To HIMSS, or not to HIMSS, that is the question.

For those of you who have never heard of HIMSS, you are not alone. My family often asks me, “What is HIMSS?” The follow-up questions are typically, “Does HIMSS have a sister conference called HERS?” Ha ha. Very funny. “So, why are you spending so much time on this HIMSS thing? When is it over?”

For those of you involved or remotely involved with health technology, health IT or you’re a healthcare provider, you stand a good chance of knowing what HIMSS means and what it’s all about. And you’re probably chuckling to yourself as you’ve probably heard these questions a few times before.

HIMSS, which stands for Health Information Management and Systems Society, formerly the Hospital Management Systems Society, is a Chicago-based “global, cause-based, not-for-profit organization focused on better health through information technology (IT).” HIMSS states that it “leads efforts to optimize health engagements and care outcomes using information technology.” Founded in 1961, HIMSS “encompasses more than 52,000 individuals, of which more than two-thirds work in healthcare providers, governmental and not-for-profit organizations across the globe, plus over 600 corporations and 250 not-for-profit partner organizations that share this cause.”

At its annual conference, more than 1260 companies will exhibit in spaces larger than your average size home. Some companies design their exhibit booths to feel like you’re in a home, complete with fireplaces, comfortable leather sofas, coffee tables, vases, flower arrangements, decorative drapes and yes, cappuccino machines. Other companies even set up a fully-stocked bar in their exhibit booths that open promptly for happy hour – with lines of thirsty conventioneers making their rounds through the hall before descending on the multitude of company-sponsored after-parties.

Is it worth it? That’s the question every CEO, president and division executive asks of their marketing and sales leaders about HIMSS. What is our return on investment? What metrics do we put in place to know if our participation in HIMSS makes sense?

Companies in the health IT space flocked to the annual HIMSS conference for decades. Considered the one “must-do” event for any company that deems itself a player, the venue offers entry in the increasingly competitive global health IT market expected to hit $66 billion by 2020. Well-known “market share leaders” pull out all the stops to create a larger-than-life mega-presence for their brand. They’ll occupy a huge swath of space on the exhibit floor with enormous custom-made edifices, hanging and twirling signs, gigantic monitors with eye-catching videos and multimedia presentations with messaging out the wazoo. You’ll see people dressed in company-logo shirts standing in their booths with big smiles, trying to get your attention so they can demonstrate their latest software. Yes, you’ll see a fair share of “booth babes” who hand out bite-sized pieces of European chocolate presented on doily-lined silver trays and “chachkis” with their company’s name emblazoned all over it. They’ll pass out embossed note cards inviting you to drop your business card for a drawing in their booth for iPads and other must-have devices.

HIMSS has become a behemoth. And it gets bigger every year. Take a look around at a HIMSS annual conference, like the one coming up next week in Chicago on April 12-16 at McCormick Place and you’ll see what I mean. More than 33,000 people will descend on 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space in one of the nation’s largest convention centers. And that number will increase 20% more than last year’s conference attendance in Orlando, Florida at the Orange County Convention Center.

Companies who want a presence at HIMSS but can’t afford to build a mini-movie set let alone afford the costs to transport and house their employees in hotels charging convention prices, opt for smaller mini-booths with table-top signs and presentations. It’s amazing to see what these companies can do with a 10×10 space.

For smaller companies and start-ups that just want to attend, walk around and network, they have to cough up $1245 just to get in the door. You receive a $100 discount if you’re a HIMSS member which is another major investment for companies. A single-day pass is $600. If you’re a student, it’s an affordable $125 entrance fee. Yes, there are discounts for early-bird registrations if you plan well enough in advance. For $49, you can get a good bargain if you “virtually” participate and see the keynote speakers, education sessions and multitude of moderated chat sessions. However, sitting in your office and viewing HIMSS streaming on your monitor doesn’t come close to being there and taking in the experience of watching thousands of people being ooo-ed and aaww-ed by an endless cavern of mind-blowing exhibitors who look like they have an endless pile of money.

And that’s the illusion you certainly get when walking around the HIMSS annual conference. It feels and looks like health IT companies have endless piles of money to spend at HIMSS. Having planned and led HIMSS conferences for several companies, I know it’s a major investment of not only money but time. For starters, you need to set aside a healthy chunk of your annual marketing budget to cover the costs of everything from the exhibit booth, multimedia, videos, collateral and hospitality. You also need to start planning for HIMSS as least six months in advance to do it right and realize your investment.

Depending on the size and complexity of your footprint on the show floor, you can expect to spend at least a quarter to a half a million dollars on up. Nothing is free (or inexpensive). You need to pay for the cost of renting the space on the floor, getting electrical and internet service to having show services transport everything you order from your booth company from the entrance of the conference center to your exhibit space. Rigging signs, lighting exhibits, hooking up monitors, getting waste baskets and vacuuming – you name it. Everything has a line item cost. As the marketing leader, it’s up to you to examine every cost and determine its impact on the outcomes you want to achieve.

I developed the following four outcomes to justify my company’s presence at HIMSS – which any size company can emulate – in order to get senior management and executive support and to achieve the results you want:

1) Identify a quantifiable number of quality new business leads to grow your pipeline: Counting new business leads is not easy at HIMSS – that’s for sure – as it’s challenging to gauge someone’s genuine interest in purchasing your company’s products or services when walking into your booth, stopping to watch a video or grabbing a chachki or hospitality item. I recommend you invest in pre-conference outreach to target new business prospects who you know are attending the HIMSS show and pre-schedule meetings at your booth or another meeting space. That way, you can plan ahead of time to schedule demos or invite selected members of your team to participate in a certain discussion. How do you know who is registered to attend HIMSS? Purchasing the official HIMSS list is one option but the old fashioned way of creating a home-grown target list is also a good approach. Investing in lead generation software and devices is a must-do, the trick is ensuring your booth staff is diligent about tracking and coding the conversations. Just think, one sale from a HIMSS lead can justify the entire HIMSS investment.

2) Educate your audiences face-to-face (as opposed to online): Think of HIMSS as creating that once-a-year bricks and mortar storefront so your customers and prospects can experience what if feels like to do business with your company. Unlike traditional retail companies, most health IT companies don’t have a showroom or storefront where their customers can walk in, play with devices, watch demos and talk to real people. HIMSS is that once-a-year opportunity for your company to educate people about what you do, how you achieve results for your customers and most importantly, why your company’s products and services have value. How do you ensure an effective education strategy? For starters, make sure your staff is fully trained in the full range of your company’s products and services. It goes without saying that not everyone knows how to actually talk to people – really. I recommend you think carefully about the people you staff your booth. I also recommend you track the number of people who request demos, how many demos you give during HIMSS and how many people request follow-up meetings and conversations. Collecting business cards is good but what’s better is measuring how many of the people you targeted in your pre-show outreach actually make it to your booth.

3) Aggressively seek media and analyst coverage: In the 24/7/365 always-on news cycle, it’s critical to target the audiences you want to reach. The trick is identifying how your audiences obtain information and news. I recommend you work with a solid and reputable PR firm who know your audiences – your niche in the health IT market – know which publications, news sources and organizations they follow and most importantly, have good contacts and can get interviews. In preparation for HIMSS, you should develop a wish list of editors, bloggers and analysts you want to reach and pre-schedule appointments and meetings. More than 100 members of the news media are expected to attend HIMSS15. As you prepare your HIMSS strategy, you should factor the news announcements, white papers and reports you’ll want to release at HIMSS and then determine which reporters you want to break your story. Social media is huge in health IT and once again, HIMSS will have a “social media ambassador” program where a limited number of social media influencers will be credentialed to attend the conference and have the same access as news media and professional bloggers. In measuring the effectiveness of your media strategy, you’ll want to measure how many meetings you’ve requested vs. how many you’re able to schedule, the number of feature articles, mentions and news hits you generated at HIMSS and the number of follow-up interviews and future stories you’re able to plant.

4) Wow them: Think of HIMSS as a playground for health IT junkies. We can’t seem to get enough. That’s why it’s (really) important to carefully think and plan ahead the kind of experience you want people to have in “your” playground. Do you want people to look around, be overwhelmed and walk away? Or do you want a person (your future customers) to see something that’s a bit different, get their attention and have a conversation? We all want folks to stick around and be engaged. As marketers, we know how much it takes to get people really engaged. It’s one of the most underestimated outcomes of any marketing endeavor. It’s a lot a harder than anyone thinks. So go ahead, be bold, be creative and be inventive. Your HIMSS exhibit presence is a reflection of your brand.

Eileen Cassidy Rivera is vice president of global marketing and communications at a health IT company which helps hundreds of leading healthcare organizations integrate information from diverse EHRs and other application systems across the care continuum to produce a single, 360-degree, whole health view of the patient.  Eileen can be reached at eileen@cassidyrivera.com.

 

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