With the recession taking a big bite out of travel budgets in 2009, Linda Blount, MPH, was worried about turnout for The American Cancer Societyís 2009 Disparities Conference. As National VP, Office of Health Disparities, Blount leads the group that organizes the biennial conference focused on health disparities in underserved populations.
In the past, the team dedicated its efforts to organizing the conference and arranging speakers from the research and medical communities. The promotional outreach to encourage registrations was often a secondary concern. But with the risk that attendance numbers would be down in 2009, they needed a new approach.
"As we started planning, we asked ourselves how we could communicate and market the event up front," says Blount.
The team realized they needed a more holistic strategy that used email and the web to support a wide range of communications in the organization and promotion process. They wanted to create more relevant, personalized communications before, during and after the conference. CAMPAIGN
The team crated a new focus for the 2009 conference that called for inviting leaders of community intervention programs to present alongside academic, medical and research participants. Although the ACS had a strong network of health researchers and policy experts, they were not as connected to those community intervention leaders who turn research into action.
So they worked with key partner organizations to reach out to a broader audience with a new multichannel marketing strategy. Besides advertising, telemarketing and personal outreach, the strategy relied heavily on email and online communications built on three key tactics:
o Simplified messaging
o Automated and triggered email
o A continually-updated conference website
Here are six steps they took to create and manage the integrated web/email portion of the outreach program:Step #1. Develop simplified messaging strategy
Promotional emails for previous events were often written in the specialized language of the research and medical communities.
"Weíre very good at speaking over the heads of laymen," says Blount. "We tended to say things in many, many words and many paragraphs."
But for this event, they created a messaging strategy that was more accessible to a broader audience.
- Simplified text
The team focused on using shorter copy in their emails, emphasizing key themes and important benefit/value statements about the programís focus areas and the event itself.
For example, the first email announcing the 2009 conference distilled the eventís goal in four bullet points:
"We will answer 4 key questions:
o What is working to increase early detection or prevention of breast, cervical and colorectal cancer and to improve quality treatment availability and prolong survivorship?
o What policies have been most effective at promoting health equity and how can they be implemented at the local, state and federal level?
o How do we address the social determinants of health to improve cancer outcomes?
o Who and what initiatives have been successful in reducing obesity and smoking rates?"
Emails were personalized from Blount, and included an image of her signature at the end of each message. This tactic reinforced the notion that the conference was a community gathering where constituents could exchange ideas, rather than a top-down dissemination of information.Step #2. Create conference website as an information hub
To enable the use of shorter email copy, the team built a conference website to serve as the hub for all conference promotions.
The website, TheCancerLens.org, contained more detailed information about the conference itself, as well as community features to engage the audience before, during and after the event.
Website sections included:
o In-depth conference overview, including "who should attend" and key themes
o Conference agenda and detailed speaker information
o Online registration form
o Conference blog
o Featured videos
The team could then include links to relevant sections of the website in outbound email messages, allowing them to keep messages succinct while providing access to more information for recipients that needed it.
- Request for abstracts
Another key component of the conference website was an online abstract submission form. Members of the research and medical community were encouraged to submit research abstracts as potential topics for the eventís general and breakout sessions.
The online submission form made it easy for researchers to upload an abstract, and for Blountís team to export those files for consideration during the event programming phase. Step #3. Email campaign to ACS database
The team created a multistage email campaign to be sent to their house database of medical and research professionals. These messages were staggered over a five-month period to encourage registrations and abstract submissions.
Rather than sending repeated, hard-sell registration requests, the team designed a content-driven message thread that would highlight different aspects of the conference as the agenda was developed:
- The first email, sent three months before the event, provided a general conference announcement and highlighted the key themes of the 2009 conference.
- Subsequent emails were delivered every other week, and provided programming updates and promotions of important elements within the conference, such as:
o Keynote speaker
o New panelists
o Event takeaways
- Calls-to-action included registration and hotel information, requests for abstract submissions, and the opportunity to register for website updates (see Step #5, below).Step #4. Email campaign to partnersí databases
Blountís team organized the event with five partner organizations, including:
o The National Medical Association
o The Intercultural Cancer Council
o The National Hispanic Medical Association
Each of these organizations had their own contact databases that included the community organizations that Blountís team wanted to attract to the conference. They wanted to promote the conference to this broader network, but didnít want the partners to bear the burden of developing messaging on their own.
"We understood who we wanted to talk to, but how do you get to them? You donít have relationship with them," says Blount. "Working through our partners to get to their community partners was really helpful. We could let our partners get to community folks on the ground."
The team created a series of messages that mirrored the ones sent to their own database, which partners could then send to their own lists:
- The message template included a header where partners could place their own logo and other branding, so recipients understood that the message came on behalf of an organization with which they had a relationship.
- Messages were sent from a partners email server for CAN-SPAM compliance.
- Registration requests and other calls-to-action linked back to the conference website. Step #5. Send triggered email to website registrants
The team used its conference website as a third channel for email outreach.
A small registration box on the website allowed visitors to enter an email address to receive notification of site updates. Then, whenever the team updated information on that site, registered users received an automated email featuring a link to the new content.
Visitors could specify which categories of information were most important to them, and then receive updates on relevant topics, such as the conference agenda, new speakers, blog posts, etc. Step #6. Pre- and post-show email for registrants
Registration for the event or for website updates triggered another series of email messages timed for the conference schedule.
- Registered attendees received two pre-show reminders about the conference:
o 10 days prior to the event
o 3 days prior to the event
- Immediately following the conference, the team sent automated follow-up emails to three constituent groups:
o Presenters received a thank you note that included an invitation to provide feedback
o Attendees received a thank you note that notified them that all presentations were available on the website and invited them to fill out an evaluation survey
o Community members who had registered for website updates but hadnít attended the conference received an email informing them that presentations were available online
"We got a lot of positive feedback from people thanking us for letting them know [the presentations were] there."
The new communication strategy helped create one of the most successful Disparities Conferences ever, says Blount. The team attracted 500 registrations, far exceeding their goal of 300.
"It particularly helped with community leaders -- we were talking to them, not at
them," she says. "The tone was right, level of personalization was right, and people reported having a positive experience on our website and with our emails."
- Creating an online abstract submission form and broadening the scope of their outreach led to a 40% increase in abstract submissions.
- Email messages generated for the program generated strong results, such as:
o 38%+ open rates
o 6% clickthrough rate
- The conference website also generated strong results:
o 89% of conference attendees visited TheCancerLens.org
o 12% of site visitors signed up for email updates
o 73.2% of site visits lasted longer than five minutes
o 91% of visitors found the site user-friendly
o 83% found the website met or exceeded their expectations
The effort also impressed Blountís colleagues within the ACS who organize their own conferences, and now want to learn more about her teamís website and email strategy.
"They saw how effective it was, so in a way weíve been able to change the conversation about how we market to our own constituents."Useful links related to this article
Creative Samples from the ACSí Healthy Disparities Conference Communication Strategy:
How Email Series + Personalized Landing Page Lifted Webinar's ROI by 2000%
Business Marketing Systems -- Developed the campaign strategy, messaging and creative, and managed the campaign
ACS 2009 Disparities Conference -- Health Equity: Through the Cancer Lens
The American Cancer Society