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From Passive to Participant: How Association Communicators Build Engagement at Conferences - 3/8/2016 -

From Passive to Participant: How Association Communicators Build Engagement at Conferences

Here’s how the National Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing (NACS) and the American School Counselors Association’s (ASCA) get members talking at their annual meetings.

By Kate Achelpohl

Ever since Google became a verb, your members have had access to terabytes of data. That means great education is no longer enough to make your event successful. What attendees really need — and what an association’s annual meeting is uniquely qualified to provide — is a community that will help them translate knowledge into understanding.

That’s as true for trade shows, like the NACS Show from the National Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing (NACS), as it is for professional conferences, such as the American School Counselors Association’s (ASCA) Annual Conference. Both of these associations are finding new ways to create communities that take visitors from passive attendees to engaged participants.


The crown jewel of NACS’s member events is its annual NACS Show. With more than 400,000 net square feet, 1,300 exhibitors, and 25,000 attendees, it’s among the 50 largest trade shows in the country, as ranked by Trade Show News Network. Education is a key component, with over 50 workshops taking place throughout the event. But that’s not the focal point, says one of the association’s top executives.

"The NACS Show is where our industry comes together,” says Erin Pressley, vice president of publishing for the NACS Media Group. "Our value proposition comes from bringing our member groups together at our events.”

NACS uses a number of tools — such as social media and its show app, Freeman XP’s FXP Touch— but central to everything is an association-wide commitment to engagement.

"Our culture on site is to be proactive in engaging with our members,” Pressley says, noting that NACS CEO Henry Armour empowers staff to approach "orphans” — people who seem to be alone and unengaged — and help them find exhibitors, solutions, and other members.

"Whether it’s NACS staff engagement or bringing a retailer and supplier together on the EXPO floor or at a reception, we try to facilitate that as much as possible,” she says, underscoring the importance of the staff-wide effort. "The whole staff is involved, all 80-plus of us. It’s important to think holistically about the event. Certainly, the expo is vitally important, but then we also try to make it fun and provide moments of intimacy.”

The NACS HQ booth is central to the effort, so staff gets creative to attract attendees to it. At one show, an artist translated attendees’ business challenges into infodoodles. The experience gave staff a chance to talk with members and better understand what keeps them up at night. Board members are invited to attend the New Member Reception, and everyone at the show is invited to the opening party.

To measure the effectiveness of its efforts, NACS uses Net Promoter and its Net Promoter Score®, which employs a 10-point scale to calculate responses to a single question: "How likely is it that you would recommend [insert brand] to a friend or colleague?”

"Our NPS has shown that the NACS staff has a direct impact on engagement and satisfaction,” Pressley says. "So we know, as a staff, that our participation has a really positive effect on someone’s experience.”

Back home, NACS staff looks closely at NPS and other metrics, such a show size, exhibitors, and attendance, examining who’s new to the show and who’s returning. Pressley says, "We have a very successful show, so it’s more about innovating around the edges. We’re trying these little things and we’re looking very closely to see if they’re successful or not.”


Dedicated to furthering the needs and mission of school counselors, professional development (often required for licensure) is key to ASCA’s reason for being. Networking shares top billing, however, at the ASCA Annual Conference, according to Director of Communications Kathleen Rakestraw.

"During the conference, our goal is to help attendees realize they can get so much more out of attending our conference than just sitting in a breakout session taking notes and keeping to themselves.Many school counselors, especially in elementary schools, rural schools, or smaller schools, may be the only school counselor in their building — or even their community. Giving them a chance to meet other school counselors to call on throughout the year when they have questions is a huge benefit of attending the conference,” she says.

Although social media isn’t the pre-show tool of choice for ASCA — "School counselors don’t have a lot of time during the workday to spend on online communities or keeping up on Twitter or Facebook,” according to Rakestraw — it’s proven effective during the show.

Twitter contests during general sessions ask members to respond to a conference-related question with a prize for a randomly chosen winner. Tactics for 2016 will include a daily question on a chalkboard in the conference bookstore. Staff will post attendees’ responses on Facebook and Twitter to generate conversation.

And Twitterhasgenerated conversation. "A few years ago, we were using the #ASCA14 hashtag for our event when suddenly a new hashtag sprung up from people following all the posts at home: #NotAtASCA14. Since then, we’ve capitalized on that idea, and encouraged members who couldn’t be there in person to follow us on Twitter and join in on the conference excitement and learning,” Rakestraw says.

ASCA has also created an option for remote participation — live streaming of specific sessions, promoted as virtual attendance.

"The first year, we promoted ‘Buy the live stream,’ but last year, we changed the marketing pitch to ‘Register as a virtual attendee,’ and we saw an increase in members choosing to register for the live stream,” Rakestraw says. Virtual attendees are able to ask questions and participate in the Twitter contests ASCA hosts during general sessions. Again, it’s about creating a community around the event.


You’ve likely attended (or hosted) a meeting with an event app that helps you organize your show floor itinerary and meeting schedule. "It’s a great tool,” Pressley says, "but the question is how to get people to use it. We sound a constant drumbeat, and while regular attendees are more likely to use it, newbies need to be educated. We have not found that silver bullet yet.”

Rakestraw says ASCA has also had mixed results with conference apps. "We’ve been using conference apps for about the past five years, and we have yet to find one that meets our needs. This year, we’ve built our own app, which will give us all the features that we’ve been missing in previous years. We intend to include some gamification on the app as well.”

Meanwhile, meeting technology expert Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball Associates is watching meeting apps evolve into something bigger. "What you’re seeing, especially with associations, is multi-event apps. Members can download an app for an association rather than a specific event. It resides on the phone and can be used — judiciously — for feedback and content,” he says, noting that the app then becomes a distribution channel for the reams of content events and associations generate.

Apps can also be community builders, Ball notes. "There are myriad technologies that can exist for engagement on site. Most of them are mobile.”

FXP Touch, a second-screen technology from Freeman XP, can engage workshop audiences with polls and questions. NACS adopted it for the 2015 NACS Show, and used it after the show to distribute presentation slides and solicit feedback. The technology, which can use attendees’ smartphones as the second screen, also provides engagement data.

Beacon apps, a kind of attendee matchmaking technology, are small, "digital lighthouses” that notify attendees when they’re within range of someone with similar interests. Notification can come in the form of an alert to the users’ smartphones, such as with Eventbase, but wearable beacons are also available. LiGo, for example, embeds its beacons in wristbands and badge clips that light up when a "match” is within range. Some beacon apps will synch with the attendee database, allowing participants to have a record of whom they’ve connected with and exhibits they’ve visited.

Your meetings provide more than business opportunities or continuing education — they foster relationships. Whether it’s high-tech or high-touch, your strategy for building community strengthens those bonds, your event, and ultimately, your association.

Kate Achelpohlis a freelance writer in northern Virginia and a member Association Media & Publishing’s Content Creation Committee.


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