Seminars - Financial Services Marketing

In many ways, coordinating seminars is similar to preparing for trade shows. The big difference is that the roles of organizer, sponsor, marketer, operations director, and salesperson all belong to the host. From the selection of the topic, attendee mailing list, and venue selection to filling the seats and planning follow-up activities, all of the steps need to be carefully coordinated. Seminars can be highly successful or dismal failures. Although no one can control all of the factors that will attract prospective customers, there are ways to improve the odds of success.


Identify the target markets and their needs (for example, retirement planning or regulatory changes), and select the seminar topic that is important to them. In planning the presentation, determine if partners or additional experts are needed to speak on complicated or multifaceted topics. For example, a financial planner might invite an estate lawyer to participate in a seminar on estate planning. Seminars for institutional clients are sometimes expensive, several-day affairs. Bankers Trust (now part of Deutsche Bank) held client seminars at top-of-the-line resorts, such as Pebble Beach. Product experts and analysts, along with well known outside speakers, conducted morning sessions, then guests played golf or enjoyed wine tastings in the afternoons. High-net-worth clients also require special handling. A leading private client insurer held a successful event for directors of family offices at a private, terraced suite in the Stanhope Hotel in New York City. Clients sipped cocktails and gazed at the view of the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park while listening to speakers talk about art collecting and insuring collections.

The larger the event and the more speakers and guests, the longer and more complex the planning process. Outside speakers should be invited at least two to four months before the event in order to ensure firm commitments. If you’re planning a panel presentation, the ideal number of panelists is three. But invite four—or have a backup speaker—in case one of them must cancel at the last minute. Ideally, your speakers will confer with the organizer and one another at least a week before the event to make sure the material covered is relevant. Make it clear that speakers are there to educate the audience—not give a sales presentation. Offer speakers the ability to leave sales literature for attendees to take with them. It is polite to give your speakers a token gift usually worth less than $100. Obviously, you do not need to give a gift if you are paying for a speaker’s services.

Once the topic is established, the next step is to select a date for the seminar. This is not as easy as it sounds. In choosing a date and time, there are a number of things that need to be kept in mind:

  • Are other high-profile events planned for the date being considered? This could adversely affect attendance.
  • Typically July and August are not good months for seminars because of summer vacation plans, although some practitioners disagree and focus on these summer months because schedules tend to be less hectic.
  • Avoid mid-December to early January because of the crush of holiday obligations.
  • Avoid Sundays, Mondays, and major holidays. Some feel Friday nights can be effective if a reception is built into the evening.
  • Select a time and venue that will be convenient for the target audience.
  • Breakfast or immediately after the workday are generally good times to reach working people. Saturday mornings may be best for couples. Consider providing on-site babysitting services for couples with young children.

When selecting a venue, try to be creative. Look for locations that are unique, such as museums, art galleries, or new restaurants. This gives invitees another reason to attend. If a meal or refreshments will be served, be sure the venue can accommodate the need. There is a growing trend to host seminars in restaurants, where attendees enjoy a free meal along with the seminar. This will dramatically add to the cost of the seminar, so it should be factored in early on. If providing a meal, it is important to work closely with the restaurant owner or manager to understand all of the expenses that could be incurred.

Marketing the Seminar

There is always a worry that “confirmed” attendees will fail to show up. There are several ways to improve the odds of filling the seats:

  • Invitations must be sent out early enough (generally three to four weeks in advance). Make sure the invitation specifies where and how to RSVP by phone, e-mail, or reply card.
  • Phone follow-up within a week of mailing is optimal, but not always possible under do-not-call rules, unless you have a prior relationship. Consider, instead, inviting clients (whom you may call) and ask them to bring a friend.
  • Reconfirm with those who have said they will be attending. This should be done two to three days prior to the seminar and should serve as a reminder and to let guests know that you look forward to seeing them at the seminar.

Even with this approach, plan on at least 25 percent of “confirmed” attendees not showing up. If it rains or snows on the day of the event, attendance will drop even more.

As with any piece of direct mail, make sure the list is targeted and the communication addresses the audience’s needs. Response to your invitation will vary, depending on the topic, speaker, venue, list quality, and whether the invitees are customers or prospects. For a purchased prospect list and a run-of-the-mill topic, estimate a 1 to 2 percent response. This means that you will have to send five thousand pieces to fill a fifty-seat room. If you are mailing to your own customers, or have a big-name speaker, you could draw 10 percent or more. If you get lucky and are oversubscribed, you can always set up a second session. If the seminar will be marketed through newspaper or radio advertising, be sure to include a call to action—a phone number or Web address for reservations. This will provide a gauge as to the number of attendees that can be expected. Because these individuals are responding to a nameless and faceless ad, there may be less commitment on their part to attend, so no-show percentages will be higher.

During the Seminar

Determining how many people you will need to work the event and who they should be is vitally important. The presenters themselves will be kept busy on the day of the event, so staff will need to sign-in and greet attendees, answer questions from venue staff and guests, say hello to clients and special guests, make sure the refreshments are ready, and confirm that everything is running smoothly. When selecting seminar staff, make sure they are comfortable and conversant with the subject being covered so they can handle general questions. Pick people who are outgoing and approachable. Also be certain that the staff know the layout of the venue, including locations of restrooms, phones, coat check, and other amenities. Conduct a walk-through at least an hour before the start of the seminar. Assign someone to handle the audio/visual needs, including setting up the laptop and projector, raising and lowering the lights, and cueing slides and videos. When handled properly these details let the audience know that thought and preparation went into all aspects of the presentation. Conversely, lack of preparation—for instance, if the speaker needs to walk to the back of the room to lower and raise the lights—reflects poorly. Make sure all support staff are on-site at least sixty to ninety minutes prior to the start of the seminar.

Depending on the room configuration and the number of attendees, there are several options for the most appropriate seating arrangements:

  • Small tables for four. This seating arrangement has proven effective in seminars where clients are invited to bring friends. The client couple can enjoy private conversation with their friends before the seminar begins.
  • Tables of six or eight (preferably round tables) for seating people who do not necessarily know one another.
  • U-shaped arrangement of tables
  • Auditorium or classroom style

Regardless of the style chosen, make sure there is ample walking space and room for display tables, refreshments, and a speakers’ area.

The Presentation

The room looks great. The staff is getting attendees into their seats. Now it is up to the presenter to pull it all together and make the attendees grateful they came. The presentation should be delivered in a clear and understandable manner. If slides, overheads, or computer images are used, be sure they are clear and readable from every corner of the room. It is unprofessional to apologize for the readability of a presentation slide. The following guidelines will help ensure a successful talk:

  • If you are the one presenting, write out the main points of the presentation in advance and rehearse them with your colleagues. Do not read from a script—you’ll put everyone to sleep—but feel free to refer to notes.
  • The presentation and the information provided should be genuinely educational. The audience is there to learn—not for a sales pitch.
  • The presentation should be made as interactive as possible. Create opportunities for audience participation and encourage questions.
  • Limit each slide to one key point. Don’t crowd too much information onto one slide. Break up complex information into multiple slides. Estimate one to two slides per minute.
  • An audience’s attention span is thirty to forty-five minutes. Keep presentations within a reasonable time frame.
  • Provide attendees with handouts of material related to the seminar topic or a summary of the presentation itself.

Follow-up: The Key to Success

It is startling how many seminar leads are never pursued. As with trade shows, some people think that once the event is over, the job is done. Not following up is akin to training for a marathon, running the race of a lifetime, and just before the finish line, pulling up short and walking away. The end of the seminar signals the start of the real work, the stage at which follow-up and selling begins. Initiating a few simple practices will keep the lines of communication open:

  • Create a follow-up letter that can be sent to attendees immediately after the seminar.
  • Invitees who requested an appointment or additional material should be the highest priority and be contacted within forty-eight hours of the seminar.
  • Confirmed invitees who were unable to attend should be sent a letter indicating that a follow-up call will be made to answer any questions. Also, send a copy of the presentation or other relevant material.

Measuring Results

Return on investment in a seminar is relatively easy to assess. These are the important measurements:

  • Cost-per-qualified lead. Divide the overall costs of the seminar (invitations, space, refreshments, staff time, speakers’ gifts, handouts) by the number of those who responded (even if they didn’t attend). The cost-per-lead should be a metric that you will use to measure other seminar efforts.
  • New business. After following up with both attendees and no-shows at least once and preferably three to four times, total the new or additional business generated by these leads. If possible, project this business forward for one to three years.
  • ROI: Determine this figure by dividing new business by total cost.

In October 1997, twenty lucky co-workers won $55 million in the Texas Lottery. By the time they had verified their win, it was 2 a.m., but the group decided they did not want to risk losing the ticket. So they called up the president of Texas First Bank, who met them in downtown Texas City along with a lawyer and a justice of the peace. On the hood of a pickup, they drew up an official contract agreement, signed it, and stuffed it with the lottery ticket into the bank’s night deposit box. It’s not likely that similar winners could get hold of the president or anyone else at Bank of America or Wachovia in the middle of the night. That kind of customized, small-town service doesn’t exist much anymore. And yet, the country’s largest financial institutions are attempting to reintroduce something like it. Today, it gets fancy names—service marketing or relationship marketing or retention marketing or loyalty marketing or customer relationship management (CRM)—but it all means the same thing: finding a way to keep customers happy so they will stay and grow as customers.

In a saturated market like financial services, it is extremely important to focus marketing efforts on retaining, cross-selling, and up-selling current customers, in both consumer and institutional markets. Estimates of the cost of retaining customers versus acquiring them vary by factors of 5 to 10 times or more. Clearly, it is cheaper by orders of magnitude to retain current customers than it is to acquire new ones. Successful cross-sales can help build customer loyalty: the more products customers have, the more likely they will stay with the provider. Up-selling is important because the greater the percentage of assets a customer has with a given institution (known as “share of wallet”), the greater the profitability

Before you can grow customer assets, you have to make sure you keep the customers you have. In some subsegments of the industry, this is not difficult, because customers are virtually locked in. For example, holders of commercial mortgages are hemmed in by prepayment penalties; annuity policyholders generally pay a substantial penalty for early withdrawals. Even in situations where customers can move freely, they generally don’t. A private banking client has too much tied up in his banking relationship to change banks because someone offers a better deal. A corporate retirement plan sponsor may put millions of dollars at risk if it changes plan providers. In many cases, the rewards of moving just aren’t worth the costs—psychologically or financially.

But that doesn’t mean financial marketers can afford to ignore current customers. In some subsegments of financial services, customer turnover is relatively high. Credit card consumers who carry balances routinely switch to better interest rate offers. In mutual funds, many investors chase returns. By one estimate, defection of retail shareholders is more than 15 percent annually, and for retirement plans, annual asset outflow is 10 percent. Turnover on checking accounts can range from 10 percent to 17 percent or more in a competitive market—close to the national norm of 20 percent for service providers as a whole. There are also high-risk moments or trigger events that can cause loss of clients. A merger presents one such risk. If clients are going to have to adapt to

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