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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

The Seminar Solution
By Alan Rosenspan

How hard can it be?

Get 20-50 people together in a room, refresh them with sodas and snacks, or even a meal, reward them with valuable information and even a gift for attending.

Sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? Ah, but it's proving very, very hard indeed.

Getting people to a business-sponsored seminar now carries a degree of difficulty previously associated with Olympic pole-vaulting.

And if you think getting people to agree to register for a seminar is hard - try getting them to show up. Even if it's free. Even if they pre-registered.

There are exceptions, of course.

Simply tack on the word "Internet" or "Web" to the title of your seminar, and you can expect attendance to multiply.

But what can you do when you don't have a "Web" component to your seminar? And what happens when your business depends on getting prospects in the door, so you can show them exactly how your product can bring them big benefits, improve their business, and transform their lives?

That's the subject of this article. Next month, I'll talk about promoting the seminar in Part 2.

By way of background, I do about a dozen seminars a year for my own company and the DMA, plus all the advertising and direct marketing for about 50 other seminars for various clients including iMarket, Interleaf, Datawatch and Total Quality Selling.

And I've learned a great deal about what to do, and what to avoid.

Here are some lessons:

Here's where to start

Your sales people want a captive audience. Your product requires demonstration and explanation. A seminar seems to be a logical solution.

1. First, clearly define your target market.

Good seminars are not created from a company point of view - they are created with a prospect or customer point of view. What I mean is you need to determine what people want to hear, and not what you want to tell them.

The first step is to determine exactly who your seminar is targeted at, and you need to be very specific.

Several years ago, I made a major mistake on the first seminar series I offered.

In the copy section, "Who should attend?" I wrote, "CEO's, Presidents, Sales executives, marketing managers, advertising managers, key executives and anyone in any capacity interested in advertising and direct marketing."

What's wrong with that copy? It includes virtually everyone in the company, with the possible exception of the mailroom.

In developing your seminar, and promoting it, you must focus in on a clearly defined target market and identify them. You can't be successful if you try to appeal to everyone.

2. Second, make sure you add value.

No one wants to come to a naked sales pitch (well, maybe if it was actually naked). But you can add value in three ways.

You can add content value. Your seminar should be useful and have important information even if someone doesn't buy our product.

My client iMarket does an excellent job of this. Their seminar ,"In Search of Customers" not only introduces their data services, but also offers participants new ways of looking at their sales and marketing.

Even if you don't buy their products, you walk away with many different ways to increase your sales and improve your return-on-investment in marketing.

One of the best ways to add content value is to add news. If you have a new way of doing things, or new information, it will almost always be of interest.

You can give away value. You should give attendees something they can take away with them - to show their boss and their colleagues or to consult on a going forward basis.

It could be a book (yours, or even the latest business book that relates to your topic); it could be a summary of the seminar on a CD-ROM or in a booklet; it could be a premium or even a sample of the product.

iMarket gave away my booklet, "101 Ways To Improve Response" as part of the incentive to attend their seminar.

You can add value to the presentation. When my client, Continental Resources, had a seminar on data warehousing, they arranged for Herb Edelson, one of the industries leading luminaries to present.

He didn't work for Continental Resources, but he was key to attracting people to the seminar.

If you can find an outside expert to do your seminar, it not only helps attract an audience. It also adds credibility to your presentation.

And by the way, after you add value - make sure you communicate it in your invitations and promotions.

3. Third, make sure you choose the right name for the seminar.

You could name the seminar after the value you've added. For, example, the iMarket seminar isn't called "How to Use Our Product" but rather "In Search of Customers."

Which would you rather attend?

You could name the seminar after the main benefit. My own seminar is called "Improve Your Direct Mail in One Day."

You could even name the seminar after your target market. For example, "New Techniques for Creative Directors" will attract a very specific kind of attendee.

Some other things to consider

1. Timing. Breakfast seminars usually out-pull day-long, afternoon or evening seminars. 8:30-10:30 is best, and make sure you serve a continental breakfast.

This allows people to attend your seminar without interrupting their day (and possibly having something stop them from attending.)

You are also getting people at the best time of day for them to consider new ideas and assimilate your information.

2. Length. Shorter is better. The average human attention span is far shorter than you think. And even though you may be fascinated by your product and what it can do, others have less tolerance.

Two hours gives you just enough time to separate the people who are interested (and who you'll want to follow up with) and those who are not. Any longer, and you may be asking for a bigger commitment than people are prepared to make.

Or worse, having some people walk out.

3. Involvement. At Dale Carnegie Training courses, the instructor starts by asking, "Have you ever sat in a long meeting where you didn't say a word?"

"Was it fun?" Everyone groans.

One of the keys to a successful seminar is to involve your audience, by asking questions, getting them to write things down, and other techniques. In fact, many good seminars start with the presenter asking "What do you expect us to cover today?" and writing it down on an easel.

At my seminars, I ask people to fill out a form that says "How to get what you want." And I promise to cover whatever they write down. I also have several creative exercises that keep the audience involved.

4. Location. Seminars can be conducted at your offices, at a hotel, university or conference center, or even at a client's location.

I always recommend using an outside facility. The costs are greater, but there are two benefits.

First, you and your audience are less likely to be interrupted by telephone calls, or pressing business. Second, a change in environment is a perfect way to stimulate a change in thinking.

What about Web Seminars?

"Why don't we put our seminar on the web?" is a question you might have asked yourself.

These days, more and more companies are scheduling seminars on the web, or even having "canned" seminars that are always available on their websites

It is a tremendously seductive alternative, but there are some issues.

The positives include:

Reduced cost. There's no travel, no hotel expenses, no renting equipment.

Increased capacity. A physical seminar becomes unwieldy with too large a group. A web seminar can attract a thousand people, without adding to the cost.

Extended reach. A web seminar may be able to attract higher-level people, who don't normally have time to attend a seminar.

You may also be able to "go" to more locations. For example, it might not be cost-effective to hold a seminar in Providence, Rhode Island. The market may be too small.

But with a web seminar, it doesn't matter where attendees live. They can come from small markets, or even other countries.

So why doesn't everyone move directly to the web?

There are also some negatives:

More distractions. A web seminar usually takes place in the person's office, right at their desk. What else is on that desk? A telephone that might ring at any time, taking them away from your seminar.

Plus their boss can walk in at any time.

Plus it's far easier to stop listening to a web seminar than it is to get up and leave a live seminar.

In fact, the drop-off rate for web seminars can be substantial. You can start with 100 attendees and finish with 10 or 20.

One of my ideas to get around this is to mail a card to registrants that says "Seminar in Progress." We recommend that they put this on their door while they listen to our web seminar, and hopefully discourage interruptions.

It's the equivalent of hanging up a "Do Not Disturb" sign in a hotel room door.

More limitations. For all its power, the web is still a two-dimensional medium. You can't hand out a sample of the product or invite prospects to try it out for themselves.

It's also hard to do interactive or group exercises. And these things can often be the most effective and persuasive parts of a seminar.

Less impact. A web seminar just doesn't have the impact or involvement of a live seminar. There's nothing quite like sitting in an audience and watching a good presenter.

Less content. Most web seminars tend to be significantly shorter than live seminars. When I wrote the iMarket web seminars, I had to take two hours of material and squeeze it into 45 minutes of content. Any longer, and the drop-off rate begins to climb.

Less follow-up. While some web seminars include a live Q &A at the end, it's usually pretty sparse. In a live seminar, you have the opportunity to match prospects with sales people and do one-on-one selling and marketing.

In terms of format, there are many different options available for web seminars. These include:

  • a tele-seminar where your audience dials into an 800 number, that narrates the presentation over the Internet.
  • a taped-seminar where the voice comes over the Internet
  • a video-seminar, where the narrator is on-screen.

For a complete discussion of the different alternatives, I recommend "Business-to-Business Internet Marketing" by Barry Silverstein. This book is a treasure for anyone interested in doing Internet marketing the right way. It's also very informative on direct marketing and marketing in general.

Next month, we'll cover the best ways to promote a seminar; innovative direct marketing formats; and effective registration, confirmation and follow-up techniques.

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