The Changing Role of Health Professional Conferences

Over the past year, one of the common themes that comes up when we talk with healthy food brands is the role that conferences can and should play in their efforts to reach health professionals. Once a cornerstone of a brand’s health professional marketing plans, conferences and expos are coming under scrutiny as the marketing landscape evolves.

So, if you find yourself asking whether or not the expenditure of time, energy and money to attend health professional conferences is worth the return, you are not alone.

Increasingly, healthy brands are finding that the costs involved with conference participation are outweighing the benefits. Conferences are expensive, require significant investments of time and resources, and—despite the face-to-face time with professionals—can be of questionable value if the interactions are superficial or the professionals are not reflective of your brand’s target professional.

To do the cost-benefit analysis for your healthy brand, you need to begin with your goals.

We have come to realize that there are three main objectives every brand has when they choose to attend a professional conference:

  1. Increase brand visibility among target health professionals

  2. Build relationships with media and thought-leader health professionals

  3. Encourage professional to recommend your product(s) to patients and clients

These three objectives should be top of mind when analyzing your past conference investments and considering future ones. Let's consider a typical conference’s ability to deliver on these objectives.

Brand (In)Visibility

There are certainly lots of professionals in attendance at any quality professional conference. Indeed, approximately 8,000 dietitians attended the most recent FNCE (Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo). Sponsoring a booth or event at a well-attended conference will certainly get your brand in front of a large number of professionals.

But those attendance numbers can be deceiving. Our experience shows that most brands will interact directly with only about 15% of health professionals in attendance. But here’s the kicker: Nearly half of those that you do interact with will not be in a position to help you meet your goals. Whether they are students, academics, consultants, or even retirees, a large percentage of health professionals at conferences aren't media professionals, thought leaders, or even everyday professionals counseling patients and clients.

So despite the impressive top-line attendance number, your brand will likely only see a potential return on investment from less than 10% of that audience. A sobering reality.

Influencing the Influencers?

One of our favorite questions to ask marketers manning booths at professional conferences is, “What happens the day after the conference ends?” Unfortunately, most don’t have a good answer for how they will continue to engage these professionals once the event has ended.

If the goal is to encourage these professionals to spread their influence directly to consumers, then the investment in a conference presence is wasted if there is no follow-up, no continuity, no plan to further engage interested health professionals.

Face-to-face interactions at conferences can be invaluable for healthy brands. They help you learn about how your product is perceived, what information is most meaningful to professionals, and how you can best meet their needs. But if there is no plan in place to arm those professionals with the tools and resources they will need to share your brand with patients and clients directly, then it is a high price to pay for some insights.

It is also worth remembering that, during a health professional conference, you are competing against dozens—if not hundreds—of other brands for the time and attention of that professional. Post-conference engagement allows you to connect with that professional in a meaningful way over time. Without the clutter and noise of the expo floor—and with the ability to add real value to their interactions with patients and clients.

Bottom line? A fleeting interaction on an expo floor does not lead to lasting professional relationships with your brand—nor will it drive sales.

Conference Alternatives in this Evolving Landscape

So, are we suggesting that conferences aren't worth your time or money? Absolutely not. Health professional conferences can drive significant value for your brand—but you need to be realistic about the outcomes and weigh those clearly against the level of investment you are willing to make. If approached correctly, conferences can build awareness, create buzz, source professionals who want to engage with your brand, and identify opportunities for promotion and communication. Otherwise, they can be a poor investment of time and money.

When a conference or expo doesn't make sense for your brand, here are some alternatives:

  • Utilize paid media and strategic sponsorships of HCP events, webinars, e-blasts, or similar tactics throughout the year. Your brand will be the focal point of these efforts, not competing with others during a crowded, hectic conference week.

  • Build relationships with media and thought leader dietitians through media relations efforts and strategic sponsorship of smaller, more focused events.

  • Engage in direct HCP outreach efforts, including targeted mailings, sampling, website fulfillment, and other ongoing engagement strategies.

Want to pick our brains further about conferences and their alternatives? We’re happy to talk:


Photo credit: balance scale (modified), influence, Deciding Which Door to Choose 2 (modified)