How to Evaluate Events

A customized approach with carefully designed questions will translate a simple feedback exercise into valuable market insights.

In an economic climate in which conference and event attendees need to justify the value of their time and financial investment, it is essential for meeting planners to understand why audiences attend their events, as well as what drives the level of attendee satisfaction with the event experience.  

At the same time, gathering and drawing the most value from this after-meeting information is often easier said than done. Meeting planners are all too familiar with the challenges of post-event audience evaluations. Some of the biggest obstacles to maximizing this data include:

• Missing out on high-level insights: One-size-fits-all canned survey instruments, which are built into the registration tool, typically don't allow you to focus on the key topics that are important to your organization. Yes, you can use Survey Monkey and other free tools, but you could be missing out on important audience insights.

• Research experience: It can be risky using internal staff, often with limited research experience, to design evaluations. Which questions should we ask? How many? What type?

• Process delays: Time is money. Capturing, analyzing, and reporting meeting results in a timely manner, to distill lessons learned for future planning, can be daunting.

• Managing complexity: Coordinating data collection through multiple channels -- paper, mobile, email -- and tracking who has and has not responded is a huge challenge.

• Aggregating the results: An even bigger challenge is aggregating the results from potentially hundreds or thousands of surveys, from different sources, into a single database for analysis.

• Tracking: Are you able to compare meetings within a series, and track how your performance is trending over time, or is each evaluation a single snapshot in time?

• Basic data collection vs. high-value insight: Meeting planners need to ask the bottom-line question of, "Are we getting the most out of our meetings using internal evaluation expertise?" If not, why?

Overcoming these challenges requires a thoughtful and flexible approach to data collection from participants, speakers, and sponsors, as well as analysis of the attendee experience that provides timely feedback across multiple audiences and quantifies event outcomes.

There is an endless number of event elements for which a planner might want to seek attendee input. But an effective post-event evaluation should focus on a few key points. Among these are:

 Effectiveness of speakers

 Lead generation by sponsors and exhibitors

 Participant experience, how much they learned, and value of new connections made

 Overall attendee satisfaction, how highly the meeting was recommended by attendees, and whether or not they would attend it again

Post-Meeting Must-Haves 
Also important are the elements of an event-evaluation process focused on generating valuable insights related to quantifiable event outcomes. These include:

• Timely feedback: Interest and engagement is highest immediately after the conference, so you must move quickly. A streamlined process will enable you to gather the feedback and deliver the results within the shortest possible timeframe, allowing ample time to make strategic improvements to your next event.

• Thoughtful questions: A customized approach and carefully designed questions will translate a simple feedback exercise into valuable market insights for sponsors and stakeholders. If you don't have research expertise in-house, consider using an experienced third party (i.e., research firm) that does this for a living.

• Scalable approach: Again, a third party is adept at using a combination of tools, experience, and technology to design audience-experience surveys of varying complexity. They know how to work with the registration team from the beginning to capture feedback efficiently and provide rapid insight into new opportunities identified by your audience.

• Analytical rigor: Tapping into advanced analytical capabilities (including social-media scanning) enables you to develop a fuller understanding of overall satisfaction with your event, and drill down into feedback about specific speakers, sessions, or other event components. Moreover, by tracking the results over time, you can evaluate the impact of different choices you make on your attendees' experience.

• Action ready: Good analysis is worth little if presented in a format that is difficult to digest and understand the implications. It's therefore critical to ensure results are presented in a format that lays out the key takeaways from the evaluation, with guidance on what can be done to improve the attendee experience based on the results.

Too often, event evaluations ask too much and yield too little. By following this proven approach, you can ensure that the questions asked will yield actionable results that maximize your insights. Then you can use these rich evaluation insights to design higher-value programs for your attendees -- and produce higher returns for your organization.

John Kagia is director of strategy and insight at ORI, a market research and strategic business intelligence firm that specializes in integrating best research practices with evolving technologies to produce actionable results for associations, government contractors, small businesses, and public policy organizations.

Heidi Guglielmino is ORI's director of research. Armed with ORI's new Audience Insights tool for quantifying meeting outcomes, Kagia and Guglielmino guide ORI's research focused on event evaluation.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.