How meeting professionals can measure and improve event ROI in a post-pandemic world

[My June, 2021 guest post for BlueJeans by Verizon on event ROI.]Event ROI

What is event ROI?

Return On Investment (ROI) is such a familiar business concept that it’s easy to gloss over the complexities of defining it in the context of events. So let’s define event ROI in a little more detail.

Typically, ROI is thought of as a financial metric to evaluate the profitability of an investment. Some event stakeholders use ROI as a financial tool to evaluate the profitability of holding or attending an event. Others view it as a non-financial metric. For example, an academic invited to speak at a meeting might compare their investment of time and money spent attending with their expected return of increased status, easier access to colleagues, or greater likelihood of obtaining tenure.

Rather than spend more time delving into the complexities of defining event ROI (explore further at the Event ROI Institute), suffice it to say that event ROI is an intricate attempt to measure value for event stakeholders.

Who gets ROI at an event?

Events have multiple stakeholders. All events have owners, suppliers of services and products, and attendees. And there are often other stakeholders, such as associated organizations, exhibitors, employees, and volunteers.

Which stakeholders receive the event ROI?

Ideally, all of them!

For example:

  • Event owners expect to profit financially from the event, or from its contribution to shareholder value, or its support of an organization’s mission.
  • Suppliers of services and products plan to make a financial profit from their investment of time and resources, and perhaps firm up additional profitable business too.
  • Exhibitors hope to gain new customers, maintain or strengthen existing business relationships, increase brand awareness, and promote their offerings to a wider audience, thus obtaining greater market share.
  • Attendees profit by learning about top-of-mind topics and issues of interest, getting their questions answered, building their knowledge peer network, and maintaining or increasing their status and visibility.

Notice that different event stakeholders think of ROI in very different ways. Successful win-win events provide attractive ROI for every stakeholder.

Event ROI and the pandemic

With the loss of most in-person meetings during the pandemic, stakeholders with tangible investments in face-to-face meetings have an ROI of zero. The meeting industry continues to reel under a wave of cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty.

Post-pandemic, potential event ROI is not significantly different from what it was before, except that the delivery models for meetings are going to be different. It seems likely that the mix will include:

  • Fewer in-person;
  • More online; and
  • More hybrid (in-person and online) meetings.

Considerations for event owners

Calculating post-pandemic ROI is especially difficult for event owners, because it’s not clear yet:

  • What the mix of these three delivery models will be.
  • How eager people will be to attend in-person events.
  • Whether there are attractive ROI models for online exhibitors, who are typically significant revenue contributors to in-person meetings.
  • What will people be willing to pay for online attendance, compared to what they paid for pre-pandemic face-to-face meetings.

In addition, the meeting industry is still clarifying the production costs involved with larger online meetings. After a year of hasty learning how to produce online events that satisfy still indeterminate norms for event production quality and reliability, it’s still unclear what a typical online meeting will involve and cost for each of the different pre-pandemic meeting sectors.

Considerations for event supplies and attendees

Calculating post-pandemic ROI for suppliers and attendees is unlikely to be markedly different from what they did before. Attendees, of course, will now often have the option to attend on-line or in person. It will be interesting to see the choices people make. One clear trend has been the increase in attendance for meetings that have successfully transitioned to online from in-person. Larger audiences at such events may be a way to increase revenue (though at a lower cost-per-seat) over time.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic positively affected the meeting industry?

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has had a terrible impact on the meeting industry. But, there’s a silver lining.

During the pandemic, online meetings replaced many in-person meetings. Producing and experiencing online meetings has been challenging. Yet stakeholders have discovered numerous positive aspects, including:

  • You’re instantly “there”. Travel expense and time is eliminated, with an associated sustainability bonus.
  • It’s become clear that many in-person meetings can be conducted just as effectively and successfully online. Meeting stakeholders now have much more experience as to when online can replace in-person meetings.
  • Participants’ increased familiarity and acceptance of on-line meetings have led to the rise of new ways of meeting for organizations. I’ve worked with clients who have replaced large in-person meetings of physically separated senior executives with more frequent, smaller, tightly targeted online meetings. These meetings have been so well received, that they will continue online post-pandemic.
  • Online meetings, which attendees can easily leave or ignore, have increased stakeholder awareness of the importance and value of using engaging, interactive meeting formats.

Event platforms for connection

The pressure to find comprehensive replacements for face-to-face meetings has sped the development of technology platforms that better support connection between participants. Pre-pandemic online platforms were designed to provide broadcast-style meeting formats. A host of new online platforms, like Gatherly, Rally, Wonder, and others, allow fluid, participant-driven connection much closer to that found in an in-person meeting social. These platforms provide the “hallway conversations” missing from larger platforms, like Zoom, BlueJeans, and Teams.

Finally, the pandemic has helped the meeting industry to better appreciate the unique advantages that pre-pandemic, in-person events could offer. The value of our human desire to meet in person, unfettered by masks and social distancing, has only been strengthened by its absence. The meeting industry will never be the same after this pandemic. But, thanks to it, we have all gained a heightened awareness of the importance of face-to-face meetings in our lives.

Improving event ROI

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the meeting industry and its customers a painful but potentially valuable opportunity to rethink events.

The most promising way to improve event ROI involves simple but fundamental changes to the processes and meeting formats we use at our meetings.

During the last decade, the meeting industry has become aware of the importance of providing meetings that are highly relevant, interactive, and engaging. In the past, once you induced attendees to attend an in-person meeting they became captives of the meeting program. They were trapped in the middle of a row of seats during sessions that were often irrelevant/poorly presented/boring.

Over a year of online meetings with attendees routinely tuning out after a few minutes, has clearly shown the poor quality of the majority of traditional meeting sessions.

Improving meetings

Decades of experience show that you can improve all kinds of meetings, whether in-person or online, by designing them to:

  • Provide opening opportunities for participants to discover who else is present, what they want to discuss and learn about, and the collective expertise and experience that’s available to tap.
  • Include significant time for sessions that are participant-driven. In other words, the meeting provides a real-time structure for participants to choose what they want to discuss and learn, and then create sessions that meet those wants and needs.
  • Create and strengthen community throughout the meeting. Meetings are perhaps the most powerful ways to build community. This pays rich long-term dividends for everyone involved. Yet traditional meetings provide little if any explicit support for community building.

When participants are truly happy with the meetings they attend, all stakeholders benefit. The adoption of participant-driven and participation-rich meeting formats improves event ROI. Why? Because such events are better at satisfying stakeholders’ actual wants and needs. It’s not surprising that responsive and interactive event designs and sessions are steadily replacing the lecture-centric formats of many formerly webinar-style meetings.

Event ROI is likely to improve in other ways, of course. For example, as online meeting technology matures, it’s likely that production costs will drop, improving event owners’ bottom line. But I think the greatest (and easiest) improvements to event ROI involve adopting human process technologies that allow meetings to become what participants actually want and need.

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 the meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret is so embarrassing, we don’t even talk about it in private.

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The value of maximizing social connection at events

maximize social connection edACCESS 2014 break

Recently I wrote about my joy in the simple moments of connection that take place during my morning walks in Anguilla. Why do moments like this bring us joy? And how can we maximize social connection?

Because, as social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains, human beings are wired to be social:

“The message is clear; our brain is profoundly social, with some of the oldest social wiring dating back more than 100 million years. Our wiring motivates us to stay connected.” —Matthew Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect

The value of being social

There are significant practical benefits that arise from being social. Lieberman documents the measurable increase in well-being from such social activities as volunteering, (equivalent to moving from a $20K/year to a $75K/year salary), giving to charity (equivalent to doubling one’s salary), or having a good friend (equivalent to making an extra $100K/year). He notes that colleges have found that it makes sense to design their dorms for social connection, with modern dorms devoting about 20% of their expensive floor space to places for social connection. (Compare that to the amount of social space available in a modern apartment!) And he references the work of economist Arent Greve, who found that in the companies he studied, social capital, as opposed to human capital, accounted for most of the increased benefits in productivity.

I’ve not seen quantitative research on the value of making new friends, peers, colleagues, and business associates—as well as strengthening existing relationships—at meetings. But most of us would, I think, agree that maximizing social connection at events is well worth significant effort. Doing so helps prepare workers for the new economy, supports the way that adults learn 90% of what they need to know, and can drive community-building at the event.

How can we maximize social connection?

How do we maximize social connection at events? Well, don’t rely on traditional socials to do a good job. Instead of filling our sessions with content, we need to make connection an integral component of every session. Carefully interspersing content (short bursts, twenty minutes max) with time for connection (reinforcing and reflecting on the content, and developing ideas with others) increases the quality of learning that takes place. This also strengthens personal connections around relevant content, and consequently builds engagement and community. When we maximize social connection around relevant content we maximize the event’s value to participants.

I’m lucky. Facilitating productive event process like this for tens or hundreds of people is one more thing that brings me joy.

Dear Adrian: Answers to participant-led event questions asked at a MeetingsNet webinar

innovativeportalbanner Curtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar. We received many good participant-led event questions, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!

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Are your meeting evaluations reliable?

meeting evaluations reliable 4175299981_7752cbe323_o

Are your meeting evaluations reliable? Can the way we evaluate meetings change how participants view their experience? Possibly, given the findings of research reported in the June 2013 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study indicates that when we ask people for their reasons to justify their choices they focus on aspects that are easy to verbalize. This can distort their overall judgement. Here’s Tom Stafford‘s description of the experiment.

An experiment

Participants were asked to evaluate five posters of the kind that students might put up in their bedrooms. Two of the posters were of art – one was Monet’s water lilies, the other Van Gogh’s irises. The other three posters were a cartoon of animals in a balloon and two posters of photographs of cats with funny captions.

All the students had to evaluate the posters, but half the participants were asked to provide reasons for liking or disliking them. (The other half were asked why they chose their degree subject as a control condition.) After they had provided their evaluations the participants were allowed to choose a poster to take home.

What happened?

So what happened? The control group rated the art posters positively (an average score of around 7 out of 9) and they felt pretty neutral about the humorous posters (an average score of around 4 out of 9). When given a choice of one poster to take home, 95% of them chose one of the art posters. No surprises there, the experimenters had already established that in general most students preferred the art posters.

But the group of students who had to give reasons for their feelings acted differently. This “reasons” group liked the art posters less (averaging about 6 out of 9) and the humorous posters more (about 5 to 6 out of 9). Most of them still chose an art poster to take home, but it was a far lower proportion – 64% – than the control group. That means people in this group were about seven times more likely to take a humorous poster home compared with the control group.

The twist

Here’s the twist. Some time after the tests, at the end of the semester, the researchers rang each of the participants and asked them questions about the poster they’d chosen: Had they put it up in their room? Did they still have it? How did they feel about it? How much would they be willing to sell it for? The “reasons” group were less likely to have put their poster up, less likely to have kept it up, less satisfied with it on average and were willing to part with it for a smaller average amount than the control group. Over time their reasons and feelings had shifted back in line with those of the control group – they didn’t like the humorous posters they had taken home, and so were less happy about their choice.
—Tom Stafford, When giving reasons leads to worse decisions

Implications for event evaluations

What might this imply for event evaluations? When asked to give our reasons why we evaluated an event a certain way, this research indicates that we’re likely to focus on reasons that are easy to express. Ever noticed in your event evaluations that attendees’ opinions about food and accommodations are often far more detailed than what they write about specific sessions or the event as a whole? It’s much easier to express an opinion about the former than the latter, and that’s OK in itself. What should concern us, though, is that evaluations themselves, by focusing on the easily quantifiable, may bias how participants perceive our event’s value.

In other words, your meeting evaluations may not be reliable because attendees tend to give easy feedback. One way to minimize this is to focus questions on the more intangible aspects of the event experience.

Perceived value is an important component of event Return On Investment (ROI). I’ve mused about Return On Investment (ROI) for social media (I’m skeptical about measuring it) and participant driven events (I believe they improve ROI). How might this research affect the calculation of meeting ROI?

Conversations => Relationships => Value (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post I introduced a core component of Conference 2.0.

Conversations => Relationships => Value

Here’s why this sequence is an important consideration for modern meeting design, and how it’s enhanced by Conference 2.0 designs.

Why should customers buy from you?

Sometimes, business value grows out of the barrel of a gun. When you have a monopoly on a product or service, you can charge as much as the market will bear. But when competition exists, you must use different strategies. For example, you can play race-to-the-bottom: squeezing your suppliers for rock bottom costs that, hopefully, are lower than your competitors. Or, you can differentiate what you offer in many other ways: better service, more options, faster delivery, longer warranties, superior customer support, etc. Thousands of books have been written about how to profitably and consistently market and sell. And, except perhaps for the most cutthroat commodity markets, the ability to build and maintain good relationships with your customers is a key component of most techniques.
This ability is even more crucial in today’s markets, because of four factors:

  • The increased complexity of products and services.
  • The increased variety of products and services.
  • The increased speed of product and service development.
  • The increased transparency in many marketplaces caused by online customer reviews and feedback.

The first three factors make it harder for potential customers to evaluate whether a specific product or service is a desirable fit for their needs. The last amplifies any deficiencies (perceived or otherwise) that may exist, any of which could prove fatal to sales.

In this new business environment, creating and maintaining good, trustworthy relationships with your customers becomes crucial.

Relationships are the new impressions

In the good old days, the more people heard about your product through broadcast marketing (impressions), the greater your sales. Today, business value, especially for non-commodity products and services, is becoming increasingly linked to the strength and quality of buyer-seller relationships. Traditional marketing can’t manufacture relationships, which are built through conversations between you and potential customers. Some of your conversations will turn into relationships, and some of those relationships will lead to value for your business.

Not all meetings are alike

Meetings provide wonderful opportunities for conversations. But, for two reasons, some meeting environments provide better opportunities than others.

First, for all but very small meetings, the number of conversations doesn’t scale with event size. For example, at a one-day, two hundred attendee event you can’t have more ten-minute conversations than you can with a hundred in attendance. In fact, at a large conference it’s often harder to find the people you really want to talk to than at a smaller, more focused event.

Second, Conference 1.0 sessions don’t foster conversations. Conversations only take place in breaks and socials. Compare this with Conference 2.0 designs, which excel at providing opportunities for relevant conversations

How Conference 2.0 designs support conversations

I’ve quoted Howard Givner before and I’ll quote him again. (Why? Because he made this highly positive remark about one of my conferences 😀.)

I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.

Why is Howard’s experience a common one at Conference 2.0? Let’s take Conferences That Work as an example. This conference design starts with initial roundtables that not only provide a structured forum for attendees to meet and learn about each other’s affiliations, interests, experience, and expertise but also effectively uncover the topics that people want to discuss and share. Within a couple of hours, every attendee has the initial introductions and information necessary to go out and start the right conversations about the right topics with the right people. Other Conference 2.0 designs encourage fruitful conversations by giving attendees the ability to meet around topics that they choose during the event.

The bottom line: Conference 2.0 formats routinely lead to more meaningful conversations, which in turn lead to more relationships, which in turn lead to more business value.

Does Conversations => Relationships => Value make sense to you?

Conversations => Relationships => Value (Part 1)

I admit it
I do not have a good reaction when someone talks about the return on investment (ROI) from attending an event.

My initial internal response is a rant:

Do we ask for the ROI when we buy tickets to a concert?

How can you evaluate the ROI for learning something new or seeing something in a new way?

And my favorite: So, what is the ROI on a wedding? (Please don’t respond with an analysis of the average value of wedding gifts versus the cost of the wedding. I’d probably argue diminished responsibility at the subsequent trial.)

Conversations Relationships Value part 1 In some ways, my reaction is alarmingly similar to the message of the brilliant formula for the MasterCard advertisement:

[List of mundane items with $ assigned]
[Intangible item – Priceless!]

The delicious subtext: Forget the money, whip out the credit card, and go to the event anyway!

The morning after
OK, it’s strong black coffee time. Whether the benefits are intangible or concrete, we all know that there is some kind of calculation that goes on when a potential attendee decides whether to attend an event. I’ve written about how existing event ROI methodologies are a noble attempt to quantify this calculation and give it as much respectability and logic as we can. So, enough on ROI; here’s a core component of Conference 2.0.

Conversations => Relationships => Value

In Part 2 of this post, I explain why this sequence is now an important driver of modern meeting design, and how it’s enhanced by Conference 2.0 designs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user alanchan

How participant-driven events can improve event ROI

improve event ROI skeptical 2402001517_fab6e95cdb_o “Why do you want to go to this conference?” is a question that you’ve probably been asked at one time or another. The real Question is, of course, Is it worth the money and time invested in having you attend? It can be a hard question to answer. Especially when the event in question has no or few predetermined sessions, like the peer conferences I design and facilitate. So how can we measure and improve event ROI?

Improving Event ROI

Probably the most exhaustive methodology of planning and evaluating event ROI has been developed by Jack Phillips and Elling Hamso. It’s long and comprehensive, and here’s a summary of it.

According to this methodology, one of the components involved in evaluating Event ROI is the degree of Relationship Learning, which Elling defines as follows:

“Relationship learning refers to the building of affinity between people, getting to know others, trust and liking. All forms of peer learning benefit from the strength of personal relationships, it is the foundation for subsequent information, skills and attitude learning in the peer relationship. Relationship learning may be measured in much the same manner as other forms of learning. At the most detailed level, individual relationships of trust and liking, for example, may be scored on a scale from very low to very high, or more general reports of relationship learning may be collected.”

How peer conferences improve event ROI

Well, this is exactly this kind of learning experience at which peer conference designs like Conferences That Work excel! Here’s how Howard Givner described a recent peer conference:

“…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”
—Howard Givner article: The Un-Conference: Participant-Driven Agenda + Mashup Networking = Relationship Building on Steroids

Conversations, and the subsequent relationships, are very important. Doc Searls, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, wrote a great article about their pivotal role: Building a Relationship Economy. Well-designed peer conferences provide an environment that encourages and supports a rich abundance of the initial components of the following sequence:

Conversations => Relationships => Value

“Value” here means the kind of business worth your boss is thinking about: more prospects, new sales, increased customer satisfaction, etc. All the things that translate into funding for your paycheck, profit for your company, and a happy boss.

So, when your boss next asks you The Question about the participant-driven conference you want to attend, take a deep breath. Tell her you expect to make many more business relationships at this event than you would at a conventional conference. Relationships that will turn into solid business value for your organization. Communicate exactly why you want to go. Explain that participant-driven conferences improve event ROI because they are much better than traditional meetings at building sessions around the content that attendees really want. Good luck!

Photo attribution: Flickr user andyi

Can we measure ROI in social media? – Part 2

ROI in SM part 1-4193339222_b6c7e45098_b In my last post Can we measure the ROI in social media? – Part 1 I argued that it’s pointless to try and calculate ROI in social media. If convinced you might ask, “In that case, how can I justify the allocation of resources towards social media marketing?”

Perhaps the following will help.

As I previously explained, the problem with applying classic ROI to SM marketing is we can’t quantify the Return monetarily. This is because we can’t tie increases in sales or profits directly to specific social media actions or programs. This inability blocks us from talking about ROI at all.

But wait—surely what we really want to do is to make decisions about allocating resources amongst different marketing channels? Since we need to market our products and services, the real question is how and where do we spend our marketing budget? Here’s David Meerman Scott again, emphasizing this point in his usual forthright fashion.

So why not use a slightly different metric, one that allows us to compare the effectiveness of different marketing channels in ways we can measure. Let’s call it the Relative Return On Investment (RROI). RROI sidesteps the problem of assigning a monetary value to Return. Instead it concentrates on providing a practical comparison between investments allocated to specific marketing channels and our desirable and measurable marketing outcomes. (For example: increasing traffic to websites, new product suggestions, time spent on sites, active memberships, or brand mentions.) In effect, we’re replacing Return with the changes in concrete metrics that we believe are important to our marketing objectives. The units of RROI are then [change in metric] per unit of currency invested, e.g. increase in daily page views per dollar, or decrease in weekly customer support calls per euro.

Using RROI we can do experiments and make decisions about where we want to allocate marketing resources. Our experiments won’t be as precise as those possible in the past, when only targeted audiences saw broadcast marketing. But by using tagged indicators of traffic origins and existing analytics we can probably get a good sense of the relative effectiveness of alternative marketing strategies. That’s useful.

Be aware that using RROI in this way won’t tell you how much you should invest in marketing. That can be answered by ROI analysis performed across potential profit opportunities available to a business. But if measuring ROI in social media is a fantasy, perhaps using RROI in its place is an honest reflection of what’s practically possible.

Is RROI a useful, relevant way to think about investments in social media? Or am I just blowing smoke? As always, your comments are welcome!

Can we measure ROI in social media? – Part 1

ROI in SM part 1-4193339222_b6c7e45098_b

Can we measure ROI in social media?

Last month Samuel J Smith moved back to the U.S. from Switzerland and, needing to buy some insurance, asked for a recommendation on Twitter. Having had car insurance with Progressive Insurance for a number of years, and liking the ease of accessing my policy and payments online as well as the competent Vermont representatives I worked with when dealing with several claims, I tweeted Sam this information.

Five minutes later, the following tweet from @Progressive appeared:

@ASegar Saw your tweet – we appreciate you spreading the word ; ) Glad you’ve had such a positive experience.

What can we say about the Return On Investment (ROI) for this little social media interaction?

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