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Engaging Audiences at Association Events: Stories, Specifics, and How to Succeed

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Q&A with Jonathan Strauss of Canadian-Based Strauss Event & Association Management

For nonprofits and associations, every penny counts. This means that when planning meetings and events, every element has to deliver maximum value. We caught up with Jonathan Strauss of Strauss Event & Association Management to talk about how associations are facing increased competition, how they can best reach their audience, and where he sees events heading. 

Q: Tell me a little bit about your history and how you ended up in the events industry

JS: I grew up with entrepreneurs around me, so I was inspired at a young age to start my business. In high school, I had been working part time producing consumer trade shows and in publishing. I realized I could improve on the things they were doing. I eventually bought some of their assets and over time developed my own full-service association management company.

From a young age, I had a love of theatre — thanks to my parents — and the world of events is strikingly similar to the world of theatre. Except, with events, you only do it once instead of night after night! 

Q: What about your clients? What can you tell us about them?

JS: As a full-service association management company, we work exclusively with not-for-profit clients: associations, charities, etc.

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Q: Wow. So, since you work a lot with associations, how well do you feel they know their audiences?

JS: The most successful ones really know their audiences well. But there is so much competition these days. There are so many options for learning and professional development. Associations need to understand that they need to be very specific: specific about the stories they are trying to tell, the people they need to reach, and what content will best engage them. Generic content doesn’t work. Audiences want content that is specific to them. Speakers, for example, need to be speaking to a specific audience or group.

We also work a lot in the fundraising community. In that case, donors want to give to a cause they can relate to, understand, and feel invested in. It has to feel personal.  

Q: You mentioned increased competition. Where is that coming from?

JS: Well, everyone and everything is becoming more specialized. Associations are no different. And the more specialized associations become, you’ll see more and more conferences pop up.

There used to be generic conferences that stretched wide across a single industry. Nowadays, we are seeing a lot more targeted, specific conferences emerge, as areas of expertise become more specific.

Of course, big, broad conferences still exist. However, the most successful ones offer audiences specific tracks so that they can identify with the messaging and education.  

We often get calls from speakers who want to sell their services. We always tell them, don’t be generic. As people, we can find a lot of things that motivate us — from movies and books and beyond. When we go to a conference, the speakers need to be more than motivational, they must have a deeper message and a deeper insight — something that really connects us.

Because, in the end, if you don’t know your audience and give them what they want, you are missing out.

We design the event in a way that encourages people to talk about the experience the next day.

Q: What advice do you give to your clients regarding audiences? How does that change from client to client?

JS: We actually start with a different approach. We talk to them about the message they want to get out. What story are they trying to tell? We talk a lot about storytelling. People connect to stories. So it’s really important to know your story.

From there, we work to identify the right audience for that message and how to attract those people. We work with our clients to determine what content the organization wants to get out and, equally important, what the audience wants from the organization.

So quite simply, it’s know your story, know your audience, and communicate effectively. 

Q: So once clients better know their story and their audience, what are some of the ways you help them to customize their events for the audiences that will be attending them?

JS: Well, we work with associations for conferences and trade shows as well as produce a number of fundraising events. In Winnipeg, for example, fundraising events actually do quite well. It’s a really unique market. It’s small, so there is a lot of competition for dollars. In order to be successful, each event has to be better than the last. To get it right, we need to give the audiences an experience that they enjoy, that is personal to them. That also means striking a balance between delivering the “wow” factor that deeply engages and creating an expensive-looking spectacle.

That’s why knowing the potential donors, just like with sponsors, is so important. You have to find the right chord between just enough and too much. It has to be an exciting event so that people will walk away remembering your message. So we design the event in a way that encourages people to talk about the experience the next day.

It starts, of course, with the story. Everything ties back to that, from the invitation to the first impressions when they enter the space, to the different elements that add up to the overall event. We can bring in some partners or beneficiaries to share anecdotes, but few audience members want to sit and listen to a parade of speakers. Instead, we’ve had a lot of success with short, documentary style films that cut to the core of the matter. This, combined with a few impactful anecdotes, can really drive home the key messages to donors.

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Q: What about associations? How can they better customize their events for their audiences?

JS: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. They really need to hone in on a few key things: What do the members want to learn? What does the association want them to walk away with?

If you can get really clear on that, you can then weave that throughout. It can touch everything from the marketing, to the education sessions, to the signage, to the technology used, and beyond. Even the way you introduce and thank speakers, the specific words used, can have a huge impact and help to reinforce those stories. 

Q: You’ve been in the business for a while, and so much has changed over that time. What is changing about event audiences? What is staying the same?

JS: People need to leave an event with tools they can use tomorrow. That’s an important takeaway that we always stress with our clients. And that has not changed one bit.

What has changed is our access to information. We all have access to so much content - unlimited content, really. Why go to an event to listen to a speaker when you can hear her give the same talk on YouTube? Or obtain learning online?

This really challenges event organizers to give people a reason to show up. This means that the event you deliver has to be a unique experience. It has to be something they can’t get anywhere else. Why are people going to come to your event? And if they do come, why would they come back?

With trade shows, for example, it can be fairly easy to get an exhibitor for the first time. But did you deliver the audience what you promised? Were they engaged and interested? You need to be honest about who your audience is — that’s what brings exhibitors back. 

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Q: For any show organizer or exhibitor who is considering an event in Canada, can you share a little about how Canadian event attendees might be different or similar to attendees from other parts of the world?

JS: Canada is increasingly becoming more and more diverse. We really embrace multiculturalism and celebrate the things that make us different.

That filters down into our events as well.

As standard practice, we work to accommodate cultural differences and preferences. This can include things such as event dates and times, to considerations for private prayer space, to dietary concerns.

Overall, Canada does a really great job of recognizing, appreciating, and accommodating diversity. Any organizer or exhibitor looking to come to Canada, should expect this and plan to follow suit. It’s part of our ethos to be warm and welcoming — so please, come and visit us! 

Q: Anything else you’d like to share on the topic of audiences?

JS: Yes, actually. Because we work exclusively with not-for-profit organizations, we are often engaging with volunteers and volunteer leaders. As a result, we are always looking for ways to highlight who these volunteers are and let them shine during the event. The work they do isn’t always fun, and they are a really important audience for these organizations. So, when we can put them in the spotlight, it helps in multiple ways:

  • First, it recognizes the volunteers for their contributions.
  • Second, it helps deepen affinity towards the organization, so that they often turn around to become even stronger advocates. 

Q: Where do you see the future of events heading?

JS: We talked earlier about the increased competition because of specialization and focus amongst associations. As this continues to happen, associations will be fighting for audiences.

But a different model can start to emerge, through partnerships between like-minded organizations.

I’m talking with a client in Canada and a similar organization in the United States to see if there are any synergies there and if a partnership might emerge. These types of partnerships can bolster success for both organizations while reducing competition. It’s a win-win. 

Q: Last questions! What is your favorite part of your work? What are you most proud of?

JS: We work in an industry where we get to engage with such a diverse group of people, working on diverse events. Our clients are always looking for their next project to be better than the one before. That’s inspiring for us. We are working on multiple events, in various locations, focused on different topics — no two events are ever the same. 

How well do you know your audiences? Take our quiz to find out!

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