Manning the stands: lessons learnt from #NHSConfed13

It’s a tough one for marketers in healthcare IT. You take one look down the year’s must-attend industry events and see your marketing budget quickly evaporate. But what is driving organisations to these events?

Is it genuine belief that you can achieve marketing objectives such as increasing brand awareness or coming away with a handful of business cards with the hope of converting them into sales leads? Or is the fear of a perceived weakened market position to customers and competitors that are forcing companies to exhibit at these events?

This week, I attended day one of the NHS Confederation’s Annual Conference and Exhibition 2013 at the Liverpool ACC, known as the ECHO to the locals, to see what #NHSConfed13 had to offer. After speaking with a number of exhibitors, the general consensus was the event was a little quiet, which is disappointing when you consider the time and financial resources invested in such events. Here are a few observations I made whilst I was there:

Niche vs. general

You could arguably find a healthcare event to attend every week. Whether you are looking at attending the subject-specific Dementia Scotland in July or have been manning the stand at this week’s NHS Confederation event, there are clear variations in the type of delegates attending and marketers need to be wary of this.

Attendees at niche events are focused around a specific issue and therefore you are likely to be competing in the exhibition hall against specialists. Attendees are more likely to resonate with those who they feel have more of an understanding of this issue – a broad approach to niche events just won’t work.

The NHS Confederation event attracted over 130 exhibitors, varying from construction, IT, catering, membership services and more. But the audience is also very general. This means exhibitors need to be prepared to differentiate their sales pitch, depending on the delegate.

Location, location, location

With over 130 exhibitors at the NHS Confederation event, it was clear that location was key to gaining more opportunities to talk with delegates. Those positioned near the central thoroughfares and food outlets certainly had a good vantage point over their competitors. The key to this is booking early, and having the choices available.

The Liverpool ACC was not an ideal centre for exhibitors. The exhibition hall was on the ground floor whilst the main theatres and plenary sessions were held two floors above making the event very disparate and divided the crowd. This, to the frustrations of exhibitors, meant that they were realistically only able to engage with delegates at lunchtime or when coffees were available during breaks in presentations – a rather small window of opportunity.

Know your speakers

Event organisers rely on high profile speakers to attract a large audience of delegates. It is worth taking time to consider who is speaking at events, what their areas of expertise are, and how you can tailor your messaging from any publicity the speakers have covered.

For example, I attended the Mike Farrar keynote presentation as he talked around the need to transform the NHS into a learning organisation and encourage a culture where leadership can be embraced and deployed at all levels in healthcare. My immediate observation, as I travelled down two flights of stairs to grab a coffee, was that the exhibitors were not engaging with delegates about what Mike Farrar had been presenting.

Exhibitors need to relate to the messages coming from key plenary sessions because it’s topical. The lack of engagement meant there was no ‘buzz’ and the event was not integrated at all. This failed to give exhibitors a platform to start quality content-driven conversations, rather than spilling out an elevator pitch at the sight of a passer-by that happens to glance over at the stand.

So, next time you are planning your annual marketing activities and scan the industry event listing, ask yourself, “do we need to be in it to win it?” If so, making your resources work harder for you whilst you are there is an absolute must. After all, you’ve put the months of effort leading up to the event, so why not make the most of the delegates whilst you are there.

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