The meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret

There are some things that the meeting industry doesn’t like to talk about in public. For example:

But our biggest dirty secret is so embarrassing, we don’t even talk about it in private.
We make no attempt to discover (let alone evaluate) the long-term value of our meetings to attendees!
Before the event, we turn up our marketing to eleven, create FOMO, and do everything we can to get potential attendees to register. It’s going to be great!

During the event, we do our best to put on a heck of a show.

After the event? Crickets.

Once the event is over, it’s done. We barely look back; we’re on to the next one. Don’t look back! (You might not like what you see.)

This is fine for special events, which are primarily about creating an emotional experience and celebrating cultural rituals.

It’s not OK for any other kind of meeting.

Long-term meeting value for participants
Did the event have any significant long-term impact on the lives of the participants? Did anything significant change as a result? Or was the event effectively a short-term-feel-good, short-term-high-impact experiential blip?

If you think about it, this is shocking. We spend vast sums of money and consign umpteen person-hours to a meeting — and we have no idea whether it made any significant long-term difference to the people who attended it!

Notice I’m not concentrating on other meeting stakeholders here. Those who run meetings as a business can determine whether a meeting met their profit goals or not. Sponsors have metrics to help them decide if the event business booked, new connections made, and existing connections strengthened were worth the time and money expended. Even presenters, to some extent, can discover via feedback their audience impact and often find out whether their exposure led to future opportunities to speak or consult.

But long-term value to participants? We have no idea, because we don’t do anything to discover if there even was any, and, if there was, what it might be.

The invisible elephant in the room
Why do we ignore what I believe is the most important outcome of meetings from the attendee perspective: long-term change? After all, if you go to a meeting and nothing significant changes in your life as a result, what was the point of going?

I think we avoid talking about attendee long-term benefits from our meetings because we secretly know that most meetings do not lead to long-term change for most attendees. And we are embarrassed by this reality.

The meeting industry’s invisible elephant is that most meetings are incapable by design of producing significant long-term attendee benefits.

But, but … we do evaluate our meetings!
If you think that smile sheets dropped in a box at the end of a session, app-based evals, and online surveys that must be completed within a few days provide an accurate picture of the long-term benefits of a meeting, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Even if we include them (and we often don’t), short-term evaluations measure emotional impact, not long-term change and are unreliable[1, 2] measurements of event value. They tell us nothing about the impact of meeting attendance months later, when the stirring closing session story told by the motivational speaker that you thought was great at the time has been forgotten and, most likely, hasn’t changed your life or perspectives on it one bit.

OK, I hear you. So, if was brave enough to explore my event’s long-term impact, how would I do it?
<soapbox>First of all, if you really want to create events that are maximally likely to provide long-term attendee value, you need to think about event designs that are likely to provide it! That’s why I design and facilitate meetings that meet participants’ actual wants and needs, rather than the traditional pre-determined, best-guess programs that, from my extensive experience, don’t.</soapbox>

Here are three tools that can be used to explore the long-term impact of an event.

Net Promoter Scores (NPS)
A time-delayed evaluation of conference and sessions’ Net Promoter Scores provides summary feedback about long-term value. (The link explains how NPS is calculated from respondents’ answers.) Use questions of the form:

“Considering the value you gained from Conference C/Session X, Y & Z, how likely is it that you would recommend Conference C/Session X, Y & Z to a friend or colleague?”

Adding an open-ended request for respondents to share their reasons for each rating will provide useful feedback on the value of a conference and its sessions.

A Letter To Myself
Set aside around 30 minutes just before the end of the event, supply each participant with notepaper and an envelope, and ask them to reflect on the changes they would like to make in their lives as a result of the event over the next [3 months/6 months/year/appropriate time period]. Attendees write letters to themselves about their changes and insert the letters into the supplied envelopes, which they then seal and address to themselves. The envelopes are collected and mailed out, unread, by the conference organizers once the announced time period has passed.

A Letter To Myself provides participants with a personal method to evaluate the long-term effect of an event, but meeting organizers remain in the dark unless participant responses to receiving their letters are shared back. That’s why I developed the following tool.

The Reminder
The Reminder is a more sophisticated version of A Letter To Myself that adds valuable long-term feedback to the conference organizers. See the link for full details.

Do it!
If you want to really know about the long-term value of your meetings to attendees, I’ve given you concrete things you can do to find out. I know it can be scary to ask these questions, because there’s usually that little voice in your mind that says, “Suppose I find out that what I’m doing really sucks? Then what?”

I’m here to tell you that the likelihood is very high that you will hear really good stuff about what you’re doing — and yes, there will be some unsettling responses too, because you can’t please everyone no matter what you do. Buried amongst the “not-so-great” responses will be nuggets of gold feedback you can use to improve your event for next time. Working on continuous improvement is increasingly important in the competitive world of meetings, and here are some implementation tools.

It’s your choice whether you use them or not.

Do you agree that evaluating the long-term value of our meetings to attendees is an invisible elephant in the room? Do you have other suggestions for taking an honest look at what we’re providing to our meeting attendees? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

  • tracibrowne

    Maybe change the title to Meeting’s Industry Biggest Shame

  • Todd Rosholt

    Excellent post Adrian! Lets continue this conversation…