The Government Marketing Shutdown

Photo of Allan Rubinby Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

As the government shutdown continues into its second week, the effects for government marketers are coming into sharper focus. Over the past week and a half we’ve seen real-world examples of how this is impacting marketing plans across the industry. These include:

  • Trade Shows – As expected, these are either being postponed (like GEOINT 2013 Symposium and NextGov Prime) or cancelled altogether. GEOINT organizers noted that the recently-passed “Pay Our Military Act” allowed most Defense Department personnel to return to their jobs alongside the excepted personnel who were still working. However, it also included language making it impossible for personnel to travel (except in direct support of operational forces) or attend events.
  • Other Events – We’re seeing the cancellations and postponements extended beyond trade shows to include tabletop events, single-vendor events, user groups and others.
  • Date Conflicts – As event dates shift to the right, many are encroaching on other events planned for the same time periods, which will cannibalize attendance and increase competition for eyeballs (even within the same organization in some cases).
  • Promotion of Future Activities – Even if your webinar or event is supposed to take place in November or later, you still need several weeks of runway to promote it. Many Feds can’t check email or answer their phones, and those that aren’t furloughed likely have other priorities on which to focus. Don’t forget to review your promotional plans and adjust accordingly, especially as we creep closer to the holidays.
  • Government Speakers – Getting travel approval was difficult enough already. In addition to that headache, many Public Affairs offices aren’t open to approve speaker participation for upcoming or future events. Even if your likely speakers are still on the job and have approval, they’re likely unable to speak anyway as that won’t be considered an “essential” function.
  • Messaging – Try getting a word in edgewise with PR, social media, and content marketing…all anyone wants to talk about is the shutdown, which crowds out every other message we’re putting out there. Once your prospects return to the office, they’ll be focused on catching up on several weeks of work that were missed. Getting their attention will be more challenging than ever, and it’s likely to take more time and effort.
  • Paid Media – Many print, radio, and online ad campaigns are already running and can’t be undone.
  • Sales Follow-up – One silver lining with the shutdown’s timing is that not many marketing campaigns take place in September. However, for those with longer sales follow-up cycles, it will be harder to reach recent attendees to try to pour names into your pipeline and document ROI.

We don’t yet know how long this will continue, so what’s a marketer to do? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Focus on DoD First – Not everyone is there, and those that are may not be interested in talking right now, but civilian agencies will be hit harder and take longer to dig out when they return.
  2. Contact Event Organizers and Speakers – Make sure you understand how the shutdown is impacting those events for which you’ve made a commitment, how promotional plans will be adjusted, whether speakers are still planning to participate, and what recourse you have if things don’t progress as planned.
  3. Adjust Your Plans – Analyze your annual campaign calendar, upcoming email blasts, and budget, all with an eye towards minimizing lost value or creating campaign overlap/conflict in the coming months.
  4. Clean House – It’s always difficult to take the time to close out old campaigns, perform list maintenance, and summarize the results of what you completed last month. Catch up on best practice articles, see what the competition has been up to, and join those social media groups you haven’t had time to think about. Now might be your chance.
  5. Engage with Channel Partners and Systems Integrators – Many of them have extra time on their hands right now, so it’s a great time to reach out and build relationships. Update them on your new products, value proposition changes, competitive differentiators, changes to marketing plans, etc.
  6. Do Your Homework – Any down time you may experience today can be used to make tomorrow’s activities more effective. If you subscribe to GovWin IQ or a similar service, do some research now to ensure your upcoming plans are as targeted and relevant as possible. If you’re an immixGroup client, make sure you tune in to watch our upcoming FY14 Market Intelligence Budget Briefings, and use the information to build and review territory plans with your sales team.

During times like these, communities like ours need to pull together. Please post your own ideas or thoughts on how we as government marketers can all get through this man-made crisis and emerge stronger when our customers re-open their doors.

Will New Travel Per Diems Further Erode Event Attendance?

woman sleeping

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

It’s time for your federal customers to dust off their backpacks, can openers, and camping tents. If they want to attend any trade shows or conferences next year, those “roughing-it” items will probably come in handy. The General Services Administration (GSA) just released its fiscal year 2014 travel per diem rates, and the news for federal marketers is not so good.

The Washington Post reported today that GSA “will raise its travel-reimbursement rates for federal employees this year but plans to end its conference-lodging allowance.” The standard lodging rate “for employees who travel for work will increase from $77 to $83 per day at the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, while the allowance for meals and other expenses will remain unchanged at $46 per day.”

The paper cited an August 30 memo by Anne Rung, GSA Associate Administrator of Government-Wide Policy, in which Rung says the government plans to “save an estimated $10 million by eliminating the Conference Lodging Allowance, which allowed federal travelers to spend 25 percent above per diem rates for conferences.”

How these changes will impact attendance at conferences and trade shows remains to be seen, but I don’t think the extra $6 per day increase will drive much in the way of positive change. Rung states that federal per diem rates were already five percent below average daily market rates. Without the Conference Lodging Allowance, travelers might have to choose between sleeping in their (sub-compact) rental cars and not going at all. Based upon recent history, the latter is probably more likely.

On the positive side, GSA does recognize that some travel is necessary. It recently announced the award of its cost-saving FY 2014 City Pair Program, which offers discounted and pre-negotiated commercial airfare pricing and an increase in the number of available routes for federal travelers. So getting there may be easier, but eating and sleeping are another story.

Rung cites savings of approximately $2 billion since the Administration took aggressive steps to cut travel and conference spending in recent years.

At immixGroup, we’re continuing to do our part to bring information directly to the government instead of asking government employees to travel. Our newest initiative is FedCity, a virtual conference platform we just announced in partnership with Federal Business Council. I encourage you to check it out as a new avenue to reach your customers, as I expect they’ll continue to look for new ways to avoid the campout scenario.

OMB Clarifies Travel and Conference Attendance Policies

Photo of Allan Rubinby Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

The GSA conference scandal has crept back into the news as the IRS has encountered its own high-profile spending scrutiny. So I found it noteworthy when this item crossed my desk today.

The Office of Management and Budget just issued a “Controller Alert” to all Federal agencies, acknowledging the need for Federal employees to attend mission-related conferences and outlining recommendations, including best practices for approving travel and conference expenses. The document adopts many of the measures suggested in a meetings protocol provided by ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, which met with OMB in March. You can find the entire document on the ASAE Web site.

To be clear, the Alert states it does NOT “constitute official guidance or include specific tasks for agencies beyond consideration of appropriate steps to address the issue” of travel and conference spending. It certainly reinforces many of the restrictions we’ve seen over the past 18 months, but it also provides what may be some wiggle room for the post-Sequestration world. That’s how I read statements like this:

“As each agency reviews its travel and conference-related activities, it is critical for each agency to continue to recognize the important role that mission-related travel and conferences can often play in Government operations. Given the unique travel and conference needs of each agency, there are circumstances in which physical collocation is necessary to complete the mission.”

And this:

“…bringing together Federal employees at a single location—such as for program reviews or technical evaluations, presentation of scientific findings, oversight boards or advisory group meetings, …may be the most efficient and cost-effective means for reviewing Government-sponsored efforts, issues, or challenges. Several agencies rely on meetings with industry and academic colleagues to drive innovation and ensure continued advancement in related fields.”

There is, of course this reality: while an agency should not interpret the recent guidance “as a moratorium on all conference events, agencies and related stakeholders should anticipate a continued reduction in conference and travel activity for the duration of the sequestration order.” And to make sure nobody’s having any fun at taxpayer expense, the Alert reminds readers that “events should not include excessive or lavish social components.”

The Alert makes clear that each agency is responsible for implementing its own internal travel and conference policies, and each agency needs to achieve the right balance between reducing spending and meeting mission-critical needs. It encourages agencies to start conference planning by examining whether “physical collocation of Federal employees in a conference setting is a necessary and cost-effective means to carry out the agency’s mission (and that other, lower-cost options, such as videoconferencing, have been explored).” To me, this points to a likely boost in future attendance at, and acceptance of, virtual engagements both within and outside of the agency environment.

Similarly, it makes a distinction between conferences and training events, stating that conferences “should not be considered training events absent a written justification by an appropriate official that specifies the learning objectives and mission or job performance outcomes.”  It further clarifies that “professional training may include Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or Professional Development Units (PDUs) for areas that are relevant and valuable to the job function of the individual employee and that contribute to maintaining professional accreditation or certification.” Takeaway: don’t expect to slap the word “training” on your marketing event and think you’ve covered your bases.

A lot of this is old news, and it remains to be seen whether the IRS spending scandal (as opposed to the IRS political scandal) will result in even tighter restrictions or if there’s not much left to tighten. I’m already hearing that government employees are starving for information and interactions that will help them do their jobs. So what should you do next?

  1. Consider whether virtual events have a place in your marketing arsenal. Try something new.
  2. Align your marketing activities with events that offer real training for government attendees.
  3. Keep an eye on what happens next based on the IRS fallout.

Maybe I’m optimistic, but we may be seeing some cracks in the armor. As always, I welcome your comments.

A Tale of Two Subject Lines

photo_Allan-Rubin_65x85by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

I noticed an interesting juxtaposition of subject lines in my (overflowing) email in-box today.

Early in the day, I saw this message from Defense Systems:

DISA collaboration tool doubling its capacity

The top story was summarized as follows: “The enterprise collaboration tool known as Defense Connect Online is about to double in capacity as users seek less expensive ways to conduct meetings and training in austere budget times, reports DISA.” The piece caught my attention as it signaled recognition of the inevitable: government employees are finding new ways to communicate and collaborate since they can’t travel in person.

Not long after, I received a message with this subject line:

Latest Conference Cancellations & Postponements on GovEvents

 This email from GovEvents.com led with the following summary, which serves as a continuation of my last blog post on a similar topic:

I think GovEvents.com is a great tool that provides a valuable service to the community (if you don’t use it, you should). It just struck me as significant that a company which promotes government events led its outreach effort with a message about…the cancellation of government events!

We all know travel budgets and other restrictions are hammering the marketing media mix. We see today that our DoD customers are doubling their capacity to host their meetings, training sessions, and other communications virtually to cut costs and minimize scrutiny from ethics officials and their superiors.

What does this mean for government marketers? Should we be investing more in online media, virtual events, webinars, and the like? Face to face communication will never be replaced, but what will place a close second?

The more important question is: where are you placing your bets?

We’re continually looking into new avenues to help our manufacturers and channel partners reach their government customers. I’d love to hear from you about how your plans are changing.

More Cancellations for Government Events

photo_Allan-Rubin_65x85by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

My wife may disagree with this, but I take no great joy in saying “I told you so.”

It’s no secret that events targeting government employees have fallen on tough times. We’ve used this space repeatedly to encourage immixGroup clients and channel partners to re-evaluate their event marketing plans. Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more examples to prove this re-evaluation is necessary.

We learned today that the DoD Cybercrime Conference has been “postponed” with the following message as an explanation:

“Based on DoD’s budgetary uncertainty, The Defense Cyber Crime Center (DC3) has been given direction to reduce the government expenditure rate. Therefore, DC3 and Technology Forums have reluctantly come to the decision that we will not be holding our annual DoD Cyber Crime Conference in 2013. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and appreciate everyone’s efforts and support.”

This came on the heels of this message which we received on January 15:

“In response to DoD and DON guidance, the DON IT Conference, West Coast 2013 has been cancelled. The conference was scheduled for Jan. 28-30, 2013, at the San Diego Convention Center.”

In mid-December we received this notification of an event postponement. Is this a precursor to another shutdown?

“As a result of much deliberation, as well as guidance from the Army, AFCEA International has reached the decision to move TechNet Tucson to Augusta/Fort Gordon, GA.  The event will be renamed TechNet Augusta, and take place September 10-12, 2013 at the Marriott at the Convention Center.”

While I can’t yet confirm this, we’ve heard rumors that many of the AFCEA conferences may be cancelled this year. We hope that’s not the case but it’s worth watching.

The drop in demand for government event attendance was clear in the recent data put out by Market Connections. This confirmed what most of us already feared:

“With shrinking budgets and fewer resources to support mission goals, federal government decision makers and influencers plan on attending fewer events this year. According to a recent poll by Market Connections, Inc., a leading government market research firm, 38% of government employees plan to attend fewer educational and trade events in FY2013 compared to FY2012.

The main reasons for the expected decrease in event attendance are budget and travel restrictions (78% and 58%, respectively). Just over one-third (36%) of respondents also report management will not allow them to attend events in FY2013. However, some government workers plan to attend about the same number of events (27%), and a few plan to attend more (5%).”

Market Connections notes a few silver linings in the data (summarized here). Most federal workers still prefer live events to webinars. They still see value in attending events to learn about new technologies in addition to networking. The key is to make sure your events align with the preferences of your target audience:

“Of the 400 government workers we polled, 58% prefer smaller, content-specific events over large trade shows with multiple vendors. Many of the respondents are thinking local, with seven in ten more likely to attend events that are close to home (69%) or hosted by a trade association (72%), as opposed to traveling to events that require a hotel (29%) or are hosted by a corporate entity (25%).”

So when your sales team or corporate office asks you to set up that glitzy product demo at the Ritz to attract 100 federal CIOs, you may have some bubbles to burst.

We’ve been proactive over the past 18 months to re-align our marketing programs to stay in front of these changes. If you’re an immixGroup client, contact your senior account manager or email me at allan_rubin@immixgroup.com to learn more.

UPDATE: As if on cue, I just got this message only a few hours after this blog post went live:

“Due to U.S. Department of Defense evolving budget directives and its current fiscal constraints, DISA has notified AFCEA International that DISA has cancelled its “Expanded Forecast to Industry” conference scheduled for 14-15 August 2013.  Senior DISA leaders are hopeful they will be able to resume the conference with AFCEA in FY14.”

Army Bans Attendance at Non-DoD Conferences

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

I awoke a bit late this morning after staying up to watch the election returns and speeches. Upon pulling out my phone to scan my inbox, I was stunned to see this headline from Defense Systems:

Army Attendance at Non-DOD Conferences Banned for the Rest of the Year

After the crackdown on internal conferences due to questionable expenditures (think GSA and VA), we knew it was only a matter of time before third-party events would be directly affected.

It turns out Secretary of the Army John McHugh released an October 17 memo titled “Interim Guidance for Implementation of New OSD Conference Policy.” According to the memo, McHugh is “suspending Army attendance at non-DoD conferences between now and 31 December 2012” unless attendance was previously approved or an exception granted, with exception requests requiring endorsement by commanders of Army Commands, among others. The memo reminded recipients of their obligations to “adhere strictly to all applicable law, regulation, and policy,” and it emphasized the need to “implement more cost-effective and efficient methods to train, plan, collaborate and disseminate information.”

McHugh stated a goal of publishing an updated Army directive during the first quarter of FY13, with an effective date of January 1, 2013, to “develop a more detailed and comprehensive approach” related to Army participation in conferences. The Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army (AASA) will lead and manage Army conference efforts, draft new policies, and develop processes to analyze, track, and report on conference activities.

Considering the importance of face-to-face events in federal marketing activities, particularly as they relate to DoD, it’s disheartening to hear that individuals from Army will not be able to participate. We don’t yet know how this will impact non-DoD events in 2013, but I’d guess participation will continue to suffer. We’ve already heard that DoDIIS 2013 and the AFCEA TechNet events will be undergoing some changes. USSTRATCOM Cyber & Space Symposium, scheduled for next week, has already been cancelled for this year.

We recommend keeping some flexibility in your 2013 event marketing plans and budgets until we see how this plays out. We’ll update you through Government Sales Insider when we learn more.

Three Reasons to Cut Your Trade Show Marketing Budget

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

For most of my career in B2B/B2G marketing, trade shows have been an integral part of the marketing mix (for lead generation and branding/awareness). This was particularly true in the defense world, where large shows and face-to-face meetings were staples of the annual marketing strategy. Often, your absence from a show would be as notable as your presence, and that alone became a justification for investing marketing resources and budget.

I think it’s safe to say those days are behind us. Recent scandals, budget pressures, and political posturing have taken their toll on everything from attendance to activities at large conferences and shows. While I think these events may still play a role, smart federal marketers need to re-evaluate how much they’re spending and what they’re doing at these events, and they need to reset their expectations accordingly. I see three primary reasons to find other places to put at least some of your federal marketing funds:

  1. Trade Show Attendance is Down – We knew this was likely to happen as travel restrictions kicked in and spending scrutiny increased. AFCEA’s TechNet Land Forces South show, one of three regional shows that spun out of the former LandWarNet event, was held in Tampa last month with roughly 225 government attendees for a three-day show (compared to 600+ exhibit personnel).
  2. Off-the-Floor Events are at Risk – Looking to host a big party or fancy dinner to engage with your prospects? Don’t bother. Camera-shy attendees don’t want to answer questions about why they were partying it up on the taxpayer’s tab. We’ve learned at least one agency has forbidden its employees to attend vendor parties at an upcoming show and is encouraging exhibitors to keep things low-key to avoid negative publicity for the event. I’m sure they are not alone.
  3. Driving Traffic is Getting Tougher – FAR rules already restrict your promotions and giveaways intended to draw people to your booth. But expect attendees to be wary of accepting anything with any perceived value whatsoever. Don’t forget — any negative publicity for a show could lead to cancellation in this hyper-sensitive climate…a fate that has already befallen AFITC and threatened shows like GFIRST 2012. We’ve heard some show organizers may prohibit swag at future federal shows, making it even harder for you to get the attention of a limited number of visitors (although many of us would welcome a reduction in treasure hunters with overflowing goodie bags). Already, organizers at GFIRST have banned catering on the exhibit hall floor, so attendees will have to leave the hall (or hit the concession stands) to get their coffee, smoothie, or popcorn fix.

Our advice: if you need to be at a trade show, scale back your investment and/or put on your negotiating hat. Many exhibitors are pulling out and leaving empty booth spaces on the floor, so you can probably super-size your booth at little to no extra space cost. Don’t forget to remind your sales team to call on prospects in advance to schedule meetings. No matter what the environment is, those who put very little effort into a show usually get very little out of it.

If you’re looking for new ideas on how to re-direct those federal trade show funds, contact your immixGroup account manager or our marketing team to see what we’re cooking up.

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