Approximately 4,000 people gathered for the three-day Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland last month. More than 5,000 are expected this month in Las Vegas for IMEX America, the annual confab for meeting and incentive travel planners. Then there are the technology events, often hosted by large software vendors, which can attract tens of thousands to major convention centers.
No matter the industry sector, Fall is filled with opportunities for professional development, and some of the consumer shows — which serve everyone from new parents to would-be home renovators — can be even larger. For PR professionals, these can be some of the most critical months of the year to get coverage by capitalizing on the spotlight thrown on certain subjects and themes.
“Conferences offer the chance to invite journalists into your brand’s universe for a dedicated time and immerse them into your narrative, purpose and strategy,” said Vanessa Cohen, senior vice-president at Proof Inc. (formerly Environics). “With all the sessions, one-on-one time with spokespeople, and exhibitors on the show floor, journalists attending a conference dedicate a lot of time to understanding the story you’re telling.”
That said, trying to drum up earned media can be challenging if journalists’ schedules are already jam-packed, or if you’re doing PR for a firm that isn’t speaking or exhibiting but merely attending a major conference.
“For smaller brands, it can be very difficult to get journalists’ time at a huge conference like CES or Dreamforce,” said Leslie Clavin, vice-president at Boston-based Shift Communications. “One strategy that has worked well is to host a lunch, happy hour or similar event near the venue with client execs, customers and partners.”
There is a fine art to inviting influencers to take time away from the big keynotes and breakout sessions, Cohen said. She recommends not only making sure the editorial value is clear up front but that all logistical details are in simple bullet-point format so they can be easily retrieved.
“Emphasize what they would be missing if they didn’t participate. Make sure your tone is casual and easy-going,” she advised. “Remember: they don’t owe you anything, so this approach makes reporters more willing to read your email and engage. The key here is to be as flexible and accommodating as possible to ensure whatever you offer can easily fit into their super-busy schedule at the show.”
Events Within Events
In some newsrooms, journalists aren’t allowed to accept press junkets, but an outlet might be willing to send freelancers instead. No matter who the influencer is, Clavin said the key is to ensure exclusive access — to executives, keynoters and other speakers, customers and so on.
“We arrange individual schedules tailored to the journalist’s beat and audience – filling about two-thirds their time with interviews, recommended sessions and other VIP activities,” she said, adding that casual “fun” outings can strengthen relationships between spokespeople and influencers.
“Experiential press junkets work best,” agreed Margaret Hoerster, senior partner at Finn Partners in the U.K. “The opportunity to test drive a new car, immerse in a new technology or experience a unique travel destination are better than people, facts and figures. Anything new that a reporter can see, smell, taste or feel is much more likely to get them out of the office and at your event.”
If you want to focus more on connecting with media at the main event, Hoerster suggested monitoring online conversations and news in the weeks leading up to the event to narrow down the most likely topics to dominate, and then tap into those. If you can narrow down a few topics that everyone is likely to be talking about, you can surface data, a unique perspective, or examples that can break through, she said.
“Put on a reporter hat!” she said. “You or your client should walk the floor, go to presentations and take a look at the news coming out of the event, and then pen a story about the biggest topics at the event. Media who aren’t there may be interested in sharing your perspective.”
Where Press Releases Fit In
Embargoed pre-briefings via phone or webcast with spokespeople is another way to capture the attention of journalists who are not attending because they can get all the information in advance and then post at the same time as the media who are on-site, Cohen said. This should be coupled with a PR strategy that is almost as clockwork as the kind of coverage reporters will be filing to their respective outlets.
“Press releases that go out at the start, and throughout the event, are great for targeting media and influencers who are not attending the conference,” she said. “Share these releases in real time if possible and offer remote interviews with international and hard-to-get executives on the ground, so that they get the same access and feel like they are almost there.”
Conference and event coverage can also be seeded by making effective use of social media to boost a particular message, Clavin said. Most major events have a special hashtag that anyone could use, and in addition to posting to your client’s own platforms, you can geo-target attendees that aren’t following your client’s handles while they are at the show, she said.
“Depending on the client, having a dedicated stream on Instagram or Twitter can also provide real-time updates on what’s happening during a presentation. You can pre-script ‘real-time’ quotes and schedule to post ahead of time,” she said. Also, think about daily recaps in the form of blog posts or short videos to promote activities and news at conferences to influencers and customers or prospects) who aren’t attending.
Although there’s a certain excitement to being part of a conference or event, Hoerster said PR pros should make sure all media relations efforts support the larger trade show marketing efforts. “This sounds like a no-brainer, but too often the PR team, the marketing team and the social media team aren’t talking to each other far enough in advance of the show,” she said. “It’s important to have all communications disciplines involved in the planning process well in advance, rather than added at the tail end as an afterthought.”
Conferences offer not only the opportunity to further solidify relationships with known journalists but can also be the jumping-off point for new relationships. “So not following up after a conference to keep the conversation going is a definite miss!” Cohen said. “Face time is vital, so even without any news or launches, use the time together to build relationships, share messages with a light touch and seed story ideas for future coverage or that could land in a round-up piece on the conference.”
Clavin agreed. “Activities at conferences or other events should always map back to a broader program,” she said. “If a client is making a significant announcement at an event, we typically will extend that in the following weeks through contributed content, blog posts, videos and, of course, peppering posts with photos and videos from the event, coverage and other related content to the client’s social media channels.”
One last tip? According to Cohen, never underestimate the power of exceptional swag. Branded lanyards and USB sticks are all standard now, but finding items that really stand out and smartly connect to your brand can extend the buzz, she said. “Like any other media piece, consider sending swag to those who are not in the position to attend if you’re able to do so,” she said. “(It’s) a reminder of your brand/event in their hands can encourage them to think of you weeks or even months down the road, and you never know – could also generate a future story.”