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Event Marketing: Short Shelf Life vs. Long Shelf Life

A common practice in marketing is to hold events to announce a new product’s marketing calendar, enlisting the lion’s share of resources leading up to the event. Once all the work is done and all the materials are published, you forget about the last event and start working on the next one. It’s reminiscent of magazine publishing.

At one time, James was editor in chief of ComputerUser magazine, a monthly tabloid-style magazine distributed in large markets across the United States. His team spent all month working on the publication. As soon as it was at the printer, they started working on the next one. The only time they worried about previous issues was when they needed to issue corrections, which was rare.

About halfway through James’ tenure at ComputerUser, the company started a website that supported the print publication. It started simply by publishing content online and by adding daily columns from columnists such as James. This inaugural website predated blogs, but the concept was the same: It allowed moderated comments not just on the daily columns but on the magazine articles.

The publish-and-forget model didn’t work too well once ComputerUser moved to the web. ComputerUser soon found out that the articles published needed regular updates as users commented and otherwise contributed alongside the community of readers of the publication. Eventually, the community influenced the print editorial calendar, making it much more responsive to what the readers of the website showed the most interest in.

This experience convinced James that web audiences differ in fundamental ways from print audiences—and that is the main point of James’ book Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, which he wrote with Frank Donatone and Cynthia Fishel. The difference can be summed up in the attitude of the audiences: Whereas print audiences lean back to consume the content you provide, web audiences lean forward to interact with the content you provide. This might seem like an obvious thing, but when you unpack it, it gives you a rich way of understanding how to better engage with digital audiences—because digital marketing content invites interaction, too. While very few people engage with your digital content (share it, comment on it, like it, etc.), everyone is clicking their way to every piece of content they see, which is far different than in traditional media, where the content is essentially curated for consumers once they open a magazine or choose the TV channel. In other words, nothing happens online unless you click a lot. A lot can happen on TV if you click once.

This difference makes the event marketer’s publish-and-forget model untenable on the web. James’ print publication was recycled the moment after people read it. (ComputerUser’s copy editor lined her bird cage with it.) Print periodicals are archived, but the vast majority of readers experience it only in the month it is printed. Unlike print, web assets are available to users long after they are published and need to be updated as the facts on the ground change.

When you publish and forget on the web, your old assets become clutter that gets in the way of the assets you are trying to promote. A lot of event marketing sites are shut down after the event is over, which is a complete waste of much of the equity the event produced with the audience. But if you manage to have the same site for related events, one year of regular events with their own sets of assets soon becomes an incoherent mess of vaguely related content. Fragmented sites become less useful and more expensive over time.

The way to avoid this mess is to develop a content strategy that enables you to build a coherent site from repeated events. Before you publish content, you must plan to maintain and add onto that content to create a coherent and more comprehensive site over time. You also must plan to archive content when it is no longer useful or timely. The best content management tools automate these activities.

Lest this all sound neat and tidy and easy to plan, we must remind you that the data sets we use to understand audience preferences and attitudes are imperfect collections—and those preferences change over time. Natural language is fraught with all kinds of ambiguities and vagueness. Because you can never know in advance exactly how your audience will interact with your content, you must adjust content after publishing. Unlike with print, you can progressively improve your web content to better fit the needs of your audience over time. This is the premise of Mike’s book Do It Wrong Quickly, in which he explains how to fail faster in order to succeed more fully in the end.

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