Building Web site a vital event marketing tool

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Event attendees have come to expect a Web-based home to locate even the most basic information regarding an event. Companies that go above and beyond the expected Web site design can expect marked benefits—and companies that don't design a site at all may find that their clients' perceptions of their business will suffer.

Even the most basic Web site can go a long way toward increasing marketing effectiveness and boosting attendance. Dena Rafte, president of Rafte & Co., a legal technology consulting agency that trains lawyers on the use of technology, recently developed a Web site to support events she holds regularly for her clients.

According to Rafte, clients are reticent to attend events organized by her company. Overall, she said, their attitude toward event-based training is that none of their staff members will attend. Initially, one employee was responsible for enticing law firms to take part in Rafte's training. However, Rafte said, that was a failing strategy. "We realized that the person that was responsible didn't want the job," she said.

So Rafte developed a Web site to do it successfully. "We can put our events into a calendar, e-mail the [law firms'] staff and say these are the classes and these people can then sign up for classes at their leisure," she said.

Since launching the Web site, Rafte said, "attendance has gone up. … the beauty is that it has taken the burden off. It's Web-based and it's marketing. Now [our clients are] willing to do business with us."

Richard Giuliani, VP-business development at Meeting Consultants, a corporate event planning and management company, said event Web sites can serve as a point of entry for potential business partners, as well as prospective attendees.

"If you have a company that is looking to invest money in an event for their business partners, and you want to attract those business partners, you have to be able to reach them," he said.

Fundamentally, Web sites should include an event registration tool, a calendar or agenda and, at the very least, a list of topics on sessions that will take place to give people an idea of what the event will be about, Giuliani said.

"If you think about it, the first thing [potential attendees are] going to ask you is [if they can] go to the Web site and be able to go browse, look at the content and ask: `Is it appropriate and how do I register?' In today's world, people want to do it online, they want to see the content, they want to see the speakers. That's going to incent them to say: `Yes, I need to be there.' "

Anna Talerico, exec VP at ion interactive, a strategic online marketing firm, said event registration, particularly for b-to-b events, happens most frequently online.

"People are going to research the event, look at the session and complete registration online," she said. "It's moving to be primarily driven by the Web."

Most importantly, Talerico said, b-to-b marketers should consider the Web site as an advertising tool for the event. "If you anticipate that people will be traveling in, you need to have a lot of info about your venue—info about your sessions and the kind of content you'll be covering," she said. "Some event Web sites have content about who the event is for and why somebody would come—helping somebody figure out why they should come—and you [also] need your pricing info."

Beyond the basics, there are features that can be tacked on to an event Web site. The added value of audio, video and even a planner that allows attendees to download their event schedule to a PDA, will increase traffic to the site.

According to Aaron Long, director of business development at Schipul, a Web marketing company, event Web sites should be left online indefinitely. "It's content online that's searchable," he said. "You need to promote your event ahead of time, do the event and videotape [sessions]. If someone searches, they will be able to find it."

Searching, he said, is how potential attendees will find out about your event. And the cost of adding additional content is small, Long said, as sites such as YouTube—which host video—are completely free.

The best way to increase your chances of being seen during a search, Long said, is to update content regularly. Also, the event's Web site should be linked from your company's main page and listed at least a month in advance.

"You would like your events to be listed in Google and Yahoo," Long said. "Busy sites with continually updated content will get [listed] more quickly. The more frequent [content updates] the better—content is worth eyeballs."

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