‘Tis the season when corporate communications and event marketing teams gather round to develop a target list of events for the coming year.  I’m often asked for feedback as my clients begin this exercise. Whether the question is in regards to speaking, sponsoring or event attendance, I always approach the task with the same two caveats: 1) You should never assume that a list of events developed in Q4 will still be relevant by this time next year and 2) The best speaker programs have an element of flexibility built into every plan.

While it is good to have a general idea as to which conferences should matter most based on your target audience or industry, what makes the real difference in achieving the best visibility is being in the right place at the right time. That requires some flexibility.  The fact is that the conference landscape changes so often, it is not reasonable to limit your executives to a list of conferences you put together a year in advance.  Even those events that you thought would NEVER change – Web 2.0 Conference, GigaOm’s Structure, WSJ D Conference, CTIA – did.  And to make the situation even more complicated, a conference that is a clear target for your company, may conflict with another industry event, causing attendance to suffer.

I am not suggesting that you should throw the entire event list exercise out the window, but it is important to consider any list a working document.  I would also recommend following these 5 steps when putting together your target conference list:

1) Set realistic expectations and be selective. You cannot be everywhere that your target audience is at all times. If you are not a big fish brand – you will only achieve maximum visibility in a small pond. The good news is that the conference industry is filled with lake, pond and puddle-sized opportunities.

2) Spend a good amount of time really understanding who attends the events you are targeting. If you are developing a list of events to target for speaking opportunities, make sure that there have been speakers/companies like yours on the agenda in the past. Also be sure that the opportunities available – either for speaking or sponsoring – will provide the visibility you are looking for.  Even leading events such as CES, for example, have so many sessions/activities/parties running concurrently, it is easy to get lost in the commotion.

3) Keep your eye on the conference landscape all year long. Constantly look for new event opportunities and changes to the conferences on your short list. There are several ways to do this, but I suggest (modestly) my twitter feed, @ConferenceNotes and this blog, for up-to-date changes and announcements.

4) Set aside some sponsorship and/or travel dollars that may be used opportunistically. I understand that this is a hard sell. I’m always asked what happens if something new doesn’t turn up.  I’ve been at this for more than a decade and can assure you that a new event will be created that was not on your list, but that is probably worth your time. If it doesn’t, you need to reread step three.

5) Reevaluate every event and opportunity a few months before it takes place. What else is happening during the conference you plan to participate in and how will that effect attendance? What is your specific opportunity at the event and will it still provide the ROI you are looking for? That is critically important to know.

Best of luck in your list development and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need additional help.