The Corner Office

'What’s in it for me?' The gap between what you care about and what they care about.


Regardless of your industry, at least part of your organization’s core function is communicating information to your target audience. Whether that’s telling them how to make good dietary decisions or providing information on your latest sale, you are usually seeking a reaction. Because if you don’t understand their perspective, you will screw it up.

I’ve recently been working with two organizations to plan their annual conferences. One of the companies just had theirs, and it was a success. And it’s not hard to identify why: They started planning nine months ago by starting with broad things like who would come and what they would want to learn. Only after defining these aspects did they move inward to more granular elements of planning.

These more detailed plans included an agenda, social events, and, most importantly, why someone in their audience would want to attend the event. In this process, they reasoned that people would come to develop their skills, network and share in some camaraderie with others in their field.

Once they knew why someone would want to come, they made sure to push that message in their marketing. They then monitored the results, pivoted slightly in response, and then it was just wash, rinse and repeat. At the end of it all, they had constructed a successful conference.

This is markedly different from the other organization’s approach to planning their annual conference.

Instead of identifying why their audience might want to come to the conference, this organization’s message centered around simple statements like “You should come!” or, if they were feeling more verbose, “You should come because the bosses will be there and they say it’s important!”

It’s not exactly “We shall fight on the beaches,” is it?

I was asked to help because the organizers were coming down to the wire, and they’d gotten little engagement from their audience on this and even fewer sign-ups for their conference. Until that point, they only tried to say the message louder and in more places, but the core information had been unchanged.

When we started talking about what could be done to get more people to sign up for their conference, I used the first group’s example and suggested creating a list of value-adds that the conference will create for attendees. Because even the most banal frat party has the core message of, “Hey, we’ve got booze, and it’s free!”

At the start, I asked why someone would want to attend the conference, and the organizer said, “Well because it’s good for them.” Good for them, like broccoli and eight hours of sleep? That’s not what entices people. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but “it’s good for you” didn’t work when your parents wanted you to finish your Brussels sprouts, and it’s not going to work now.

After working through it, we came up with a much clearer value proposition that essentially boiled down to the following:

“You are a part of this organization for reasons A, B, and C. Well, if you come to the event, we will show you how to do A better! The conference will also have people who succeeded in B to share their stories, and we'll have experts in C there to talk with you about how you can make C happen for you.”

We retargeted all of the people who’d gotten the old messaging and sent them our new, value-oriented information. And to be honest with you, I’m not sure how much of a difference this will make.

At the time of writing, this all happened a few days ago, and the clock is ticking. So the time crunch couldn’t be much tighter, and even with them pushing this new messaging out across their various marketing channels, I’m not sure what the results will be. It’s hard to convince someone to give up several days of their life for your conference, and that’s even more challenging on short notice.

I’d encourage you to get ahead of your messaging so that you’re not put in this sort of uncomfortable situation. And a good place to start is to be aware of the gap between what you care about and what your audience cares about.

If you're a true believer in your organization, you already know why your product/service/event is so unique and fantastic, so that can feel old-hat to you. And as an organizer, you might want to brag about something new, like how great and accommodating the hotel staff is!

That’s nice, but nobody has ever attended a conference for the polite hotel staff?

From the perspective of your audience, the question to answer on anything you want to sell is always, “What's in it for me?” Focus on spreading the message of how your offering will improve your target’s life. Do that, and do it from the beginning, and you’ll be in a much stronger position to meet your goals.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at


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