Over the past three years, the seminar marketing landscape has been turned upside down by the introduction of using digital advertising to promote seminars and workshops.

This new approach has caused financial professionals to adjust their strategies, from how they manage planning and executing the events to refining the topics they present to their prospects.

Many financial professionals are now learning that traditional ways of holding seminars no longer work. For example, offering a meal can actually lower response rates and make the event less successful. More and more often, people sign up for an education, not a meal.

(Related: ‘Leave Your Checkbook at Home’: New Seminar Alert Update)

Because of this I have observed an exponential increase in educational events like Social Security, estate planning and tax planning workshops. At the same time, I’m seeing a drop in traditional multi-topic dinner seminars. Producers are simply finding increased success and lower costs from the educational events than they have in the past.

1. Direct mail doesn’t work like it used to.

Just like everyone else, baby boomers are beginning to use digital devices and social media is becoming the most effective way to reach them. According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of people age 50 to 64 and 41% of people older than age 65 are on Facebook. In addition, almost 80% of Facebook users have a household income of at least $75,000. Just a few years ago this wasn’t the case and direct mail was still the best way to reach this audience.

Now, financial professionals are experiencing lower response rates on their mail campaigns. A 1% response rate on mail used to be considered average. A producer could send 5,000 invitations for two seminars and expect to have about 25 people in the room each night. Now, many are having to send 10,000 to 12,000 invitations to get the same amount of responses, significantly increasing the cost of their mail campaigns.

But producers who run digital campaigns are finding a dramatic increase in registrations, at a lower cost per conversion. For example, I recently spoke to a producer in New Mexico. He was holding a Social Security workshop in a rural area with an extremely low population. In fact, his audience size was so small, he wasn’t confident about what would work. He decided to experiment by splitting his budget between direct mail and digital. He spent $2,500 on mailing 4,000 postcards, in addition to a $1,400 social media campaign.

His results for both campaigns were actually better than expected. The mailers generated 27 registrations, or a 0.7% response rate. But his digital campaign delivered 63 household registrations (over 100 total people), costing him only $22.22 per lead—less than a quarter of the cost of his direct mail leads.

2. Advisors no longer need to experiment to perfect their campaigns.

Current digital platforms are robust and dependable, and event planners should be able to understand the outcomes before they start their campaigns. When direct mail was the most effective way to send out invitations, experimentation wasn’t much of an option. Split testing usually didn’t get much more complicated than trying out two competing headlines on the mailers, or maybe showing a picture of a steak on half of the invites and crab legs on the other half. This was a slow, cumbersome and expensive process, and producers didn’t get much usable feedback until after each campaign was completed.

But now, digital marketers can easily test multiple elements in a campaign, all in real time. For example, they can design multiple ad groups, all employing different images, headlines, body copy, demographics or even calls to action. As soon as a campaign launches, marketers can monitor which ad sets are or are not performing well. Then, they can quickly increase ad spend to the groups that are working and reduce or even eliminate the ads that don’t perform well. This allows them to adjust campaign elements and continually increase conversions while reducing costs.

As an example, getting a conversion to a retirement income planning workshop via direct mail often costs as much as $125 per household registration. Meanwhile, a similar Facebook campaign may start off with a conversion cost at around $85 and after a few days of optimization that cost often drops to as low as $30 to $40.

3. But: Should you feed your guests?

In the days of direct mail, buying dinner for seminar guests wasn’t really an option. It was a necessity. Inviting guests to a free dinner and a retirement seminar was often the only way to get people interested in signing up. But now, the digital world is changing all of that. For years, baby boomers have been getting postcards and wedding style invitations mailed to them on a regular basis. They are used to seeing these types of offers and understand that the free dinner comes along with some sort of a sales presentation.

But the same does not hold true for online offers. This audience is relatively new to social media and likely a little more skeptical about the ads they are shown. They are comfortable signing up for educational events, but as soon as they’re offered food, they shy away from registering. In fact, I’ve seen digital campaigns that offer food generally get about half as many registrations versus a similar event held at a library or small college campus. Over time, this may change. People may become more responsive to Facebook dinner seminar invitations, but for now, the educational workshop is the best way to persuade them to sign up.

— Connect with ThinkAdvisor Life/Health on LinkedIn and Twitter.


Chris Hooper

Chris Hooper is director of seminar services with M&O Marketing, Southfield, Mich. He has over 20 years of experience in event management and digital marketing.