GRAND RAPIDS — Accounting, law and marketing firms are hosting more educational and social gatherings than they were just three years ago.
That’s according to marketing executives at professional service firms around West Michigan who say the trend is indicative that their companies need to become interactive to woo new business and connect with their broader communities.
“Events definitely play a part in developing revenue for service firms,” said Robin Burns, marketing director at Grand Rapids-based law firm Rhoades McKee PC. “In the past three years, our volume of events have increased and we are utilizing our budget differently, including how we complement events with other traditional marketing programs.”
A law firm with 50 attorneys, Rhoades McKee hosts roughly two to three educational events a month and has doubled its volume from three years ago. Currently, the company holds educational events to build value for its clients and colleagues, said Burns, who noted that the gatherings are offered free of charge.
“We are able to share recent legal developments and identify how those developments will impact them personally or their organization,” Burns said. “Also, at the cornerstone of business development for professional service firms is the element of building trust and developing relationships. And frankly, events provide the platform for attorneys to connect and share expertise with the community members.”
As the landscape continues to change for professional firms, companies like Grand Rapids-based Warner Norcross & Judd LLP must adapt and keep clients informed, said Sharon Sprague, the firm’s practice group coordinator.
The firm offers roughly 35 events per year, including a dozen client mixers, 10 seminars, five webinars and four client receptions, in addition to six receptions tied to industry events. That’s up 25 percent from three years ago, according to Sprague.
The anecdotal evidence of heightened event activity locally corresponds with data showing increased attendance for corporate events. According to the trade group Meeting Professionals International’s summer outlook report, attendance for in-person and virtual events is up and projected to grow 1.6 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.
“We try to be responsive and keep our clients informed,” Sprague said. “Hosting seminars and webinars is one tool we use to accomplish that. We use e-bulletins to get word out quickly to our clients, but sometimes it may be necessary to follow up with a program to give more detail and allow clients to ask questions and hear from/interact with our other clients about best practices, etc.”
Warner Norcross & Judd hosts webinars, human resource conferences and meetings regarding issues like cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles and drones, to name a few. The law firm also teams up with industry professionals for social events tied to meetings or conferences — like afterglow receptions at the Michigan Bankers Association meeting or the Michigan Colleges Alliance’s annual program on Mackinac Island, Sprague said.
“These can be as simple as a meeting after hours for drinks,” Sprague added. “We also host clients for purely entertainment purposes at venues like Van Andel Arena, DTE Music Theatre and Ford Field.”
Success with the social events even has allowed Warner Norcross to add two new business development managers “to help us with tracking and follow up after our events,” Sprague said.
“Oftentimes, people judge an event by the number of people who attend — did we have a good turnout?” Sprague said. “While we all want a good turnout at an event, I try to remind people that it’s not about quantity, but quality. I would rather have 10 people attend an event and make great connections and build relationships than a room of 100 who walk away feeling like the event was not a good use of their time.”
Grand Rapids-based accounting firm Hungerford Nichols has hosted an annual accountants seminar for 22 years, but a remodeling of its building on 2910 Lucerne Drive SE has led the company to scale back the number of events it hosts this year.
“We are hoping to have internal seminars. We … want to connect with clients to keep them engaged,” said Heather Halligan, marketing specialist at Hungerford Nichols. “The best way to connect with people is to stay connected in the community.”
At this point, Hungerford Nichols does not use events as part of a revenue stream, but that may change, Halligan said, adding that when construction of the firm’s building is complete, it will consider charging fees.
“We have attended a lot of mixers with other banks and law firms. We (attend) them a couple times a month,” Halligan said. “There’s probably a little bit of an increase (in events).”
WEBINARS VERSUS IN-PERSON MEETINGS
It may be the convenience of webinars, but companies are using the tool more than ever as a way to share content and information with their targeted audiences.
According to a 2016 survey from the New York City-based Content Marketing Institute (CMI), two-thirds of business-to-business marketers use webinars as a marketing tool. As well, two-thirds of B2B marketers also rated webinars as effective, second only to in-person events.
“The nice thing about a webinar is the convenience — in and out in an hour,” Halligan said. “People may get distracted with webinars, might not be fully engaged … so it’s important to understand who your audience is and be mindful of their time. Your speakers needed to be educated and good speakers. It’s good to have a mix of people who are going to get benefits from the meeting.”
At Rhoades McKee, Burns said the firm uses webinars when the audience is familiar with the platform or technology.
“When we evaluate the medium of an event — webinar versus in-person meeting — we consider the complexity of the content and the target audience,” Burns said. “Our current space was designed to also include a medium-size educational space. To have this space incorporated within our office provided us the opportunity to put on cost-effective events either as a webinar or in-person speaking event.”
Meanwhile, Warner Norcross uses webinars because “it allows more people to participate from more locations with less travel expense and time away from the office, but we miss out on the more personal interaction with clients,” Sprague said.
This makes in-person programs and webinars equally important to a company’s public reach, Sprague said.
“One of our programs draws about 400 attendees, which tells us that clients also see the value in attending programs in person,” she said. “We do not use seminars as a revenue stream. For us, it’s all about client service.”