Are You An Influencer or a Decision Maker?
By Tom McCulloch, CMO
Note: A shorter version of ‘Are You An Influencer or a Decision Maker?’ was published in Special Events on May 9, 2017. McCulloch presented this topic at the 2018 The Special Event conference in his session named “’Wear Pink Underwear’ and Five Other Tips To Move From Being an Event Influencer to Event Decision-Maker.”
It was following a life changing event at the age of 13 when I truly learned about decision making 101. My father, a Navy man and disciplinarian, informed my brothers and me that we were to take on some new responsibilities in the household. Those responsibilities came with learning to make decisions for ourselves. From doing chores to making our own meals, to getting ourselves to school on time, this taught me a lot about responsibility, independence and the importance of research. There was very little guidance and certainly “No app for that!”
One of those responsibilities included learning to do my own laundry. One day, to save time, I crammed all my whites into the washing machine along with my favorite red baseball shirt. You can probably guess the result – all of my clothes turned pink. When I explained this to my father and asked if the household budget allowed for new clothes he told me emphatically, “Son, I am proud that you took action. But, wear the pink underwear. No one will ever know.”
It was that experience that made me read directions and learn to wash like colors with like colors. But this life lesson was so much more – it taught me the freedom of independence and that making mistakes is part of learning on the road to success. It also made me realize that making informed decisions was imperative to success. It led me to a career of asking a lot of questions and in turn allowed me to create, lead and execute with confidence hundreds of conferences, events and marketing projects over my 23 years in this industry.
In the world of meeting and event planning I wish there were more pink clothing experiences. I talk to influencers daily who could be decision makers if they only were better informed, took the liberty of doing their research and were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. But far too often I find influencers are simply afraid their “pink underwear” experience is too much of a risk. To make matters worse, I find that some CEO’s, COO’s or vice presidents of sales/marketing are not helping the situation. They fail to educate, teach, train or share pertinent information with their people which doesn’t fortify their decision-making abilities. Perhaps it is a power thing? Or perhaps it is ego? But when talking to C-level business people, many are embracing the influencer generation yet have a desire for more decision makers on their payroll.
So, what can you do about it? Know the difference between an influencer and a decision maker – and which one you are at your organization. An influencer is one that shares valuable thoughts and ideas but does not have the authority to make a final decision. A decision maker is one who understands an overall plan and its objectives and has the authority to make a decision. Through detailed research and smart planning, planners can make this transition by demanding answers to five basic questions from their executives when planning their next conference, product launch, special event or networking experience.
I find myself asking strategic questions at every turn to ensure I have the most pertinent information to make decisions for my organization. I strongly believe that meeting and event planners can move from being influencers to decision makers by simply taking initiative. Here are questions to consider when making that move.
Who is the Audience?
Who is the target audience to which you are trying to appeal? What do you want them to get out of your program? Are you surveying them for feedback to assist in creating your agenda? Does your CRM allow you to pull the correct audience type in order to effectively market to them?
Focus on the fundamental element that makes meetings and events successful: the people. Taking just moments to nail down key information about attendees can make an immeasurable impact on your ability to plan successful events or programs that meets their specific needs.
What is the Objective?
What outcome is management expecting from the meeting or event? Is it to generate motivation to sell more? Is it to create excitement for a new product or service? I am often amazed at the size of budgets for a conference or an event while the objectives are so very broad. Understanding the objective will help you and your team create response vehicles inside your program to gather information from your audience related to your products and services. Do not leave the conference room without understanding the target audience or targeted objectives. Once you have them, write them down. Make them visible in your office somewhere. Share them with every team member working on your program. Make sure that every dollar you spend on the program supports the objectives and is reaching your target audience.
What is the messaging or theme?
Once you gain agreement from your executive team on both the target audience and the objectives, then begin to frame your messaging. What messages resonate with this group? Try not to over complicate it but rather simplify your message with a tagline. Create a supportive theme. Try engaging a graphic designer either in-house or through a freelancer. Design some themes that integrate your brand and carry a tag line to support your messaging. Bounce your theme past a few contacts within your target audience. Find out if it resonates with them. If not, ask why. Then, use all of this feedback to adjust your theme and present it to your executive team for approval. There is nothing worse than a theme, logo and tagline that fall short on-site at a conference or event. And, even worse, I have listened to executives on stage question a themes meaning in front of attendees. Be sure to acquire executive buy-in and then integrate that theme in everything that you do (website, signage, stage design, PowerPoint or Keynote presentation slides, marketing materials, on-site agenda, networking events and more).
We’ve established that an influencer is one that shares valuable thoughts and ideas but does not have the authority to make a final decision. A decision maker is one who understands an overall plan and its objectives and has the authority to make a decision. Event managers can make the move to decision maker by asking strategic questions and gathering all necessary information each step of the way. To continue our discussion, below are two final questions you’ll need to consider when making event decisions.
Is the time frame realistic to deliver?
I have had the opportunity to witness meeting and event planners being told they have only a few weeks to pull off a conference or large-scale event. It takes weeks just to acquire the previous points I outlined in this article surrounding audience, objective and theme. It surprises me that corporations are willing to spend so much money to rush through an event only to be disappointed that they did not achieve their end results due to simple lack of preparation. If you are managing a full-scale National Sales Meeting you need many months – ideally 12-18 months or more. In today’s world of a rebounding hospitality market it is difficult to even find a venue that supports your objectives and audience size in less than six months. Your venue should also support your objective and company brand. Don’t rush to book or you will experience poor results on your survey following the program. Again, be strategic here and educate your executive team on why a certain property supports the overall plan and objectives.
What is the budget?
Finally, the most important question to ask. You need a realistic budget to be successful. I often find the challenge here to be that most executives do not truly know the cost of conferences or events. Your job is to educate them. Put together a rough budget. Estimate cost of airfare, hotel, food, creative services, transportation, stage production and networking events. Not sure how to acquire this information? Leverage your strategic partners to help you. Rather than wait for a budget number to be delivered to you that was created behind closed doors with very little practical insight, create a detailed one with a little room to cover overages. Present it and prepare to educate others on the numbers based on your research.
One last brief comment on leveraging your strategic partners: Do you have strategic partners or vendors? A strategic partner is one that would like to sit in on meetings with management to acquire the answers to these questions. A vendor simply wants you to use them for a tactical project. While a strategic partner will challenge you and if allowed – your executive team– on your audience, objectives, messaging, timeline and budget to help ensure your success. Many strategic partners will even assist in creating the budget for you, and if desired, will assist you in presenting your plan to your executive team.
Remember, you will encounter mistakes along the way. But those mistakes will be minor if your plan is solid and you have answers to the five questions listed in this series. Going through this entire experience will help you gain trust from management and move you from being an influencer on your events and conferences to one who owns the decision-making progress on future programs.
Tom McCulloch joined Minneapolis-based metroConnections in 1998 after having been a customer for almost five years. As chief marketing officer, McCulloch is responsible for strategic marketing, client services and sales oversight. His background includes marketing development for high-tech software companies including creation and management of conferences. McCulloch got his start in the industry working for a promotions firm, traveling the nation developing branded road tours and seminars for clients that included IBM, Microsoft, Sports Illustrated, Isuzu, MCI, Good Housekeeping and others.
Follow Tom McCulloch on LinkedIn to view his past publications and read updated posts. Or, view related industry material in our other articles and team blogs here.