Building a Referral Funnel To Convert More Attendees


By Michelle Bruno

Referral marketing is another way to describe word-of-mouth marketing. In the digital age, however, referrals can come from many more places than buyers’ mouths. That’s a good thing because it expands the universe of potential referrers as well as the opportunities for garnering referrals. When a Referral-marketing strategy, like a referral funnel, is aligned with pre-show (digital) attendee promotion tactics, the door to converting more attendees through referrals is pushed wide open.


The Referral Funnel for a Trade Show

A typical referral-marketing funnel for an exhibition includes four stages:

  • Participation—People receive or discover information about the show.
  • Sharing—Individuals pass on a link to register to friends or colleagues.
  • Referral—Friends and colleagues get the registration link and go to the registration website.
  • Conversion—People register for the event and/or actually attend.


How to Move Attendee Prospects to Conversion

Prospects at every stage of the referral funnel need a nudge to push the referral along.

Participation Stage of the Referral Funnel—Not every visitor to your website, person on your email list, or follower on your social media sites will attend your trade show. They may, nevertheless, forward information about it to a friend or colleague whom they believe might benefit. Your job is to acknowledge these types of participants—those who love your brand or your agenda, but have schedule conflicts, for instance—and make it easier for them to participate in your referral program. Here’s how:

  • Place sharing widgets, buttons, banners, or icons everywhere that attendee prospects go online, including the show website, blog posts, online communities, and standalone referral pages.
  • Make sure the widgets and buttons, etc. clearly explain that they enable prospects to send registration capabilities to others—possibly in return for an incentive.
  • Promote the referral program in email marketing campaign, online advertising campaigns and through social media outreach. Be sure to target online influencers.
  • Place referral links in transactional emails, such as membership payment confirmations, monthly newsletters, and staff email signatures.

Sharing Stage—some number of participants will share a link to your show registration website with others. They may do so from your website or an email or when they are registering for the event themselves. In fact, registration represents a powerful opportunity for planners to provide would-be attendees with tools to invite others via email or their social media networks. Recommendations from people who are already customers are more powerful and likely to convert than those coming from individuals who only noticed that the show was taking place. Consider registration tools with these capabilities:

  • Sharing buttons appear (usually on the confirmation page) after an attendee completes his registration asking him to announce that he has registered and share the registration link with everyone on his social networks.
  • Attendees log into registration using LinkedIn or another social network and receive suggestions of specific individuals in the registrant’s network—those who fit a profile of potential attendees—to also invite to the trade show.
  • Attendees register for the event without using a social login, but receive the option to email registration links to friends or colleagues.
  • Attendees who share receive an incentive, such as a $5.00 Starbucks gift certificate for every share.

Referral Stage—Even when friends and colleagues click through on a registration link shared with them by a friend, they don’t always register. Some simply want to consider attending. Others may need a little encouragement before they actually sign up. At this stage, there are a couple of things that organizers can do to help the transaction along, diagnose abandoned registrations, or leverage the successful referral:

  • Offer an appropriate incentive. For example, if there is a charge for registration, provide a discount. Consider rewarding new attendees (those who have never attended before) with an even bigger reward.
  • Let the new registrant know that if he registers, the friend who referred the registration link to him will also receive a reward.
  • Use A/B testing to try out different incentives to see which ones work the best.
  • Keep the referral momentum going by giving the attendee who registers based on a link shared with them by a friend the same opportunities to share with others in their own networks.

Conversion Stage—the bottom of the funnel can refer to two different types of outcomes. For example, trade shows in the U.K. are often free to attend. The bigger challenge for them is to motivate registrants to actually attend. Thus, conversion means attendance. In The U.S. though, organizers offer a full conference registration that includes the exhibits or an exhibits-only registration that is either free or much lower than a full conference registration. In these cases, conversion may simply mean registration. In either case, there are a number of things that organizers should do to validate the value of the referral funnel:

  • Tally the number of registrants or attendees that resulted from the referral- marketing strategy.
  • Determine where the referrals came from and tag those individuals as influencers in the attendee database.
  • Calculate the cost per referral and compare it to the cost per acquisition of an attendee when it is not attributed to a referral.
  • Determine the total increase in revenue or registrations from referrals.


Get Started With Referral Marketing

Moving people through a referral funnel requires a strategy, consistent measurement at every stage of the funnel, and tools that can track the provenance of a referral. Many organizers are coming to the realization that referral marketing is well worth the effort. Registrations that come from referrals are proven to be less expensive and attendees that come from referrals are more loyal over the long term. Start with a platform like Gleanin to learn how referral marketing can work (and pay for itself) and expand from there. 

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