GET THEM TO TRAVEL TO YOUR SEMINAR

By Kirk Mower

Seminars have become one of the most popular means for high-technology

companies to generate new business. If you're a manager, work in a

large metropolitan area and subscribe to one or two computer publications, chances are you receive invitations to product seminars at

least a few times a week, if not daily.

Not all seminars are successful, however. With so many events taking

place, even the best-known firms can no longer simply announce a

seminar and feel confident that people will show up. With lower response rates and higher costs--in travel, audio-visual equipment and

hotel space--a less than successful event can drive your cost per

lead sky-high.

When the average management information systems (MIS) manager, for

example, receives dozens of direct-mail invitations every month, how

do you ensure that yours gets read? Or even delivered?

Having designed and produced seminar invitations for dozens of high-

tech companies, we have developed several rules of thumb to make each

event as successful as possible. The following 10 rules are drawn from

that experience, and many can be applied to all of your direct mail,

not just seminar invitations.

1. SELL THE EVENT, NOT THE PRODUCT. This is the most important rule to remember when designing a seminar invitation, yet failure to properly sell the event is a common error. Keep in mind that your invitation has one objective only--to get people to the event. Don't stuff your copy with superlatives about the product and then mention the seminar as an afterthought. Even if your product sounds great, if the recipient doesn't want to come to the seminar, you've failed. Period.

Sell the benefits of your product in the context of the event.Rather than "Our software cuts development time by 50 percent," say "Come to our free seminar and you'll learn how you can cut development time by 50 percent."

2. MAKE IT EASY. Make responding to your invitation as simple as possible. That means accommodating anyone who might receive it. Some people think nothing of picking up the phone and dialing an

800 number. Others, particularly managers, would rather fill out a

business reply card. Always provide both options. If you don't

believe in reply cards, test your invitation with a card vs. without to gauge whether the reply card actually lifts response.

But don't stop there. Add a fax number. Add an e-mail address,

particularly if you're targeting an engineering audience. Nearly

90 percent of your responses will probably come either by phone or

mail, but fax and e-mail are becoming more and more popular. Why

risk excluding those potential customers who may not respond any

other way?

If you're on the World Wide Web, give people who visit your site a

way to register for a seminar. But don't list a Web address on

your direct-mail piece--unless you can track who the visitors are

and how they heard about you. Otherwise, they may simply dial in,

download a brochure and you'll never hear from them again.

3.GIVE IT THE PERSONAL TOUCH. There are two reasons why people

attend seminars. First, business incentives--learning how to increase productivity, cut costs, gain a competitive edge, etc.

Second, personal incentives--mixing with peers, getting out of the

office for a day, free breakfast, free coffee mug, etc.

Most seminar invitations focus exclusively on the business benefits of attending the event. This ignores the fact that ultimately,

attendees come to the seminar to enjoy the experience.

What do they receive when they attend? A free information kit? A demo disk? A portfolio embossed with your company's name? Include a photograph of these items in the invitation. Mention a free breakfast or lunch, if there is one. Describe the presentation itself: Is it "fast moving," "exciting," "multimedia"? All of these make the event sound more attractive.

4.THE MORE THE MERRIER. Include space on your reply card for the person to write in the names of colleagues who also might want to attend. This is an easy way to increase your registration and capture names for your database. Or, alternatively, ask them if there's anyone else in the organization to whom you can send an invitation. (Make sure you have a supply of blank invitations on hand.)

5. NO WAY OUT. Most seminar reply cards include the line, "Sorry, I can't attend. Please send me information about your company/products." The reasoning is that people who don't want to attend the seminar might be more likely to respond to an information offer.

Adding this option increases response, but it also decreases seminar attendance. Why? Because while people who would never even consider attending the seminar may ask for information, there's always a group of prospects who, given the choice, will opt to be lazy and request a brochure.

What's your priority--more leads or more people in seats? If it's the latter, delete "I can't attend" from your reply cards. If you want more leads, then there's little reason to do a seminar. You'll get a higher response if you spend the same amount of money creating a white paper, for example, and using that as the offer instead.

6.REVIEW THE REVIEWS. Do the people who attend your seminars enjoy them? Do you get good reviews? Most companies hand out evaluation forms at their seminars, but then fail to leverage those comments to generate attendance at future events.

Take some of the best quotes from your evaluation forms and add them to your invitation. If the quotes need "dressing up," add your own words and then call or fax the person who filled out the form and ask for their approval. You don't even have to quote them by name--just say, for example, "Senior programmer, Fortune 500 manufacturer."

7.TEST, TEST, TEST. This rule applies to all direct mail, not just seminar invitations, but it has particular significance for seminars because these are often programs that companies repeat over time.

Testing doesn't have to mean paying for two entirely different creative packages. It can be as simple as mailing five weeks in advance vs. six weeks; window envelope vs. closed-faced envelope; first class vs. third class; meter vs. stamp. The bottom line iif you don't test, you're throwing money away, because even the slightest incremental response can boost the results of your next mailing. Even if this is a "one time only" event, test anyway. Chances are you can use what you learn for similar programs in the future.

8. BE SPECIFIC. Because seminar direct mail usually means writing the invitation long before the event has taken shape, the agenda can often end up as an afterthought. Yet, our experience shows this is often the first thing the recipient turns to when opening the invitation. After all, what better way to determine whether the event is worth attending?

Beef up your agenda by doing more than listing times, speakers, and topics. Add bullets that describe what the reader will learn in each session. Remember, don't focus on the benefits of the product or technology, but on the benefits of the material to be presented.

9.TARGET THE RIGHT AUDIENCE. Most seminar invitations air too high. Companies don't understand why when they rent a list of MIS managers, they end up with a roomful of software developers. They target the CEO, CIO and CFO, who (a) probably never attend seminars in the first place; and (b) aren't appropriate targets anyway. Even if the CIO is the ultimate decision-maker, does he or she have to cope regularly with the problem your product solves?

Target the highest level at which the problem is understood. Most high-tech sales are made bottom-up rather than top-down. The engineers and developers who come to your seminar are the ones who will make the sale happen, even if they don't actually sign the check.

Next time you rent a list, have the list manager divide it into two groups based on job function (MIS managers vs. developers, for example). Code them separately and track which group responds at a higher rate.

10. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Contrary to what you might hear from your direct-marketing agency, the objective of most business-to-business direct mail these days is not to get noticed. The person who "notices" direct mail is likely to be a mail clerk, so your invitation may get discarded before it even leaves the mail room. (Note: Direct mail that gets noticed also tends to be more expensive.)

So, your main objective should be to get your mail delivered. That means it has to make it past the mail room, the department secretary and the executive assistant. If you're targeting managers in large corporations, the more your invitation looks like "junk mail," the less chance it has of landing end-up on that manager's desk.

Test your most colorful, eye-catching invitation against an ordinary, two-color, personalized letter package. Use a live stamp and stay away from envelope copy.

Kirk Mower teaches public speaking to adult education students throughout Los Angeles County.

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