Marketing and promotions: Some ideas for a science fiction/fantasy/horror convention, with some examples from Boskone, NESFA'S annual convention

-JoAnn F. Cox


Marketing isn't rocket science, but for some people, it might as well be. For others, the tactics covered herein are completed by rote. It is hoped, however, that these observations will provide you with some new ideas to consider in order to strengthen your marketing and promotions programs for your convention.

Discussion of goals

Why market? This may seem like an obvious question, but the answer may not be so obvious. In fact, this question could yield many, and divergent, answers. Any group planning a publicity, promotions, or marketing campaign should consider what goals it wants to accomplish. With limited financial or staff resources, the answer - or answers - to the question of "Why market?" becomes even more important. Under this broad umbrella, consider the nature of the convention itself. Why are these volunteers gathered to put on a convention? What would you like to see accomplished? What, do you feel, will make your event successful? Consider some broader questions. How much time and money do you have to spend on marketing? Do you want to grow the convention? And if so, how much growth is desired? Are there particular audiences you'd like to reach? What is it you want to say?

In 2007, Boskone moved to a new hotel, which was itself newly-opened. Therefore, one goal was to promote the amenities of this hotel to returning fans who had grown comfortable with the old location. The convention also extended special invitations to local media, business and residential communities in order to reach new audiences. A special press release was created specifically to promote the hotel, in an emerging neighborhood of Boston.

Boskone 44 secured a rare exhibit of works by Hubert Rogers. One of the goals of the outreach was to market this unique experience to fans and genre artists groups, as well as to local media and local arts communities.

Reaching the target audience: Preaching to the choir

Marketing the convention can start even during the current convention, and often does. Memberships for next year's convention are often sold at the current convention. You probably have a flyer ready with the next year's dates and guests, as well as a brief description of the convention and the cost for membership. Repeat or returning members are a desired audience for a number of reasons. Keeping members is easier and cheaper than finding new ones. If you have satisfied your members, hopefully they'll come back; and the sooner they join the next convention, the easier the convention planning. If they don't join at the current convention, you send them mailings/progress reports and/or e-mails encouraging them to sign up. Discounts are often featured for members who register earlier, rather than later.

The target audience for many genre conventions also includes members from other conventions. Cross-promotion at other conventions by means of flyers in flyer racks and trade advertising in program books are two simple methods to reach fans who already attend conventions.

Genre readers, genre writers, anime fans, gamers, etc.: these groups may also make-up your target audience. Reaching out to specialty/independent bookstores, area clubs, and local havens for writers' groups may generate interest from persons who have never attended a genre convention before or have only attended a few times. Attract these potential members with a letter, an email, and/or a mailing with a flyer. Be sure to have your convention website URL on the flyer, and provide information on how to register. Don't underestimate your program participants, either. Many have their own websites/blogs and may include your convention on their public schedule-sometimes you may have to ask them to do so.

Boskone outreach includes sending notices to non-profit science fiction clubs (NESFA keeps a list on its own website), independent area bookstores, chain bookstores that host local writers groups, record stores that carry comics and anime, etc. For Boskone 44, the guest of honor was David Gerrold. As the writer of the famous episode "The Trouble with Tribbles", a special mailer was created to send to Star Trek fan clubs in the region; and because of his association with Hollywood, press releases included some of his numerous television writing credits as well as the then-forthcoming movie based on his novel The Martian Child.

Engaging the local community and nearby communities

If one of your goals was to grow convention attendance, you have planned to reach those persons most likely to attend. Flyers have been created; the convention is promoted year-round, especially at other conventions; the website is updated; trade advertising is being placed; flyers are being inserted with other organizations' mailers, etc.

Reaching out to the local community groups may help you achieve a greater awareness of your convention and, perhaps, new members. Since these groups may not be familiar with fandom, developing a message that attracts them may be different than the information you would send to a person or an organization already familiar with attending conventions. More on this in the "developing a hook" section, below.

Once you have crafted a press release, flyer, or notice to send to local community groups, where do you send it? You may want to consider sending your mailer to the following groups:

For Boskone 44, special attention was given to neighborhood of Boston where the convention hotel was located-promoting the proximity of the convention in the new hotel. Sixty schools and other outlets in South Boston were sent mailings.

Engaging the local arts communities

For those conventions with ArtShows, significant resources are needed to plan and execute a successful experience for the artists and the convention members. And outreach to artists who exhibited previously, genre artists, ASFA members, etc. is part of the process. There may be, however, artists in your own community creating genre art who don't realize the opportunity for exhibition and sales at a science fiction convention. Introducing local artists to the genre may attract a new audience and diversity to your convention. Researching where to send your notices can start with your local tourism office or office of arts and special events. Many major cities now promote Open Studio events, and local craft fairs. These are great starting points.

Boskone conducts separate outreach to local artist communities and to artists in order to draw more participants and draw new members. As noted above, for Boskone 44, this was especially relevant due to the one-time addition of the Hubert Rogers exhibit. A separate release headlining the Official Artist Gary Lippincott and the Rogers exhibit was written. Over sixty pieces were mailed (in addition to numerous emails) to local artists' organizations and government agencies that work with artists. The state cultural office sent an email to their list as well. Additionally, an invitation for the ArtShow reception was sent to government contacts, major artist organizations, local museum contacts, and major media outlets.

Press releases: Developing a hook

After identifying the extent of the marketing efforts you are willing to undertake, the next step is developing a succinct message to the audience you intend to reach. For anyone who attends conventions regularly, a shorthand language develops. But for the public at large, many terms used in fandom may either need explaining, or should be omitted to avoid confusion. If there a theme to convention, that information should be conveyed in the notices. Also include any participants with name (or affiliation) recognition. A slightly different version of a notice may be needed to libraries or schools; for example, this version may promote the wealth and breadth of kid-friendly events and participants with children's and young adult books. Include quote from the convention chairperson or program participants.

Many newspapers respond to press releases if they feel the information is newsworthy or has a local draw. Your volunteer convention committee and your program participants-as individuals-are, therefore, (with their permission, of course), part of what you are promoting. Local community newspapers, especially, are drawn by the human interest element of the story. Be sure to include a cover letter to emphasize what relationship your convention has to the newspaper.

Be sure to send press releases at least 6-8 weeks in advance of the convention. Follow-up with a notice and an email, if you have one. As the convention nears, you may want to include a listing of all confirmed program participants.

You may want to consider sending your press releases to the following groups:

For Boskone 44, a major local community newspaper was drawn by the return address of NESFA. Having that local connection-and volunteers who lived in the readership area-was the enticement that lead to the first phone call, then to numerous interviews with convention staff, and ultimately a front-page article in the Arts section of the paper a week before the convention. A local entertainment paper included a brief piece on Boskone 44 and a dynamic photo of program participants Jordin and Mary Kare.

Reaching out to niche audiences

In thinking of the diversity of the programming option at your convention, or the specific knowledge or fan-base that one program participant brings to the convention, you could then brainstorm about creating very specific messages to matching audiences. For example, if the convention includes rare anime, then focusing additional attention on anime clubs, stores that sell anime, or theatres that show anime, may introduce your convention to a new group of persons. Their primary interest may be anime, so your marketing may headline anime for that particular set of marketing materials. This marketing may serve your goal to reach new audiences, and/or younger potential fans.

Boskone 44 was delighted to have astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ of the Vatican Observatory as a Special Guest. A press release promoting Br. Guy, and additional program participants with a strong science background, was developed. This release was sent to the science reporters at the major newspapers, and also used as a notice that was sent to area astronomy clubs, college astronomy departments, and local observatories. As Boston has numerous catholic schools and churches, the same notice was sent to these groups to promote the fact that a Vatican scholar would be visiting.

Even within fandom, additional marketing can be helpful or create special excitement. At Boskone 44, a special notice was created to promote NESFA's Mike Ford Auction, with proceeds donated to John M. Ford Memorial Book Endowment, a special fund of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. Since Mike's death left a void for many people, and particularly for those in the SF&F community, it was important to publicize this event.


The extent of marketing you choose to undertake is also dependent on your staffing resources. Determine which goals are most vital, and prioritize your objectives accordingly. For example, in trying to retain and grow the membership, sending notices to college campuses within a five-hour driving range is not as important in sending a mailer to last year's attendees.

Consider splitting the workload for the marketing efforts. One person(s) creates the flyer, another arranges barter advertising, another organizes parties at other area conventions. Everyone brings flyers to their local bookstores and libraries. These are important tasks, and require tremendous effort on their own. When it comes to your press relations, you may want to keep that as a task for a small group of people to coordinate. For example, someone may draft and send the press releases, while another person is named as the contact for press inquiries (and be sure this information is on your website!). Special message notices to niche groups may be drafted by those familiar with the particular target audience.

Consider the time involved as well. The first time you may decide to send notices to local libraries, you may have to invest 10 man-hours research time to create mailing labels, but then you will be able to use that same list in the future. Allow at least 10 man-hours of research time for each new audience you want to reach. Add 5-10 additional man-hours for each mailing you want to prepare and send.

Supplies, Costs, and Coordination

As part of your preparation, conduct an inventory of your supplies. Again, this seems like an obvious task, but it's not so obvious for those with the inclination to do marketing that may lack a historical knowledge of the convention. Catalog any video clips, pictures, or past press articles that relate to your sponsoring organization or the convention itself - you may need to collate them as part of a press kit.

Be sure to have letterhead and envelopes, etc., for those mailings. Other hard costs may include postage and copying, and any flyers specifically created for the convention as a marketing piece. One contact person should be assigned for press inquiries. Person(s) handling the outreach efforts should coordinate with your website guru and mailroom administrator. Your outreach person may need updates for those specific targeted messages from your Programming person; and in order to track results, the person handling registration for the convention may be tapped for data.

Measuring success

What goals did you want to achieve? Creating awareness for the convention? Garnering good press? Growing the membership? Attracting more members from the local area?

In recent years, Boskone has seen press in The Boston Globe, the MetroWest Daily News, and The Weekly Dig. New England Cable News, a regional cable channel, had a short segment relating to Boskone while interviewing one of the program participants.

In reviewing the membership data for Boskone of the last five years shows a significant percentage of the members have not attended Boskone (at least not since Boskone 29) nor Noreascon 4 previously. This information has implications for marketing, as well as programming - but the latter is a separate discussion. Also interesting is that a considerable percentage of members live within sixty miles of the convention site. Since many factors can contribute to the growth or loss of membership-such as, choice of guests, time of year, location change, weather-determining which marketing effort yielded a particular member can be difficult.

Some goals may be best viewed with a long-term approach. For example, one goal of the Boskone Art Show outreach is to generate local interest and participation. It is expected that within the local artist community only a fraction produce, or have an interest in, genre art. And reaching them may be difficult.

Efforts this year may pay off in other ways. For Boskone, copies of news articles are laminated and displayed at-con for members, ArtShow participants, and dealers to view. This generates excitement for those who already are in attendance. Mailing lists of newspapers and other organizations, once created, take less time to update in future years.

Up for Discussion

You are invited to send comments and share your examples to for discussion.

If you have feedback on this piece, please contact JoAnn Cox at