Questions to Ask When Planning an Event

by Kimberley Clarke
Our audiences’ instant, global access to information has left communicators competing like never before, not just for market share, but also for a few precious moments of customer (or donor or sponsor) attention.As the economy shrinks and changes, and traditional marketing techniques shift to new media strategies, how can the modern communicator, public relations manager or fundraising professional command—and keep—stakeholder attention?

You might be surprised at the answer: live events.

That’s right. Good, old-fashioned, face-to-face events.

According to EventView 2009, a study by the Event Marketing Institute, 62 percent of senior sales and marketing executives in 2008 chose event marketing as the tactic that best accelerates and deepens relationships with audiences. Interestingly, PR came in second, at only 21 percent. Quite simply, you can’t replace face-to-face when building relationships and powerful sales opportunities.

But before you rush off to begin planning your next event, ask yourself one important strategic question: Why?

Why are you planning this event? What are the event goals? To increase market share? Develop donors? What are your precise organizational objectives, and where does this event, or any event, fit with your overall strategy? Why would people attend? What’s the follow-up strategy? And, perhaps most important, what metrics will you use to determine your event’s success and the projected returns?

First let’s examine the motivations and methods behind successful special events.

Events are marketing
No event is an island, and event marketing shouldn’t be either.

If you are in the fortunate (or unfortunate) position of wearing both the event marketing and corporate communication hat in your organization, then alignment between your event and marketing will come easy.

If not, marketing and communication people should work together closely. Consistency is king. You must determine your organization’s key corporate messages and how your event can reinforce and support them.

Since we are all being asked to do more with less these days, there is a huge opportunity to cross-promote and create efficiencies. If you have limited resources to get the word out about your event, rely on existing channels like the corporate newsletter. If you have some promotional funding, share your event real estate with your communication partners.

Follow up, follow up and follow up again
In addition to being a part of annual strategic and communication plans, an event is a campaign in itself. While many people focus on the details of the day (and sure, there are a lot of details), the true success of an event is established well before the event actually happens, and lasts quite a long time after it’s over.

Before your event, consider how many people you can realistically connect with in the promotion process, from invitations to follow-up e-mails and phone calls. How many people can you get in contact with—and how frequently—before the event even happens?

Follow-up is key to your event’s success. It’s not enough anymore to put your logo on an invitation and wait for the RSVPs to start rolling in. (Unless, of course, a movie star is headlining your fundraiser.)

Getting to sold-out
Your audience wants more for less, and has seen it all—maybe even seen someone else do it better.

So how do you get them to your event? You need a hook.

A hook can be anything that serves to draw in your audience. Perhaps you have the most intriguing speakers? Or celebrity guests? Are you known as “the best party in town”? What’s the compelling draw that will get customers, donors and sponsors through the door of your event?

Once you’ve developed your hook, marketed your event (in partnership with your corporate communication folks) and followed up relentlessly, you monitor. Ask yourself where you are in comparison to your year-to-date or projected plan target.

Be sure to collect meaningful feedback about your event.

You know about the room temperature, the speaker, the food. You were there. In follow-up surveys, create opportunities for attenders to discuss their experience at your event. Ask questions like, “Did the speaker address your challenges?” and “Can we send you more information on this topic?”

And follow up you must, for at least 12–18 months after your event. Follow-up should include personal phone calls, direct mail, e-mail and social media campaigns—and yes, maybe even an invitation to the next event.

Before you start planning that next event, keep in mind the five most common mistakes made in event planning:

  1. Lack of follow-up on event marketing materials. You can’t just sit and wait for registrations to arrive.
  2. Too many cooks in the kitchen. Having too many people involved in the event planning process can lead to a lack of accountability. You must determine who has the ultimate decision making power over your event.
  3. Underestimating the work and the intense time lines. Everybody thinks they can organize the ultimate event but project management can be incredibly time-consuming.
  4. Lack of WOW factor. You must create a compelling reason for people to attend your event.
  5. Underestimating the budget. Event budgets are challenging, and there are always unforeseen costs so be sure to build in contingency plans.

If you follow the steps outlined here for before, during and after your event, you should be well on your way to having a successful live event.


Kimberley Clarke is founder and principal of KCI Management, an event management firm specializing in corporate event marketing. With a client roster consisting of blue chip companies in the IT, finance and academic sectors, Kimberley and her team regularly manage events with tight deadlines, high stakes, and multi-million dollar budgets.