C-Level Event Invitations: How It’s Done

I’ve worked on promoting many events for C-level executives in my time. So when I was recently called in to help a major company revamp its invitation to a C-level event, it took over an hour and a half for me to analyze the copy and design approach. But it soon became clear why the company had only received nine responses instead of reaching its goal of 100 CEOs.

What went wrong?

First of all, it’s nearly impossible to get top-level executives to even open your e-mail. An invitation should be sent via postal mail in such an elegant, personal envelope that an administrative assistant would never think of throwing it away. Or it could be sent via Federal Express.

Once you’ve sent the invitation by mail, try following up by e-mail, though a telephone call is the better way to go.

However, if you’re short on time and budget and your only option is an e-mail invitation, below are some guidelines to follow.

  • Write a personalized letter on an upscale e-mail letterhead template.
  • Make it even more personal by using a sender line of a real person, preferably your CEO. C-levels only speak to other C-levels, so don’t send your invitation from a sales rep or your marketing director. If possible, feature a photograph of your CEO in the letter to quickly telegraph that this is a CEO-to-CEO communication.
  • Your subject line must be invitational yet urgent. How do you marry those two objectives? Try something like: “CEO Briefing: Fortune 100 Tactics for the New Economic Reality.”
  • To catch the attention of your reader when they open the e-mail, or when they are using the preview pane, create an elegant Johnson Box. This simple box should contain a reason to attend your event such as:
    With the precipitous economic downturn, companies are crashing and burning.

    Learn the survival tactics of those companies best positioned to withstand this unprecedented market upheaval at…

    (Name of event)
    (Date, times)

  • Start the letter with a cordial invitation that shows the collegial C-level nature of the event. For example: “You are cordially invited to join a small gathering of the country’s leading chief executive officers…”
  • Quickly telegraph why the CEO should consider this invitation. The benefits to attending must be high-level and strategic; you need to be offering business intelligence at a level unavailable anywhere else. The points to be covered at the event must be written succinctly, but in an intriguing way so the CEO doesn’t think, “Oh, I can just do a Google search on this or ask one of my staff to do some research.” In other words, make it clear that your company is the expert. You offer a solution not available elsewhere and that it’s important for CEOs who want to maintain competitive advantage to embrace your solution ASAP, if not sooner.
  • If your company isn’t known as a premier provider in your space, you need to borrow an expert — a leading business author, scientist, or visionary who can deliver an exciting keynote address on the broader topic. It helps if your expert has written a book and if you offer an autographed copy of it to the first 50 attendees who register. The book should be featured in a sidebar in your letter along with a picture of the author with an authoritative, compelling quote from the book or a testimonial.
  • Keep everything about your e-mail invitation upscale. Don’t ask people to click a big red “register” button. Instead, create an elegant envelope icon with a simple “RSVP” call to action. The landing page should be prepopulated with the recipient’s contact information: CEOs do not fill out landing pages. Also, offer a personal contact for further inquiries. The CEO should be able to reach a live person by phone.
  • Be sure to cover all the logistical details with exquisite attention. If you’re holding the event at a hotel, link to a map that shows the location. The CEO needs to know the traveling time involved — and if the event is being held at a desirable locale.

Once you succeed in persuading CEOs to accept your invitation, continue working to keep them engaged. Send an immediate acknowledgment with registration details. If it’s a free event, plan for a high no-show rate; prevent attrition with periodic, polite e-mail and telephone reminders.

Keep in mind, not everyone has the expertise to write knowledgeably to CEOs. When I started writing for “Fortune,” “BusinessWeek,” and “The Economist,” I had to ascend a steep learning curve to take my casual writing style to the next level. Fortunately, I had very able teachers, experienced communicators who taught me their own corporate writing style.

The very best piece of advice I can give you is this: Don’t put your junior writers in charge of writing to senior executives. You must write at the same level of your readers. With a CEO audience, call in an expert copywriter or communications specialist and be prepared to pay a writing fee commensurate with that experience.

Remember, this isn’t about dashing off an e-mail. It’s about forging a relationship with a CEO who has the ultimate authority to approve your contracts. Need I say more?

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