Investing time and money into marketing may feel like a luxury for many small businesses, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Andrew Harrison, director of the Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA), discusses its benefits for those supplying the exhibitions sector and suggests his top tips for making marketing work with minimal investment.

When asked to contribute to this edition of EN I struggled to think what I could write about marketing: Don’t we have other priorities currently in the sector?  Aren’t there more worthy topics to cover? 

We could argue the answer is ‘yes’, but I reminded myself that I spent my early professional years dedicated to marketing, having moved to Bristol from Oldham in the late ‘90s to gain a degree in it.

Marketing was different then: We didn’t have social media or online video content. Only adults had mobile phones. I had an email address, but nobody to email and I wrote my dissertation on the benefits of direct mail over other print media.

Today, my life in marketing has changed enormously but the key principles, repeating trends and how companies behave, succeed and fail are the same.   

Marketing – broadly defined as the promotion and selling of goods and services – often slides down the list of priorities for some business owners when starting-up, and is the first thing they abandon when times get tough. Investing in an area where you can’t always guarantee a return can appear less tangible and hard to justify when cashflow is tight.

This isn’t a practice I recommend, but I do understand, especially amidst such a volatile landscape. The focus for many over the last two years was simply on survival. Besides, events weren’t happening so it was easy to think ‘what’s the point in spending time and money promoting services?’

Now events are back in full swing, the focus is on delivering them. For some (in my view the impact is greater on small businesses) there is no time to consider a marketing strategy.

Nevertheless, those falling into this category SHOULD be considering it.

The current focus may be on getting through a busy period, fixing staffing and other pressing issues, but business is never guaranteed. Competition is increasing. If you want your business to remain busy, you need to do more than simply deliver a good service, you need to stand out, ensure everyone is aware of the wonderful work you do and keep an eye on opportunities (and pursue them).

This doesn’t mean you need to do everything. It is better to concentrate your marketing and do it well than spread it across multiple channels and water down its effectiveness.   Most important is to have a plan and a reason for what it is you choose to do.

More than promotion

A key way to understand marketing and its importance is to recognise that it’s about more than promotion. Marketing is about listening to and anticipating the wants, needs and pain-points of clients and customers so that you can improve your service and give them exactly what they seek through the delivery of a seamless end-to-end customer experience. This, in turn will win you more business now and in the future.

Marketing is understanding what your business is, finding out who you want to target and seeking out the best way to reach them.  

This is the approach we have taken at ESSA. We listened to our members and took on board their wants and needs in order to show demonstrable proof of their commitment to achieving the highest standards of health and safety benchmarks to operate in a safer and more sustainable way.

Some of this work resulted in the creation of ESSA Accredited, an annual company-level accreditation that offers reassurance to exhibitors, organisers and venues. This service has been well-received and yields positive results for us in attracting new members and ultimately ensuring the safe delivery of events.

ESSA Accredited also provides accredited member suppliers and contractors with that all-important tool to stand out amongst the competition, without having to invest in promotion.

Which leads me back to my first point regarding marketing investment and how it may be out of reach for many small businesses. This doesn’t have to be the case. Marketing doesn’t have to be a luxury that only the big companies can afford.

In addition to the many free marketing tools available to any business, such as social media - which, contrary to popular belief, does not have to be onerous, time-consuming or expensive to maintain - joining an association is one way to receive marketing benefits without having to invest too much time or money. Being a member of an association immediately sets you apart from the competition. For example, all ESSA members must agree to adhere to our Code of Conduct and Quality Service Charter.

In addition, when organisations join an association, they instantly become part of a community and receive support in key areas, including marketing. Many successful marketing strategies include networking – understanding who you want to reach and allowing you to find out what they want – and joining an association presents numerous networking opportunities.

There are a host of benefits members receive when they join ESSA and many of these help to raise the profile of a business with minimal effort. Members can promote themselves to other businesses and potential clients through our membership directory. Regular events are held for members, allowing them to learn more about the market they are operating in, meet like-minded business owners, glean best practice top tips for continual improvement, and better understand how to reach their customers so their businesses can grow.

Most of all, joining an association is joining a ready-made network of support and becoming part of something bigger thus increasing your ability to be seen. When membership grows, businesses grow and the industry becomes stronger - and safer - as a result. It’s a win-win for all and it doesn’t require a big marketing budget to get there.

Published in Exhibition News July 2022 

 

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