of Brand Experience

The Value of Brand Experience

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Build a branded event

Because associations often struggle with branding and storytelling, they run into the same challenge when marketing an annual event. The important takeaway: your association brand and your event brand are not the same. There are many reasons colleagues should join your association, and marketing those benefits is a 365-day-a-year activity. But that intention differs from the value attendees will receive when investing time and money to attend your show. Just as you personalize marketing all year long, you must also personalize the event promise. Compelling and successful brands build an event promise attendees want.

When Salesforce launched its first user’s conference it wasn’t called “The Salesforce Meeting.” The brand's marketers chose “Dreamforce” to convey excitement and aspiration: It’s a place to dream. Talk about a lofty value proposition! The inaugural event in 2003 drew around 1300 attendees and over time, attendance has ballooned. In December of last year, the Dreamforce experience registered 171,000 dreamers. That’s a fantastic reality.

Diversify Your Content

We’ve heard it before, but let's say it again because the fact remains: Content is king. It’s the main draw for attendees and often anchors live engagements. It’s even more important to deliver engaging content that simply can’t be sourced online or anywhere else. This means thinking about content in new ways.

Associations are typically aligned with a specific profession, industry, area of science or medicine. As such, they’re traditionally considered a go-to resource for new and emerging trends, regulations, research, and cutting-edge science. This is still the case, but since much of this information is easily available online, association meetings have lost some of the “must-attend” urgency. To reconnect events to that imperative, the content needs to become more diverse, broad-reaching, intriguing, inspiring, interactive, and perhaps a tad controversial.

Look no further than the TED organization. TED (aka Ted Talks, as we know them now) began as a one-off conference about technology, entertainment, and design. That singular intention evolved into a worldwide community of sharing diverse and mind-opening ideas. If you’ve ever attended, you know there are no walls confining the exchange of ideas. You may not always agree with what you hear, but intrigue and engagement are built in.

An agenda that includes the exchange of unexpected ideas, discussions, and even disagreements transforms your event into an organic, living engagement—not just a series of one-way lectures. Creating those personalized experiences and exchanges takes full advantage of the “live” aspect.

Being an Agent of Change in the Digital Revolution


Being an Agent of Change in the Digital Revolution

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Tech it up a notch (but not too much)

Tech is awesome. Tech is mind-blowing. But tech is everywhere! How do you stay afloat in a digital sea flooded with tech toys? Remember the content is king mantra. Cutting-edge solutions such as virtual reality, projection mapping, and 3D holograms can modernize your event game, but they’re only effective when pumped with the right content. The storytelling should dictate the delivery and its engagement. For example, social media walls and signage are very successful for Millennial crowds, especially when their shares are included in the displays and weaved into event apps and post-conference marketing. The best tech provides opportunities for brands and attendees to create the event’s story together.

Another piece of advice: mix the old with the new. Events such as HubSpot, Expo! Expo!, and APHA used old school chalkboards, group art projects, and drawing walls to create an offline contrast that got their audiences involved (hands-on) in the content creation and sharing.

Make moments count

Every year the Dreamforce conference culminates in a giant, celebratory concert featuring a major headline act like U2. Because the band's identity is kept under lock and key until the big announcement, the buzz explodes. SXSW and Ted events thrive because they’re built around shared moments and festivalized activities like a huge concert reveal. These shared experiences bring us together and create a memory.

Given the chance, most of us would rather see U2 live than listen to a concert recording. It’s why we walk the town square at an art festival and wait months to get tickets to Hamilton. We want something special, something we can be a part of in person. That something is a moment. Moments like that don’t work staring at a computer. Something magical happens when a crowd of people experience the same thing at the same time. They feel like part of something bigger. Moments connect you with the brand and fellow attendees, which builds community and brand loyalty.

Of course, I’m not suggesting associations have to feature pricey, headline entertainment. Just remember to craft your event around key moments — activities and engagements that truly engage your members and attendees so they remember and return. Brand experiences allow us to press pause and enjoy special moments together, which can have a powerful effect on your audience and your brand.

Learn how marketers, show organizers, and exhibitors use brand experience to create powerful connections with audiences.

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