How To Make Your Event Habit-Forming

By Michelle Bruno
June 21, 2023

A wise and experienced data nerd (we’ll hear more from him below) once said that the one thing that keeps attendees coming back to an event year after year is a habit. And while getting people “hooked” on your event sounds sinister, there is research and empirical proof that it works if you have a viable attendee pipeline to nurture.

A habit-forming framework

In his ground-breaking book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” behavioral design expert Nir Eyal provides a four-phase model for habit formation. The framework applies to any type of product, including business-to-business events. For example:

  • Trigger phase: the user receives an explicit cue to engage in a particular behavior. The trigger for B2B events could be registration, i.e., to access the promised benefits—interesting people and life-changing opportunities—one must first sign up.
  • Action phase: the user behaves a certain way in anticipation of a reward, i.e., to continue this tantalizing journey of discovery and renewal, B2B event organizers require attendance.
  • Reward phase: the user “scratches an itch.” B2B event organizers that execute effectively pay participants in relationships, knowledge, opportunity, recognition and experience for attending.
  • Investment phase: the user puts something (stored value) into the product, which makes it more valuable to them with use. Arguably, most B2B event organizers do poorly at this stage.

Events as subscriptions

Eyal’s thoughts on how subscription services fail are similar to B2B event organizers’ challenges in making their events habit-forming. Common errors in both camps include:

  1. Too many steps to psychological relief (when a product becomes more difficult to use than other options for satisfying the same need). Subscribers lose interest when the product or service is too hard to use. So too, when the complexity of event attendance (costs, work replacements, schedules, lost productivity, logistics, flight cancellations, childcare, travel documents, stress) outweighs the “other options,” it’s easy to see how attendees can break their attendance habit.

  2. Not offering enough novelty. Subscriptions that don’t continuously surprise and delight customers eventually die. B2B events also struggle with what Eyal defines as people’s “insatiable curiosity” and constant search for “the new and better thing.” It’s much easier and more cost-effective for organizations to wash, rinse and repeat programming than re-imagine the event every. single. year.

  3. Lack of stored value (when a product doesn’t provide users with value over time). The stored value in subscriptions, Eyal writes, can take many forms, including “contributing data, adding content, accruing followers, making connections and building a reputation.” However, the stored value in B2B events: making connections, acquiring knowledge, recognizing opportunity, earning recognition or having an experience—immediately diminishes when the event ends.

Nabbing and nurturing superfans

Despite the difficulties, some event organizers are finding ways to make their events habit-forming. Joe Pulizzi, Founder of Content Marketing World (purchased by Informa in 2016) and Co-Founder of Creator Economy Expo (CEX), has honed some finely tuned attendee-retention tactics over the years. 

Before the inaugural CEX, which took place at the height of global interest in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and Web3, Pulizzi created the Never Ending Ticket (NET), which offered holders (they’re sold out now) lifetime admission to CEX and a collection of other recurring benefits.

Besides being a habit-forming attendee retention strategy (and an excellent example of Eyal’s stored value concept), the NET program delivers other built-in benefits—the backing of a group of superfans who will “support the event with everything they’re doing [creators supporting a creator event] and not just by showing up,” Pulizzi explains.

Pulizzi and team have introduced other habit-inducing campaigns at their events. In the formative years of Content Marketing World, they displayed a Wall of Fame with photos of everyone who consecutively attended the event. “I think it’s important for [attendees] to know we pay attention to the people that attend, and it’s meaningful [to us] that they were there from the beginning,” he says.

Pulizzi has a penchant for “remembering the little things that bigger events frequently take a pass on.” Speakers are often the object of these small gestures. Whether inviting the audience to sing happy birthday to someone’s young daughter, having Lola Bistro’s beef cheek pierogi on hand or delivering a tequila to the stage, attendees witnessing these displays of speaker devotion are likely to become event devotees themselves.

And while it’s kind of a no-brainer that content would play a key role in attendee retention for an event about content creation, Pulizzi is a fervent believer in the power of almost daily newsletters, podcasts, motivational messages or “something of value” delivered to the audience so “when we do ask for the [event registration] sale, they’re more open to it,” he says.

Getting before keeping

Before you can retain attendees, you must have already acquired them. But for many B2B organizers, that’s a problem. Joe Colangelo, Co-Founder of Bear Analytics (and the aforementioned “wise and experienced data nerd”), explains that during Covid, the natural, top-of-funnel influx of first-time attendees, those normally converted to sophomores and so on, was interrupted. Plus, many alums changed positions, left their firms, or moved to other industries.

The resulting shrinkage in the total addressable attendee market impacts an organizer’s retention strategy. “In the next three to four years, customer lifetime value will be determined by how aggressively, thoughtfully and strategically you go after this new top-of-funnel group,” Colangelo says. 

Colangelo advises the following:

[Aggressive] Be agile—review marketing data weekly, daily or hourly and act immediately with outreach targeting the individuals and the channels most likely to convert. There's no going back to pre-programmed marketing campaigns, Colangelo says.

[Aggressive] Fail fast—Discover what's working or rule out what's not working as soon as possible. There are lots of marketing tactics out there. Stay focused and maintain the marketing momentum.

[Thoughtful] Personalize messaging—when you want your event to become habit-forming for attendees, show them you know them. Use data (and soon, artificial intelligence) to track their behaviors, acknowledge their needs and appeal to their desires.

[Strategic] Use more tools—New marketing channels have come online recently. "No one was using TikTok to market their events in 2018," Colangelo suggests, but they may want to consider doing so today.

[Strategic] Cast a wider net—Go after attendee prospects in ways you may not have considered before. If your inbound pipeline is temporarily tapped out, work with publishers on a paid media strategy to create and distribute articles or white papers to a potentially new audience.

Making your customers crave your event is becoming more complex. Let DAHLIA+Agency help you develop a habit-forming retention strategy.

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