Forget the marketing budget if you want long lasting event success

Lasting event success of Woodford Festival

I recently read an address from Bill Hauritz, the founder and director of the long running Woodford Folk Festival. His insights on building lasting event success, measured by patronage and supporter loyalty, struck me as incredibly relevant to those of us who strive to develop successful, long lasting fundraising events. This is especially so given the current landscape of heavily marketed challenge fundraising events that seem to pop up, only to disappear after a year or two.

Woodford - loyal supportersThe 6 day Woodford Festival turns 30 this year and has over the years taken its place, according to many commentators, as one of the leading music and arts festivals anywhere in the world. I can testify to this enduring success as our family prepares to return for our second attendance this year.

In Bill’s address he looks back on what they learnt over the years and what they have in common the other similarly successful festivals. He notes, slightly tongue in cheek, that their marketing strategy in 1998 stated,

Our objective is to sell $2 million dollars in tickets for people to come and camp in an ill-prepared campsite, use less than quality amenities, in either searing heat or teeming rain for a week to listen to a host of obscure artists. The advertising budget is zero.

Having long since surpassed those targets, he notes that, without exception all successful festivals started small and grew organically.  Meaning they became popular and grew, not because of slick marketing campaigns, but rather because people who came to the festival and enjoyed it, returned the following year and brought their friends. At the core of their campaign was the traditional marketing principles of listening to and delighting your customers, and making them long term ambassadors.

Transferring these principles to our industry, we can see how events that have built a community, such as the Oxfam Trailwalker, have Oxfam Trailwalker - a model of lasting event sucessavoided the normal event popularity drop off after 5 or 6 years, whilst those that have followed the fashion and fad marketing model have much faster declines. Whilst it is tempting for a fundraising or event manager to set lofty fundraising or attendance goals for the first year of an event, hitting those targets is likely to force corners to be cut and the delight factors to be dropped to make it work. It is the manager who sets out with a vision for how an event will deliver lifetime value through participant loyalty that is likely to be able to put their name to having founded, and importantly built, the next Trailwalker.