We might not be back next year. We are looking at our overall marketing budget and might shift conference spending into other categories where we’ve seen better results.” – High-level sponsor.

They have to come – they really don’t have any choice. We’re the only conference of its kind.” – Conference owner

Understanding your competitive landscape is key in any business – and conferences are no different. The challenge can be in defining that landscape. Most of us look at direct competitors; that is, at whoever does something almost identical to what we do. But really we should look at whoever or whatever else that meets the same needs that we do. 

A conference’s competition for sponsor and exhibitor dollars:

The most obvious competitors to think about will be other conferences that gather together similar groups – the most direct competitors.

But the competitive set should be expanded to include any other activity that these companies could undertake to reach their target audience. There may be prestige or legitimacy associated with the conference, but this may be seen as replaceable – or worth trading for other methods of marketing. Typically marketing budgets are viewed as a single bucket – which are then allocated to various tactics.

So any tactic your sponsors or exhibitors might adopt – from holding their own events (product launches, site tours, road shows, etc.), to advertising, to sales support, to website development – should be seen as competition. If they think they can reach the same audience differently, more effectively or more cheaply, they will (and they should).

Implications for conferences:

  • Have a clear sense of your place in the ecosystem of the entire industry.
  • Understand the overall marketing strategy and tactics of your sponsors and exhibitors – not just their engagement with conferences and trade shows. Get a sense of how your event fits in, from their point of view.
  • Find out how they justify and defend marketing investments, both as a whole and across tactics. Consider whether you are providing your sponsors and exhibitors with the tools they need to make the case for investment with you, rather than elsewhere.
  • Assess the trends in marketing spending in your industry and think about what you can do to be on the right side of these trends.

A conference’s competition for delegate dollars:

It’s not about rival conferences at all any more. The competition for delegates is unprecedentedly broad and scattered. From webinars to LinkedIn to Meetup, the substitutes to conferences continue to emerge – and become more important to people, and normalized in their lives. (People are unabashed now about saying they met their romantic partner online, as an illustration of the normalization trend.)  Potential delegates have many ways to meet their needs for education, networking, and fellowship – and these ways can be more self-directed, more targeted and, often, absolutely free.

Implications for conferences:

  • Research, research, research. If you are basing your conference program on precedent, a handful of dedicated volunteers, and last year’s evaluations (which how many delegates completed?), you really aren’t going to be in touch with what delegates might want from you. You need to engage differently with them to really find out what is important to them, what is going on in their professional lives, and what they want from the event. Also, if you aren’t conducting industry research, checking out what other live events and conferences are doing to engage audiences and deliver value, you are going to get stale.
  • Segment, segment, segment. Not everyone is the same. Not everyone has the same needs, expectations, alternatives, budget. Use your delegate segmentation to develop the program, market to delegates, evaluate their experience, and figure out where you can grow.
  • Innovate – and measure. Don’t let yourself stay stuck in what you’ve always done. Use the research and the segmentation to make changes. And then see how they land – did they have the impact you were hoping for? What other innovations do they suggest?

To sum up:

Competition to conferences is proliferating, which can feel confusing and overwhelming. At the core, knowing what alternatives your sponsors, exhibitors, and delegates have requires understanding what needs or objective they are fulfilling by engaging with your conference in the first place. A deep understanding of your stakeholders is crucial to understanding how to provide value to them, protecting your conference against the various forms of competition it faces.

If you are interested in talking about how we can help you gain a better understanding of your conference’s competitive landscape, please get in touch for an initial conversation, with no obligation and at no charge.