At SPC, we relish every opportunity to connect with those in our industry, stand out, build relationships, and help meet the needs of marketers creating high-volume direct mail. Many of these opportunities come from conferences like DMA’s &THEN, where we exhibited this year.

Historically, this industry event has focused on direct marketing—and direct marketing generally meant print. But as conference competition arose, budgets shrank, and the industry grew to include data and digital, the DMA annual event struggled. Since 2015, the DMA has continued to respond to the changing market—holding different versions of their &THEN annual conference and renaming and relaunching it accordingly. For 2018, we were interested to see how the newly-combined efforts of the ANA and DMA would affect the annual event, so SPC returned this year as exhibitors and attendees—with modest expectations. The conference showcased quality speakers and topics, including a separate track focused solely on “Print Innovation”. But the exhibition hall space and number of attendees continues to dwindle. Much of the feedback for this “global HQ for the data-driven marketing industry” was positive this year, but it still left our SPC team wondering about the event’s future and that of the organization as a whole.

After the close of this year’s show, organizers announced that it will go on hiatus until March, 2020—returning as the Masters of Data Marketing & Analytics conference in Orlando, FL—most likely an effort to merge it with the ANA’s existing Masters of Marketing suite of shows.

While we still found the conference stimulating and rewarding, it was easy for us (and others) to see that &THEN needs to once again evaluate and re-establish its identity. Who is the conference for? Big data marketers? The latest trendy technologies? Or is it for the print industry? Past history and present events tell different stories. Perhaps ANA leadership already recognizes this, but as leaders within the data and direct mail space, we wanted to add our voice to the chorus of constructive change. In that spirit, we suggest five ways to re-imagine the conference to make it more useful and helpful to marketers in 2020:

  1. Rethink the core event content.

    The event seems to be something of a three-headed monster, with very different tracks for different subsets, whether it’s print, Big Data, or the latest technologies. This ends up splintering the audience and leaving no one subset satisfied. Perhaps it makes more sense to split the conference up by day, or into separate mini-events, to allow audiences to make more informed choices.

  2. Establish the importance and proper place for print.

    In its heyday, this conference was based on print and the needs of mail marketing professionals. Even with the rise of data-driven marketing, new tech and analytics, print still drives much of the demand for the show. The printing panels our team attended were often the busiest and most popular, and this next show should not miss an opportunity to better capitalize on print’s ongoing relevance.

  3. Timing is everything.

    DMA has recently been scheduled at one of the busiest times of the year for marketers and direct mailers, in the run-up to the holidays and an intense retail season. In order to create the biggest impact, attendance needs to increase. That attendance will likely be better in a less hectic time of year. Perhaps February or April make more sense, and thankfully, it seems like the ANA has already had the same thought. Also, the Sunday launch events have always been poorly attended. Would a more conventional work week schedule improve attendance as well? Could a more centrally located location make travel easier for those from both coasts?

  4. Don’t try to be all things to all people.

    Time out of the office is expensive—both for companies who send employees to the conference, and for those team members who step out of their daily work to engage fully in it. Can the conference be better condensed, to focus more on what it does well—networking and connecting person-to-person, rather than just packed tracks of speakers re-hashing case studies that could be presented in other formats?

  5. Carefully choose the right sponsors and exhibitors because they reflect the event.

    It’s obvious that conferences like this are business-driven, and have to be money-making endeavors for the organizations involved. But it’s also important to make sure that exhibitors and sponsors get the right value for their marketing spend, and these participants reflect well on the conference. This starts with curating the best, most relevant sponsors and exhibitors, something that ANA could improve upon. Organizers could also better support historical exhibitors and sponsors as a first step.

We believe that there are the raw materials, interest and value still available for DMA’s efforts, and this conference (in whatever modified form) doesn’t have to disappear. It has served direct mail marketers for years, and with some thoughtful changes, it could continue to be a worthy addition to our industry’s annual calendar.

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