How Data Analysis Helps Create Better Events

Recent trends in data analysis are starting to touch every part of the association business, and that includes tradeshows. At a recent Bear Analytics event, two major associations shared some of their stories in using data to optimize their name-brand expos.

Recent trends in data analysis are starting to touch every part of the association business, and that includes tradeshows. At a recent Bear Analytics event, two major associations shared some of their stories in using data to optimize their name-brand expos.

When we talk about data (big or otherwise), it’s usually in the context of how we can optimize our member lists.

But, in some ways, that’s limiting, because data is everywhere. Are you clicking your mouse through this article? You’re in the middle of creating a data point. You have data all over the place, and that data often tells hidden stories that, when connected to the right plot line, can redefine the potential of your business offerings—events included.

At a Bear Analytics event at the 1776 startup space in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City neighborhood last week, that was a key point underlined by two smart folks from the Consumer Technology Association and the National Confectioners Association, two organizations that preside over two pretty sweet events—one metaphorically (the always-exciting CES), one literally (the Sweets & Snacks Expo, the 2016 edition of which recently sold out).

Both CTA Business Intelligence Director Jack Cutts and NCA Vice President of Industry Relations Larry Wilson have worked over the past few years to take advantage of the data they can gather around their events, such as the number of attendees at a given session, who’s talking to which vendor, and who follows up on their promise to actually show up.

And when the associations decided to bulk up their data strategies, it ultimately came down to a desire to better understand the dynamics of their tradeshows, as well as a desire to jump ahead of negative trend markers that could hurt the shows’ growth.

“When shows die, they don’t die slowly,” Wilson explained at one point. “We have a healthy paranoia—what’s new and what’s next?”

CTA had an ever stronger case for embracing event data tracking.

“We’re a tech show, and we weren’t using all the available tech to improve our show,” Cutts said.

Among the key lessons that Wilson and Cutts offered:

Getting into data isn’t particularly difficult. Surprisingly, technical knowledge isn’t the key factor in an analytics role; knowledge of the sector is. Before Cutts took his current role leading CTA’s business intelligence efforts, he noted that he wasn’t familiar with the tools needed to make it happen—and though he got a few days of training, he learned much of his smarts on the job. Ultimately, Cutts says that association savvy matters more than pure data-analysis capabilities. “Depending on the size of your data and how it’s stored, there’s no reason why you can’t start with, for example, an employee who’s been in the association for a couple of years,” Cutts explained. (That said, there may be times when it’s best to call in a vendor—say, when you get in over your head.)

Bear Analytics CEO Joseph Colangelo (second from right) and VP of Business Development Eric Misic (left) look on as an audience member asks a question. (Handout photo)

Everybody has dirty data. It seldom is perfect.

Selling data analysis to the board? That’s harder. NCA’s Wilson says selling business intelligence to the higher-ups proved complicated, partly because it wasn’t easy to explain. Wilson noted that the association leaned on Bear Analytics to break down often-complex data into approachable points. That made the strategy easier to sell to executives who are more interested in the elevator pitch than the higher level numbers. “You don’t have to be data savvy, but you do need to recognize that the data is going to lead you to recommendations, and we gained a lot of confidence through this simplicity,” Wilson explained.

The quality of your data matters. Humans are fallible, and things go wrong. And that can create problems for your data. When people register for an event, for example, they may skip a handful of questions or even answer them incorrectly. The result of these aberrations is something called “dirty data,” and it’s more common than you think. “Everybody has dirty data. It seldom is perfect. You’ll learn how difficult it is to perform analytics with dirty data,” CTA’s Cutts explained. One place your association can help matters is through planning. Cutts recommended creating a “data dictionary,” a set of guidelines for how you gather data on a yearly basis, to ensure long-term consistency in the data points.

Want to track attendees? Protect their data. Perhaps the most interesting thing highlighted by the session was the fact that each association was very protective of its attendees, and—when pressed on the issue by moderator Kiki L’Italien—each said, without hesitation, they wouldn’t sell their data to outside vendors. Of course, there’s a difference between selling and sharing, and in some cases, it can prove hugely helpful to share data with your exhibitors—something that’s been on display at recent ASAE events, which have relied on beacon technology. NCA’s Wilson admitted the association was considering a similar strategy for its events, but hadn’t fully committed to the strategy yet.

And, of course, you won’t always find something actionable, but when you do it’s important to jump on it. NCA’s Wilson said that their research uncovered a stunning fact: Roughly 4,000 people signed up to attend the Sweets & Snacks Expo each year but failed to make it to the Chicago event.

This created an obvious opportunity for the association to improve its engagement with industry members, something NCA quickly jumped on.

“It’s better to engage those who have already engaged than to start from scratch,” he said.

Is your association using data analysis to drive and contextualize events? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Amplified Growth's Kiki L'Italien (left), CTA's Jack Cutts, and NCA's Larry Wilson speak at a Bear Analytics event in Arlington, Virginia last week. (courtesy photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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