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Business events are at their most powerful when they are part of an integrated go-to-market strategy. Integration sounds logical, but how do you actually pull it off?

First, you have to have control—or at least influence—over all the elements of the marketing mix. That's a given. Then, you must decide on which strategic planning approaches make the most sense for your company.

Marketers must build events using one of six strategic foundations:

  1. Customer lifecycle
  2. Customer-value segmentation
  3. Product lifecycle
  4. The customer's buying process
  5. Quarterly (or periodic) sales objectives
  6. Target audience

The remainder of this article suggests when and how you might use each of these six strategies when planning business events.

1. Business Event Planning Based on the Customer Lifecycle

A company's relationship with a customer or set of customers goes through a natural series of stages known as the customer lifecycle. At each stage, the needs of the customer are different, so the strategies the marketer applies to meet those needs must be different, too.

Ultimately, in lifecycle marketing, the marketer's objective is to move every customer along the continuum toward the "core," where the customer is a loyal, frequent, and satisfied buyer. Once the customer is there, the company's strategy converts to defection prevention and customer-value optimization.

Business event marketing can be applied neatly to support company objectives at each stage of the customer lifecycle. Consider Table 1, which outlines in a typical series of lifecycle stages the marketing strategies that might be associated with each stage, and the business event levers that can best serve those marketing objectives. (Keep in mind that this is a simplified view, intended to illustrate the thought process that goes into applying events to the customer lifecycle.)

Table 1: Marketing Strategies for a Typical Customer Lifecycle Stage

Lifecycle Stage Marketer's Objective Best Business Event Applications
Prospect Evaluate potential and stimulate trial or purchase Tradeshow
Trial user or first-time buyer Ensure satisfaction and stimulate repeat purchase Road show
Repeat buyer Ensure satisfaction and stimulate multi-product purchase User group
Core customer Keep them happy and buying; solicit referrals Client conference
Defector Solve problems and win back Entertainment event

Do not take this chart as a turnkey formula for making lifecycle marketing decisions. Business event types can be applied to a variety of objectives—that is one of their key advantages. Tradeshows, for example, are equally effective tools for communicating with current customers as for finding new prospects. And client conferences can help you persuade qualified prospects to join the customer fold.

2. Business Event Planning Around Customer Value

Companies that segment customers by value, or potential value, are looking to optimize the return on the customer asset. They seek to enhance the value of each account, either by improving sales and margins or by reducing the cost to serve, or a combination.

To this end, each account's potential is assessed, and differentiated strategies are put in place. On a tactical level, this means that different customers will receive different treatment. For example, a high-value account might be covered by a face-to-face sales team, while a low-value account would be directed to purchase through the Internet. Or, a set of new products might be developed to offer into particular accounts to capture a larger share of their spending in the category.

Business events can be applied similarly to the objective of customer-value maximization and differentiated treatment. The strategy might be applied on an account-by-account basis, or, for example, within an account by treating key decision makers differently from purchasing officials or junior staff, or client conferences may be limited to senior executives in large accounts.

User group meetings may be organized along with a special concurrent VIP conference. At tradeshows, marketers will set up invitation-only dinners for key clients and prospects. The possibilities are endless. However you decide to apply your business event options, customer-value considerations can provide a helpful strategic base for your thinking.

3. Business Event Planning Driven by Product Lifecycle

Marketers have long viewed business events as a natural fit with the product lifecycle as it moves from introduction to growth, maturity and decline. For example, a new product may be scheduled for launch at a major industry tradeshow where plenty of press representatives are in attendance. Road shows lend themselves well to a more thorough introduction to the features and benefits of a new product. User groups are ideal for managing customer usage and satisfaction with more mature products that are already in wide use in the marketplace.

Since business events are an efficient form of face-to-face marketing, they can be applied effectively at various stages of the product lifecycle, with the possible exception of the stage of decline.

While most marketers consider tradeshows to be best applied at the product introduction stage, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago conducted a study reporting that exhibiting has value through the stage of maturity.

In the study, executives were asked to rate the effectiveness of various marketing options at the four stages of product lifecycle. They ranked tradeshows equally effective as print advertising, and second only to direct selling, in the first three stages of the product lifecycle—introduction, growth and maturity. In the stage of decline, however, they rated both advertising and tradeshows as far less important than direct selling.

4. Business Event Planning Based on the Customer's Buying Process

Fortunately for marketers, most business buyers follow a fairly well-defined process as they evaluate options and make purchase decisions. In some companies, the process is so well defined that it is codified, and prospects will share with you the exact steps they must go through to buy. The more marketers understand the buying process of their prospects, the more efficient they can become with their selling processes. The secret is to map the selling activity to the prospect's buying process stage.

See Table 2 for a list of the typical steps a business buyer goes through. Of course, these steps will vary by industry and company size. In the right column of the table is a list of the seller's objectives at each stage. Notice how the seller's objectives vary as the prospect's needs and activities evolve.

Table 2: Marketing Objectives at Each Stage of the Buying Process

Customer's Buying Process Stage Marketer's Objectives
Identify need Arouse interest
Research solutions Be known to the research team
Develop short list Be selected for short list
Request proposals/quotes Submit winning proposal
Review proposals/quotes Create preference
Negotiate Preserve margins
Select vendor Win!
Install and use Satisfy and support usage
Upgrade Up-sell, cross-sell

The successful marketer will analyze the buying stages for each account, or customer segment, and understand who is involved at each stage. The marketer will then craft strategies to help the prospect move to the next stage—preferably toward a purchase from the seller rather than from the competition.

The ideal approach is to develop a contact strategy for each prospect or customer appropriate to the buying stage. Table 3 suggests some of the tools that the marketer may appropriately use to influence the buyer's behavior.

Table 3: Marketing Tools to Influence Buyers at Each Stage of the Buying process

Marketing Objectives Options in Marketing Toolkit
Arouse interest Advertising, PR
Be known to the research team Advertising, PR, search engine, tradeshow
Be selected for short list Direct mail, email, telephone, Web site, tradeshow
Submit winning proposal Face-to-face sales, inside sales
Create preference Face-to-face sales, inside sales, direct mail, Webinar, road show
Preserve margins Face-to-face sales, telesales
Win! Face-to-face sales
Satisfy and support usage Support, Web site, e-newsletter, user group
Up-sell, cross-sell Telesales, direct mail, tradeshow, client conference, Webinar

There are two lessons for business event marketers embedded in the notion of the business buying process:

  1. Tradeshows and corporate events are not the optimal marketing tool for every stage, they but can be superb when applied at the right point in the buying process.

  2. Every visitor to your booth at a tradeshow or to your corporate event will be at some stage of the buying process. The qualification process is designed to help determine that stage. Once you grasp that information, you can craft the best next step to offer the prospect.

5. Business Event Planning Tied to Sales Objectives

Perhaps the simplest strategy for business event planning is based on periodic sales requirements. The sales pipeline must be filled with enough prospective business to meet revenue goals. It is Marketing's job to keep the pipeline stocked with the right amount of quality leads to allow sales quotas to be met—at the company, region or territory level.

Business events can play an important role in generating the sales leads needed to fill the pipeline. If you understand how many qualified leads are needed in any given territory and during any given period, you can back your way into the appropriate marketing programs to support those objectives. Of course, you need to take into account the following challenges:

  • Tradeshows are scheduled on their own calendars, not yours. So, a certain amount of inflexibility must be considered. The best approach is to plan on exhibiting at your most productive tradeshows to start, and building the rest of the plan to fill in the lead-generation gaps.

  • Business events may not provide the geographic specificity you need for the pipeline supporting each sales territory. Other than regional shows, your tradeshow lead output is going to be fairly unpredictable in these terms. You will need to supplement the tradeshow leads with road shows, direct mail, outbound telemarketing, and other lead-generation activities that allow more geographic control.

  • Business events can produce a glut of leads at one time, depending on their productivity. You can smooth the flow a bit with your post-event qualification and nurturing process. But there is a risk that an unusually high volume of leads will reduce the sales force's enthusiasm for working them all, resulting in a lower lead-to-sales conversion rate than usual.

Despite these potential pitfalls, planning your business events to support lead-flow requirements is a fairly straightforward procedure.

First, you examine the quota of each territory concerned, then subtract out the amount that will be self-generated through the natural course territory management. The remaining amount is what needs to be supported by lead-generation programs. You divide this amount by the average order size in your company or category to arrive at the number of closed leads required. Then divide again by the lead-to-sales conversion rate, to arrive at the number of qualified leads required per rep. An example is in Table 4.

Table 4: Lead-Requirements Worksheet

Revenue quota per rep

$3,000,000

Percent of quota self-generated

40%

Quota requiring lead support ($3 million*1-.40)

$1,800,000

Revenue per order

$90,000

Converting leads required ($1.8 million/$100,000)

20

Conversion rate

25%

Qualified leads required per rep (20/.25)

80

In this situation, each rep needs 80 qualified leads in the territory per year. Review your event calendar and estimate how many of these leads will be generated from the programs you have planned. Fill in the gaps with other marketing programs. And make sure you are buying the highest ROI leads first. You will need to adjust the integrated marketing program to optimize the results.

6. Business Event Planning by Target Audience

Another strategy for integrating business events into your marketing plan is based on target audience analysis. Select the key audiences you seek to acquire or retain, and apply the most effective marketing tools to those objectives. Events and tradeshows can play an active, and effective, role.

The chart in Table 5 analyzes the best event applications against marketing objectives targeted to various audience segments. Here, the segments are organized by buyer type. But you can also set this up by any relevant business segment, like industry, company size or geography.

Table 5: Best Event Applications, by Target Audience

Target Audience Marketer's Objectives Audience's Objectives Optimal Business Event Options
End users, current customers Product information deliver; repurchase/cross-purchase; identify problems and needs; product demo Learn about new solutions; solve problems/ troubleshoot; network with peers User group meeting; partner conference; single-customer event (if a large account); Webinar; educational seminar (product topics)
End-users, prospects Awareness; consideration preference; product demo Learn about new solutions Road show; tradeshow; Webinar
Influencers, specifiers Consideration; preference; product information delivery; product demo Learn about ways to do job better; compare vendor solutions Tradeshow; Webinar; road show; single customer event (if a large account)
Decision makers, department heads Preference; purchase; repurchase/cross-purchase Solve business/financial problem; network with peers Executive briefing; entertainment event; educational seminar (business topics)
C-level, senior management Preference; purchase; repurchase/cross-purchase Solve business/financial problems; network with peers Executive briefing; entertainment event

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Ruth P. Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention; teaches marketing at business schools; and contributes to AdAge, Biznology, and Target Marketing Magazine. Crain's BtoB named her one of the Most Influential People in Business Marketing.