“I just delivered one of the best seminar presentations of my life,” said the professional. “Too bad only six people showed up.”

All too often we hear such (very avoidable) laments. Firms decide to build and market seminars. That's good. The people who must deliver the seminar in those firms spend days making sure they do a great job. That's good, too.

Unfortunately, in too many organizations the efforts for building seminar attendance often miss the mark. Too many dollars and too many hours are wasted on attendance building tactics that just do not work.

So what happens? You give up on seminars.

Please, don't. One of the most effective ways to build a professional service practice is to produce and deliver short (half-day or shorter) seminars, speeches and events. Indeed, you will not find too many people disagreeing that speaking is a great marketing technique.

The right reaction to our poor professional who had only six at his seminar is this: don't give up the seminar; give up the marketing tactics you used.

If you do plan on taking the time and spending the money to produce, prepare and deliver a presentation or mini-seminar, here are seven event-marketing tips that will help you fill your room.

1. Marketing Timing

Usually, professionals market their events much too early. A CPA firm we know recently had high business development hopes from a series of six short seminars. It sent well-written letters to inform clients and prospects of the series. The “invitations” reached the client base about 12 weeks before the first mini-seminar, 14 weeks before the second mini-seminar, 16 before the third, etc. Attendance was decidedly underwhelming.

The firm's mistake was in the mailing lead time. The announcements for generating attendance for two-hour seminars are best sent about three or four weeks in advance, not 12 or 16 or 20. Rule of thumb: the shorter the seminar, the shorter the event announcement lead time.

2. List Targeting

In direct mail, the three greatest indicators of success are lists, lists and lists. Before you send out one piece of mail, make sure you have a reasonable expectation that the people on the list will be interested in your topic. A great seminar title, mailing package and value proposition will generate zero attendance if you mail it to a list that is not interested in your topic.

3. Marketing Response Expectations

Easy math… number of names times response rate equals attendance: 2,000 names times 2% response equals 40 attendees. “And why shouldn't we get a 2% response,” inexperienced event marketers often say to themselves. “I've seen the research on direct marketing: 2% response is average for direct mail.”

Indeed, according to the Direct Marketing Association 2003 response rate study, direct marketing responses are somewhere in the 2% range on average. Consider, however, that most professional event marketers don't measure response in percent terms; they measure it in response per thousand because, by and large, they only get fractions of a percent to attend. So if you're going to be an event marketer, forget about wondering “what percent of our mailing will come to our event,” and start thinking about how many per thousand might attend.

Some highly successful events marketed by professionals don't even get a one-per-thousand response. Mailings for mini-seminars tend to do better than this, but not always by much.

What's the point of the story? If you have your direct marketing response expectations set too high, you are in for both disappointment and low attendance. So make sure you have enough good names to mail to, and mail enough pieces to actually fill your room.

4. Marketing Piece

Suffice it to say that sometimes a postcard is perfectly fine for generating attendance for your events. Other times email is all you need. It might be that invitations will work better for your event. Sometimes you need an invitation, a letter, a business return envelope, a white paper and convenient registration on your Web site.

This could be (and is) the subject of whole books. Just be aware that you should research what kind of marketing piece might work in your situation and for your audience, and test different pieces on different events. Think about your audience members and what their day looks like—then send them the piece that will get through the noise and clutter.

5. Registration Fee

Many professionals assume that their “marketing seminars” should be free. Here are a few reasons to consider charging a registration fee:

  • Paid events will often generate more actual attendance than free events.

  • Paid events tend to have significantly fewer no-shows than free events.

  • The attendees you generate are usually more interested in the event than those attending a “free” breakfast, lunch or “networking” event.

  • People come expecting value instead of a sales pitch. If you then deliver value, you'll establish the expectation and knowledge that time with you is worth the money.

Also note that, depending on your service, free events can work as well as paid events, especially for business-to-consumer professional services. Our final advice on the subject: know your audience, make good business assumptions and test both paid and free.

6. Event Title

Your event title needs to clearly state what value you will deliver at the event. You will also want it to be as short as possible (but as long as needed) and appealing to the reader. Using the words “How To” in an event title has proven time and time again to increase attendance. The title “learn about new investment opportunities” (one we recently saw) would be much more effective if it were “how you can take advantage of new investment opportunities.”

A very simple approach for event titling: make a list of a dozen or so ways you could title the event. Ask for feedback from colleagues, clients and potential clients. If you run the event multiple times, test different titles and see if one title generates more attendance than the other.

7. Marketing Partners

Marketing partners are an often-overlooked source for boosting event attendance. You can, for example, partner with two other firms and pool your resources and mailing lists to increase response and then deliver together. Besides having extra names to market to, your event will have a multifaceted presenter list, which can often increase attendance in and of itself.

You can also co-market the event with a trade association, get the event notice listed in your partner's e-newsletters, work with a college or university to sponsor the event or any number of other partner strategies. For example, a network security service firm we know partnered with the FBI to run its seminar on the new security issues facing firms. The event pulled better than anything they had ever done before.

A Final Thought

One of the most overlooked ways to increase event registration is delivering great events—providing information or tools that will be of significant value for the attendees. If you “deliver one of the best seminars of your life” every time… your events, much like your practices, will grow in reputation and attendance.

Who knows, someday soon you might even be able to answer the phone and say to your potential attendees, “Sorry, this seminar is full, but I will register you for the next one.”

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image of Mike Schultz

Mike Schultz is president of RAIN Group, a global sales training and performance improvement company, and director of the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research. He is the bestselling author of Rainmaking Conversations and Insight Selling. He also writes for the RAIN Selling Blog.

LinkedIn: Mike Schultz

Twitter: @mike_schultz