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Sustainable Marketing for the Meetings Industry

Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a roundtable discussion at the March luncheon of the Ottawa Chapter of Meeting Professionals International (MPI). The topic was "Growing Your Business with Green Marketing: Sustainable Practices to Make Your Business Memorable and Sales Driven". When I volunteered to lead this discussion my objective was to generate conversation about sustainable marketing, what works and what doesn't.

But what is "sustainable marketing" or "green marketing"? Many think it’s the marketing of green products. Others maintain it’s marketing that is more respectful of the environment.

Others say it’s what serves an organization’s triple bottom line of people, planet, and profitability. Peter Korchnak defines sustainable marketing as what aims to: “empower communities by enriching their social capital (people), protect and restore the environment (planet), and generate prosperity for the organization and its stakeholders (profitability).”

While the latter definition was in synch with MPI’s Corporate Social Responsibility objectives, I think we too often overlook the "sustainability factor" for the marketer himself or herself. Are your marketing practices working? Are they bringing in leads for your sales team? Do you have the time and energy to keep up what you're doing in a sustainable way?

At the lunch, after everyone introduced themselves and gave an overview of their current marketing activities, it became clear that we were all struggling with the same tug-of-war: how should meeting professionals "green" their marketing activities, keep within budget, and maintain their sanity in the process?

Much of the frustration seemed to focus on the role of social media in the marketing mix. How should a hotel or venue use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other sites? Does a presence on any of those sites bring in enough business to warrant the time required to manage them? The consensus at our table seemed to be that while some presence may be warranted, especially on the individual travel or leisure side, but that group leads were far from pouring in…

Rather than settle that debate, our conversation shifted to other activities. Sustainable marketing ideas included:
  1. With over 95% of all B2B transactions being researched on the web prior to a sale, make it easy for planners to do business with you. Put your sales materials online where they are easy to download.
  2. Consider “gating” your more detailed online resources (banquet menus, policies, theme ideas, etc.), asking prospects to enter their name and e-mail address so these resources are forwarded to them. This can be done automatically through many content management systems. You may lose some prospects who do not want to provide their information, but you quickly gather a list of interested prospects with whom you can continue the sales conversation.
  3. Invest in Search Engine Optimization to improve the volume or quality of traffic to your website via “natural” or un-paid search results.
  4. Direct mail: Junk mail is definitely out, but personalized direct mail is in! Make sure your piece is addressed to a qualified list of prospects. Choose Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified/post-consumer recycled paper and print with vegetable inks. Better yet, support a cause by using cards from non-profit organizations such as UNICEF.
  5. If you’re going to personalize any marketing campaign, make sure your list is accurate. Account management experts say the average salesperson can only manage about 250 accounts annually. If your list is larger, cull it back. Most salespeople cannot stay on top of more than that. For tips on how to clean up your list, see our blog post on Keeping on Top of Your Database.
  6. Make your direct mail piece a "keeper". Provide tips (“top 10 ways to save on your next banquet at…”), checklists, or other resources that planners will want to pin to their wall and remember you every time they see your logo.
  7. Send out handwritten cards. Again, make sure they are the greenest possible (Pistachio cards are great products, available at Chapters/Indigo).
  8. Get out of the office! Too much is done by email. Lasting, sustainable client relationships are fostered in person. Aren’t we in the meetings industry, afterall? So pick up the phone, make an appointment and make a sales call.
  9. If you choose a giveaway for a tradeshow or as a leave-behind gift for a sales call, consider items made by a local artisan, perhaps even using recycled materials. Think about potted plants or flowers (Cancer Society’s Daffodil Days). Edibles, such as cookies, chocolates or squares are always a hit, especially if you attach the recipe!
Isn’t it interesting to note that 6 of the 9 ideas listed above are actually “traditional” marketing practices, only with a greener mindset? Happy selling!

Keeping on Top of Your Database

When I was mailing out holiday season cards I felt quite smug because our list had been updated just six months prior to the mailing.

I mailed 230 cards this year, and six where returned as undeliverable. Only six, you say? That’s a rate of 2.6% – I was appalled! Being in the data business I am fanatical about keeping information current.

None of the cards were returned because of an undeliverable address since all addresses had been verified and certified with our address correction software. The six returns included two from the same organization whose office had moved just five months earlier (and I guess they didn’t feel it was worthwhile to pay the $$ that Canada Post charges to have the mail follow to a new address…). The other three had left their organization and one had been transferred.

In spite of my very best efforts, 2.6% of my data had gone bad within six months. According to industry standards, this is a very low percentage. The average database perishes at a rate of 15-25% per year. This rate accelerates when the economy is in turmoil, when an industry is growing at a fast pace or is facing consolidation.

So what to do if your database is a mess?
Here are a few tips:
  1. Unlike me, accept that the minute you’ve finished updating your database, something in it will be obsolete. It’s the circle of life!
  2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water... The data may not be current but if the list includes relatively large companies and phone numbers, chances are you can re-coup some data with a little time and effort. Buying new data isn’t cheap -- Dun & Bradstreet, Hoover’s, InfoCanada, charge anywhere from $0.50/record for a simple list to $3-$4/record for detailed data. And it’s no guarantee that those lists will work for your purposes because the meeting planning function isn’t one that is collected by list brokers and agencies.
  3. Update in small chunks. Set aside a few hundred records, get those updated, and feel good about what you’ve done… And keep this part of the database clean from hereon!
  4. Be brutal. If a record can’t be updated in a pre-determined number of phone calls, archive it, delete it, or do whatever, but get it out of your regularly accessible records.
  5. When you make a call, start at the top – the executive assistant to the President often will know who plans meetings. To get by a particularly tenacious receptionist, ask for the Sales Department. Sales is a great place to start since it's the department that has client events, incentive programs, and sales meetings.
  6. Organize a "data cleansing party": I remember the days when the boss would have us stay late, ply us with chocolate and coffee and have us purge hundreds of files over an evening or on the weekend (I’m seriously dating myself here… that’s when we hadpaper files!). Pull from your departments that may be seasonal or under-employed in winter, like reservations. Set them up in a room with the phones and access to only those records that require updating. Give them a short script, and let them dial!
  7. Offer an incentive to keep the data up to date, and be creative! Send out an eblast with the help of a professional firm so that the message will have a better chance of passing by spam filters. Offer a free service, a heavily discounted rate or even a gift if the person clicks on the link to update their information.
  8. Make sure you continually replenish your database. Plan to keep your funnel full by topping it up with new sources of data. Upload that list from the tradeshow, or cross-reference the new MPI membership list you just received. Enter the new contacts in your database and start marketing to them!
  9. What should you expect? Using the telephone and the internet to look up phone numbers, an experienced person should be able to update 10-15 records per hour, depending on whether they are only updating the contact information (the easy part) or if they have to seek the person who plans meetings and events (a more difficult task as we all know).
Some much wiser person than me said that "it’s the simple things that are difficult to do, but those simple things are often all that it takes to be successful." Data cleansing isn't rocket science but it's time-consuming and requires consistency. Remember that clean client and prospect data will make you a more efficient hospitality sales and marketing organization!